Wheel Throwing Pottery
Making pottery on the potter’s wheel is fun but it takes some practice before you are able to make pieces you like consistently. There is a lot of trying with little reward at first, but if you stick with it, you will soon build up the skill to throw the basic forms consistently. Throwing is a satisfying skill to have, and the best part is, throwing is like riding a bike, once you know how, you never forget. So, all of those frustrating hours spent on the pottery wheel now, will pay off later.
Before you begin, consider which type of wheel you prefer, electric or the kick variety. For more information on wheels for beginners, read “Best Pottery Wheels for Beginners.”
Every potter has her own particular throwing technique but the basic process is the same – center, open, pull, shape. Following is an explanation, with my personal technique preferences, of the process for throwing a simple cylinder, a shape that is the first stage of many pieces including mugs, bowls and vases.
Photo credit: Gary Bridgman/Wikimedia Commons
Set up your wheel with your tools and a bucket of water. The tools I prefer are a small sponge, wooden tool with angled point, needle tool, wire tool, wooden rib, rubber rib and shammy.
Cut a one pound piece of clay and wedge it for a few seconds to make sure it is well mixed and to remove air bubbles. If I’m making mugs, I like to wedge 4 to 10 one-pound balls at a time, depending on how much time I have for throwing that day.
Slap one of the balls of clay firmly down on the center of the wheel head. If it is not centered, take it off, reshape into a ball, and try again. You’ll thank yourself later. To make sure it sticks, you can run your finger around the base, sealing it to the wheel head.
With the wheel moving fast, wet your hands and place them on the clay. It will bump your hands around a bit because it is not yet centered. Don’t let the clay push you around like this though. Brace your left elbow into your hip and rest your palm against the clay at 7 o’clock, fingers curved around the left side. Place your right hand, palm down on top of the clay and lock your thumbs if it feels comfortable. Press down on the clay with your right palm, holding your left hand firm, compressing the clay until it doesn’t bump up and down or side to side at all as it turns. The clay is now centered. As you center, feel free to pause and re-wet your hands if necessary.
Open the clay by pressing your right thumb into the center of the clay, careful not to throw it off-center, and stopping about one-quarter inch away from the bottom. You can check the thickness with a needle tool. Unless you are using porcelain clay, the needle hole will refill itself as you continue to work.
Widen the opening by placing the index and middle fingers of your right hand in the hole and drawing them toward you across the bottom, supporting the outside wall with your left hand, until the opening is about three inches in diameter on the bottom.
This step is one of the most difficult to master, and it is vital to making pots on a potter’s wheel. Slow the wheel a little and wet the inside and outside of the clay with a sponge. Place your left index finger against the bottom inside of the mug and your right index finger on the bottom outside of the mug, a bit lower than the inside finger. Brace your index fingers against your other fingers and lock your thumbs. Make a slight groove around the bottom of the outside of the pot to create a ridge. Slowly move your hands straight up or slightly inward in unison, pulling the ridge up as you go. If you feel a sticky spot, stop where you are and re-wet your fingers. It will take 2 to 4 pulls to thin and raise the walls to the right height. Try to limit yourself to two or three pulls because after too many, the clay becomes soggy and will lose stability.
Shape the cylinder into the form you want with a wooden or rubber rib, supporting the other side of the clay wall with your fingers. Sop up excess water from the inside of the pot and on the wheel head with a sponge. Smooth and true up your rim with a moistened strip of shammy.
Trim off excess clay from the bottom of the piece with a pointed wooden tool. Place the point of the tool a quarter-inch up from the base of the mug at a 60-degree angle from the wheel head. Press it into the clay, cutting down to the wheel head. Run a needle tool under the edge of the trimmed material to free it from the wheel head. Stop the wheel then remove the excess ribbon of clay from the bottom.
Remove the pot from the wheel by drawing a wire tool, held taught, beneath the piece. Squeeze water from a sponge on the wheel and draw it under the piece with the wire tool. Slide the piece onto a ware board. Cover it with plastic and allow it to dry to leather hard for trimming.
This is the process for throwing a basic cylinder. It may take several attempts to succeed. Try not to get discouraged and keep at it. Even the “mess ups” have value because they provide practice, and practice, after all, makes perfect. The next step is to trim the piece once it becomes leather hard.