Studio Space, Throwing Basics

The Porcelain Environment

I love working in several different types of clay bodies. I adore the friendly and pliable Cinco Rojo red stoneware clay. BUT, I also am completely enthralled with gorgeous porcelain and its stunning translucency and purity. This approach, however, does present some practical problems!! Switching over from red clay to porcelain requires a heavy-duty studio cleaning. I think of it like a manufacturing “switch-over” — everything has to cleaned and “sanitized” so that the porcelain environment isn’t contaminated by one speck of red clay.

All traces of red clay removed for throwing porcelain
All traces of red clay removed for throwing porcelain

But the switch-over has to include the table workspace as well as the wheel. While at Lowe’s looking for a new board of some kind to lay across my work table, I found this kitchen counter segment (below), which works perfectly as a secure porcelain workspace. When I am ready to go back to red clay, I’ll simply move the countertop, and box up all my porcelain tools, keeping everything clean and un-contaminated. Switching out the entire workspace, and keeping two sets of tools will prevent frustration down the line. Though a bit cumbersome, it’s a great solution for my tiny studio space.


Throwing Basics

Throwing Basics: Wall Consistency

It can be difficult to make good progress in any skill when you are self-taught. Going it alone does not provide opportunity for constructive criticism from other, more experienced potters. DVDs, books, YouTube videos and the occasional class have all been very helpful, but can’t really replace the rigor that exists in a program, or provide the oversight of an apprenticeship. What to do??

My chief concern is that I might be developing some bad habits in throwing that are only getting reinforced by more practice, and with no one present to tell me otherwise, I might actually be getting good a throwing badly. But a colleague of mine who also throws and actually did take ceramics classes at university told me about a practice of his professor that I’ve adopted.


Cut everything in half.

It’s a great practice for a new potter for a multitude of reasons. First, you don’t get too attached to work that has emotional significance (look what I made!!) but little design or skill value. Second, it gives you tremendous insight into the part of the process you can’t see while throwing — what’s happening on the inside!

You simply can’t miss the giant chunk of clay that you aren’t moving up the form’s wall. You can’t miss the unevenness of the sides, or the too-narrow neck.claylumpskinny

And third, watching yourself improve with practice is very empowering and inspires more practice. Remember, it takes hours and hours of effort to throw effortlessly.

Potter Hsinchuen Lin has a fabulous YouTube channel with very good instructional videos. I have learned quite a bit from watching them! In this one, he walks you through the process of lifting the clay into the walls of the pot. Watch this video, and then cut some of your pots in half to compare.

Handbuilding Basics, Throwing Basics

Reclaiming Clay to Use Again

Though clay is a very inexpensive material compared to many other art supplies, it can still add up as a material cost. The good news is that the clay bits, leftovers and other odds and ends that you don’t use can be completely recycled very easily in just a few steps with some basic tools. The first panel below shows the Steps 1-4.

Step 1: Keep a bucket with a lid near your workspace. Whenever you have scraps and bits, toss them in the bucket. You can also add objects you’ve thrown on the wheel or handbuilt that you don’t like, or didn’t turn out the way you imagined. But don’t include any pieces on which you’ve already added underglaze or stains, unless you don’t mind it contaminating the clay. Keeping a lid on the bucket is really important to make sure the clay stays clean of bugs, dust, dirt, etc.This will ensure your reclaimed clay is easily workable and you won’t have foreign objects to remove! ReclaimClayPanels1_4

Step 2: When the bucket is full, and all of the bits and pieces have dried thoroughly (also called bone dry), cover the clay pieces in water, and watch the magic!

Step 3: All the dried clay needs is water to cause it to disintegrate (also called slake).

Step 4: Once the bits are returned to mud and fully disintegrated, it can be remixed.

Step 5: Use a blender of some sort to thoroughly mix the clay. You could do this by hand, but these blenders are cheap (I got this one for under $30 on Amazon), and it does the job quickly and thoroughly.

Step 6: Now you have a bucket of clean and lovely mud! Obviously, it is too wet to use. So we have to dry it out enough so we can handle it again. The best surface to use for this step is plaster. I just recently learned how to make plaster forms, and it is very easy, so don’t let this step intimidate you! Big Ceramic Store has a great tutorial on the subject, and there are videos on YouTube as well that teach you how to mix up plaster. ReclaimClaySteps5_8

Step 7: I made these two forms by mixing the plaster and pouring it into the bottoms of two large plastic bins. Once the plaster cured, I set these two forms on a small table, and with both hands, “spooned” the wet clay onto the surface and smoothed it out like icing. The temperature in your area is the thing that determines how quickly the clay dries — we are having an unusual cool spell here in Texas. It would normally take only a few hours for the clay to dry, but this week it has taken 2 days!

Step 8: When the clay is dry enough to work, it will easily peel off the plaster forms. Then you simply wedge it up into a workable ball, and you are ready to start again!



Throwing Basics

Who’s Throwing Those Pots at You?

My mistake was in trying to make sense of a phrase by assuming it has always meant the same thing throughout history – Angus would say I had been applying a form of presentism when wondering about “throwing pottery.”

Is it called throwing because you slam the clay down onto the wheel head to secure it? Or because as a beginner you end up throwing away more pots than you keep? Or because the frustration of not producing a good pot on the wheel can cause you to throw the malformed objects across the studio?

Turn (Throw) the Wheel by Hand ...
Turn (Throw) the Wheel by Hand …

Nope. Not any of those. I finally decided to look up the origins of “throw” in the dictionary, and lo and behold, my presentism was revealed. While our current definition and usage of the word does involve flinging and hurling objects in a sudden forward motion, the original definition (according to and usage of the Old English word thrawen means “to twist or turn.” This, of course, makes perfect sense! The potter’s wheel turns!

Or Turned (Thrown) by Foot
Or Turn (Throw)        by Foot


This exercise is a good reminder not to attach our current viewpoints onto events or objects of the past, especially the distant past–because we tend to Make Stuff Up.

I’ve discovered some research material published by The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago on ancient pottery found around Mesopotamia dating to 3000 B.C. How big of a weirdo am I that this is exciting to me because I can now add pottery to my Textile Timeline for Ancient History?