Pottery Newbie

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I thought I'd make a page giving advice for the "newbie" potter. I seem to have developed a pattern of making "newbie" pages! This is meant to be a basic introduction to pottery. I cannot cover everything you need to know in one web page, after all!

What to do first  -  Making the pottery  -   Glazing & finishing  -  Lead in glaze  -  Alternatives to pottery classes  -   Links & Pottery books

What to do first:

The best way to start with pottery is to take a class. There you will find the materials you will need. If you are just starting out in pottery, you probably don't want to invest in a wheel and kiln. Setting up even the most humble pottery studio at home is going to cost a bit. And that's not an investment you want to make right away.

Therefore, pottery is truly a craft that can benefit from a class. Any class will do. I've taken many a wonderful pottery class at the local community center. I got started with pottery by taking a class at my local community college. It turned out the teacher was one of the best teachers around, in one of the best Ceramics Departments around! (In fact, the teachers and many of the students had some group shows together, all around Los Angeles. The LA Times even interviewed us once!) Well, I digress. My point is, a pottery class is one of the best ways to go. And it doesn't matter how old you are. Many retired people start learning pottery. Pottery is for any age range!

If you can, find a class that has both gas and electric kilns. Not all pottery labs (at either a community center, or school) can afford both, and will only have electric. Electric is cheaper, and easier to maintain. A lab that only has electric isn't bad. But if you happen to find a lab with both - by all means take classes there! Pottery fired in a gas kiln can have some lovely glaze effects.

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How to do it:

You can either learn to use the potter's wheel, or hand build, or both. The potter's wheel can be a bit tricky. Don't get me wrong—you can learn it. It's not rocket science. But don't be fooled by the peaceful look of the wheel spinning, spinning, spinning. Sometimes you have to fight the clay! It can be tough! It takes practice, and patience.

Some people pick up the skill for throwing right away. Some don't. I didn't. Man, oh man, I sure didn't. I spent the first semester or two of class making things that resembled lopsided thimbles. I know for a fact that I have no innate talent for throwing on the wheel. What I do have, however, is patience. And apparently, a stubborn personality. I wouldn't give up, and I finally got better! I will never be a "master thrower," but I now have nice-looking pottery. So that just goes to show you, anyone can learn how to throw on the potter's wheel! I'm living proof.

But, if you don't want to learn the wheel, that's OK. There are many things you can do with "hand-building," which is (as you probably figured out) making pottery by hand, not on the wheel. There are many different ways to make pottery by hand. Hand building has its own challenges. Personally, I prefer to throw on the wheel! But I have done some hand-building too. Some people specialize in hand building, and can make fantastic pottery using only hand building techniques.

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Glazing and finishing:

Glazing is done after the pot is thrown (or hand-built) and then fired in the kiln once (bisque-fired). You then either paint on the pot with various oxides or "underglazes" (a form of "paint" made out of oxides). Then, you cover the painting or decoration you've made on the pot with a glaze. Usually you use a clear, transparent glaze, so you can see the decoration underneath. This glaze also seals the pot, making it safe to use for food and drink.

Sometimes, potters just dip a bisqued pot into a glaze. A glaze is made from ceramic materials, using a "glaze recipe." Water is added to the dry recipe ingredients, giving the glaze a fluid, creamy consistency. This makes it easy to apply to the bisque-fired pottery. Glazes can come in jars, or you can mix up your own recipe. (I am lazy and always like to buy my glazes in jars.) You then either dip your pot in the glaze, or brush it on the pot with a wide, soft brush. (I usually use a brush.)

After being covered with a glaze, the pot is fired in the kiln once again. A kiln is like an extremely insulated oven. It can go up to temperatures 2000+ degrees. It can get white-hot in there! If you take a pottery class, your teacher or studio lab tech will deal with firing the kiln. It's not hard, but not for newbies!

When the pot is fired, the glaze melts on the pot, and seals it, usually making it water-tight. The glaze usually has a glossy or glass-like surface after being fired on the pot.

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Lead in glazes:

Almost all classes and community centers I've encountered are extremely paranoid about lead in glazes. They take great pains to avoid it. So, there really shouldn't be anything to worry about when it comes to lead. Most commercial glazes in jars are clearly labeled, and will tell you if the glaze is "food safe." Be sure to read these labels! But don't worry too much. Most potters are more than aware of the dangers of lead in pottery, and they are steadfast in avoiding it.

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Alternatives to taking a pottery class:

If you are housebound, or cannot get to a class, you can always do pottery at home. Most likely, you will do hand-building, unless you have a potter's wheel around. If you can find a local hobby ceramics place in your area, you can usually take your handmade pottery to them, and buy glazes, underglazes, and get your pottery fired. Hobby ceramics shops are those places where they have pre-made ceramic figurines and items (like vases, lamp bases, etc.). Customers buy the pre-made item, and then paint and glaze it themselves. Some of these people do really lovely work, but they are not doing the same kind of thing as working on the wheel, or hand-building. However, they use most of the same materials, so such shops are a good place to get supplies.

If you go to a local hobby ceramics place to get supplies, make sure you get glazes and underglazes that are food safe, and can be fired in a kiln. Some hobby ceramics paints are basically just regular paint, and they burn out in a hot kiln.

I have created a separate page which offers a lot of information about getting started with pottery at home. Most specifically, I give information about finding a hobby ceramics shop, and dealing with them, buying glazes, getting your work fired in their kilns, etc. I also discuss clay firing temperatures, and more.

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Ceramics Monthly: Best ceramics magazine out there.
Laguna - Great line of pottery supplies!
Pottery Making Illustrated - another great magazine.
About.com's column on pottery.


Some good pottery books:

The Complete Potter's Companion - Good all-around introduction to pottery.

The Big Book of Ceramics : A Guide to the History, Materials, Equipment, and Techniques of Hand-Building, Molding, Throwing, Kiln-Firing, and Glazing - Comprehensive book on pottery, as the title suggests! (Check out this book on Amazon.co.uk.)

Handbuilt Ceramics: Pinching, Coiling, Extruding, Molding, Slip Casting, Slab Work - Good book for learning various hand-building techniques. (Check out this book on Amazon.co.uk.)

Wheel-Thrown Ceramics: Altering, Trimming, Adding, Finishing - Instructions on throwing on the wheel. (Check out this book on Amazon.co.uk.)

Read the "big list" of pottery book recommendations on the Pottery Book Page or search for more more Pottery books.


Dick Blick Art Materials - one of my favorite mail order pottery suppliers. They sell Laguna, Duncan, and Amaco brand glazes - both earthenware and stoneware. Dick Blick even offers their own line of glazes (I haven't tested them yet - it's on my list!). Plus, they have potter's wheels, and many other pottery supplies!

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This page last updated: September 3, 2004

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Much thanks to W. Thompson, for the design of my email graphic!

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