Making ceramics is a fun and interesting hobby for people of all ages and abilities. Once you know the basics, you’ll be able to start creating your own pieces at home. Depending on the type of clay you use, you may need to use a kiln to make sure your ceramics are safe to use. No matter which techniques you prefer, it’s surprisingly easy to learn how to make beautiful masterpieces!
EditHandbuilding a Dish
- Choose a type of clay for your project. For a handbuilt project, it’s best to use standard clay that must be fired in a kiln to set the material. Select a natural color, such as gray or brown, and purchase a small amount at first to ensure that it suits your needs. This is ideal for small projects, since your leftover clay will be less likely to dry out.
- If it’s your first time using clay or if you don’t have access to a kiln, opt for air-dry, oven-baked, or polymer clay. These will allow you to finish your project at home.
- Pull off a small piece of clay to work with. For a small dish, such as a ring dish or a small plate, roll the clay into a walnut-sized ball. For larger items, like a dinner plate or salad dish, start with a baseball-sized ball. Remember, you can always remove excess clay, but it’s difficult to add more once you’ve shaped your piece.
- If you’re pulling a piece from a big block of clay, it may be helpful to use a strand of wire to cut off a piece of clay to work with.
- Knead the clay until it’s soft and roll it out to thick. Press your thumbs into the clay to warm it up, and pinch and pull on the material to soften it. It’s better to have the clay as soft and pliable as possible. Then, shape the soft clay back into a ball, and use a rolling pin to flatten it out into a sheet.
- You can make the clay as thin as thick, but if the clay is too thin, it will become hard to work with.
- Pinch and shape the clay with your hands to achieve the look you want. Cut the sheet of clay into your desired shape using a pointed knife or specialized clay cutting tool. Some ideas include a circular, square, or abstract shape. Then, use your hands to smooth the corners and edges. If you want to make a standard-sized dinner plate, use a plate that you already own as a guide for the shape and size.
- Remove air bubbles to prevent cracking if you’re going to use a kiln. As you’re working with the clay, feel for areas where there may be air trapped inside of the clay, and poke the spot gently with a needle to release the air. Then, smooth the area with your fingers and a bit of water before allowing the clay to dry.
- Air bubbles can easily cause the pottery to crack or even explode in the kiln, so it’s important to remove them before firing and glazing!
EditUsing a Pottery Wheel
- Select a pottery wheel and 2 lbs (907 g) of clay for your project. Choose a standard wet clay in a natural color, and opt for an electric pottery wheel for your first projects, since they tend to be easier to control and use. If you’re starting with a large block of clay, break off and weigh your clay before starting your piece. This is the standard amount to begin with, since working with too much clay can be very difficult for a beginner.
- Be sure to read the package instructions before working with the clay, since specific brands normally have different requirements for drying and firing clay.
- Once you get more experience with using the pottery wheel, you can use more clay to build larger projects.
- Knead and roll the clay into a large cone shape with a rounded point. Pinch, pull, and roll the clay to remove air bubbles that can cause the clay to crack in the kiln. Then, use your hands to form a smooth cone shape, and press down on the point of the cone to make it more rounded. This will provide a firm, thick base for your item on the pottery wheel.
- Place the clay firmly on the wheel with the tip facing down. Make sure the wheel is off and completely dry. Position the clay cone so the rounded point is directly over the center of the wheel, and press down firmly to hold it in place. The clay should easily yield under the pressure if it is soft enough to work with.
- If the clay isn’t firmly planted on the wheel, it may slip and slide around as you’re trying to shape it.
- If your clay seems hard, continue kneading it until it is soft and pliable.
- Turn the wheel on slowly and tap the clay with dry hands. Set the wheel to a low setting and use your hands to gently smooth and center the clay over the middle of the wheel. This will ensure that the piece is symmetrical over the base. Pay attention to how the clay moves when you reposition your hands, and make sure there are no bumps in the clay.
- Avoid turning the wheel up to a higher setting before wetting the clay. This can cause rough dents in the clay that are hard to work out.
- Wet your hands and place them on the clay as it turns. Dip your hands into room-temperature water, and place them on the clay. Smooth around the outside of the clay and get a feel for the shape and weight of the clay. When you’re ready to begin the piece, push the clay forward with the palms of your hands, which is called a plow forward.
- Always keep a bowl or bucket of water close by when you’re working with clay on the wheel. If the clay dries out, it can become dented or rough, making it difficult to shape.
- Increase the speed and use your hands to shape the clay into the item you want. After plowing forward, increase the speed to a high setting. Pull the clay upward to make a vase or bowl, or press outward to create plates. As you’re working, keep your elbows tucked in near your body, and use your hands to steady the clay. Remember, each piece of pottery is unique, so there’s no one “right” way to make an item!
- Common techniques for shaping the clay include “coning,” which means pulling the clay upward and using your hands to smooth the sides of the clay into a cone before flattening it.
- If you want to make a bowl, cone the clay upward, and then press the clay downward until it’s a disc-like shape. Then, use your thumbs to press a hole into the center of the bowl, and pull the hole outward with your fingers and thumbs as the wheel spins. This will create an opening in the center of the clay along with thick, sturdy walls.
- Cut the clay away from the wheel when you’re ready to complete the project. Scrape away as much clay as possible from around the bottom of the piece. Then, turn the wheel off and wait until it stops turning. Once the piece is stationary, drag a strand of thin wire under the base and lift the piece off of the wheel.
- It may be helpful to have someone else cut the piece away from the wheel as you lift it up to prevent the piece from becoming stuck.
- Make sure the wire is as close as possible to the wheel to avoid cutting a slanted base!
EditAdding Finishing Touches and Glazes
- Create texture with imprints, stamps, and other tools. If you want your piece to have additional texture, add it while the clay is still soft for the best effect. Use items like leaves, needles, or rubber stamps for a variety of different textures. Always be gentle when using tools and stamps, as it can be easy to puncture or dent the clay.
- If you happen to make a stamp or mark you don’t like, simply dip your fingers in water and gently rub them over the area until the mark is smooth.
- Let the clay dry overnight until it becomes lighter in color. If your piece is made of air-dry clay, be sure to check the directions to find out how long you should let the piece dry before handling it. For clay that needs to be fired in a kiln, make sure the clay is dry to the touch, which can take 12-24 hours, depending on the clay that you used and the size of the project. Then, carefully transport the piece to the kiln.
- For air-dry clay, you can use a fine grain sandpaper, such as an 80- or 120-grit, to remove small imperfections and smooth the surface before adding paint.
- Paint air-dry clay with an acrylic or latex paint if you want to add color. Select a paint that is safe for use on clay and that doesn’t require firing in a kiln, since air-dry clay can’t withstand high temperatures. Apply the paint using brushes, sponges, or other techniques, and then let it air dry according to the directions on the paint.
- If you plan to use the pottery for eating or drinking, opt for a food-safe paint and apply a food-grade sealant all over the piece after the paint is completely dry.
- Fire the clay in a kiln if you aren’t using an air-dry clay. Locate a kiln at a local community center, art space, or library, and schedule a time to fire your piece. Carefully lower the item into the kiln, and close the lid. Make sure the kiln is set to the correct temperature for “bisque” firing, which is the first stage of firing the pottery. When it’s finished, carefully remove the item from the kiln to add a glaze.
- If you’re not sure what that temperature should be, check the directions on the clay packaging. If you don’t have the packaging, research the type of clay you’re using to find the ideal firing temperature.
- Apply a glaze according to the instructions on the packaging. Dip the item into the glaze, or paint the glaze onto the newly-fired piece. If you want to add multicolor designs, use brushes or sponges to apply the glazes in an abstract design, since they will sometimes blend and run together in the kiln. If you prefer the natural color of the clay, apply a clear glaze for extra protection.
- Keep in mind that the color of the glaze when it is applied can look different than when it is fired. Be sure to choose the glaze based on the fired color!
- Avoid putting glaze on the bottom of the piece, since this can make it stick to the kiln.
- Place the piece in the kiln for a second time to seal the glaze. Transfer the item to the kiln by holding the base to avoid smudging the glaze. Check the glaze packaging and set the kiln to the correct temperature, which is normally lower than the bisque firing temperature. Make sure the item isn’t touching any other pottery in the kiln, and close the lid to start firing. Once it is finished, carefully remove the item from the kiln!
- After it’s fired, you can safely touch and handle the kiln without affecting the glaze, since it should be completely cured and hardened.
- If you’re not sure of the appropriate temperature, check online for temperature charts that list a variety of glazes.
- Always be careful and wear heat-resistant gloves when removing your pottery from the kiln. Clay retains heat and can easily burn you, causing you to drop and break your new piece of pottery!
EditThings You’ll Need
- Rolling pin (optional)
- Cutting tool
- Pottery wheel (optional)
- Kiln (optional)
- Glaze (optional)
- Make Anasazi Pottery
- Make a Clay Pot
- Make a Clay Pot by Wheel
- Create Clay Animals
EditSources and Citations
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