Pottery: The Potter's Wheel

Often, when the word ‘pottery’ is mentioned, people immediately think of the potter’s wheel. This piece of machinery has become synonymous with the art of clay ware, and allows potters to create perfectly symmetrical, identical pieces – ideal for creating dining sets, vases and more.

The earliest form of these wheels were called ‘tourneys’ or ‘slow wheels’, and were likely developed from the hand-building method of coiling. Early potters would sometimes place pieces in progress on mats or leaves, and spin those surfaces around to build the walls of the pieces, rather than have to walk around the base.

This then developed into the ‘fast wheel’, a machine that used the energy in the rotating mass of the heavy stone base to speed up the turning process. The wheel was wound up either by kicking it, or pushing it with a stick, providing a centrifugal force. The speed of the wheel enabled the development of the throwing technique, which is the most common method used on the wheel, that is still being used today.

Now, of course, most wheels are made of metal, and powered by motors and electricity, but there are still some hand-powered wheels being used by potters.

The process of throwing begins off of the wheel. Potters must wedge the ball of clay they are using on a smooth surface. The process of wedging is essential to prepping the clay for throwing, as it draws out the moisture from the clay, and more importantly, it helps eliminate the presence of air bubbles. If there are any air bubbles left in the clay after the process of throwing has begun, the clay might end up misshapen, or even cracked after being fired.

When the clay has been sufficiently prepped, it can then be used for throwing. As the name implies, the ball of clay is thrown onto the dry surface of the wheel, as close to the centre as possible. It is important that the surface is dry, so that the clay will stick of the surface, ensuring that it will not ‘run around’ the wheel when it begins turning, and making the next step of the throwing process much easier.

After the clay has been thrown onto the wheel, and the wheel is turned on, it must be centred. This is done by using both hands to force the ball of clay into the centre of the wheel. This is essential in throwing, as a ball of clay that has not been centred will not result in a symmetrical ceramic piece. Centering also ensures that the clay is stuck to the wheel.

When the clay has been centred, the potter will use either one or both thumbs to press down into the centre of the clay, without pushing out, until a base about 5mm (1/4”) thick is formed. From there, the potter can begin to shape the piece, either pulling it out or up, depending on the desired form.

It is important to note that once pieces of clay, called slip, have been removed from the original ball, it is nearly impossible to reattach to the ball of clay, so potters must be careful when shaping the clay wares lest they remove too much and have to restart from the beginning. 

After the clay has been shaped, a length of wire is used to cut the base from the wheel, and the piece is carefully removed and left to dry. After it is dried for 24 hours, there are two options for the piece: it can either be fired straight away, or it can be trimmed down.

The process of trimming is essentially a continuation of shaping the clay piece, only potters use tools to trim down the piece to make it more symmetrical, or to carve designs into the piece. The base of the piece is also usually trimmed down to create a base, or feet, not unlike the feet in a macaron.

Like all other pieces of pottery, after the first firing, the piece can already be used, but it is often glazed and then fired once more, creating a beautiful end product that will stand the test of time.

Center Pottery is fortunate to have a studio space with 12 wheels, allowing for large group classes where we teach the throwing technique, for both children and adults. If you’d like to experience this creative and practical art form, you can sign up for one of our classes, and we’d be happy to pass on the knowledge and guide you through making your first pottery pieces!