The very thought of taking on something as time-consuming and focus-oriented as pottery is not only intimidating to many, but it could also feel a bit strange to try and get acquainted with all the terminologies and pieces of equipment the art requires—one of the oldest and most preserved parts of the history of mankind.

What’s Pottery?

 Pottery is the process of creating objects, vessels, figurines, etc., with clay or any other nonmetallic substance and subjecting it to a very high temperature to facilitate its firmness and durability.

Over time, pottery has evolved to be stratified into four major groups:

  1. earthenware (like in terra cotta),
  2. porcelain (like in some decorative pieces and some children’s toys),
  3. bone china (like in some luxury china pieces and cutlery), and
  4. stoneware (like in some calabashes and traditional jars) -all of which have slightly different variations in their method of creation, and a world of difference in the final products. 

To provide an answer to the question of whether or not pottery is difficult to learn, I say an emphatic yes. However, emphatic the answer is, though, a simple yes would not suffice. Many self-directed potters would insist that the bulk of the challenge is conquered in the mind after one has decided that they want to venture into pottery -whether as a hobby or for commercial purposes.

 To put it bluntly, all that is required to learn pottery is clay (thankfully, there’s tons of it just beneath the soil), a throwing wheel, a strong source of heat -a kiln (the most effective method) or an oven, a pit fire, or a bonfire would even suffice.

Other pieces of equipment include an apron, two or three towels of different sizes, a bucket, a nylon or metal wire to cut and transfer the vessel to the kiln, a needle to pop air bubbles, a strong table, proximity to a water source, a rack to cool the pottery, and something to smoothen rough edges.

You can learn pottery on your own!

It would more than interest a lot of people to know that people can learn pottery all on their own. Many self-taught potters have published articles to guide people who want to venture into pottery on their own.

After one has passed the mind-over-matter dilemma, the next task would be to consider the financial implication of learning pottery, especially with pottery studios being so uncommon and the laws on social distancing due to COVID-19.

Thankfully, there are tons of alternative methods to use in place of the more expensive, standard pieces of equipment.

Steps To Learning Pottery


1. Getting and preparing the clay

The most obvious method of ready-made sourcing clay would be to buy the specific type of clay required for your design or to make slight alterations to suit your taste.

 Or, you can make your clay. Salt dough can be made using flour, water, oil, and salt and is perfect for firing pottery in a home oven with low temperature. Alternatively, you could just dig up some soil, filter the clay, and sun-dry it.

Getting and Preparing The Clay

 When you have enough clay, knead it thoroughly to remove air pockets: any air pockets in the clay can cause the clay to explode or be misshapen while in the kiln. Some potters add a thin layer of silt or paper pulp to sort of balance out the composition while preserving the integrity of the clay and reducing the risk of it being destroyed or exploding.

2. Centering

To create a consistent piece, it is crucial to place the lump of clay right in the middle of the wheel. That way, as the wheel turns the clay, it slowly takes form to have an even thickness as it is hollowed out to take shape and form that you want.

More often than not, some potters admit that their simplest and easiest products come as a result of them shaping the hump (the topmost part) of the lump of clay on the wheel. It allows for the creation of several clay pieces per time.

3. Firing the clay

After achieving the desired shape or form that you want, carefully remove it from the wheel and transfer it to a kiln rack (preferably after lining the bottom of the clay with wax, to limit any more messes and to prevent it from sticking to the kiln rack itself).

The temperature should be set to 454°c (or 850 F) for approximately twelve hours. After 12 hours, allow the kiln to cool completely, remove the product (the bisque) and glaze.

Firing The Clay

 With an oven, the result would not be as durable as the kiln-fired clay because of the difference in temperature limits. When using a fire bin, a bonfire, or any other method where the temperature cannot be estimated exactly, there is no cut and dry method for determining the exact temperature, and this might be discouraging. However, you want to watch for when the clay turns red hot in the furnace, and remove it or turn off the heat and let it cool completely. Brush off the excess carbon around the pottery and glaze.

 This process removes the majority of the water content in the pottery and makes it firm enough to be handled. In addition to reducing the water content, this process allows for bonding between the molecules of the clay (also known as maturing).

4. Glaze the pottery

After your pottery has cooled off completely, you can go right ahead and get creative with colours. Before glazing, however, set the pottery on a flat, even surface, and observe whether or not it still retains a flat bottom. If it is no longer as flat, use a rough surface or sandpaper to even out the edges.

Some potters go as far as adding special materials to the base of the pottery to ensure that it does not slip when placed on a slippery surface; materials like felt work just fine.

 After smoothening out the rough edges, coat the pottery with a thin layer of glaze, and create desired patterns on the surface. The first layer of glaze makes the pottery waterproof, while the other patterns are more for ornamental purposes.

 For some forms of pottery (like terra cotta), this process is not essential, as the objects are most likely to be used for purposes other than anything to do with food or drinks.

5. Firing the bisque

This is the final process of pottery, and it is essential for pottery that would be used for anything to do with food or drinks. The glazed pottery is placed in the kiln and refired for about 12 hours (temperature depends on the pottery being made). The glazing ensures that the pottery is waterproof and safe for eating or drinking.

 Some potters hold off on all the filing and smoothening until this moment.

Bonus tips:

  •  While several alternatives to the kiln (namely fire bins, bonfires, fire pits, etc.) can be constructed at home, it goes without saying that there are a few precautionary measures that must be adhered to; measures like building these fires in an open expanse of land, ensuring that fires are built-in non-fire hazard areas, or far away from places where children can wander off into and get into accidents, sustain injuries, etc. Also, be sure to not put yourself in the direct path of the heat. One hundred degrees of steam is dangerous, so over 400 degrees would do more than burn some eyebrows.
  • Yes, pottery can be done at home. However, the most suitable places to use are warm, enclosed places where messes can be easily taken care of. Granted, the warm environment makes it easy to clean off any messes that may result; it also reduces atmospheric interference in the moulding and bonding process of the clay.
  • If you do get the wheel and are experiencing any form of discouragement at being unable to master its operations, have no fear. Using a mechanical wheel requires a high level of dexterity which, thankfully, can be acquired from frequent practice. It may not seem like much now but keep at it.
  • Being surrounded by and seeing perfect pottery in tutorial videos can create a mindset that expects perfection and nothing less. However, this could lead to unrealistic expectations, as we may find that we have a long way to go before we can create any such pieces.
  • Also, it may seem that other people are more gifted than others when it comes to pottery, but remember that everyone learns at different paces. Go easy on yourself and just enjoy the process.

A few beginner classes and articles after, pottery surely won’t seem as intimidating or as daunting anymore. You just need patience, consistency, an unfettered imagination, and a willingness to improvise and look for alternatives.

Sources:

1. “History of Pottery“. Brothers-handmade.com. Archived from the original on 2013-06-01. Retrieved 2010-09-04,

2. https://www.britannica.com/art/pottery

3. ‘Step By Step Process For Making Handmade Pottery’ Hugh Prysten https://www.hughprysten.com/blogs/news/my-step-by-step-process-for-making-handmade-pottery