Pottery is one of the most ancient human inventions and clay pots have been a part of our lives since before the Neolithic period, which was 6,500 years ago. Clay was first used because there was an abundance of it, and it’s stuck around for centuries because of the benefits that this material brings. 

Ceramics are created out of clay or other earthenware materials, which allow water and air to pass through it. These substances tolerate high temperatures, so you can put it safely in the oven, and it’s sturdy, giving it a long shelf-life. Clay is also a great surface to decorate, so you can upcycle old pots and breathe new life into them.

Uses For Clay Pots

There are a number of ways that we still use clay pots in our day-to-day lives. From nurturing seedlings and managing our gardens to cooking our dinner and keeping our produce fresh, clay pots still offer a range of helpful functions. 

Clay Pots For Plants

One of the reasons that so many plant pots are made from terracotta is that this clay-based material has a high porosity, which encourages the water to drain and the air to move. This helps to avoid over-watering a plant, because the excess water can be absorbed by the clay. 

Just a brief glance at a clay plant pot will tell you if it’s being over or under-watered: if the pot looks a darker color, that’s because the excess water is seeping into the clay. If it’s dry, you might need to soak the plant. 

Another benefit of clay is that it’s a thick, dense material, which means it can help insulate plants in the winter and protect them somewhat from freezing temperatures—and stops your pots from being blown about in the wind. Plus, because it’s so sturdy, you’ll be able to reuse your clay flower pots year on year. 

With a lick of paint or a dab of glue, it’s easy to personalize your clay pots for plants and create something that fits perfectly with your decorating scheme. But if you want to create something truly unique, you can make your own clay planters from polymer clay. 

A handmade polymer clay plant pot is being painted with a white base coat.
This handmade clay pot for plants is created with polymer clay and has been baked in the oven before the base coat is applied. Still from Skillshare Class Lets Make Polymer Clay Planters!

Clay Cooking Pots

Clay’s porosity is also the reason it’s been used to make cooking pots for centuries. 

A traditional clay cooking pot will have an unglazed lid that you soak in water before putting it in a cool oven. As the oven gets hotter, the moisture that’s absorbed in the lid is turned into steam, which helps cook the ingredients without using extra oil or fats. 

But you’re more likely to find a glazed cooking pot these days, because the coating makes them much easier to clean. Since this seals the porous layer, the moisture can’t be absorbed and it stays trapped. This makes glazed clay cooking pots exceptionally good for cooking bread, or making stews.

It’s such a popular way to cook that some dishes are named after the clay cooking pots they’re made in. Tandoori recipes, for example, are cooked inside a clay oven called a tandoor, and a tagine needs to be cooked in the eponymous clay pot. If you’re curious how it works, you can learn how to master the Moroccan tajine in just a couple of hours.

A photo of two tagines on a table. They have glazed tops and are suspended over a heat source.
A tajine is a well-known example of a clay cooking pot that originated in North Africa and gives its name to the dish you cook in it. Photo by Maria Orlova.

Heating With Clay Pots

If you’re shivering at the thought of turning that thermostat down a notch, and your blankets just aren’t cutting it, there’s another inflation-beating way to keep your home warm. It’s possible to make your own heating with clay pots and a few tea lights, but make sure you build this on a flame-proof surface, use soot-free tea lights and place it in a well-ventilated area. 

By stacking at least three clay pots and suspending them above a few tea lights, you can build your own mini-space heater. There are a few safety things to keep in mind, like making sure the clay pots are attached to each other and securely suspended above the lights. 

The clay pots will essentially trap the warm air and keep it within the pots for longer, allowing it to heat more. It will make the immediate area feel a little warmer, but it’s no replacement for central heating. 

But be careful: heating with clay pots and tea lights carries a fire warning, and you need to consider how the soot from the burning candles impacts your health. It may be more appropriate to use this outside and provide a little extra warmth on a summer evening than to fire it up indoors. 

Clay Pot-in-Pot Cooler

An uncovered clay pot-in-pot cooling system that shows the gap between the two pots that is filled with dry sand.
The outer pot of this pot-in-pot cooler is unglazed, which means water can evaporate through it. This pulls some of the heat out of the inner pot and keeps it cool. Photo by AIDG via Flickr.

It’s also possible to use clay pots to refrigerate food without the need for electricity. It’s an ancient technique that’s thought to date all the way back to 2,500BC and is still used around the world today. But it doesn’t work in all climates: in places with humidity over 40%, the water can’t evaporate and it won’t function properly.

The fresh produce is put inside a glazed clay pot that’s placed inside a bigger, unglazed pot. The gap between the pots is filled with wet sand or water and the whole thing is covered with a wet cloth. As the water evaporates, it draws out the heat from the inner pot that holds the fresh produce, and keeps everything cooler for longer. 

You can make your own if you have a glazed pot to hold your fresh produce, and a larger, unglazed pot that you can put it in. Just make sure you’re in an area with a temperature over 25°C/77°F, add water between one and three times a day, and store it in a shady and well-ventilated area.

Decorative Clay Pots 

Walk into any homeware store and you’ll see a bounty of decorative clay pots on display, from ornamental plant pots to trays to hold your jewelry or keys. But you don’t need to spend a pretty penny to get your hands on one—it’s possible to make a clay pot without a pottery wheel or kiln!

Whether it’s glazed, marbled, sculpted, bedazzled, painted, carved or beyond, the only limit to decorative clay pots is your imagination. 

The easiest way to get started is to grab a clay pot, pick up a paintbrush and discover how a couple of coats of paint can transform it into a dazzling decorative clay pot.

The primer coat has been applied and now the crafter is about to apply a base coat of bright red paint to the decorative clay pot.
Don’t forget the primer coat when you’re painting your decorative clay pot! Still from Skillshare Class Easy Pot Decoration Ideas.

How To Paint on Clay Pots

Make sure you understand the fundamentals of how to paint on clay pots before you dive in:

  1. If your clay pot has a rough surface, sand it with sandpaper until it’s smooth
  2. Soak it in water, so the paint doesn’t get absorbed by the thirsty clay and disappear. Let the pot dry for 10—15 minutes so it’s still a little damp. 
  3. Apply a base coat and let it dry. Make sure you paint the inside of the pot, too. 
  4. Add the color and any big details, making sure each layer is dry before you add the next.
  5. Finalize the design with the finer paint work.
  6. Apply a last layer of glaze to seal in the paint. 

Consider a plain clay pot your blank canvas and let your creative imagination run wild!

Rustic Plant Pots

Roughly brush on a little paint, leaving some areas where the clay is visible, then tie some twine around it for a rustic feel. You don’t have to use a boring white color—as long as you pick a shade that works with your interior and doesn’t clash with the clay pot, it’ll look great. 

Patterned Pots

Another easy pot decoration idea is to paint your own patterns, whether that’s a series of geometric shapes, a bunch of colored dots, or a series of stripes. You could make it easier by using stamps, or go freehand and let your creative expression flow. 

A decorative clay pot with a bright yellow base color that’s being adorned with spots to create bright patterns.
You can use a bunch of dots to create a pretty pattern, with contrasting colors to make your decorative clay pot stand out. Still from Skillshare Class Easy Pot Decoration Ideas.

Chalkboard Pots

For a fun way to leave messages to your family, why not turn your decorative clay pot into a chalkboard? It only needs some base paint to be applied and then a couple of layers of chalkboard paint, and you’ll be scribbling smiley faces in no time.

Herb Pots

If you grow your own herbs, or want to make a great gift for someone who does, you can paint the small clay pots in a base color and then label the pot itself. This will help easily identify which herbs you need if you’re in the middle of making a recipe, and brighten up the kitchen side. 

Stenciled Pots

If you’re not a fan of freehand painting, you could always take a stencil, pop a sponge in the paint and dab the stencil until the pattern takes shape. This looks particularly nice with white paint on a terracotta pot.

Utensil Holders

Another way to upcycle clay pots is to decorate them, flip them upside down and use them to hold things like cooking utensils. If you choose a smaller pot, you could decorate it delicately and display it on the dining table to hold cutlery or serving spoons during dinner parties.

Umbrella Stand

If you’ve got a rather tall clay pot but you don’t have a huge plant, you can turn it into an umbrella stand and leave this on your porch. Make sure you seal the pot with a glaze so the paint doesn’t run off when the water falls off the umbrellas! 

Out With The Old

You should now understand our enduring enthusiasm for the clay pot, and the reasons why they make such great tools for our modern homes. While we’re clearly appreciative of all the benefits this ancient material brings, a little paint is all you need to remodel this antique tool into something that complements the modern home rather than clashes against it.

Written By

Laura Nineham

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