Pottery is one of the most useful and fun crafts that can fill your cupboards with one of a kind mugs and dishes, or decorate your home with bespoke sculptures. And fortunately, there are plenty of ways for beginners to get started. 

From using air drying or oven-bake clay to working with hand built pottery techniques, it’s possible to pick up this craft without investing in too many tools. And if you do develop a passion for pottery and want to develop your skill set, you’ll be able to pick up a pottery wheel for under $150. 

But before you don your apron and start throwing that clay, you need to understand how you turn clay into pottery—and discover which type of clay would be best.

Types Of Pottery

There are three main types of pottery: earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. The difference between them is not the type of clay you use, but how hot you fire them in the kiln and what this does to the properties of the material. 

Earthenware pottery is fired at the lowest temperature, at between 1110° F–2200° F, or 600° C–1200° C. At this heat the material is still porous, so it often needs to be glazed. It’s this type of pottery that most hobbyists make, and you can find many earthenware products like glazed mugs or terracotta pots today.  

Most mass-produced pottery, such as dinner sets or mugs, tends to be made from stoneware. This type of pottery is fired at very high temperatures of 2,200° F/1,200° C. At this level the clay is melted and turned into a glassy material, through a process called vitrification. This makes stoneware pottery non-porous, so doesn’t need to be glazed unless for decorative purposes. 

The kind of pottery that’s fired at the highest temperatures, of up to 2,600 °F/1,400 °C, is porcelain. When fired in the kiln, the clay undergoes the same vitrification process as stoneware, but it also creates a special mineral that’s resistant to heat, pressure or chemicals. It makes porcelain much tougher and more transparent than the other types of pottery, and that’s why it’s so popular for teapots and tea cups. 

The Archives Of Ancient Pottery

Earthenware was the first type of pottery to be used, because it requires a much lower temperature and could be fired in open pits. The earliest forms of ancient pottery were made with hand built pottery techniques like pinching and coiling. In Europe, this kind of pottery dates back to the Neolithic period about 12,000 years ago—but in Asia, ancient pottery fragments have been discovered that could be up to 18,000 years old.

Stoneware was first used more than 3,500 years ago in China, but couldn’t be replicated in Europe until the 1700s because their kilns were much less effective. For the same reason, porcelain wasn’t used until around 1,400 years ago in China and from the 18th century in the rest of the world. 

A range of ancient pottery vessels and bowls from the neolithic period, displayed behind glass at a museum.
A collection of ancient neolithic pottery on display at the National Museum of Archaeology, Athens, Greece. Photo by Gary Todd via Flickr.

Types Of Clay For Pottery Use

The term clay describes a type of material that is used to make pottery. Different kinds of clay will differ in their malleability, and how they respond to the firing process: some will absorb lots of water, some will shrink, and some will change color. Many clays are often a mix of different types, as the blends will give you the benefits of multiple properties.

It’s also possible to get specific clay for pottery crafting at home, which can air dry or be baked in your oven. You could even learn how to forage for wild clay, if you want to work with a material that occurs naturally on your doorstep.

Ceramic Pottery

The word ceramic refers to something made with a non-metallic material, whose properties change after being heated. For example, raw clay would dissolve over time when placed in a bucket of water, but when it’s been fired and turned into porcelain, it won’t. As explained in the ultimate guide to ceramics, pottery is just one type of ceramic, but there are others. 

Different types of ceramic pottery vases, ranging from short ones with a wide rim to bulbous ones with a thin rim, and tall vases of a variety of sizes.
A range of ceramic pottery vases to showcase the variation in size, shape, texture and decoration that can be achieved. Photo by Chloe Bolton on Unsplash.

Pottery For Beginners

When you think about pottery, you probably picture a pottery wheel and a big kiln, but you don’t need to have access to heaps of equipment to get started. In fact, beginners can use a type of clay that dries in the air or can be baked in your oven, or work with different pottery techniques to get started.

Hand Built Pottery

The easiest pottery technique for beginners involves using just your hands to build your ceramic, and there are three main ways to do this. 

Pinch Pots

Pinching is often the technique that beginners will try first, as it requires the least amount of tools and is very simple to follow. To start making a pinch pot you simply grab your piece of clay, roll it into a ball and stick your thumb into the side. You turn the clay and keep pinching the side between your fingers and thumb. Keep doing this until it reaches a size, shape and thickness that you’re happy with, leaving the rim until last. Smooth the side out by rubbing out any wrinkles with your fingers. 

A composite image showing how the pinching technique can create a pot. The left image shows a hole being made with the thumb, and the right image shows a bowl forming after the edges have been pinched.
You can turn a ball of clay into a pot just by pinching it. Still from Skillshare Class Make it with Clay: Beginning Pinch Pots.

Coiling Technique

Another beginner-friendly technique for hand built pottery is coiling, which can be easily used to make a clay mug. It’s as straightforward as coiling a long, thin piece of clay into a spiral to form the base, and then adding layers of coiled clay along the edge to create the sides. With each new layer you need to score the pieces of clay so that the coils stick to one another, and smooth out the ridges as you go. 

A mug is being made with the coiling technique. The coils have been smoothed on the body of the mug and a new one is added to the top.
With the coiling technique, you add a layer of clay and then smooth everything out. Still from Skillshare Class Make a Clay Mug: Handbuilding Pottery for Beginners.

Slab Building Pottery

If you want to do something simpler, like building a dish by hand, you may find the slab building method works better. You start by rolling out your clay, then use a needle tool to trace around your template and cut out the clay. Grab a damp cloth and smooth down the edges, then place the slab in the center of your mold and push down to create the shape. 

Clay has been rolled out into a thin slab and the Skillshare teacher is drawing around a template to cut the right shape out.
A dish is cut out of a slab of clay before it gets shaped by being pressed around a mold. Still from Skillshare Class Ceramics at Home: Building Dishes by Hand.

Using A Pottery Wheel

It’s also possible to learn how to use a pottery wheel as a beginner. The first step is to get the clay centered on the wheel by repeatedly wetting your hands and applying pressure until it stops wobbling. 

When the clay is ready, you start by pushing your finger into the middle and create a well. To make the walls of the pot, you have to keep adding water as you pinch and pull the sides. You need to be very careful at this stage, because the way you pinch and pull the sides controls the shape of your pottery. When you’re finished you’ll grab some wire to trim the uneven top and use the same wire to slice it off the pottery wheel.

A piece of grey clay has been centred on the pottery wheel and the Skillshare teacher is using his fingers to create the well in the middle of it.
One of the first steps in using the pottery wheel is to get the clay centred and start to shape the well with your fingers. Still from Skillshare Class Pottery on the Wheel for Beginners.

Slip Casting Pottery

If you want to make multiple ceramics that look identical, you can use liquid clay and a mold. This technique is called slip casting, and it involves pouring the liquid clay into a plaster mold that will draw out the water and dry the clay a little. When the pottery takes shape you can remove it from the mold, smooth out any seams and fire it in the kiln before decorating. 

A half-open plaster mold showing a pottery jug that was made with the slip casting technique.
This jug was made by pouring liquid clay into a plaster mold. Still from Skillshare Class Ceramic Slip Casting Technique.

3D Clay Printing

For absolute precision and control over the production of your pottery, you can use a special 3D printer that will create the perfect coil to shape your ceramic. When you try 3D clay printing, the consistency of your clay is important because it needs to easily pass through the pipes of the printer without being so wet that it gets really sticky. After it’s been printed you’ll smooth down the sides and wait for it to dry before glazing it and then firing it in a kiln. 

A 3D printer lays down layer upon layer of clay to build up a geometric vase shape that will need to be smoothed by hand when it’s finished.
This 3D printer uses the coiling technique to print out multiple layers of clay and build a pottery vase. Still from Skillshare Class Introduction to 3D Clay Printing.

Essential Pottery Tools

The most essential tool for pottery is the clay. Think about what you’re making and what properties it needs: if you’re making a mug, can you use earthenware clay and glaze it, or would stoneware be better? Will you be able to fire it in a kiln, or do you need special air-dry or oven-bake clay instead?

Once the material is sorted, you need to assemble your tools. Typical pottery tools you may need include:

  • A clean, flat, fabric-covered work surface
  • A ruler, a pen and a pencil to draw your template
  • A piece of cardboard to make your template
  • A pair of scissors to cut out your template
  • Ribs (or a spoon)
  • Tools to scratch the clay (or a fork)
  • A knife
  • A small bowl of water with a sponge
  • Something to elevate your project, like a turntable or a stack of books
  • A glaze and brush

Finishing With Pottery Glaze

One of the best ways to decorate your item is to apply pottery glaze. If you’ve used earthenware clay then this step will also make your pottery non-porous, which is essential if you’re going to make your own ceramic mug or bowls.

You’ll fire your pottery once to get to the bisqueware stage, after which you can sand it and wash it again. There are countless ways to glaze your pottery, but the process involves picking it up with a tong and dipping it into a glaze mixture. You need to let it dry to the touch between glazes—and don’t forget to prevent your pottery from sticking to the kiln and being ruined by wiping off the glaze from the bottom with a damp cloth. 

9 variations of the same mug but glazed in different ways. The collection showcases a range of techniques including single, double, and triple-dip glazing; overlapping glazing, and splatter and patterned glazing.
The same ceramic mug can look completely different, depending on how you use your pottery glaze. Still from Skillshare Class Glazing for Beginners.

One of the most important things about glazing for beginners is to be aware that it’s dangerous to inhale glaze dust or expose broken skin to it, and some will contain toxic chemicals, so wear a mask or respirator when working with the dust. Make sure you don’t eat or drink in the same room, and wash your hands thoroughly when you’re finished with the pottery glaze.

Firing In A Pottery Kiln

The final step in making your own pottery is to fire it in a kiln. The temperature that you’ll use depends on which type of clay you’ve worked with, but the instructions should come with the clay. 

If you’re making ceramics on a budget, you’ll need to take it to a ceramic studio or similar and rent space in their kiln. It may be hard to find, but if you ask at art or craft stores they should be able to help you locate a pottery kiln that you can use. It’s also possible to purchase small pottery kilns yourself, but they come with a pretty hefty price tag.

Just Keep Throwing

With so many different techniques to try, a plethora of things to make and endless ways to decorate, there’s very little chance of you getting bored of pottery. And if you’re able to truly develop your own pottery style, there’s a good chance you could be gifting or selling your ceramics in no time.

Written By

Laura Nineham

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