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Making Handmade Pottery - What I Wish I Knew Before I Started

Sheffield Pottery

I've been asked for advice on anything I wish I knew before starting pottery from my home garage studio. It got me thinking, and I couldn't really answer in a quick reply so decided to write this post. 

My first thought was - would I really have liked to know exactly what I know now when I started? It would have made progress a lot quicker, but would pottery have been such an interesting journey for me then?

Part of the beauty of the craft is that it's so complex and difficult. I heard once that you would need a few lifetimes to fully master it, which I think is very true.

I'm by no means a master, I only started myself around five years ago. In that time I have pretty much obsessed over pottery though. I can maybe offer a few thoughts on progressing from total beginner to budding amateur. 

Practical stuff for pottery making

Kiln firing

I don't have any experience firing with electronic controllers. The first kiln I used was a manual electric kiln I bought off eBay. I butchered it into a down draft gas kiln last year. 

Anyone firing a kiln for the first time should get a shaving mirror. For bisque firing the warm up needs to be very slow. The lid should be propped on the bisque until all the water has evaporated.

Holding the mirror above the lid opening you can tell if there is still moisture coming out of the kiln - the mirror will steam up. Once there is no more steam you can close the lid and continue firing. This avoids breakages from steam escaping too fast from the clay. 

Throwing to a gauge

The first mugs I made were only suitable for hobbits. It's amazing how much clay shrinks! My clay shrinks around 13% from wet to glaze fired. This needs to be taken into account when throwing pottery. 

To ensure I get the correct sizes I note the height and rim diameter of pots when throwing them. If things end up too small or large I will adjust my throwing sizes. 

When making a batch of pots to be used as a set I always use a gauge. This is simply a wooden skewer I stick in a lump of clay in the side of my wheel. The first pot is thrown to the height and diameter required. The stick is adjusted to point right next to the rim.

All the others are then thrown so their rims almost touch the stick. 

Handmade pottery dinner plate

Don't try too many pottery techniques

It's easy to get distracted with many different clay, decoration techniques and glaze styles. You need to find a balance between trying new stuff, and working to improve on something. If you look at any successful potter they usually have a 'thing'. Maybe they draw cute designs, sgraffito black on white or make large platters with slip trailing designs. 

I don't know at what point trying new things becomes too much. Every time I go on Instagram I see things that make me think about trying a new technique. I just think at some point you have to choose something. There is a reason potters have a 'thing' - these things take a long time to get good at. 

I mainly do stamped decoration on reduction fired glazes that show them off. I have tried many other different styles though, so I guess you just have to be strict with yourself.

Write amazing notes about glazes and firing

I write notes but I could have written better ones over the years. Usually when I do glaze tests I'll just number them 1 to whatever for the firing. Then I'll discard the tests that turn out badly. I'm sure I've probably repeated the same tests a few times through bad note taking and organisation.

I try to keep a note of firing schedules, but could definitely do that in more detail. Reduction firing in particular can vary tremendously depending on the schedule.

Don't change too many variables

There are three main things that determine if your pots turn out the way you hope. 

  1. The Glaze
  2. The Clay
  3. The Firing Schedule

It's tempting to change lots of these variables if your pottery doesn't turn out the way you hope. It's much easier to solve the problem if you just change one of these variables at a time. It may sometimes not be the one you think is the problem.

Don't fire all your pottery

When I started pottery I fired every single thing I made no matter how ugly they were. 

I think I may have improved quicker if I threw three things, chose the best one to fire, and recycled the rest of the clay. That saves time glazing things, loading the kiln etc. It also means the things you take out at the end will make you more proud and motivated to continue. 

Nowadays when I'm working on a new shape I may throw ten variations and scrap all but one. 

Keep the faith, don't give up!

I must have spent hundreds of hours watching lumps of clay wobble around the wheel refusing to go into centre. Bowls flopped flat on the wheel and handles dropped off mugs when I wasn't looking. 

What I wish I knew when I started was that everything would eventually get better. It's taken lots of hours which has meant giving some stuff up - mainly some of my TV watching. 

Anyone can get good at pottery, it just means finding the motivation to go and get your hands dirty even after a long hard day. 


Related Pottery Making Articles

If you are just getting started in pottery you might find my equipment and tools needed for beginners article useful.

I have a new post about making your own pottery glazes which I highly recommend.

Once you start producing work you are truly proud of you can read all about how to sell your pottery online.

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