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Making pottery or ceramics: A process guide


Well - the title is a little misleading. The pottery process is not as straight as the below steps suggest, it involves a lot more! For a studio potter, it will include artistic decisions taken (or avoided or painfully mulled over), testing clay bodies and glazes made, fired, rejected, destroyed, screamed and wept over, wishing every piece going into the kiln "Good luck" and praying feverishly to the kiln Gods!

 

But ignoring the artistry involved, or the science, the glaze chemistry in producing every piece that leaves a studio, the following blog post is a bare bones, no-emotions attached run-through of what the journey of clay looks like:

 

1.Choosing the Right Clay:

 

The first step in the pottery process is selecting the right type of clay for your project. Clay comes in different types, such as earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. Each type has its unique characteristics in terms of texture, colour, and firing temperature. When I started my work over 25 years in India, we'd produce our own clay body, mature it over days. Some potters still prefer to make their own clay blends. However, commercial suppliers now offer ready-to-use clay bodies catering to most potter's needs, albeit turn out slightly more expensive than would be.

 

2.Preparing the Clay:

 

Before you start shaping your pottery, the clay must be prepared. This involves wedging the clay to remove air bubbles and ensure an even consistency. Knead the clay by folding and pressing it repeatedly. Properly wedged clay is easier to work with and less likely to crack during drying and firing.

 

3. Shaping the Clay:

 

Now for the creative part: Shape your clay, build your article.

Pottery is a three-dimensional medium, and working with clay involves different techniques compared to two-dimensional art forms

 

 The 2 main ways you can use to shape your clay:

Hand-building: This method involves creating pottery by hand using techniques such as pinch, coil, or slab.

Wheel throwing: Using a pottery wheel, you can shape the clay into symmetrical forms like bowls, vases, and plates. This technique requires practice but allows for precise control.

Forms can be modified further for utilitarian needs or for decoration. Modifying could include adding, for example: spouts for teapots, or handles for mugs or decorations. Before pieces are dried completely, you can also add colour using slips.

 

When joining or adding to forms, you should make sure you take every precaution to make the join solid as they are also where you will see the maximum issues, if any. Also, one beautiful thing about clay, if something goes wrong or you don't like the results, your clay can be completely recycled. If still soft, mush it up, wedge and go! If dry, put it back in water and start again.

 

4. Drying:

 

Once you've shaped your pottery, it's time to let it dry. This can take anywhere from a few days to a week, depending on the size and thickness of the piece and even the weather. The more humid the weather, the longer your drying time will be. During drying, the piece will shrink, so keep it away from drafts and sunlight to prevent uneven drying and cracking. Generally, when you buy your clay body, it will come with information on firing temperature, colour and shrinkage percentage.

 

5. Bisque Firing:

 

After drying, the pottery needs to be fired in a kiln for the first time. This is called bisque firing, and it transforms the clay into a hard, porous ceramic. Bisque firing sets the shape and makes the pottery ready for glazing. The body vitrifies and after this point it is no longer possible to take the body back to mud (for want of a better term!). The clay body changes at a molecular level due to application of high levels of heat.

 

6. Glazing:

 

Glazing is the process of applying a liquid glass coating to the pottery. This coating provides colour, texture, and a protective finish. A highly satisfying part of the process but also ( to me) a very scary part of the process.

 

7. Glaze Firing:

 

After glazing, the pottery needs to go through a second firing called glaze firing. This firing fuses the glaze to the pottery, creating a smooth, glass-like surface. The kiln reaches higher temperatures in this stage, causing the glaze to melt and bond with the ceramic. There are potters who are experimenting with doing away with bisque firing, due to the environmental impact, amongst many others (cost for example) and choose to glaze greenware. Maybe added risk but the benefits seem many.

 

8. Finishing Touches:

 

Once the glaze firing is complete and the pottery has cooled down, inspect your piece for any imperfections. Depending on your design, you may add finishing touches such as sanding rough edges or adding decorations.

 

Pottery is a mindful journey that involves patience and practice. With each piece you create, you'll refine your skills and discover new techniques. So, grab some clay, and let's get started on your pottery adventure!

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