Pottery is nice to buy in stores, but much more fun to make yourself. The objects and dishware sets you can create are more affordable and priceless. The process is much easier than you may think!
In this article, we walk you through our step-by-step pottery making process. We’ll lay out everything you need to know and show you a few bonus tips to make an ideal environment for making pottery.
Roll up your sleeves. It’s time to get messy!
- The Pottery Making Process in 9 Steps
- Bonus Tips: Creating the Ideal Work Environment
The Pottery Making Process in 9 Steps
1. Decide What to Make
The first step to making pottery is to decide what you want to make. Pottery is a term that includes a wide range of things. Ceramic pieces can be functional, like a plate or bowl, or non-functional and fully decorative.
What you decide to make and how you pull it off may vary based on your purpose as well as the size, shape, and color options you have available for the object. The best materials for your project depend on what you make and why. End products take on different elements, which makes the cost and how you fire the clay alter.
Consider what you want to make and how. If you’re not sure, a pottery gallery can help you figure out how to make certain pieces. Art supply stores can also assist with finding the best materials for your project and budget.
Functional ceramics include anything you use for a purpose, while ceramic figurines are intended for decorations. Some things, like dishes, can take on both purposes. Consider your needs and skill level wisely.
Small objects, such as beads and soap dishes, only require a simple slab method to create (more on this later). They’re ideal for beginners.
Items like vases, wall decorations, pots, plates, and other dinnerware can vary based on your design. There are many options here, and how you make each piece depends on your end goal. Bowls are often made on a pottery wheel, for example. Decorative clay pieces are better when they’re made by hand.
Decorative boxes are more tricky. You must be able to tell when you have dry clay to help the box stand upright and learn to use slip, which is a mixture of water and clay you use as an adhesive to hold the clay pieces together. The process involves learning ceramic techniques like scoring or roughing up the edges of the clay, applying the slip, and sealing the two sections together with your fingers.
Animals and figurines are fun to create as well. However, legs and other small details can be difficult if you’re new to pottery. Try using animals that sit and hollowing out the insides with a vent hole for the best results.
2. Choose Your Clay
After you decide what you will make, you can choose your materials. Clay is the first and most important selection. There are many types of sculpting clay from reputable brands such as Sculpey, and you can, of course, make your own homemade clay (which is a bit more involved but possibly worth it).
There are air-dry clays that don’t require you to fire the material in a kiln later, but they are expensive. If you air-dry, stick with smaller ceramics to save some cash.
Fimo clay is another option that is baked in a traditional oven rather than a kiln, making it perfect for pottery beginners who want to try a few crafts at home. It comes in varying colors. You can even blend the colors together.
Your other choices are low-fire or high-fire clays. These vary based on the results you can achieve with each.
- Low-fire clays are ideal for detail and bright colors on a decorative piece. They don’t survive well when wet though. Pair a low-fire clay with a glaze that offers a decent seal to help prolong the life of your ceramics.
- High-fire clays, on the other hand, aren’t ideal for bright colors or detailed images. The glaze tends to move when firing the clay, causing a blur. They are, however, waterproof and highly sturdy. You can easily create texture with high-fire clay as well.
Finally, use caution when purchasing your clay. Not all options can be molded and later reshaped into a ball for future molding again.
3. Select a Method
The best method for your project depends on what you want to make, as we previously mentioned. You may also want to consider your skill level and what materials you have available to you.
A potter’s wheel, for example, is a helpful piece of equipment if you enjoy pottery. However, it takes time and practice to learn how to use the wheel effectively. You don’t necessarily need a pottery wheel to create amazing ceramics at home.
Use this key to find the right method for your project:
- Pottery wheel – Requires practice and skill to learn as well as a kiln and an understanding in glazes and firing practices, but works well for large and small objects alike. Best for: plates, bowls, vases, or anything round and symmetrical.
- Pinch by hand – A straightforward method that’s easy enough for beginners, you simply mild a small piece of clay in your palms, using your thumb and index fingers to place pressure on the clay. Mold it to shape while turning the piece with your other hand. Then, smooth the surface with a damp sponge. Best for: Small objects.
- Coiling – Rather than use one chunk of clay, coiling involves making interesting patterns by coiling layers together. Each “coil” sticks together using slip, and you must scour or rough up each coil before layering another on top. All coils come together to create a single mass. Best for: Hollow or non-symmetrical objects.
- Slab making – Perhaps the easiest method for beginners, the slab method involves forming the side of the clay and using a plastic bag or cooking oil to keep the object from drying onto your workspace. You allow the piece to dry in its original form. Best for: Objects with a flat side.
4. Focus on Form
If you have a pottery wheel, watch your form. You don’t need a wheel to create pottery at home, but having one available is great. Depending on your skill level, you may want to watch a few informational videos online or ask for help from a professional.
5. Fire Your Pottery
Once your work of art is ready, place the pottery in an electric kiln for fire. You may want to cover the bottom of the ceramic with wax to keep it from sticking to the kiln shelf.
The temperature should be set at around 850 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 hours. Initial firing takes out any water from the clay, physical or chemical, but doesn’t cause the clay to return to mud form or crack. The result is unglazed pottery, also called bisque.
Next, allow the temperature in the kiln to reduce. You can remove the pottery 48 hours after the temperature completely returns to cool.
You can, of course, try firing pottery without a kiln (using what’s known as raku firing or pit firing). This isn’t for the novice to try though, and certainly not around kids.
6. Paint with a Glaze
Before you start painting, protect your workspace with newspaper. The glaze will run. Wax can help you keep glaze from unwanted places.
Decorate your pottery with your favorite glaze colors. Glazes come in liquid or dry form. In time, you may even learn to make your glaze at home too. You can etch, dip, brush, or sponge the glaze onto the ceramic.
For uneven surfaces, try using a kitchen paring knife edge or 100 grit sandpaper to create a smooth layer for the glaze. Sponge the paint to the surface, removing any dust from the sanding process so the glaze sticks to a clean surface.
7. Reheat the Object
Pottery goes back into the kiln a second time to melt the glaze and create a seal around the object. The kiln you need depends on the clay, glaze, and size of your object. However, most kilns reach at least 2500 degrees F for this stage.
Warm the kiln on low heat overnight, increasing the temperature in small increments of less than 200 degrees every hour. After two hours, increase the heat to medium (300 degrees per hour) and then high heat at an increase of up to 400 degrees per hour.
Continue until you reach the desired temperature for your project.
8. File Down the Bottom
If your object sat on the bottom of the kiln during firing or in an awkward position, it may lose the flat bottom shape. You can fix the problem by sanding down the bottom until you have a smooth surface that won’t cause the object to wobble on a table or shelf.
Some potters like to also include a layer of felt to the bottom of the object to keep it from sliding around your shelf.
9. Sit Back and Admire Your Work!
You’re done! Now it’s time to take a moment to enjoy your work. Remember, we’re our own worst critics so don’t be overly harsh on your work. We all have to start somewhere.
Show it to family members and friends to get their feedback, but most importantly what do you think? What went well? What was tricky? What will you change for next time?
How and where you display your pottery makes a big difference too, so take a moment to think where it will look it’s best in your home.
Bonus Tips: Creating the Ideal Work Environment
You’ll need to find a space where you can do your pottery, even if you’re just starting out. Use the following bonus tips to help create the best pottery working environment in your home.
Best Work Environment
The best work environment for clay is inside. An enclosed outbuilding or warm room is ideal, where the clay dust won’t later take over your household vacuum. Ideal workspaces will have:
- A sturdy table
- A drying shelf
- Easy-to-clean floors
- Access to running water
- A workspace that clay won’t stick to
- A storage cabinet for glazes and other tools
Because clay is a highly sticky substance to work with, you need a work surface that won’t become impossible to use. Clay tends to stick and leave smears on most surfaces, and it sticks to whatever surface you make a clay object on.
Canvas, either mid or heavyweight cotton duck, protects your table. It’s also much easier to remove your object from canvas, which helps the clay dry without causing cracks. Layer canvas on any regular table for a better experience.
Finding Clay and Supplies
Pottery supplies are readily available in most art supply stores or retailers. Online options for art supplies are endless. Ready-to-use clay and glazes come with a wide range of temperature requirements and in tons of colors. You can save money long-term by purchasing supplies in larger quantities or amounts, particularly if you don’t have a local supply company and must buy everything online.
You can create pottery using only your hands. However, there are a few tools you may find useful. Beginner’s tools packages come with all your basic needs. The tools you need depend on what you make and how, but also on your skill level. You may purchase more tools as you learn or as needed.
Suggested pottery tools include:
- A couple of sponges
- A large, soft bamboo brush
- A cut-off wire
- A potter’s needle
- A wooden model trimming tool
- Clay extruders
- A small water bucket
- 2-3 large buckets of water for cleanup
- A box to house all your tools
Finally, you can use plaster bats when your clay is too wet to work. The plaster removes any excess water from the clay. You’ll wedge the clay using the bat, and you can make your own plaster bat if you don’t already have one.
To make a plaster bat, grab a clean pizza box. Mix the plaster following the manufacturer’s instructions, and pour the entire mix into the pizza box. Allow the mixture to set and cure.
Finding a Kiln
Kilns are way too expensive for someone new to pottery. For this reason, you can rent kiln space from local potters in your area. Many artists work on their projects on their own schedule, so you may need to work around the time they can offer you enough space for your pots.
There are also lots of affordable ceramic kilns for home use which give you ultimate flexibility that are perfect for a home studio setup.
If you’re new to pottery, a beginner’s class can help you better learn the techniques and understand how to make pottery from scratch. You’ll learn about materials and get hands-on training with pottery wheels. However, you can still make excellent ceramics at home without skill or fancy tools like a kiln.
All you need is your hands, some clay, and your imagination!