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How Pottery Works

Pottery Wheels
The pottery wheel is where all the magic happens.
The pottery wheel is where all the magic happens.
Juan Silva/Photodisc/­Getty Images

­Watching a skilled potter can make you believe that using a pottery wheel looks deceptively easy, but it's actually a process that takes skill, patience and lots of practice to master. Using the pottery wheel is called throwing, and these wheels are specifically designed for forming uniformly circular pieces like plates, cups and bowls.

The first step before starting the wheel is to prepare the clay, which gets the air bubbles out. This is an essential step because an air bubble can cause a piece to crack during firing. Firing is the term used for baking the clay in a kiln, which is like an oven. There are two methods used to prepare the clay: wedging and spiral kneading. Wedging is a physical task that entails repeatedly banging your lump of clay onto a table in the effort to knock out as much air as possible. Spiral kneading is a lot like kneading bread dough, where work the clay with your hands. Using your palm, you twist the clay in a spiral shape that compresses the clay to pop the air bubbles.

The next step is to select your bat. Bats are metal plates that attach to the wheel, and provide a surface for the clay. Bats come in different sizes, and you would use a different bat to throw a plate than you would a bowl. The wedged clay is placed in the center of the bat. Before you can start shaping your piece, you need to get the clay centered on the wheel. To do this, forcefully plop the clay down on the center of the bat and start the wheel. You'll want to apply water to the clay while pushing the mass down and pulling it up and you repeat these steps until you are certain there is no wobble. This process may take a bit of time, but it's very important. If the clay isn't centered, you can lose control of the piece. Centering is the trickiest part for beginners, but is something that can be mastered with practice.

Once the clay is centered, the next step is opening up the clay. Similar to building a pinch pot, this is done by holding one hand on the outside of the clay to steady it, and pressing the thumb of your other hand into the middle and pressing down into the clay. This creates a hole, which becomes the center of the pot.

Once the clay has been opened up to the desired width, the next step is to slowly pull it up into the shape that you desire. This requires slowing the wheel down for more precision, and you should always use both hands. It's important to keep the clay lubricated, so water is applied as needed throughout the shaping. Excess water tends to pool in the hole, and needs to be removed with a sponge so the piece can dry evenly. If you forget this step, it could cause your piece to crack.

Excess clay can form around the base of the piece, so the next step is to remove this, which is done with a rib. Ribs are tools that are used to shape the clay and come in many shapes and sizes. They can be made of wood, metal or plastic.

­ When you're ready to take the piece off the wheel, you can use a long piece of wire to remove it while the wheel is slowly moving. In our next section, we will talk about firing and glazing.