How Pottery Works

Hand Building Pottery

Hand building is the most primitive form of pottery making but is considered by some to be the most complex. Why? Because the sky is the limit as to what you can make. If you're interested in trying hand building yourself, all you need is a little clay and some creative inspiration. Hand-built pottery tends to look more rustic and rough around the edges than pottery thrown on a wheel -- which is part of its charm. The three basic techniques of hand building are pinch, coil and slab construction. They can be used individually or combined together to suit your whims.

Making a pinch pot is the simplest way to begin working with clay. You start by kneading the clay into a small lump about the size of your fist. Next, you'll want to "open" the pot, which creates the middle portion. To do this, press your thumb into the middle of the clay to create an indentation. Then form the sides and enlarge the middle by pinching it little by little. You can experiment with making the walls thicker or thinner. This helps you learn how the clay works. It's best to make the walls uniform in thickness so the pot dries evenly and doesn't crack. Once the pot is about 75 percent dry, known as "leather-hard," you can use a wooden rib tool to smooth out the sides.


Coil construction is the method Native Americans used to make bowls. To begin, roll the clay into a long narrow cylinder a little thicker than a pencil. The trickiest part here is achieving uniform thickness throughout the coil. Once it's rolled out, join the ends in a circle and stack the coils on top of each other. To join them together, smooth out the insides with your fingers or a wooden rib.

Slab construction is used for creating objects with 90 degree angles, like boxes. It's the most involved of the three hand building techniques, but can be mastered with practice and patience. Creating the slab is similar to rolling out dough for baking cookies. You take the lump of clay and spread it out on a smooth surface with the palm of your hand. Then roll it out with a rolling pin, paying careful attention to ensure its thickness is uniform. You can place yardsticks on both sides of the clay and roll it until the sides are even with the stick to help ensure uniformity. Using a ruler and a knife, cut square pieces out of the clay to form the bottom and four sides and let them sit until they're leather hard.

Then, take a needle or a sharp pencil and scratch a criss-cross pattern into the edges where the pieces will join together. Next you'll want to create a paste of clay and water called slip. It should be about the consistency of yogurt. The slip dries and helps bond the pieces together -- think of it as your glue. Brush the slip onto the criss-cross areas and assemble the box, and then use a damp brush to smooth out the edges where the clay is joined together.

It's important to let all hand-built pottery dry slowly -- this will minimize the potential to crack. Next, we'll talk about throwing on the pottery wheel.