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Start Out With Clay

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Are you beginning to create pottery? Pottery can be a mild interest, consuming little of your time or money, or it can become a major part of your life. If you are just starting out, it is a good idea to try pottery out either in a beginner's class or by buying a bit of clay and doing some hand building on your own. If you are starting out on your own, here are some tips on how to begin.

Why Work with Clay?

Clay is fascinating, there is no mistake, and it will lend itself to your skill level whatever that skill level may be. Pinch pots are easily accessible to nearly everyone, including young children. You can easily learn to make a pinch pot in less than an hour.

However, clay is never boring. There is always more to explore, more to try out, as well as more to create. Be prepared for a fine adventure as you enter the world of pottery, for clay is as deep and as broad as the earth it comes from.

Where Is the Best Place to Work?

Clay is best kept to a room or an outbuilding of its own. Clay dust is very fine and often will not be picked up or contained by household vacuum sweepers. The best space will have

  • floors impervious to water and easy to clean, such as concrete or linoleum
  • access to water (but no clay should go down any drains!)
  • a sturdy table, such as a kitchen table
  • a clay-won't-stick-to-it surface to work on (see below)
  • sturdy shelving for drying pots
  • a cabinet or other storage area for glazes, where pets and children cannot get to them.

Another option is to defer finding a space of your own while trying pottery out. The easiest way to do this is to take a beginning pottery class.

Before You Buy Clay and Glazes

There are a lot of variables in clays and glazes. The most important variable is what temperature the clay matures at. Glazes have to be matched to the clay according to its maturation temperature.

Be Aware: Many clays and glazes are rated by "cone". This is a way to measure heat work (similar to temperature). Zeros are very important!

I would suggest you begin by finding a local potter who will rent you kiln space (see more below). Find out what temperature(s) they usually fire to, and what atmosphere (oxidation, neutral, or reduction) they fire in. Get clay and glazes that mature in that firing range and are best in that atmosphere.

Find Clay and Supplies

Ready-to-use clay and glazes are fairly readily available. These come in a variety of colors (which refers to the fired clay) and temperature ranges. Check with your local pottery or ceramic supplies store, artist supplies store or art supply retailer. Local stores may be able to help you, or you can check out online retailers.

As you use larger quantities, you may want to order clay, glazes, and other supplies in larger quantities. Ordering larger amounts can save you money in overall shipping costs, especially when you do not have a local ceramic supply company near you.

Pottery Tools You May Want

Although you can actually form pottery using only your hands, there are certain tools that you will find extremely useful. Small beginner's tool packets are available which contain many of the basic tools, including an appropriate sponge.Suggested tool list:

  • towels and possibly an apron
  • a small bucket for holding water or slurry as you work
  • two to three large buckets for cleanup water
  • one or more sponges for carrying water to the clay and for cleaning
  • a large, soft brush (sumi or bamboo are good)
  • a wooden modeling (trimming) tool
  • a potter's needle
  • a cut-off wire (which could be fishing line tied to a sewing machine bobbin), and
  • a box to keep your tools in.

Work Surfaces

Clay will stick to or leave vast smears on most surfaces. It can also be impossible to separate a newly formed clay object from the surface it was formed on. For this reason it is best to work on a piece of sturdy canvas, such as a mid- to heavy weight cotton duck. Not only does it protect your table, you can easily pull the canvas away from the pot, which allows it to dry without cracking.

When your clay is too wet to easily work, plaster bats are very useful. The plaster soaks up excess water from the clay as you wedge the clay on the bat. To make one take a shallow box, like a clean pizza box, mix your plaster according to the directions, and pour it into the box. Once set and cured, you will have a plaster bat.

Find Kiln Space

Dry greenware is ready to fire when it is bone dry (no longer cool to the touch). For this, you need a kiln. For someone just getting started, a kiln is often too expensive to buy.

Ask local potters if they rent kiln space. Many will. Remember, though, that they are working on their own pottery and have their own schedules. You may have to wait until they have a kiln-load that has space for your pots, too.

If you are interested in the firing process, don't be shy to ask if you can help. There is nothing like experience to understand everything involved in firing a kiln. The potter may really appreciate the help with loading and unloading kilns and tending them as they fire.

Hey! My Pot Shrunk!

Yes, it is true. Your eyes are not deceiving you. Clay shrinks as it dries. Some clay bodies shrink more than others. Pots also shrink when they are fired, especially when fired to their mature temperature. In both cases, the shrinkage is due to the fiber of the clay becoming tighter. In the first case this is through the removal of water molecules. In the second case, the tightening is caused by the melting that occurs on the molecular level.

If you need a pot to be a certain size when it is finished, you may want to make a shrinkage ruler to help you know what size it must be when it is wet.

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