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What is Throwing on the Potter's Wheel?

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What is throwing on the pottery wheel?

Many years ago before I ever began working in clay, I had no real clue what throwing meant. I had envisioned a potter's wheel going full speed and some hapless person literally throwing a piece of clay onto its surface with enough force to somehow make it stick.

If you are in the same boat now, let me assure you that the above "method" is guaranteed to make a mess, not a pot!

Throwing as a General Term

When people talk about throwing pottery, they generally mean the process from the time the clay touches the wheel to the time the wheel is stopped. In this more general (and most commonly used) sense, throwing is the entire activity of shaping the clay on the potter's wheel. The steps involved in throwing are:

Throwing as a Specific Term

Cut-Away illustrating the proper hand position when throwing on pottery wheel
Beth E Peterson

As you may have noticed above, one part of the general activity of throwing is a specific step called throwing. To throw the clay means to bend it between your finger joints. As you can see in the illustration, the right finger is lower than the left. This is important, since the discrepancy is what forces the clay to bend.

As the potter’s hands move upward, the clay is stretched through the bend, with the excess clay being forced upward. This creates the pot’s height as well as thinning the walls.

A Good Throw

Photo showing good uniformity in wall thickness for a pot thrown on the pottery wheel.
Beth E Peterson

Not only does a good throw make the walls taller and thinner, but the potter is also working to keep the pot’s walls uniform in thickness from top to bottom. Walls which are thicker at the bottom are a common occurrence for those new to throwing.

One way in which to gain mastery over throwing a uniform wall is to throw with your eyes closed. By focusing your attention to the kinetic feel of the positioning of the hands, you are better able to judge the thickness and uniformity of the walls.

Terms of Confusion

People have called throwing by a number of different terms. The specific action of throwing has sometimes been referred to as pulling up. The general act of throwing on the wheel has sometimes been called turning, which is technically working on a lathe with either wood or metal. Another word occasionally used is spinning, which could be confused with the twisting and thinning of fibers by a hand-spinner / weaver. Overall, the most correct term is "to throw."

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