Pottery Pointers

We have searched the net high and low for information about pottery. Not where to buy it, but how to make it, where to buy supplies, how to get started, answers to firing questions, and anything else that might help someone who wants to get started throwing pottery to, well, get started.

I suppose we're what you'd call hobbyists. At some point, for no apparent reason, we decided that it would be fun to throw and fire pottery. For the rank novice there are, for the most part, three ways to go about this:

  • Take a class
  • Join a club or association
  • Buy a bunch of stuff and try it

Needless to say, we used the last method. I can't say that I'd recommend that everyone do it this way, but we've had a lot of fun. If you want to go this route, here's a list of things to do:

Get a book. Ok, so you'll probably end up with a few of them. The idea, though, is to find at least one book that discusses the practical steps involved in throwing and firing pots. Be a little careful, different books may teach different techniques. As with any hobby, it is probably a good idea to pick one teacher to follow, at least until you're comfortable with the fundamentals. We started with a book that we found at a used book store: The Craft of Pottery (Frank Howell, Carol Woodward and Robert H. Woodward, 1975, Harper & Row). It told us pretty much everything we needed to know in order to get started. We also picked up a copy of Throwing on the Potter's Wheel (Thomas Sellers, 1960, Professional Publications, Inc.), a paperback from the publishers of Ceramics Monthly Magazine. It costs about $5 and is available from most of the mail order ceramics suppliers. It does not discuss firing, but is pretty good about wheel technique (as if we're in any position to judge).

Get some catalogs. Although it sounds a little silly, a couple of catalogs from good suppliers (see below) will give you an excellent idea of the sort of stuff involved in throwing pots. For instance: you know that you will need to buy clay, but what does it cost? what sort of quantities is it ordered in? what kinds are there to choose from? Really basic questions of this sort can be easily answered by browsing though a catalog.

Get a wheel. Assuming you've read your book, and still want to throw pots, you'll need a wheel. Best bet: borrow one. What? You can't? Neither could we. Second best bet: find a used one. This turned out not to be so easy, as there seems to be quite a demand for used wheels. Plan C: Build one. This is what we did, from a kit. Last resort: Buy a new one. This will set you back somewhere between $350 (for a Thomas-Stuart kick wheel) and $1300 (for a reversible, motor-driven Brent wheel with bells and whistles).

We ended up spending about $200 for a Brent kick wheel kit (head, shaft, bearings, nuts and bolts and plans), along with an optional 14" head and plastic splash pan. We were advised correctly (by the salesperson that we bought the kit from!) not to buy the $150 pre-cut wood for the wheel. Instead, $20 bought the plywood, 2x4's, glue and nails, and we were off. If you're a real putz with construction projects, find a friend who isn't and buy her a case of beer to do it for you. It's not a hard project, but you'd like for it to be built well.

Get some clay and tools and play. Pick up 10 pounds of white (it looks gray) earthenware clay and a big Rubbermaid thing to store it in. Also get a couple of buckets and go by a ceramics or art supply store and buy the $10 set of clay tools (later you can get better ones as you decide which you actually use). Now get out your book and try to do what it says. Don't worry about firing yet, just try making things. Practice centering. Practice wedging. It's a bit more relaxing if you don't really plan on making anything for keeps. If you happen to make something that you like, just set it aside to dry - there's no hurry to fire it.

Get a kiln. Our initial theory was that we'd take our first few batches of 'good' pots to a shop to have them fired, and then we'd think about getting a kiln of our own, as it looked as though it would involve real money. Fortunately for us (but unfortunately for our ability to give advice), we found an classified ad in a local paper for an old 17"x 22" Evenheat electric kiln - for $50. We bought it. We can only hope you'll be as lucky.

Good Luck.

-Jim and Ellen
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Here are some suppliers that we know of:

  • Great Lakes Clay. & Supply Company 120 S. Lincoln Ave., Carpentersville, IL 60110, (800) 258-8796.
  • The American Art Clay Company. 4717 W. 16th St., Indianapolis, IN 46222, (317) 244-6871.
  • Runyan Pottery Supply. P.O. Box 287, Main P.O., Flint, MI 48501, (810) 789-2661.
  • Minnesota Clay. 8001 Grand Avenue South, Bloomington, MN 55420-1179, (800) CLAY-USA.
  • Sheffield Pottery, Inc., RTE 7, P.O. Box 399, Sheffield, MA 01257 (413) 229-7700, (888) SPI-CLAY.

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Orton Tips The Edward Orton Jr. Ceramic Foundation has printed a series of bulletins about various issues involved in firing ceramics. We have found them to be very helpful and would like to share them with all.

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