While I enjoy making pottery in other ways, there is nothing like the feeling of hand building clay, knowing that you built this pot with no help from machinery. It gives you and your art work a primitive connection to the earth, just you and the clay alone in the studio, surprising and beautiful things will result.
I have been hand building with clay for my entire adult life, starting in high school and my clay is usually hand dug from locally found clay pits. In this article I hope to share with you my 12 best techniques that will help you get started in hand building or if you are already a hand builder this should give your skills a boost.
1. Rolling coils
Rolling clay coils is a funny thing, it seems to come naturally to some people while others struggle. In my experience though it is like riding a bike, once you master it, you won’t forget and it will eventually become second nature. This is an essential coil pottery technique so if you plan on doing coil building this is worth practicing with an eye on perfecting.
You can roll them between your hands or on a work surface. Gentle, even pressure is the key, and keep trying until you get it. Perseverance will win out. You might find it helpful to watch my technique for rolling coils in the video on the page linked here.
2. Pushing out the form
Much of the art of hand building clay forms relies heavily on this trick. Reach inside the form and press it out into the desired shape, this is how round bellied jars, lifelike cultures and many other shapes are achieved. You can use your hand or better yet, a tool, to press out the clay. Below is a video of the famous New Mexico potter Maria Martinez, notice how she starts the jar by coiling a cylinder (this starts around 4:30 in the video), then deftly uses a gourd scraper to push it out into a graceful jar.
3. Patting slabs
In my own work hand building clay I often pat out a small round slab to place in the bottom of a puki in order to form the bottom of a pot. This always reminds me of old Mexican women making tortillas. I just start with a ball of clay and pat it between my hands to form a disk, once it is fairly flat I use the tips of my fingers to feel for thick spots and pinch them thinner until the slab is of a consistent thickness throughout.
4. Bonding pinch
When making coil pottery there is no technique as important as your bonding pinch. This is the pinch used to bond the coil to the wall of the pot which is so important because it is the fabric that holds the pot together through the stresses of drying, firing and whatever uses the pot will be put to.
There are various techniques for a bonding pinch, mine involves using the index finger on the outside of the vessel to press down and slightly into the body as illustrated below.
5. Flat pinch
The flat pinch is a coil pottery technique used to thin the pot wall. This is usually accomplished with the thumb and forefinger on opposite sides of the pot pinching together. This is done over and over while slightly rotating the pot to achieve a uniformly thin vessel wall. The fingers are not just pinching but also feeling for wall thickness to know where and when to pinch.
6. Compression pinch
This is the key pinch used in coil pottery to give the vessel shape. Just adding and thinking coils will not result in an attractively shaped pot, probably something akin to a flower pot. The compression pinch allows the potter to bring the walls in, forming narrow mouthed jars and other shapes.
To execute a compression pinch use both hands along the pot wall like you are performing a standard flat pinch then bring the hands together slightly forming a slight pleat in the clay wall. See the illustration below.
Scraping the pot is a seldom mentioned but critical part of hand building clay pottery. After the pot walls are formed they are often lumpy, uneven and rough. Scraping the walls with a sharp edge can help to refine the overall vessel shape, thin wall thickness and leave a more consistent surface.
I usually scrape twice in the course of hand building a clay pot, once right after forming and another more vigorous scraping after the pot has set up a bit and is approaching leather hardness.
I hate sanding, sorry, it’s just the truth. I realize the value of sanding but I don’t like it, here is why. 1) Sanding is dusty, messy and boring. 2) Sanding has no connection to the pottery traditions of my area, it was developed as a hand building technique in the mid-twentieth century.
That being said, sanding a bone dry pot can provide you with a super smooth pot surface and will hide a multitude of sin and can be polished to a mirror-like smoothness.
9. Stone smoothing
In this article I break down the uses of the polishing stone into two separate techniques, smoothing and polishing. This section deals only with smoothing, a process used while the clay is near leather hard. Stone smoothing smooths the surface, obliterating any marks left from the scraping or coiling, leaving a smooth canvas ready for any slip or paint you will be applying. This technique is best accomplished with a wet or damp rock applied to a still damp clay body.
10. Stone polishing
Polishing differs from smoothing above in that it is a finishing technique performed on a pot that is very nearly dry and is intended to leave a high gloss finish. Polishing, or burnishing, is best done with faster, less deliberate strokes than stone smoothing. If the pot is too dry polishing can scratch the surface so either do it when the pot is at precisely the correct dryness or get the surface damp in a small area then polish and repeat, slowly working you way around the pot wetting and polishing.
I am not talking about slip trailing here but covering large areas of a pot with a coat of slip. Clays good for hand building are often not of a desirable color while clays in desirable colors are often not good for hand building. You can get around this problem by building the pot with a good coiling clay then slipping with a clay of the desired color. Like putting a coat of paint on a house, slipping a pot gives it more appeal. I like to paint on slip with a large brush but some potters use a piece of animal fur or cloth.
12. Pinch pots
The simple pinch pot is among the easiest and most basic of hand built clay techniques. And yet it can produce impressive forms and inspiring art, for example, take a look at the Bronze Age pinch pots that my friend Graham Taylor makes, this link will take you to a photo gallery of pottery on his website.
To get started take a fist sized lump of clay and insert your thumb into the center. Slowly pinch and stretch the clay around that initial hole to create your desired shape. Practice makes perfect, you may not do so well with your first attempt but don’t give up. To watch an impressively fast display of pinch pot creation check out the video above of Maria Martinez at around the 6:00 mark.
Bonus Technique: Dealing with “puki rash”
After the jar is formed and dried enough to come out of the puki (for coil built pots that use a puki) the bottom of the pot may need some attention, having bumps, holes and rough spots that I refer to as “puki rash”.
This can be a difficult challenge since the pot is usually still soft enough to be easily ruined if handled wrong. I usually carefully handle the pot while gently scraping the high spots and ridges and filling any holes with small balls of clay. It is a delicate juggling act, do it as soon as you can so the clay on the pot bottom is as soft and easily manipulated as possible yet make sure that the top the pot is dry enough so that you don’t crush it while handling. Good luck!
Learn more about hand building with clay
You are probably aware that you could study and practice hand building and coil pottery techniques for your whole life and not learn all there is to learn. This article is just a quick rundown of some of the techniques I have found useful in my work. If you want to discover more tricks and techniques for hand building clay check out my online video based classes (linked here). I would also recommend Clint Swink’s book Messages From the High Desert which details how Anasazi pottery can be recreated, here is the link to that book on Amazon.