Pottery or ceramics is sometimes listed among the more expensive hobbies to get started in. To make modern pottery you need many things…
You need to buy materials like
You need different tools like
- Pottery wheels
- Slab rollers
And you need to fire every pot twice which involves
- Fees to use someone else’s kiln
- Buy your own kiln and pay the electric bill for running it
For anyone who is just curious about pottery, wanting to try it out, or who is stuck at home during the pandemic and looking for something fun to make, all these costs can be an incredibly difficult barrier to entry.
Pottery Can Be Cheap
I’m here to tell you that pottery does not need to be expensive at all. In fact almost everything you need can be had for very low cost or completely free. Think about it, pottery is one of the oldest crafts on earth, our ancestors made beautiful and functional pottery for millennia and they didn’t have to buy expensive equipment or pay utility bills to fire it.
Just because wheels and kilns is “the way pottery is made” does not mean it is the only way to make pottery. Our ancestors, and indeed, people around the world to this day, have made and fired pottery using only simple tools.
This “primitive pottery” can be just as much fun, as rewarding and as challenging as common studio pottery is.
Making primitive pottery is enjoyable, making things out of clay is therapeutic. Working with your hands in damp clay is a good way to calm the mind and get back in touch with the earth.
The results of engaging in primitive pottery are beautiful and unique ceramic forms. This pottery is not only useful, but also decorative and can be sold or gifted.
There is a lifetime worth of different forms and techniques that a person could work on learning and mastering using hand building techniques.
Clay is really not usually the biggest expense in any pottery making, I mean it is literally just dirt. Still, buying clay is an expense related to making pottery. I never pay a dime for clay which I collect and process myself from the desert near where I live.
You can learn to find, dig and process your own clay too. This save money and is also an enjoyable activity in itself. Here are some good places to start if you want to learn more about using wild clay.
- Article: How to Find Clay, the Definitive Guide
- Class: Wild Clay 101
- Video: Best Way to Process Clay: Wet vs Dry Method
Glazes generally aren’t used in primitive pottery as the firing temperature doesn’t even get hot enough to melt glaze. Pottery is most often decorated by various methods, here are a few.
- Designs painted on the surface
- Colored slips
- Stone polished surfaces
- Incising and texturing
If you want to learn more about coloring and decorating primitive pottery check out these resources:
- Watch YouTube videos about natural pottery paints
- Buy natural mineral pigments online
- Enroll in my online masterclass about natural pottery paints and pigments
Primitive pottery, by definition uses simple or “primitive” tools. For me these tools most often just consist of a puki, a gourd rib, a smooth stone and a deer rib bone. Individual potters have different preferences for tools but they seldom need to be expensive or complicated.
For very little money you can purchase a kit that includes scrapers, ribs, a sponge, a wire clay cutter and other basic tools useful for hand building. Here is a link to such a basic kit on Amazon. Far more elaborate kits are also available containing every tool you could ever hope to use and probably a few you will never use. At the time of this writing a large 57 piece pottery tool kit could be had for less than $30 on Amazon.
Typically pottery today is fired twice to very high temperatures, while primitive pottery is usually fired once to a much lower temperature. So in resource consumption alone, primitive pottery wins at saving money and of course natural resources. But primitive pottery also saves in that it does not require access to expensive kilns in order to fire.
Most potters these days either purchase an electric kiln or pay a membership fee to a local pottery studio in order to have access to a kiln. I don’t own an electric kiln myself and I don’t pay studio membership fees either. I have two main ways of firing pottery.
Primitive Convection Kiln
I have a little convection kiln in my backyard that I built myself that I use sometimes. It was built inexpensively using bricks from Home Depot, mud mortar and a barbecue grill, the total cost was about $110. If you are interested in learning more about how I built this little kiln check out my YouTube video about it here.
Outdoor Surface Firing
Most often I fire my pottery in an open, above ground fire on public land near my home. Of course I live in Arizona where there is a lot of public land available where I can build fires. You may not have the luxury of abundant public land near your house. if you have a large enough yard and compatible local fire laws you could fire this way at home.
If you want to learn more about how to fire pottery in a surface fire I have a few videos about this available on my YouTube channel. I also offer an online masterclass which teaches all the details about outdoor pottery firing, you can learn more about my firing class at this link.
Get Started in Pottery
This website offers many resources for getting started in pottery cheaply, including classes, tools, materials and links to other resources. Also check out my YouTube channel for lots of free pottery information. If you are interested in digging deeper into Southwest style pottery, check out the Southwest Kiln Conference website, an annual event held in the American Southwest.