For back to basics pottery making you can’t go wrong with a coil pot, no machinery or fancy equipment aiding you, just you and the clay mano a mano. I first learned coil pottery as a teenager when I was trying to reproduce ancient Southwest pottery, my school didn’t teach coil pottery making so I had to learn by reading library books about Maria Martinez and other Pueblo potters who have maintained a coil pottery making tradition that dates back around 2000 years. Here are the basic steps;
- Form a base.
- Roll out a coil.
- Attach the coil using a bonding pinch.
- Thin and raise the pot wall using a flat pinch.
- Scrape smooth and shape using a rib or scraper.
- Repeat steps 2 through 5 until you reach the desired size or run out of clay.
- Trim down the rim of your pot using with a knife then smooth with wet fingers.
Now that you know the steps continue reading to learn more about how to accomplish these steps.
History of Coil Pottery
Coiled pottery predates the potters wheel by centuries and it is still used to make pottery by people around the world in places like Africa and India and by the native peoples of the New World.
The potters wheel was never used in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century, before that time all pottery produced was made by either coils, slabs or pinch techniques. In the American Southwest it is believed that pottery technology originated in Mexico and spread north some time around the time of Christ.
The tradition in the Southwest is split between those that practice the “paddle and anvil” technique to the west and those who practice the “coil and scrape” technique to the east. Both of these traditions are still practiced in their respective areas today so the native people near Phoenix, Arizona make coil pots using the paddle and anvil technique and the native potters near Albuquerque, New Mexico use the coil and scrape technique. While the modern kiln has caught on in many native communities, the tradition of forming coil pottery seems to be more deeply entrenched in their cultures and is still the primary way that Native American pottery is formed today.
Tools for Making a Coil Pot
It is useful to have the correct tools ready before you try to make a coiled pot, but because this is a primitive pottery technique you can do it without any tools if you want, using just your hands or items found in nature. My minimum recommended tool list includes;
A work board is just a flat surface to roll out coils on, it can be a kitchen counter or a piece of plywood or a stone slab. Just about anything as long as you don’t mind getting it dirty and the clay doesn’t stick too badly. In that regard, you will find that wood or cloth are less sticky than plastic surfaces.
You need something to conveniently keep water nearby while you work, any old bowl will do. Alternatively you could use a water bottle or even a stream or lake.
Scrapers will help remove lumps and fill in holes in your pot. You could use your fingers but this simple tool will make it much easier and faster. In the American Southwest they often use gourd scrapers, but you can use a plastic or metal rib tool or even a credit card or a piece of a hacksaw glad can work great for scraping a coil pot. In case you need one we sell gourd scrapers here.
Knives are used mostly to trim the rim of a coiled pot down to an even line. If you are trying to work with only primitive tools than a stone knife works fine or even just a small flint or obsidian flake. You can also just use your fingers to pinch off the excess clay from the rim of your pot.
A smoothing stone is not required but it does help to smooth and polish the surface of your coil pot. Any smooth stone will work, good smooth stones can be found near rivers or the beach or lapidary stones can be purchased. A pottery smoothing stone should be of a size that will fit comfortably in your hand. We also sell these if you want one, lapidary pottery polishing stones.
A puki is a shallow bowl or plate that will form the bottom of a round bottom pot. If you will not be forming a round bottomed pot you can use a board or even a piece of paper. Whatever you use for your base, make sure the clay will not stick, if you are using a plastic, glass or glazed bowl you should cover it with a piece of cloth first or you may never get your pot out in one piece. These can be purchased online, see our resources page for sources.
Step 1 – Forming the Base
The base of a coil pot is most often a round slab of clay. I like to pat one out between my hands just like I have seen old Mexican ladies making tortillas. But there are other ways to make a slab of clay for example you could use a rolling pin or a slab roller. Your base should be as thin as you want the walls of your pot to be, this can vary based on the abilities of the potter and the quality of the clay being used, a thickness of about a quarter inch is a good average.
Another way to form the base is by spiraling up a coil of clay on itself as show in this illustration.
Once you have formed a round slab of clay you will want to press it into or onto the work surface that will hold it while you are coiling a pot. This may be a puki if you are forming a round bottomed pot or it could be a plate or a small square of wood if you will have a flat bottomed pot. If your puki or work surface is not porous, that is to say it will not absorb moisture, then you should cover it in cloth before you place the wet clay on it or it will probably stick good and not allow you to get your pot out of it later. Press the clay in firmly and use your scraper to even out any bumps. The edge of your initial slab should rise at least a half inch above the edge of the puki, this will be used to attach the first coil of your pot. After you have used a knife to trim off any excess clay, you are ready to add your first coil.
Step 2 – Rolling Out a Coil
Rolling a coil of clay can take some practice, there are two ways of doing it. The first and slightly more difficult way of rolling a clay coil is to roll a ball of clay between your two hands they move back and forth in opposite directions while providing firm and consistent pressure on the clay. The second and easier method is to roll a ball of clay back and forth on a board or other work surface keeping firm and consistent pressure downward on the clay.
The clay coil does not have to be long, just make it as long as you are comfortable working with and about a half inch in diameter or about as thick as your index finger. Try to make the coil consistently the same thickness for the whole length.
Try to get better at rolling coils because you will be rolling a lot of them before you are done. Focus on consistency, try to make them all the same thickness. Like anything else focus on the outcome and practice should see improvement.
Step 3 – Attaching a Coil
Lay the coil along the edge of the pot where you want to add to the vessel wall height. Then begin pinching the coil into the pot wall with a downward thrust of the index finger on the outside of the pot, this is called a bonding pinch. Pinches should be close enough to one another to touch each other or overlap. The illustration will help you see how this is done.
If the coil does not go all the way around the pot just make another and carry on pinching where the previous coil stopped. When the coil gets all the way around the pot to where you first began attaching a coil just pinch the coil off so that it makes a complete circuit of the pot’s circumference.
Step 4 – Pinching the Coil Up
Once the coil is firmly bonded to the pot wall it needs to be pinched thinner, your coil should have been created close to a half inch in diameter but your pot wall needs to be around a quarter of an inch thick.
Begin to pinch the wall thinner all the way around using your thumb and forefinger, feeling the pot wall thickness between your fingers as you go. This is called the flat pinch, it thins the walls and makes them higher at the same time. While you are pinching the walls thinner they also spread out, making the opening of the pot wider than when you started.
If you want to constrict the walls to the same size or to make the opening smaller, for example if you are trying to make a jar, then you will need to practice a different pinch, the compression pinch. To do a compression pinch, grab the wall of the pot between the thumb and forefinger and an inch or so farther along do the same with your other hand, now bring the two hands together bunching up the clay slightly between your two hands. Work your way around the pot wall doing the compression pinch, the opening will be smaller when you are done, if you want the pot walls to come in more go around doing this a few more times.
Step 5 – Scraping the Coil Pot
Now that you have added your coil and pinched it up you will probably find that the walls are lumpy and bumpy and there are seams on the inside and outside where the coil was attached. Scraping will smooth the walls, removing high places and filling in the low spots.
Scrape the outside and the inside of the pot taking special care to fill in all holes left by attaching the coil. If there are large gaps of holes you may need to fill them with small balls of damp clay then scrape over them to smooth into the pot wall.
If you have a gourd scraper you can use the rounded shape from the outside of the gourd on the inside of the pot to push out the pot wall into a rounded shape.
Step 6 – Repeat 2 – 5 As Necessary
That concludes the steps for adding a coil, so if your pot still needs more height simply repeat steps 2 through 5 as many times as necessary to form the pot you desire. If this is your first coiled pot you may want to keep it simple, perhaps a bowl or small jar, then you can try larger and more challenging shapes in future projects.
Step 7 – Smoothing the Rim
When you are satisfied with the size of your jar or are just ready to concede defeat to the clay then it is time to put a rim on your coil pot. The first step is to level off your rim, I like to get down low and look across the rim to help me spot the high and low areas. Use a knife to trim off the high spots and add little bits of damp clay into the low spots until the rim is relatively level.
Now get the rim wet, get your fingers nice and wet too and run the rim with your damp fingers. Smoothing and forming the wet clay under and between your fingers until the rim is smooth and rounded and beautiful.
Congratulations, now you know how to make a coil pot and your pot is finished, let it dry slowly. When it has dried enough to be handled without becoming misshapen pull it out of the puki and gently begin fixing problems found on the bottom the pot, filling holes with small balls of damp clay and scraping down any lumps.
When your pot has firmed up some more you can scrape it more thoroughly and more vigorously and then you can rub it with a damp, smooth stone to smooth and compress the surface of the clay. This is not a necessary step but results in a nice smooth finish that you can then paint on or leave natural.
Why I Leave Out Steps
A few notes on the coil pottery making status quo. Many instructions dealing with how to make coil pottery tell you to score or scarify the area where the coil will be attached and to apply slip in between the pot wall and the new coil. This is not bad advice but in most cases it is not necessary, what my dad used to call “belt and suspender thinking”, let me explain.
I am an experienced coil potter, I might even say expert, having made innumerable coil pots with all different sorts of clay and I have never had a problem with a pot breaking along the coil line as long as the coil was bonded well. The real trick is getting that bonding pinch figured out as illustrated above, if the coil is properly bonded then scarifying and slipping are just extra steps you don’t need to do. I make pottery in the tradition of the native cultures of the American Southwest and they have a long history of coiling pots in this manner without those additional steps, take a look at some photos or video of Native American coil potters and you will see them attaching coils without slip and without scarifying the clay.
There are some rare instances where scarifying and slipping are useful when making a coil pot. If you have left your pot to dry and firm up for a long time, then this method will be useful will help you to bond a damp coil to an already firm base. This can also be helpful when attaching handles as these can be hard to get a good bond on.
My best advice is to use the illustrations in this article to master the 3 pinches, these will make your work strong without adding additional steps to the forming process. If you want more detailed video instructions in coiling pottery check out my online coil pottery class.
Learn More About Making a Coil Pot
There are a lot of little details and tricks of the trade that could be added to the subject of how to make a coil pot, but it would end up being a book and not an article. If you are interested in learning the whole process in detail then you should consider my online video-based coil pottery making class. We also have other classes in related aspects of the art form like finding clay and outdoor firing. If you have questions or comments about this article, leave a comment below and I will endeavor to answer them all. You may also be interested in our YouTube channel that covers many aspects of coil pottery making.