How to Make Primitive Pottery

How to Make Primitive Pottery

Making primitive pottery is really quite simple, hence the word primitive which can be defined as “belonging to or characteristic of an early stage of development”. Primitive pottery is fun to make and can produce attractive and functional ceramics. If we boil the process down to it’s most basic elements there are 5 steps;

  1. Find clay
  2. Add around 20% sand to the clay
  3. Make clay coils and use to form a pot
  4. Dry pot thoroughly
  5. Build a fire around the pot

Of course there are many more details related to each of these steps but this is the basic process for creating primitive pottery. Many of those details will vary based on the quality of the clay, the type of firewood used and other differences in materials and environment. When making primitive pottery you have to be ready to make allowances for the variations inherent in using natural materials.

Finding & Processing Clay

Clay is abundant almost everywhere on earth, in moist climates it is recognizable by the plastic quality but in drier areas by a crackled texture and by the hard angular chunks in forms in the ground. The quality of found native clays varies wildly, so you may need to experiment and try several different local clay beds before you find now that works for you. You can test natural clay by wetting a small amount and seeing if it will bend around your finger without cracking.

Once you find a good clay you need to grind it to a course powder. If your clay is damp, leave it out where it will not be rained on until it is dry, then you can pulverize the clay between two stones or with a rock on cement.

Natural clay can be tested for plasticity
Natural clay can be tested for plasticity

All clays need to have grit added to help the moisture get out and allow the pots to dry evenly, pottery that drys unevenly will crack. The grit added to clay is called “temper”, some clays naturally have enough but most need to have it added. Different things can be added for temper, sand, volcanic ash, ground up rocks and ground up pottery are all common. Around 20% temper is a good average to start with, to add 20% just use a 4 to 1 ratio, 4 scoops of clay to one scoop of sand should work for most primitive pottery.

20% = 4 to 1 ratio

Mix the clay and temper together thoroughly, then moisten. Add water a little at a time and knead. Add just enough water to make the clay into a plastic mass, if you accidentally add too much water and your clay becomes excessively sticky you can add a little more dry clay.

If you are interested in learning more processing naturally found clay check out my article on processing natural clay here.

Making Coil Pottery

Once your clay is properly tempered and wet to a workable, plastic consistency, you are ready to start hand-building pottery.

Start by patting out a slab of clay to form the base of your pot about the size and shape of a pancake. Then either place in a shallow dish (called a puki) for a round bottomed pot or on a flat surface if you want a flat bottomed vessel.

making a primitive coil pot
Coiling a pot in a puki

Next roll out coils of clay using your hands on a flat surface and use them to build up the walls your pot. Use your thumb and forefinger to gently pinch the fresh coil and bond it to the pot, work your away all the way along the coil pinching and attaching the coil. Then, use your fingers to pinch the walls thinner, once you reach the desired pot wall thickness, use a rib tool to scrape and smooth out the walls of the pot.

Rib tools can be made from a variety of materials, gourds scrapers are traditional in the American Southwest as are scrapers formed from pot sherds, although they can be formed from wood, plastic, metal, coconut shells and almost anything.

Once your pot is fully shaped and scraped smooth, get your fingers wet and smooth down the rim of your primitive pot. Now just let your pot dry, make sure it drys slowly because pottery that dries too fast can crack, it may take some weeks to get your pottery fully dry depending on how humid your climate is.

For more detailed instruction about building coil pottery see my article on the subject here.

primitive pot being formed
A primitive pot just formed in a puki

Firing Primitive Pottery

People often worry much about how to fire primitive pottery but it is really quite simple. Most breakage that occurs during the firing process is caused by moisture in the clay. Despite what some people think, breakage is not caused by not air bubbles or “fire gods” or anything else despite what old wise tales might tell you. If you have properly tempered your pottery by adding enough grit to the clay body and have carefully and slowly dried the pottery, then warmed it slowly around the fire, chances are very good your pots will come out of the fire in fine shape.

Try to use dry, clean burning fuel. Anything that burns clean (not overly smokey or sooty) should do. Pueblo Indians of New Mexico use cow manure and the Hopis use sheep manure, prehistorically the Hopi used coal. My favorite fuel is either mesquite or juniper wood, cottonwood bark is favored by many people.

Start by building a fire and allowing it to burn down to coals, while the wood burns down, sit your pottery around the fire and allow the flames to gently warm the pots. Once you have a bed of coals place your pottery over the coals on small stones, this will keep the fuel from touching the pots and leaving blemishes or “fire clouds” and will also permit hot air to circulate around the pots during the firing. Now stack firewood over and around the pottery in a teepee type configuration and light it. Once the fire starts to burn just let it burn all the way down to coals, then when the pots are cool enough take them out, that’s all there is to it!

a primitive pottery firing
Pottery inside a teepee style fire ready to light off.

To learn more about how to fire primitive pottery check out my article that details the process here.

Keep Trying

Don’t give up if your primitive pottery doesn’t come out as good as you would like in the first attempt. The more you do it the better you will become. Do not rush, take your time and focus on getting the clay in the shape you want, finish the part you are working on before you move into the next step. With each pot you will see improvement.

Learn More About Primitive Pottery Making

If you are interested in learning more, I offer online video-based primitive pottery courses in all aspects of the art form, finding clay, coil building pottery, outdoor firing, etc. If you have questions or comments about this article, leave a comment below. I also have a YouTube channel that covers many aspects of primitive pottery.

I've been making primitive pottery since I was a teenager in the 80's. My work focuses on reproducing the polychrome pottery styles made in the American Southwest during thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. I have taught workshops and lectured at venues all over the Southwest. When I was learning to make pottery it was very hard to find the information I needed, so I created this website to make the technology of southwest pottery readily available to all.

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