Primitive Pottery: A Complete Guide for Beginners

Primitive Pottery: A Complete Guide for Beginners

Pottery making is a popular hobby for millions of people today which is not surprising because just about everyone has enjoyed playing with mud from the time they were children. What does surprise me is that practicing such an ancient craft is dependent on so much expensive equipment. It seems that the making of primitive pottery has almost been forgotten in people’s quest to complicate the pottery making process with complicated equipment.

Primitive pottery need not be crude or plain
Primitive pottery need not be crude or plain looking

People have been making pottery for thousands of years, from the very beginning of human civilization. For most of those millennias pottery was formed using simple tools and materials that could be easily made or found by anyone. Yet, from this simple beginning and long tradition of simplicity has evolved a complex process that is highly dependent on mechanization and cash expenditures.

You can look at primitive pottery traditions around the world and get a glimpse of the pottery that our ancestors made thousands of years ago. In places like, India, Africa and Mexico, families still make pottery in their traditional ways. You can learn from these potters and from archaeology and ancient manuscripts, using these resources you can successfully recreate the simple but beautiful art made from the earth near your home.

No matter where you are in the world, the tools and materials you need to make beautiful primitive pottery are not far from your door.

Can we go back to a simpler process for making pottery? Is it still possible to make pottery like our ancestors did? Yes, it is! No matter where you are in the world, the tools and materials you need to make beautiful primitive pottery are not far from your door. If you are interested in learning how to leave behind the expensive pottery wheel, electric kiln, slab rollers, pug mills and other machinery that separate us from this simple, beautiful process of our ancestors then read on.

To make primitive pottery you need three basic things:

  • Clay: wild clay, hand-dug from the earth
  • Tools: simple tools for forming, decorating and polishing pottery
  • Techniques: develop the skills to form pottery simply
Digging wild clay from a stream bank
Digging wild clay from a stream bank

Wild Clay

The most important ingredient in primitive pottery, the very foundation of such is wild clay dug and processed by hand. Although it is possible to make primitive pottery from store-bought clay, such potter lacks the same essence connecting it to the local land that wild dug clay provides. It is definitely worth taking the time to learn to find and process native clay for primitive pottery.

To go more in-depth on wild clay, how to locate, test and process it, check out my online masterclass Wild Clay 101 which you can learn more about by following this link. I have also written a few helpful blog posts about finding and processing wild clay which you can take a look at here.

Finding Wild Clay

First you will need to locate a deposit of wild clay. There are 4 main types of wild clay, at least one of these can be found almost anywhere on earth. These types are:

  • Alluvial clay: clay deposited along the banks and flood plains of rivers and streams.
  • Marine clay: clay deposited at the bottom of a sea
  • Lacustrine clay: clay deposited at the bottom of a lake
  • Primary clay: clay that is found in place where is is being formed from a parent mineral
  • Glacial clay: clay that is formed under glaciers

Look for wild clay wherever you can find native earth. Along dirt roads, in road cuts, along creek banks and ditches. Keep your eyes open for the telltale signs of clay wherever you can see exposed dirt. Some of the most common signs of clay include:

  • Crackled texture, like the bottom of a dried mud puddle.
  • Tire tracks and footprints clearly and strongly recorded.
  • Hard angular chunks when dug out of the dry ground.
  • Soft, plastic texture when wet.

If you suspect you may have found clay, try getting a small amount wet and kneading it into a malleable lump. If you can roll it into a small coil and wrap it around a finger without cracking it may be a good clay worth trying.

testing wild clay for plasticity
Testing wild clay for plasticity

Processing Wild Clay

To process wild clay you will need to start with clay that is fully dry. Grind it into a powder about the consistency of course sand. This can easily be accomplished by pounding the dry clay on a driveway or a sidewalk with a rock. I use a hand cranked grain mill to grind my clay up, you can one on Amazon by following this link.

After your clay is ground up you will need to add about 20% temper. Temper is non-plastic material that is added to the clay to keep it from cracking when it dries. Common tempering materials include:

  • Sand
  • Volcanic ash
  • Ground up fired pottery (grog)
  • Diatomaceous earth

To measure out 20% temper just use a 4 to 1 ratio. Use any convenient measurement and add 4 measures of ground clay to one measure of tempering material. Mix the measured dry clay and temper together thoroughly then dampen. Knead the dampened clay until it is wetted throughout and evenly. You can use as it is or wrap in plastic and use later.

Simple Pottery Tools

You can make primitive pottery with no tools at all but there are some simple tools that will make forming pottery easier and will make the resulting pottery more appealing too. The following tools are easy to make yourself or inexpensive to purchase.

Gourd rib

gourd rib

This is a standard pottery tool in the American Southwest. Although the rib tool is common everywhere in pottery and works great for primitive pottery, the typical metal or rubber rib is too modern for many primitive pottery aficionados. So the gourd rib makes a great primitive substitute, is easily made and is an excellent material for the job.

A gourd rib can be easily formed from a dry gourd using a rasp. There is a useful video that shows how to make a gourd rib that you can watch by following this link to YouTube. Alternatively you can purchase a gourd rib from my website by following this link.

Polishing stone

pottery polishing stones

A smooth stone can give your pot a polished finish. Since primitive pottery cannot use glazes this is important in giving your pottery a pleasing texture. Any stone can work, a naturally smooth stone from a riverbed or a store bought lapidary stone.

If you are looking for a good polishing stone for pottery you should look near rivers or the seashore where stones are naturally tumbled smooth. To purchase a stone to use in polishing pottery you can try a local rock shop and I sell pottery polishing stones on my website at this link.

Puki

how to make a puki

A puki is a base mold and simple turntable for a primitive, round-bottomed pot that is used in the Southwestern United States. A puki is simply a shallow dish made from a porous material that will allow the clay pressed into it to dry. A must-have tool for hand-building primitive pottery.

A puki can be formed from clay and fired but not glazed to encourage a porous surface or formed from plaster-of-paris. New Mexico Clay sells pukis at a reasonable price, you can explore that option at this link. You can learn more about the puki and how it is used by watching this YouTube video.

Paint brush

A paint brush is not necessary for making pottery but it is extremely useful for decorating pottery. Store bought paint brushes are obviously easy to obtain but if you want to stay true to the nature of primitive pottery and use only primitive tools than you may want to explore making your own paintbrushes.

I make my paint brushes out of the leaves of the Yucca plant which is indigenous to the Southwest. The potters of Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, Mexico make very fine paint brushes from the hair of children. There are many other possibilities to make paint brushes from animal hair and plant fibers, try Googling “make your own paint paint brushes” and see what other people are doing.

Primitive Pottery Techniques

Primitive pottery can be made in a myriad different ways and there are no right or wrong answers. The only prerequisite for making primitive pottery is that it cannot be made with a machine so no pottery wheels, it should be hand-formed pottery. There are several great ways to approach forming primitive pottery, I will outline those processes below.

If you are interested in learning more about hand building pottery techniques, I have written several helpful blog posts about this topic, you can read them at this link.

Paddle and anvil

Paddled pottery is made by different cultures all over the world. In my area of southern Arizona the O’odham and Maricopa people are famous for the beautiful paddle and anvil pottery they make.

In this process the pottery is thinned and shaped by paddling with a wooden paddle on the outside of the pot against a stone or ceramic anvil held on the inside. More clay can be added using coils but then it is smoothed and thinned using the paddle.

I am no expert in making pottery using the paddle and anvil method. So I will use a video of my friend Ron Carlos making pottery using this method to help explain how it works.

Pinch pottery

In many parts of the world the first type of pottery made was using the pinch method. It doesn’t require any equipment besides your hands so in some ways pinch pottery is the simplest and most primitive of pottery forming techniques and you can do it anywhere whenever you get the urge.

To form a pinch pot start with a ball of clay appropriate to the size of pot you hope to create. Stick your thumb into the middle of the lump of clay then start pinching the pot into shape by pinching between your thumb and forefinger. Slowly work the clay out and up with carefully controlled pinches. The pinching techniques used to form a pinch pot are the same as those used to make coil and scrape pottery so read on to learn about those pinches.

Coil pottery

I am primarily a coil potter so this is the technique most familiar to me. The coil technique is similar to the pinch technique in some ways as they both rely on a fair deal of pinching. But because the coil technique allows for adding more clay it can result much larger forms than pinching alone.

  1. A coil pot is usually started with slab base, either flat on a work board or rounded, pressed into a puki.
  2. A coil is then rolled out and attached to the base using a “bonding pinch”.
  3. The attached coil is pinched to the desired wall thickness using a “flat pinch”.
  4. The inside of the pot is scraped smooth inside and out using a rib tool.
  5. Repeat adding coils until the pottery reaches the desired size.

I have produced an online class that teaches how to make coil pottery called Coil Pottery Making 101, you can learn more about it by following this link.

This video teaches 4 tricks for coil pottery making

Types on pinches

Pinches are important for most types of primitive pottery making. So here are a few of the most important pinching techniques for you to study and perfect.

Flat Pinch

The simplest pinch. Just bring the thumb and forefinger together, being aware of the thickness of the pot and not pinching too thin. This pinch is for thinning the pot wall.

flat pinch for primitive pottery

Bonding Pinch

The bonding pinch involves moving the index finger (or sometimes the thumb) down and into the pot wall. This pinch is for attaching a new coil to a pot, this is very important because if the coil is not properly bonded to the pot wall a crack may form along that line later while the pot is drying.

bonding pinch for primitive pottery

Compression Pinch

With the compression pinch, hold the pot firmly between the thumb and forefinger of each hand along the wall, then bring the two hands together slightly. Move around the pot wall doing this every couple of inches, this will reduce the circumference of the pot, constricting the opening of the pot. This pinch is useful for shaping pots, especially jars or other vessels with constricted openings.

Compression pinch for making primitive pottery

Decorating Pottery

It is not necessary to decorate primitive pottery, just the texture of the clay along with the color variations left from an outdoor wood firing can be very pretty. But it can also be fun to make complex decorated or “polychrome” pottery using primitive techniques. Here are a few of the most common decorating techniques used on primitive pottery.

Slipping

Slipping is covering the surface of a pot with a thin layer of another clay. Usually it is a more colorful clay because the best colored clay do not always have good working properties. A pot may be slipped by mixing up the desired slip clay into a thin solution, maybe about the consistency of yogurt, then applying with a paint brush or a bit of cloth. Do not get your slip too think or it may crack since it is not tempered like the clay body is. It is best to slip onto a pot that is not fully dry so, if the body of a fully dry pot gets too wet from slipping it can start to expand and break itself apart.

Painting

Paint can be made by grinding up minerals and mixing with a little clay. Unless you add clay to the minerals the paint may wipe off after the pot is fired because the ground up mineral won’t harden in the firing without some clay. Some minerals naturally have a small amount of clay in them, but most do not, only experimentation will show you want will work for you. Many minerals will change colors in the fire so be aware that the pot may not come out of the fire looking as you expected. Manganese dioxide and copper carbonate are two good choices for making black paint. The softer iron ores such as hematite or limonite will make red paint and white clay is the best choice for white paint.

Polishing

Polishing or burnishing pottery is a way to give a pot a smooth texture. Primitive pottery is never glazed (because the primitive firing will not get hot enough to melt glaze) so if you desire a glossy surface or a smooth surface you will need to learn to polish with a smooth stone.

Polishing is best accomplished while the pot is still a little damp, what potters call “leather hard”. If the pot is too dry the polishing stone will scratch the surface and if it is too damp it will cause indentations in the surface. Experience will teach you to recognize the right time to polish. If the pot gets too dry it can be carefully re-dampened in a small area then polished quickly before it dries. In this way you can work your way around the pot bit by bit, dampening and polishing.

Primitive Pottery Firing

There are many primitive ways to fire pottery and they are all good for different reasons or for creating different types of pottery. I am going to briefly cover just two of the most popular methods here. If you are interested in some other outdoor pottery firing methods check out this article about the 5 best open fire pottery techniques.

A primitive pottery firing
Pottery pre-heating around a fire

Oxidation Fire

This firing method is best used to produce brightly colored pottery with oxidized reds and oranges. It is done above ground while the next method is done in a pit. Here is the procedure for performing an oxidation pottery fire.

  1. Create a bed of coals
  2. Stack the pots on top of stones above the hot coals
  3. Place “cover sherds” pieces of broken pottery, loosely around and over the pottery to keep the firewood from coming in contact with any areas where you don’t want fire clouds and to keep hot coals from falling down between the stacked pots.
  4. Stack wood over and around the pottery, light and allow to burn down to ash.

You will need to use just enough firewood to get the pottery hot enough without stacking so much fuel that you smother the pottery. Air circulation is critical in this type of firing for getting good, bright oxidized colors.

I created an online class that teaches this outdoor pottery firing technique, which is a great way to learn this method of firing, here is the link to that class.

This video demonstrates how to do an outdoor oxidation fire.

Limited Oxidation Fire

This firing process was used by the ancient Anasazi in the American Southwest to produce their exquisite black on white pottery. It allows just enough oxidation to burn away any excess carbon on the surface of the pot but not so much to oxidize any iron into reds or oranges. The steps to perform a limited oxidation firing are as follows:

  1. Dig a pit in the ground and line with rocks.
  2. Build a fire in the pit to produce a layer of coals at the bottom.
  3. Place stones on the coals and stack the pottery on the stones. The tops of the pots should be just at ground level.
  4. Place cover sherds (broken pieces of pottery) over the pots to keep coals produced by the fire from falling down and contacting the pottery.
  5. Build a large fire over the top of the pit and light.
  6. When the fire reaches maximum temperature, around the time the fuel is becoming coals, begin to smother the fire with the dirt from the pit.
  7. Keep pottery and fire covered with earth until it is cool enough to reach in and pull out the pottery with your hands, several hours at least.

How successful you are with this method will depend largely on the timing. If you smother the fire too early you will leave dark carbon stains on the pottery. On the other hand, if you smother too late you may burn away any organic paint (traditional for Anasazi black on white pottery) and oxidize the irons in your clay turning your white to a warm creamy color.

If you are interested in learning more about the limited oxidation firing method here is a link to YouTube video of that process. The book Messages From the High Desert by Clint Swink is a great resource for learning the limited oxidation technique, you can buy it on Amazon at this link.

anasazi pottery firing
Pottery being loaded into a limited oxidation trench kiln

Available Classes and Workshops

This article has been a comprehensive list of what you need to know to make primitive pottery, but because I covered all the bases I did not have space to go into too much detail on any one subject. I have tried to give plenty of links along the way to additional information but still there is much to learn, especially if you are serious about making primitive pottery. So here are resources for the more committed student of primitive pottery.

Workshops: I usually teach several in-person workshops throughout the year, you can learn about what upcoming classes I have scheduled at this link.

Online Classes: This is a great way to learn on your own time and at your own home. I have a few different online, video based classes that teach subjects related to primitive pottery, you can learn more about those at this link.

SW Kiln Conference: Every year folks who are involved in primitive pottery and ancient pottery replication get together to fire pottery together and share ideas. This event called the Southwest Kiln Conference is held at different locations around the American Southwest usually in the late summer or early fall. Learn more about this event and plans for the next conference on the website at this link.

Online Videos: My YouTube channel has many videos on the subject of primitive pottery and new videos are released regularly. You can check out the following link to see my primitive pottery videos.

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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