Do We Still Use Potters Wheel?

The potter’s wheel has been an important tool in making ceramics and pottery for thousands of years. Some of the earliest known examples of potter’s wheels were developed around 3500 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia, which is modern-day Iraq, by the Sumerians. This allowed potters to create rounded and symmetrical ceramic vessels much more efficiently than handbuilding.

Potter’s wheels continue to be widely used today both by professional potters and ceramic artists as well as hobbyists. While the basic mechanics remain similar to ancient potter’s wheels, there have been some modern updates such as electric powered wheels. The potter’s wheel enables creating a wide variety of precisely shaped and detailed ceramics that would be difficult to produce by hand.


The earliest evidence of potters wheel use dates back to around 3500-3000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia, which is modern day Iraq. Pottery fragments found at the site of Uruk provide the earliest examples of potters wheel use. According to scholars, the potter’s wheel was first developed by the ancient Sumerians in this region, which allowed them to produce symmetrical pottery more efficiently than handbuilding techniques. From Mesopotamia, knowledge of the potters wheel spread to other nearby civilizations including the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Ancient Egyptians. Potters wheels were made of stone and later wood and operated by hand. Over time, potters wheels improved with the addition of flywheels and kick wheels to maintain momentum. This increased the speed at which potters could throw vessels. Wikipedia: Potter’s wheel

How a Potters Wheel Works

A pottery wheel is a machine used to shape clay into round ceramic items like bowls, vases, plates and cups. Most pottery wheels use the rotational force of an electric motor or hand-powered motion to spin a circular platform, known as the wheel head or bed, that the clay sits on while the potter forms the desired shape using their hands.

There are three main types of potter’s wheels:

  • Electric wheel: Powered by an electric motor and controlled with a pedal or switch by the potter. Most modern wheels are electric.
  • Kick wheel: Powered by the potter kicking a pedal or lever with their foot in a back and forth motion to spin the wheel head. The speed is controlled by how fast the potter kicks.
  • Manual or hand-operated wheel: Spun by turning a large wheel by hand. These are traditional wheels powered only by human force.

The key mechanical concept that enables throwing pots on a wheel is centrifugal force. As the spinning wheel head rotates faster, the clay is pressed against the platform by this force, allowing the potter to shape and center the clay. Friction between the clay and wheel head allows the piece to rise as the potter pulls up on the walls. [1]

Modern electric wheels allow for very precise and consistent speeds during the throwing process. Many electric wheels have adjustable speed controls and reverse switches to aid in centering the clay and removing completed pieces. Kick wheels and manual wheels require more skill and practice from the potter to control the speed and throwing process.[2]


Using a potter’s wheel offers several benefits over handbuilding pottery shapes. As noted in this article on the health benefits of pottery from The ClayGround Studio, the wheel enables efficiency and consistency when throwing multiples of the same shape.

With the centrifugal force of the spinning wheel, potters can quickly produce uniform vessels in a continuous process. This level of consistency is difficult to achieve by handbuilding. The wheel also enables potters to create new shapes and sizes beyond the limitations of handbuilding.

As explained in this article on the benefits of pottery making from Fowler’s Clayworks, the wheel allows flexibility in exploring different forms. Potters utilize various techniques like pulling, pinching, and paddling while the clay spins. So the wheel expands creative possibilities for both speed and precision.

Drawbacks of Using a Potter’s Wheel

While the potter’s wheel revolutionized ceramic production, it does come with some drawbacks. One major drawback is that using a wheel requires a high level of skill. Throwing pots on a wheel is quite difficult to master and can take years of practice to perfect. Compared to handbuilding techniques like coil and slab construction, wheel throwing has a much steeper learning curve. Beginners will need to invest significant time developing muscle memory and coordination before being able to create uniform pieces.Pottery Wheels – A Buyers Guide

In addition to skill requirements, working on a potter’s wheel necessitates more expensive equipment. Kick wheels and electric wheels can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. An efficient wheel throwing studio also requires additional tools like bats, ribs, fettling knives, and clay extruders that add to startup costs. Glazes specially formulated for wheel-thrown ware and higher quality clays optimized for throwing can also increase expenses compared to handbuilding. The wheel itself also requires maintenance and occasional repairs that add to the costs over time.A comparative look at the use of the potter’s wheel in Bronze Age Britain and Mycenaean Greece While the wheel enables much higher volumes of production, it involves greater financial investment as well.

Use in History

The potter’s wheel dates back thousands of years and was an important technological advancement in many ancient civilizations. According to Wikipedia, evidence suggests the potter’s wheel was in use as early as 3500 BC in the Indus Valley civilization in cities like Harappa. The wheel enabled potters to create symmetrical pottery more efficiently. Pottery wheels were also used in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China.

Over time, pottery wheel techniques evolved and improved. Initially, the wheels were rotated slowly by hand or with a stick. Around 500 BC, the kick wheel was developed, allowing the potter to rotate the wheel by kicking a lever with their foot, leaving both hands free to shape the clay. The flywheel, developed in the Middle Ages, used momentum so the potter could keep the wheel spinning with minimal effort. The invention of the electric-powered pottery wheel in the 19th century further modernized pottery production.

Use Today

The potter’s wheel is still commonly used today in certain industries and artisanal settings.Some of the main uses today include:


The pottery industry heavily relies on the potter’s wheel to mass produce ceramic items like tableware, cookware, tiles, and more. Major ceramic and pottery manufacturers use motorized wheels to quickly throw high volumes of pieces.[1] The wheel allows them to standardize sizes and shapes while maximizing efficiency.

Artisanal Use

Many artisan potters and ceramic artists continue to use manual or electric wheels in their studios. The wheel enables them to precisely shape one-of-a-kind pieces and decorative wares. Their works reflect an artistic sensibility and high level of skill from using the wheel.[2]


Learning to use the potter’s wheel is still an essential part of most pottery and ceramics educational programs. From primary schools to universities, throwing on the wheel teaches students important techniques and skills.[3] The hands-on learning allows them to connect back to the roots of pottery making.

Modern Innovations

The potter’s wheel has seen many innovations in recent decades to improve functionality and expand creative possibilities. Some of the most notable modern advancements include:

New Materials

Today’s pottery wheels utilize new materials like high-density plastics and lightweight metals. These provide increased durability and stability compared to traditional wood frames.

Electric Wheels

Most modern pottery wheels are powered by electricity rather than human power. Electric motors allow for more consistent spinning speeds and reduce the physical exertion required by the potter.

Computer-Aided Design

Some potters are incorporating computer-aided design (CAD) technology into their creative process. Specialized software allows them to digitally design forms and model the finished product before physically working the clay on the wheel.

Future Outlook

Even with advancements in technology and automation in manufacturing, the potter’s wheel still has a continued niche use for artisans and hobbyists.

Some predict that pottery wheel work may become even more specialized in the future, as larger scale production shifts to industrial methods like 3D printing or machine molding. However, many believe handmade pottery from the wheel will continue to hold an appeal and market value based on its handcrafted nature. As one potter puts it, “Pottery will endure not because of need, but because of human desire for beauty and meaning” (source).

While total automation of throwing clay on the wheel is not yet feasible, some innovators are exploring incorporating technology to assist potters. The Quark electric wheel aims to improve ergonomics and workflow while still keeping the handcrafted process (source). So the future may hold a mix of traditional craft and modern automation when it comes to the potter’s wheel.


In reviewing the history and ongoing use of the potter’s wheel, we’ve explored several key points. First, the potter’s wheel originated thousands of years ago as an innovation that allowed potters to create symmetrical pottery more efficiently. Although the basic mechanics remain similar, the potter’s wheel has evolved over time with new materials and features. While not as ubiquitous today due to industrialization, potter’s wheels continue serving an important role in studio ceramics and small-scale production. The process requires skill and practice but allows for precise shaping and a hands-on connection with the clay. With some modern electric and kick-powered options, potter’s wheels make wheel throwing accessible for hobbyists and professionals alike. Looking ahead, we may continue to see new innovations in wheel design and functionality, but this simple machine retains enduring appeal.

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