Do You Need A Pottery Wheel To Make Pottery?

Pottery refers to any type of ceramic ware that is made from clay and hardened through high temperature firing in a kiln. Pottery can include utilitarian objects like bowls, cups, and vases, as well as purely decorative sculptures and figurines.

A pottery wheel is a rotating platform that allows potters to shape clay vessels and other objects with their hands as the wheel turns at a constant speed. Using a wheel enables potters to create symmetrical pieces and vessels with thinner, more uniform walls compared to handbuilding. Pottery wheels have been used for thousands of years across many cultures to produce pottery more efficiently.

The goal of this article is to explore whether a pottery wheel is required to make pottery. We’ll look at the history and benefits of pottery wheels, as well as alternatives like handbuilding techniques, molds, and mechanical rotating devices.

Traditional Pottery Wheels

The potter’s wheel has been used for thousands of years to create pottery. The two main types of traditional pottery wheels are the kick wheel and the electric wheel.

The kick wheel, also known as the potter’s wheel, is one of the oldest and simplest forms of pottery wheel. It consists of a spinning disk that is connected to a flywheel by an axle. The potter uses their foot to kick a lever that then spins the flywheel, causing the spinning disk to rotate. As the wheel spins, the potter uses their hands to center and shape clay that has been placed on top of the disk. This type of wheel requires practice and skill to keep the wheel spinning at a constant speed while simultaneously shaping the clay.

Electric pottery wheels work in a similar way but instead of the potter providing the power through kicking, an electric motor spins the wheel. Electric wheels provide more consistent rotation speeds and do not require as much physical exertion from the potter. The potter typically uses a foot pedal to control the speed of the electric wheel. This allows the potter to speed up, slow down, or stop the wheel as needed while throwing pottery. Electric wheels became popular in the 20th century as electricity became more widely available. They are now the most common type of pottery wheel used.

Benefits of Using a Wheel

Using a pottery wheel provides several advantages over handbuilding techniques. The main benefits are that a wheel allows you to work faster and achieve more consistent results. Spinning a lump of clay on a wheel makes it much easier to center the clay and raise the walls of pots and vessels to an even thickness. With the centrifugal force of the spinning wheel, you can shape and form vessels with smooth, symmetrical sides and a precise profile. This would be incredibly difficult and time-consuming to do by handbuilding methods alone. The momentum of the spinning clay allows experienced potters to quickly pull up vessels to the desired height. Another benefit is that throwing on the wheel creates a very smooth surface on the inside and outside of the pot, which can be difficult to achieve through handbuilding. So for efficiency, consistency and symmetrical results, using a pottery wheel has clear advantages over working by hand alone.

Downsides of Pottery Wheels

While pottery wheels offer many benefits, they also come with some downsides to consider. One of the biggest downsides is cost. Pottery wheels can be quite expensive, with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars for basic models to thousands of dollars for large, heavy-duty wheels. The wheel itself is just one part of the overall equipment needed, which also includes splash pans, bats, clay, tools, stools, and more.

In addition to cost, pottery wheels tend to be large, heavy pieces of equipment. The wheel apparatus alone often weighs between 50-100 pounds or more. They take up a lot of floor space and require a sturdy table or stand to mount them on. Wheels also require an electrical power source, meaning they are not easily portable. For most people, using a wheel requires setting aside space in their home or studio just for wheel throwing.

While throwing on a pottery wheel can produce amazing results, it is also a skill that takes a lot of practice to master. Wheel throwing requires learning techniques like centering clay, opening up cylinders, pulling up walls, and trimming. Developing the muscle memory and dexterity to properly use a pottery wheel takes time and patience through regular practice. Frustration can set in early on as beginners struggle to center lumps of clay and keep them on the wheel head.

Overall, pottery wheels require a serious investment and commitment. From high costs to large space requirements to a steep learning curve, they come with some significant downsides to consider before purchasing one. While the results can be gorgeous, throwing on a wheel is not something to embark on lightly.

Handbuilding Techniques

Handbuilding is the process of creating pottery without the use of a pottery wheel. There are several handbuilding techniques that allow you to make beautiful, functional pottery.

Some common handbuilding techniques include:

Pinch Pots

Pinch pots are made by pinching and pulling the clay into shape with your fingers. To make a basic pinch pot, start with a ball of clay and push your thumb into the center while pinching the outer walls up and out. Pinch pots are simple to make and great for beginners.

Coil Building

Coil building involves rolling out “snakes” or coils of clay and stacking them on top of each other to build up the walls of a pot. The coils can be smoothed together using a paddle or knife. Coil building allows you to create unique asymmetrical shapes.

Slab Construction

Slab construction uses flat “slabs” of clay rolled out to an even thickness. The slabs are cut to shape and joined together with slip. Extra clay can be added to build up certain areas, and the seams are smoothed together. Slab construction is great for making flat items like tiles or plates.

Benefits of Handbuilding

Handbuilding techniques like pinch pots, coils, and slabs allow for pottery creation without the need for a pottery wheel. These techniques come with several advantages over wheel throwing:

  • Cheaper – No need to purchase an expensive pottery wheel and accessories. Handbuilding just requires some basic tools like clay, shaping tools, and baking equipment which are very affordable.
  • More Portable – Handbuilding supplies can easily be transported or stored since there is no bulky equipment. You can handbuild anywhere.
  • Creative Freedom – With wheel throwing, the technique limits what you can create. Handbuilding allows you to make sculptural and asymmetrical pieces not possible on the wheel.

While the wheel may seem essential for pottery, handbuilding opens up a world of possibilities without the drawbacks of a heavy, expensive machine.

Downsides of Handbuilding

While handbuilding offers flexibility and accessibility, it also comes with some drawbacks compared to wheel throwing. Some of the main downsides of handbuilding include:

Slower, less consistent results – Building pots by hand is simply slower than throwing on a wheel. Because every piece is formed individually, it takes more time and effort to produce multiple items. Pieces also tend to vary more in size and shape when handbuilt.

Size limitations – It can be challenging to handbuild very large pieces, especially those with thin walls. Handbuilding methods like coil and slab construction have natural size limitations based on the strength of the clay.

Less refinement in shapes – The freeform nature of handbuilding can make it hard to achieve the exact symmetry and refinements possible on a wheel. While seen as a positive by some artists, others may find wheel-thrown pieces to have a more precise aesthetic.

Less uniform wall thickness – Creating an even thickness in handbuilt work takes practice. Pieces often end up with inconsistencies in wall thickness, unlike wheel throwing which naturally centers the clay.

With experience and technique, many of these downsides can be minimized. But in general, handbuilding trades some consistency and efficiency for artistic freedom.

Other Wheel Alternatives

While pottery wheels are the most common equipment for throwing pottery, there are other rotating surfaces that can mimic some functions of a wheel:

Rotating surfaces – These can range from lazy susans to DIY turntables made from rolling pins or cylindrical objects. Placing clay on a rotating surface allows you to smoothly shape and sculpt it without needing an expensive wheel. The drawback is that rotating surfaces lack the speed control and momentum that a pottery wheel provides.

Banding wheels – Banding wheels are simple rotating discs that spin via a foot pedal or electric motor. They don’t have the same throwing capabilities as a pottery wheel, but allow you to trim, smooth, and refine shaped clay pieces. Banding wheels are more affordable and take up less studio space.

Turntables – These rotating platforms can be used to slowly trim, sculpt, and modify handbuilt or wheel-thrown pieces. Turntables give more control than freely rotating surfaces and enhance the finishing process without the full capabilities of a throwing wheel. They can be a useful alternative for certain techniques.

While not as versatile as pottery wheels, these rotating tools allow for some similar functionality at lower costs. They can expand options for creating, refining, and shaping handbuilt and wheel-thrown clay.

Examples of Wheel-Free Pottery

There are many ancient and contemporary styles of pottery made completely without the use of a pottery wheel. Some notable examples include:

Japanese Raku Pottery

Japanese raku is a traditional technique where pots are shaped by hand then fired at a low temperature. The pots are removed from the hot kiln and sometimes placed in materials like sawdust that create dramatic crackled glaze effects. Raku emphasizes spontaneity and asymmetry in shapes.

Native American Pottery

Native American pottery from cultures like the Anasazi, Mimbres, and Pueblo peoples involves hand shaping clay into vessels, bowls, jars, and figures. These pieces showcase refined techniques like black and white contrasting slip paints and intricately etched decorations.

Sculptural and Figurative Works

Many contemporary ceramic artists use clay sculpturally to create handbuilt abstract shapes, life-sized human figures, or conceptual installations without the constraints of wheel-throwing. The hands-on process of manipulating the clay allows for very organic forms.

As these examples show, skilled pottery can be created using a variety of handbuilding techniques without ever needing to use a rotating wheel.


In summary, while using a pottery wheel enables efficiency, uniformity, and intricate detailing, handbuilding and other wheel-free techniques offer more creative freedom, accessibility, and direct handling of the clay. With handbuilding and wheel alternatives, you can create a wide variety of pottery without the need for an expensive, space-consuming wheel. While wheels can enhance repetition and refinement, they are not required to work with clay and produce beautiful, functional ceramic ware. With some creativity and practice, skilled pottery is achievable through solely hand methods. Ultimately, you don’t need a wheel to make pottery.

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