How Do You Pull A Cylinder On A Pottery Wheel?

Pulling a cylinder is one of the most fundamental and important skills in working with clay on the potter’s wheel. It involves centering a ball or lump of clay on the wheel and then using a combination of downward and outward pressure to shape it into acylinder. Mastering how to pull cylinders allows potters to create a wide variety of rounded pottery forms like vases, bowls, cups, and more. This skill forms the foundation for most wheel-thrown pieces.

The process involves carefully centering the clay on the wheel, opening up the base to create thick cylinder walls, compressing the clay to thin out the walls, and shaping the rim. It requires coordination of the hands and foot to control the spinning wheel, as well as an understanding of the properties of the clay. With practice, potters gain muscle memory and intuition for how to shape, compress, and thin the clay into the desired cylindrical form.

Learning to successfully pull uniform cylinders is an essential step before moving on to more complex shapes. Mastering this foundational technique allows potters to create vessels with symmetrical, even walls and pleasing proportions. This guide will walk through the complete process from wedging the clay to trimming excess form the final cylinder.

Gather Materials

Before you start making a cylinder on the pottery wheel, you need to gather the necessary materials:

  • Clay – Use about 2-5 lbs of clay depending on the size cylinder you want to make. Porcelain and stoneware clay are good options.

  • Pottery wheel – You’ll need a standard electric or kick pottery wheel.

  • Rib – A metal or wooden rib helps shape and smooth the clay.

  • Sponge – A damp sponge helps smooth the clay and remove excess water.

  • Water – Have a bucket of room temperature water to dip your hands into while working.

Make sure you have a cloth, apron, and proper working surface ready as well. Once you’ve gathered all the materials, you’re ready to begin centering the clay.

Center the Clay

To properly center the clay on the pottery wheel, first mound the clay into a ball shape using both hands. Start with around 2-3 lbs of clay. Apply even pressure as you roll and smooth the clay into a sphere. Remove any cracks or air pockets. Once the clay is in a rounded ball shape, place it in the middle of the pottery wheel head. Apply firm pressure with your palms and fingers as you press down to affix the clay to the wheel. Make sure it is centered by checking visually that there is equal space around the sides. You want the clay to be secured, but not flattened. There should still be a dome shape to the centered clay. This will allow you to open up the form when beginning to pull up the cylinder.

Coning the Clay

After the clay is centered on the wheel, the next step is to open up the clay into a cone shape. To do this, place both hands on the outside of the clay lump and apply gentle pressure down and outwards to form a cone. The cone should have a wide base that connects to the wheel head, tapering up to a point at the top. Be sure to keep the walls of the cone even in thickness.

Once the cone is formed, use your ribs to compress the clay. Hold a rib in each hand, keeping them parallel to the wheel head. Press the ribs gently but firmly on the inside and outside of the cone walls to consolidate the clay. Compress the clay particularly well at the base of the cone where it meets the wheel head. This will help center the bottom of your cylinder.

Compressing the cone thoroughly will also help remove any air pockets within the clay. Take time during this step to ensure the cone walls are an even thickness from the bottom to the top. The centered and compressed cone will serve as the foundation for pulling up the cylinder walls in the next steps.

Opening the Cylinder

Once the clay has been properly centered and coned, you can begin opening up the cylinder. This is one of the most important steps in pulling a pot on the wheel. It sets the stage for successfully pulling up the walls of your cylinder.

Start by wetting your thumbs and placing them about 1-2 inches up from the base of the clay, pressed gently on the outside of the cylinder. Then, slowly and gently, apply even outward pressure on the clay, moving your thumbs apart to open up the cylinder.

It’s crucial to keep the clay properly centered as you open it up. If the clay starts to wobble or lean, stop opening and recenter the clay before continuing. Work slowly and methodically. Rushing this step can result in an off-center cylinder.

Open the clay until the walls are about 1/4 inch thick. Use a ruler to check thickness and ensure the walls are even. The opening should form a uniform cylinder ready for the next step of pulling up the walls.

Patience and careful focus on keeping the clay centered while gently nudging the walls apart are the keys here. Done right, you’ll have a centered cylinder ready for pulling to begin taking shape.

Pulling Up the Walls

Once the clay has been centered on the wheel and opened into a cylinder, it’s time to pull up the walls. This process lengthens the cylinder while thinning out the walls to an even thickness. Be sure to keep the following tips in mind:

  • Use your palms to gently but firmly push the clay upwards. Place both palms on the outside of the cylinder and slide them up the wall in a smooth motion. Applying even pressure is key.
  • Focus on keeping the thickness uniform as you pull up. If the walls begin to taper, compress the clay again before continuing to pull up. The goal is vertical walls of consistent thickness.
  • Use the rib tool to stabilize and support the walls as they get taller. Holding the rib against the outside of the cylinder will prevent the walls from collapsing.

Pull the walls up to your desired height, compressing and re-centering the clay as needed. Don’t pull the walls too thin, as they may collapse. Once the basic cylinder shape has been formed, it’s time to shape the rim.

Compressing the Clay

Once you have pulled up the clay walls to the desired height, it’s important to compress the clay inwards to thin the walls evenly and strengthen the overall form. This is done using a rib tool, which is a flat, blunt metal or wood tool. Hold the rib vertically against the inside walls of the cylinder and move it up and down, applying even pressure. The rib will thin and compress the clay walls inwards. Work slowly and methodically around the entire piece, compressing a small section of the wall at a time.

Compressing serves several purposes. It removes excess clay to thin and even out the walls. It condenses the clay particles together, eliminating air pockets and strengthening the form. It also creates a smooth interior surface. Take care not to over-compress or make the walls too thin, as this can cause the piece to collapse. Aim for walls about 1/4 inch thick. Use a gauging tool to check thickness as you compress. Compressing takes practice to perfect the right amount of pressure. Work patiently and let the rib tool do the work.

Shaping the Rim

Once you’ve pulled the cylinder up to the desired height, it’s time to shape the rim. You can compress the rim either inwards or outwards to create different shaped rims.

To compress the rim inwards, place one or both thumbs on the inside of the cylinder and gently push in and down. This will create a rounded lip on the inside of the vessel. Compressing the rim inwards helps contain liquid contents.

To flair the rim outwards, place one or both thumbs on the outside of the cylinder and gently push out and down. This will create a flared lip on the outside of the piece. Flaring the rim can add decorative detail.

Use a rib or your finger to smooth the rim after compressing. Apply even pressure as you run the rib along the surface. This will blend the rim seamlessly with the walls of the cylinder.

Shaping the rim is an important finishing step that gives your cylinder character and function.

Trimming Excess

As you shape your cylinder on the pottery wheel, excess clay can build up unevenly at the bottom. It’s important to trim this excess to create a clean, even base for your cylinder. Here are some tips for trimming excess clay:

Once you’ve pulled up the cylinder to your desired height, stop the wheel. Take a wire clay cutting tool and hold it firmly against the outside bottom edge of the cylinder at a 45 degree angle. Apply gentle pressure and rotate the wheel slowly with your other hand. This will slice away any unwanted clay.

Check the thickness and shape of the bottom. Trim any remaining bumps or uneven areas. Use a metal rib tool to further smooth the transitions between the walls and base. This will create clean lines and refined edges.

Trimming with care will give your cylinder stability so it can stand upright on a flat surface. It also improves the overall look and feel of the finished piece. With practice, you’ll get quicker and more precise at cleanly cutting away excess clay.


Pulling a cylinder on the pottery wheel takes patience and practice. As we have seen, the key steps involve centering the clay on the wheel, coning it up to remove air bubbles, opening up the base, steadily pulling up the walls, compressing the rim, and trimming away excess clay. While it can be tricky at first, this fundamental technique allows potters to create a wide variety of forms through the creative use of symmetry, repetition, and alteration.

Learning to center clay and pull basic shapes is an important foundation before moving on to more complex ceramic pieces. Don’t get discouraged if your initial attempts are wobbly or uneven. With time and persistence, you’ll gain the muscle memory and hand-eye coordination needed to throw graceful, consistent cylinders. Explore different speeds, pressures, and tools as you find techniques that work for you. Then you can apply this skill to crafting beautiful, functional ceramic ware.

Approach the potter’s wheel with patience and an open creative spirit. Mastering the art of pulling cylinders allows endless possibilities for bringing your imagined pots to life in clay.

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