What To Make Handbuilding Pottery?

Handbuilding is a method of working with clay to create pottery and ceramic objects using only your hands, without the use of a pottery wheel. As defined on Ceramica’s Introduction to Handbuilt Pottery page, “In handbuilding, you form the clay into the desired shapes by pinching, coiling, or using soft slabs” (https://www.ceramicasupply.com/service-page/introduction-to-handbuilt-pottery).

Handbuilding offers several benefits over wheel throwing for beginning and experienced ceramic artists alike. It allows for more control and creativity in shaping asymmetric or unusual forms that can be challenging on the pottery wheel. Handbuilding also requires less equipment, lower costs, and smaller space than wheel throwing.

The three main techniques of handbuilding are pinching, coiling, and slab construction. Pinch pots are formed by squeezing and pinching the clay into shape. Coil building involves rolling out and stacking ropes or snakes of clay on top of each other. Slab construction uses flat layers or slabs of clay that are cut, shaped, and joined together.

With practice and imagination, handbuilding allows endless possibilities for both functional ware and decorative ceramic sculpture. This guide will provide an in-depth overview of supplies, techniques, and tips to get started with creating handbuilt pottery.

Required Supplies

Handbuilding pottery requires a few basic supplies to get started. The most important supply is the clay itself. There are many types of clay that can be used for handbuilding, but a smooth, moist clay body that is plastic enough to bend and shape works best, such as a stoneware or porcelain (Bailey Pottery). The clay should be stored in an airtight bag or container when not in use.

kneading clay before starting a handbuilding project

Boards or bats provide a sturdy, flat surface for supporting handbuilt pieces as you work on them. These can be made of wood, plaster, or other materials. Choose a board large enough to accommodate the sizes of pieces you want to make (Susan Ohanlon Pottery).

Basic handbuilding tools include wooden modeling tools for shaping the clay, loop tools for smoothing edges, cutting wires, ribs, and wooden paddles. A basic tool kit will provide everything needed for pinching, coiling, and slab building. Water containers are needed for keeping clay moist and wetting tools (Bailey Pottery).

Finally, glazes will be needed for finishing fired pieces. Consider getting a few glazes in different colors and finishes. Always use glazes formulated for the type of clay you are using.

Preparing the Clay

Selecting the right type of clay is an important first step when handbuilding pottery. Stoneware and porcelain tend to be popular choices as they can withstand high firing temperatures and have low shrinkage rates. Avoid clays that are sticky or have large grog particles as these can make handbuilding more difficult. Test out samples to see which clay body best suits your project.

Before starting to build your project out of clay, you need to knead it, a process also known as wedging. Kneading clay makes it easier to work with by removing air bubbles and evenly distributing moisture. Start with a lump of clay and cut it in half. Smack the two halves together to remove air pockets. Then push and pull the clay repeatedly to elongate and fold it over on itself. Cut in half again and repeat the wedging process until the clay has a smooth, plastic consistency. Well-wedged clay will not crack or break apart easily when handbuilding.

The right consistency is crucial when handbuilding with clay. If the clay is too wet, pieces will droop or collapse. If it’s too stiff, clay can crack and be hard to manipulate. Test the clay by shaping a ball and gently pressing into it with your fingers. The indent should slowly fill back in without sticking to your hands. Add water or a stiffener like grog to adjust the moisture level until the desired consistency is reached.

Cited from: https://www.thecrucible.org/guides/ceramics/handbuilding/

Pinch Pots

Pinch pots are a simple and fun handbuilding technique that only requires your fingers. Pinching is the most intuitive way of forming clay and is a great technique for beginners.

To make a pinch pot, start by kneading a ball of clay until soft and wedging out any air bubbles. Then simply pinch and press the clay between your thumb and fingers, gradually rotating the clay to thin the walls and hollow out the center. Pinch gently in a spiral motion moving up and down the pot. You can make simple pinch pots or more sculptural pieces by altering the shape as you pinch.

Pinch pots are an easy way to make small bowls, cups, vases, and figures. They are excellent for beginners and younger kids. Pinching develops fine motor skills and is therapeutic. Pinch pots also dry quickly and don’t require a pottery wheel. They can be decorated with stamps, incising, or appliqué. Once dry, pinch pots can be fired as is or glazed before firing.

For more tips on pinching basic shapes and handling clay, check out this tutorial: How to Make a Pinch Pot

Coil Pots

The coiling method is one of the oldest techniques for making handbuilt pottery. It involves rolling out and stacking coils of clay on top of each other to build up the walls of a pot. Coils can be used to create a wide variety of shapes from simple bowls and vases to more intricate sculptural forms.

To make a basic coil pot, start by rolling clay into long rope-like coils that are approximately 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick. Use your fingers or a template to shape the bottom of the pot. Then attach the first coil around the base, pressing it firmly from both sides to bond it. Add successive coils on top, slightly overlapping the previous coil and smoothing the joints with your fingers, a spoon, or a rubber rib.

Coiling allows for excellent control over the shape and thickness of a pot. It can produce sturdy, thick-walled vessels as well as delicate thin forms. The technique is great for making organic, asymmetrical shapes. Pinch pots can be used as the base for starting a coiled vessel. Coil building also allows clay artists to easily alter and refine the pot as it is being constructed.

When joining coils, it’s important to blend them together smoothly to avoid weak seams. Let the clay firm up slightly between adding coils. Add water or slip to seal the coils and compress gently. Avoid excess handling that can distort or thin the coils. Allow the completed pot to dry slowly and evenly to prevent cracking.

Some sources for more on coiling techniques:


Slab Building Pottery

Slab building is a popular handbuilding technique that involves rolling out flat sheets or “slabs” of clay and then cutting and joining them to create pottery forms. Slab building allows for creating rectangular, angular forms as well as curved, organic shapes. There are a few key steps in creating slab built pottery:

Rolling Out Clay Slabs

The first step is preparing your clay slabs. Using an acrylic rolling pin, roll out the clay on a flat surface to your desired thickness, usually 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick. The clay should be conditioned properly and not too wet or dry. Roll in different directions to ensure an even thickness. The slabs can then be cut into desired shapes and sizes.

Cutting and Joining

Once the slabs are rolled out, use fettling knives, pottery wire, or template shapes to cut the clay. Cut gentle curves by scoring and slowly bending the clay. For joining, score the edges to be joined and apply water or slip. Compress the seams together, blending the clay and smoothing with fingers or a rib. Let dry slightly before continuing to add pieces.

Squares, rectangles, circles, and freeform shapes can be cut to create bases, walls, lids, and decorative elements. Construct functional forms by joining slabs at right angles or gentler curves. Overlapping and blending slabs creates sculptural, organic pottery. Let assembly dry completely before continuing.

Drape and Curve

One of the unique advantages of slab building is the ability to drape and curve the clay slabs. First, ensure leather-hard slabs have stiffened slightly after cutting and before draping. Then, support the underside with foam or another solid shape. Allow the clay to slowly bend under its own weight into soft contours. Curving slabs creates rounded, flowing forms.

For example, drape a rectangular slab over a cylinder vase form to create a unique layered look. Or, curve wedge shapes into a rounded bowl. Draping allows both functional and decorative applications for handbuilt slab pottery. Let dry completely before moving or firing.

With practice and creativity, slab building opens up endless possibilities for handmade pottery. Approach each project as an opportunity to explore a new technique (source).

Adding Embellishments

Embellishing hand-built pottery adds visual interest and allows you to make each piece truly unique. There are endless options for decorating and enhancing hand-built ceramics. Here are some of the most popular techniques:

Textures: Add texture by pressing items into the clay before it dries. Things like lace, burlap, leaves, seashells, or mesh screens create lovely impressions. You can also use homemade stamps and rollers to imprint designs.

Stamps: Clay stamps are easy to press into soft clay to leave patterns and shapes. You can buy premade stamps or carve your own out of erasers, potatoes, foam, or wood. Repeating geometric shapes or animal and floral motifs make striking designs.

Carving: Use metal loop tools, skewers or toothpicks to scratch drawing or patterns into leather-hard clay. Try carving free-form squiggles, circles, waves, or geometric shapes. This technique adds a hand-drawn look.

Handles: Pull and attach coils or ropes of clay to form handles for mugs, bowls, and pitchers. Flatten slabs of clay into straps for more sleek, angular handles. Let handles dry slightly before attaching to ensure a strong bond.

Let your imagination run wild when embellishing hand-built pottery. The options are endless! Try out different techniques and find your own artistic style.

Drying and Firing

Proper drying is a critical step to prevent cracking and ensure your handbuilt pieces maintain their shape through firing. When removing clay pieces from the mold or wheel, they will be quite wet and fragile. To prevent deformities, carefully transfer pieces to a drying area.

Set pieces on plaster batts, porous shelves, or wooden boards lined with newspaper. Make sure air can circulate all around each piece. Cover pieces with plastic sheeting or trash bags with one section left open for airflow. Allow 1 week drying time for pieces 1/4-1/2 inch thick like tiles or slabs. Allow up to 4 weeks drying time for thicker pieces like pots or sculptures. Check pieces periodically; when they are no longer cool to the touch they are ready for bisque firing. For more tips, see How To Dry Pottery Clay: Process, Tips and Techniques.

Once thoroughly dry, pieces are ready for the first firing or bisque firing. This is done between 1600-2200°F and converts the clay from its fragile dried state into a strong, permanent ceramic material. After bisque firing, pieces can be sanded or carved before applying glaze. Glazes are then applied before the final glaze firing between 2100-2300°F.

Glazing and Finishing

After the pottery has been fired to biscuit temperature, it is ready for glazing. Glaze is a glass-like coating that is applied to the pottery before it goes through a final high-temperature firing. Glazes serve both decorative and functional purposes – they make the clay items impermeable so they can hold liquids without leaking, and they allow for an array of colors and effects.

There are many options when it comes to choosing glazes. Ready-made commercial glazes come in a wide variety of colors and textures, and are the easiest to use for beginners. They simply need to be mixed with water and brushed or poured onto the pottery. More advanced potters may want to experiment with mixing their own glazes from raw materials, which allows for greater customization and control.1

When applying glaze, it’s important to use consistent brush strokes and make sure the entire piece is covered evenly. Multiple coats may be needed to achieve the desired effect and thickness. Popular techniques like dipping, pouring, and spraying can help speed up the process for glazing multiple pieces. Let the glazed pieces dry completely before firing to prevent glaze runs and drips.

Finally, there are many options for adding finishing touches after glazing is complete. Incising designs into leather-hard clay is a classic technique that reveals colored clay through the glaze after firing. Underglazes, ceramic decals, lusters, and overglazes can all add further decorative effects. The final glazed and fired pieces should have a bright glossy finish and be food-safe if they will come into contact with food or drink.

Inspiration and Tips

When starting out in handbuilding pottery, it’s helpful to get inspiration from experienced potters. Look for ideas on social media sites like Instagram and Pinterest by searching hashtags like #handbuilding, #slabbuilt, #coilbuilt, and #pinchpots. Follow accounts that share tips and tutorials as well as finished pieces to get a sense of what’s possible.

Some troubleshooting tips for beginners: start with small, simple forms to learn techniques. Score and blend coil joints well, let work dry slowly, and use kiln furniture under pieces when firing. Consider an electric kiln for more control. Be patient and keep trying if pieces crack or break – it’s part of the process!

Good beginner handbuilding projects include: small bowls, mugs, vases, boxes, jewelry pieces, and decorative tiles. Cut slab pieces with templates for consistency. Try adding textures with stamps, paddles, or rollers. Embellish with glazes, underglazes, and slips.

For inspiration, browse books like Handbuilt Pottery Techniques Revealed by Jacqui Atkin, Handbuilding with Clay by Suzanne Tourtillott, and 500 Tips for Teachers of Primary Ceramics. Look through ceramic arts magazines like Ceramics Monthly and Pottery Making Illustrated. Follow blogs like The Crucible, Ceramic Arts Network, and Pottery Making Illustrated for tutorials and advice.

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