How to become a potter

Updated: Feb 21


teapot-eric-prouzet-unsplash

Eric Prouzet Unsplash


How to become a potter – ceramic artist the ultimate guide


Safety first, always remember pottery can become dangerous!!

The following is not guaranteed to include every potential danger

If you are choosing the completely diy approach buying a small owen and making a small pottery “studio” at home.

Kiln safety

It is strongly recommended not to buy a small kiln on ebay, aliexpress ect. You want to be 100 pct. sure it fits the voltage in your area. It is probably the worst place to save money, but if you have to, choose a local supplier or at least a regional supplier fx inside EU if you live in the EU. 

A kilnn needs service on occasions, that’s why a local supplier might be a good idea: they can provide you with the proper installation recommendations. Even a small kiln easely needs a lot of power wattage, and it could easily draw 10 amps, so it is a good idea to start by checking, if your electrical installation can supply that kind of power.

This is perhaps not so obvious, but if the kiln has a peakhole, never look directly into the kiln with your naked eye. This is because the glowing ceramics radiate Infrared radiation that could potentially damage your eyes.

Everything gets very hot at approximately 1260 C for (which is used for stoneware), even though the kiln is insulated, so don’t place anything like wood close to the kiln. 

Furthermore, the kiln makes fumes that are unhealthy so if it not well ventilated don’t work in the same room as the kiln.

Also, do not put earthenware clay into a stoneware firing. It can’t  handle the high temperature and must be fired at a lower temperature, approximately 1050 C. Or else it can damage your kiln severely.

Remember to not place the kiln outdoors where it can get wet because you could then risk electrocution. 

Finally, of course, read the kiln manual for safety instruction and how to use the kiln controller; the temperature is increased/decreased slowly by the controller.

Clay makes silica dust

More precisely silica dust. It is not healthy to breathe it over a long period of time, and it stays in the air for a long time when it is released.

How to combate the silica dust

You should never ever sand bisque fired pottery indoors. Go outside and do it and kepp in mind that the dust comes when the clay dries. 

You should use water to clean the dried clay, but don’t sweep it away or use a normal vacuum cleaner. If you want a vacuum cleaner for your “studio” buy this type link

Furthermore, don’t walk around on dried clay as it releases the dust to the environment.

If you use an apron, remember to wash it and your clothes, too.It is not good to ingest silica either, so wash your hands before eating, or preferably do not eat in your studio.

Work with your clay project outside in the summer, but just remember that the clay dries much faster in the su, so you might want to find a shady place.Ventilation is also a possibility, but it is probably too expensive for the average potter.

Remember, plaster and drye clay products make much more dust, here it’s recommended to work with a face mask it has to be NIOSH rating of N95 at a minimum. Read more here

Glazing safety

Some glazes contain lead, and in some cases other toxic compounds. Always read the datasheet or ask the supplier if you are in doubt. There are a lot of lead free glazes available; a good starting point might be premade lead free glazes. If you want to mix your own glazes from recipes, you probably know what you are doing, and that you need to do it under a vent with a facemask (some ingredients are toxic to breathe in).Personally I always use nitrile gloves when glazing, because I have allergy.         

Pottery class vs youtube

Although some can afford taking a master grade in ceramics, most of us must start somewhere else. A local pottery class could be a great place to start, especially if the teacher is a practicing potter. I know, you can find anything on youtube, but seeing how basic things are done in real life is very giving in my opinion. The teacher, if asked nicely, can probably give you tips and tricks to build a small pottery studio, choice of kiln, loading a kiln and so on. Also tips as to what you should look for, when buying a pottery wheel for instance 

Don’t be afraid if you feel you are the least experienced ceramics attending the class. We were all there, once. Often the more experienced students take the same course over and over again to become better and get inspiration. Many of them love to share what they have learned and give you feedback. Kneading clay for instance, when someone is doing it in front of you, it makes it so much easier to learn. Some pottery classes make small exhibitions with the students’ works, which can be very rewarding and fun. 

If you happen to live somewhere where there isn’t a pottery class available, maybe you can visit a local potter and see them work in their often very small studios.

Youtube, Pinterest and Instagram are good places to look for pottery inspirations and processes. 



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Don’t fall in love with the pottery wheel

Maybe you have seen Ghost too many times 🙂 There are other lesser known techniques of hand building also known as slap building, slip casting with plaster molds, and even making your own molds. Se mold making below 


I choose handbuilding because of my back problems. It is hard to sit at a pottery wheel for a long time bending over, even though it is quite fun. Of course, it is possible to combine the techniques. For instance, you could make a vase on the pottery wheel, then make a mold from it, and then reproduce it with slip casting. If you want to build sculptures, extruding clay with an extruder can be very interesting. 

Sculptures often involve some hand building 

Tip; You can mix paper into the clay to make it stiffer and easier to build with.This is beyond the scope of this article, but 3D printing and ceramic can work well to getter. My biggest ceramic project “Gold can’t cure a lonely heart” was made with the help of 3Dprinting. Read here


wall-sculpture-art-ceramic-tiles-gold-heart

Goes without saying, no work place without tools and gadgets 🙂

What about a mini pottery wheel


A pottery needle is a must have to cut out things, and so are wood modeling pins, ribbons, ribs and a sponge.

On amazon Aliexpress ebay kits with many tools are available

pottery-tools

My cheap aliExpress/Amazon tools and my mud tools


Clay – no pottery without clay

It is in some countries like here in Denmark possible to go out and dig up clay and use 

it for ceramic work, but most of us will choose to buy it. There are really many different clay types available to choose from.

List of clay types

clay-taylor-heery-unsplash

Taylor Heery Unsplash


Porcelain clay

It originated in China more than 2000 years ago. It can be fired at very high temperatures, up to 1300 C. This clay has a very special ability, if it is thin enough it becomes translucent for use in lamps. Porcelain clay is very plastic to work with. It is the clay type which shrinks the most during firing, up to 20 pct.  

Stoneware clay

It can be fired at a high temperature, around 1250 C. Furthermore,  it has the benefit of being very strong. If you want to make something that is intended for outdoor use, you should choose stoneware clay, as it can withstand frost.

Earthenware clay

This must be fired at lower temperatures, around 1050 C, compared to stoneware clay. It is possible to achieve very rich and different colors, but the final piece is not near as strong as stoneware.

Terra cotta clay

Very orange in nature, used for garden pots, brick and so on. It is fired around 1100 C.


Low fired clay

Clay that is fired below 1000 C. It is typically used for pit-firing. 

Paper clay

I mention this, because it is well suited for building things fast in an easy way . You don’t need machinery to mix it. Take a cheese cutter and slice a piece of clay. Put a layer of paper onto it, then another layer of clay. You will find it is really easy.

Things to consider when choosing clay

Chamotte—also known as ‘grog’, ‘firesand’ or “fireclay”- is mixed into many clay bodies to make it easier to model, but in exchange it makes the finished surface more rough, which is not always desirable. If you use a clay type with high chamotte, it can be very hard for your hands at the pottery wheel.

Before you choose clay for a project, it is a good idea to think about the color of the clay. The same glaze will look very different on light or dark stoneware clay, for instance.

Remember it is possible to mix different clay types into each other, just mind the firing temperatures. Don’t put earthenware and stoneware clay together. Two different colored stoneware clays are ok, or stoneware and porcelain clay.        

Clay scrap can be reused, soak it with water for a day and then dry it on plaster plates.


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Drying clay

When clay dries, it goes through 3 stages.

Plastic stage

The clay is very soft and can be shaped very easily, but it can’t support its own weight.

Leather hard stage

The clay now becomes more strong and can support itself, but it loses a lot of its flexibility. You can stil shape it, but not as much; it cracks more easily. To join it with other leather hard pieces, you need to cross hatch it and apply slip. Slip is made by taking clay scrap and adding water to it. Leave it for some time. The consistency needs to be like yogurt. You can’t attach plastic clay to leather hard clay.

Bone dry stage

The clay is now ready for bisque firing, and it is very fragile. It is possible to round edges with a wet sponge, but don’t apply too much water. The clay is now more gray to look at. When it has reached this stage, it should have ceased feeling cold. To repair cracks in leather hard clay, apply some vinegar on it.

Drying times will be very dependent on air humidity and temperature

larger thicker pieces can take 14 days to reach the bone dry stage. Edge can be covered with plastic to avoid it from cracking, because it will dry faster. It is also possible to wrap plastic around the entire piece to slow the drying down, and keep the clay at a certain stage.

Clay doesn’t like to be rushed into drying; the heat blowers can make the clay dry faster, but increases the risk of cracking. If you are doing so, make sure to distribute the heat to the entire piece.

Another very smart way to dry clay is to fill the bottom of a plastic box with plaster, then you can apply moisture, close the box and in that way it controls the humidity.

Clay will dry faster on plaster plates, because the plaster sucks the water out of the clay.  

 When you open a pack of clay it is at the plastic stage below you can se the two other stages 🙂

clay-dry-stages

How do I glaze my ceramics?

This could be an article in itself as it can be tricky to master, but also very rewarding. If you are a complete beginner you might be in for a surprise, like I was. Glazes are not at all like normal paint, they can have one color when you apply them, and then become a completely different color, when fired. 

First things first, skip this if you are attending a pottery class. If you are building a small studio, try to keep the glazing simple at first and buy a couple of premade lead free glasses. If in doubt ask the supplier. Remember to check for temperatures 1250 C and for stoneware (probably the place you want to start), the clay, of course, also has to be stoneware clay. 

Make some glaze samples on pieces of clay(recktanges fx.). First a thick layer on ⅓, then a thin layer on ⅓ and nothing on the last ⅓ .Now you can previsualize how the glaze will look on your ceramics; very valuable. Remember, a given glaze will not look like the same on a dark and light clay, so ideally you should have a glaze sample on both a dark and light clay. If you have a lot of glazes, put a number on the glaze and the corresponding number on the sample itself.

If you are attending a pottery class, they very likely have a lot of different glazes and a wall filled with glaze samples, and if you are in luck they have taken pictures and written down how glazes look on top of each other, and how they look on different clay types. 

glaze-test

How do you glaze your bisque fired ceramics?

You can use a brush, dip it into the glaze, pour glaze over it, spray paint it with glaze (remember ventilation and mask if you spray paint) or do a combination of those techniques. I would suggest that you start with dipping and pouring, as this is the easiest to master. You need a plastic jug for pouring and a pottery wheel to place the pieces on. Tongs can be nice when you dip ceramic into the glaze. Personally, I love painting my ceramics, because it can produce a more organic painted look compared to spaying which looks more industrial and perfect. If you find the right glaze and a good brush, it is possible to brush it in a way that it looks almost as perfect as spaying.

tiles-glazing

Things to remember when glazing

  1. Remember to stir the glaze thoroughly if it has precipitated

  2. Dust on the piece and grease can create weird artifacts, but you can clean the piece with a slightly moist sponge

  3. The bottom of a piece can’t have glaze on it, as it sticks to the shelves, but you can remove glaze that ended up on the bottom with a sponge.

  4. Some glazes have a tendency to run during firing; although it can produce very cool effects, it can also make your piece stick to the shelves. Try experimenting with running glazes by placing them higher up on the piece, and then let them run over a non running glaze/raw clay at the lowest part.

  5. Try to avoid too thick a layer of glaze, as it can make the glaze look weird when fired. When spraying glazes, it can be hard to judge the precise thickness of the glaze, so use a pottery needle to test the thickness by scratching the surface.

  6. Remember to play with the glaze. It can create a beautiful effect to layer glazes on top of each other, but, of course, like anything in life it can be overdone.  

  7. Always remember, if the ceramics are intended to eat or drink from, the glaze has to be lead free. The surface must be smooth, not rough, or else it will collect bacteria and can’t be cleaned adequately. If you sell ceramics on a larger scale, you might be required to have it tested in a lab.

  8. Painters tape or wax are handy, when you want to cover an area from glaze.

  9. Take notes or images of what you did. It can be hard to remember the next time you want to reproduce it.

I saved the best glazing tip. Remember, you can refire the ceramic again, not only if you don’t like the result, but also for creating cool effects. It can be necessary to take some of the precipitate at the bottom of the glaze buckets to make it stick on the surface. You can refire 20 times or more, if you want to. Although I know, it is not carbon friendly. 

Kilns and firing

Although electrical kilns are the most used kiln type, I made a short description of other klin types in case you are interested, if not just skip to kiln basic.

Electrical kilns

The most used kiln type, as it is the easiest to use. An electrical kiln radiates heat, rather than combustion. This can only make an oxidized environment in contrast to other kiln types. If you are a beginner building your own studio, go for an electrical kiln and maybe consider a supplement raku kiln. if you have outdoor space, toploaded kilns are cheaper than front loaded kilns, but front loaded kilns are usually much easier to fill and are often more economical to use in terms of energy consumption. Remember, a medium sized kiln draws a lot of power, and you might need special electrical installations to connect it.

If you are based in Europe german ROHDE makes a good top loaded kiln Ecotop 20. They have one at my school it is a very good kiln that draws below 10 amps so it easier to install.

Link to ROHDE webpage

Ecotop-20

Gas kilns

A bit more difficult to use although the newest have electronic controllers. The advantage of a gas kiln is that it is possible to control the atmosphere inside the kiln. You have the choice of  an oxidized environment or a reduction environment inside the kilns. This will have a great impact on how the glazes wil look.

Wood fired kilns

Can produce a very special and interesting look. They are very time consuming, as they have to be minded during the firing, and every firing is quite expensive unless you have a lot of wood in your possession. There are many different types of wood fired kilns, but this is beyond the scope of this article.

Tunnel kilns

Really cool if you build very large ceramics, and  if you can find one. It is an industrial kiln, used in for instance brickworks factories to produce bricks. Here in Denmark we only have one operational tunnel kiln brick factory, but some ceramicists are allowed to get their big scale ceramics into the tunnel kiln. During the process, train cars are moved through the tunnel during the entire firing process.

Raku kilns

Basically a used oil barrel cut open at the top, and then insulated with a shelf at the bottom and one or two gas burners in open holes on the bottom sides. You need to bisque fire the ceramic first as well as special raku glazes. A raku kiln operates around 900 C. Raku ceramic is not as strong as stoneware and can be a bit fragile but in turn, the raku fired ceramic can be really beautiful. A raku kiln works as follows. The ceramic is heated to approximately 900 C, and when they glow they are removed with tongs and then they are put into sawdust to create a reduction environment. The time spent in the air and other factors influence how the glazing looks. It is a wonderful organic process with a very unpredictable outcome, and its nature is very unique. It will have the characteristic cracks seen in raku ceramics. and where the piece has raw clay, it becomes completely black. Take really good care, when handling raku heated pieces or you could get severly burned; a heat resistant apron and gloves are a must have! Among ceramicists there is a saying that horse hairs are the top choice to layer over the heated ceramic pieces to create decorations. I have witnessed it, it works 🙂


Pit firing

Basically a hole dug into the ground to protect the fire from wind. It is filled with coal and layered with sawdust, and the pieces are placed on top of it, and then manure is on top of that. This creates spots of reduction and spots of oxidation that can create a very special look. The temperature inside the pit can easily reach 1000 C. If you can’t afford a kiln, you could try this cool guide, pit firing in a weber grill.


barbecue-firering-ceramics

 Read the entire guide here

Kiln basics

It takes a bit of practice to pack a kiln the right way, for instance the pieces can touch each other in a bisque firing, but they must not touch each other when glazed. If you attend a pottery class, the teacher will probably pack the kiln, and if you are planning to get your own kiln, she or he might give you tips on how to pack a kiln, and maybe let you help in, so that you can learn it from scratch.

The kiln shelf needs kiln wash to help avoid glazing sticking to the shelves. It can be purchased as a powder that you add water to until it looks like buttermilk, and remember to use gloves or wash your hands when done; shelf wash is toxic to ingest.



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In order to keep things simple, assume you have made something with stoneware clay and it has dried to the bone dry state. 

Step 1. What is a bisque firing?

You need to bisque fire the pieces in order to make them ready for glazing.

It is the step where water is dried out, and sulfates and carbon are burned out. A lot more chemistry occurs in this step, but that is beyond the scope of this guide. Read your kiln manual on how to perform this step and raise the temperature slowly to 800 C. 

Step 2. What is a glaze firing?

Now you glaze your pieces, and they are ready to be glaze fired. Remember the glaze must not touch the kiln plates, as it may stick to them. If the glaze is runny, place the piece on an extra old kiln shelf, if you have one. 

This step is where the clay body vitrifies, and the glazing fuses to the clay body. Lots of chemistry happens here as well, enough for an entire guide. A fun thing is that even though the pieces don’t touch each other, they can influence the nabor piece with a different glazing. While many think of this as part of the magic firing of the ceramics and love the unpredictability when they open the kiln, you need a batch of pieces to be completely identical and fire them alone in a separate firing.

Remember even though it may be tempting, don’t open the kiln until the temperature is below 80 C. Again, read your kiln manual thoroughly in order to perform the glaze firing satisfactorily.

There are many ways to decorate the clay.

I am planning to write a guide about it, for now I just want to mention slip decoration.


How do I enhance the finish of my ceramic? 

First think about the impression you want to achieve. Handmade ceramic don’t have to look perfect like industrial made ceramic pieces. I like to think of it as a kind of uniqueness. See the wabi sabi creating with imperfection article


Vase Wabi Sabi

When I made this vase I left traces of the process on purpose. Click the image to see it in the store 

If for some reason you want to achieve a polished look, use a clay with relatively little carmote in it, like porcelain clay. Use a sponge in the leather hard stage to soften and perfect edges and surface. After bisque firing is the best time to sand the piece, because it is much less hard at this stage. Try a relatively fine grit wet sandpaper to smooth the surface, and if you want to use normal sandpaper, go outside to avoid the fine dust. It is possible to fix errors after a glaze firing, but you will need diamond sandpaper or a angle grinder, preferably a wet grinder with diamond pads or sandblasting facilities, as well as as a facemask for dust and safety glasses for flying debrites.   

Please let me know what you think about the guide in the comment below. Are there any errors or does the guide miss something important?

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