A complete guide to throwing pottery on a pottery wheel for beginners. Follow this detailed, step by step pottery throwing tutorial to enjoy the challenge and reward of making pottery on the wheel.
Prepare for Throwing Pottery: Wheel, Clay, Tools, Water
Throwing pottery on a potters wheel is a challenging but rewarding way to make pottery. It can be a big commitment, especially getting access to everything you need. If you are reading this article, you probably have access to a pottery wheel. (If not, you can get a beginner pottery wheel delivered to your door or find pottery classes in your area.)
Next, you need some soft, well prepared clay. The clay should be wedged and free of debris. Start with a small amount if you are just learning to throw pottery. About a pound (or half a kilogram) should be enough to make a cup or mug. You can form your clay into a ball shape before you put it on the wheel. If you are making traditional, functional pottery you need to use clay that can be fired in a kiln.
You will also need a container of water. Half a gallon or a couple liters should be enough to start throwing clay. Most tools are optional but can increase your efficiency. There are hundreds of pottery tools available. A wire, sponge, and trim knife are most commonly used for wheel throwing pottery.
Attach the Clay to the Pottery Wheel
Make sure your clay is attached firmly to the pottery wheel. Even though we say “throw pottery,” we don’t actually want the clay flying across the room! You can attach the clay directly to the wheel head which is the flat part of the wheel that spins around. On some wheels it is possible to use flat discs called bats which makes removing your pot easier when it is finished. Make sure the surface is not dirty or two wet. If it is a little damp the clay may stick better. Press the ball of clay down firmly right in the center. If your wheel is sturdy enough, you can throw the ball of clay down in the center.
Add Water to the Clay
The clay should stay wet while you throw pottery. The water will keep your hands from sticking to the clay. If your clay starts to dry out as you are forming it into a pot, be sure to add more. You can dip your hands in the water or squeeze water from a sponge.
Position Yourself to Center The Clay
Finding the proper placement of your arms and hands is important while you throw pottery. The process will be easier with proper leverage and good posture will keep your body safe.
Some pottery wheels can spin both directions. Most potters, especially right handed throwers, spin their wheel counterclockwise. If you are left handed or just prefer that your wheel spins clockwise, reverse the following instructions.
Place your left hand to the left side of the clay with the pinky edge of the hand touching the bat or wheel head and your thumb sticking up in the air. The heal of your left hand will be pressing into the clay. Brace your left elbow against your left rib cage or left hip, depending on how high you are sitting. Your left forearm should rest firmly on the splash pan of the pottery wheel. Your right hand can make a fist and you will push the pinky edge of your hand down and into the clay from near the top of the ball. Your right forearm can rest on the splash pan as well.
Keep your arms braced against your body as much as possible for extra stability. Adjust your seat to make sure you are close enough to the wheel and at the right height. You don’t want to lean over too much which can hurt your back. But don’t sit too low or you won’t be able to use your body weight for extra pressure and stability.
Begin to Center the Clay on the Pottery Wheel
After you are in position, turn the wheel on to a medium to high speed. Gradually add pressure to the spinning ball of clay with the “heel” of your left hand. You should be pushing straight away from your body where your elbow is braced against your body, straight to your left wrist, through the clay. Like you are trying to push the clay almost straight away from your body.
Your right hand will gradually add pressure to the top of the ball of clay. This will keep it from getting too tall when you press with your left hand and smooth out the top. Press down and slightly in toward the center of the ball.
Start with light pressure and gradually increase as the clay ball becomes more round and smooth. Use your body weight to lean in and add extra pressure if needed. Keep your elbows in as tight to your body as possible. Focus on moving your hands with steady, gradual pressure, don’t focus on the clay. Your hands should be moving the clay, don’t let the clay move your hands. The ball of clay should start to become round and smooth and wobble less as it goes around.
If needed, you can alternate increasing pressure between your two hands. Press harder with the left hand and lighter with the right hand. This will make the ball of clay taller and thinner and should help the outside edge become more round and smooth. Then press lighter with your left hand and harder with your right hand. This will make the ball become shorter and wider while making the top of the ball smooth and even.
If the clay begins to dry out or you feel too much friction between the clay and your hands, add more water.
Cone Up to Help Center the Clay (optional)
This is an optional step but works well to help center the clay quickly, especially for larger amounts of clay. Make sure there is enough water on your hands or the clay. As the clay spins around, put your palms on each side. Start at the bottom of the clay and gradually squeeze your hands together. The ball of clay should get thinner at the bottom and force some of the clay upward. Gradually lift your hands while still squeezing and gradually increase pressure as you lift.
It will feel like you are trying to lift the clay up off the wheel. Don’t squeeze too hard or you may actually pull some of the clay off! This should all be one fluid motion. You should end up with a cone shape when you are done.
Finish Centering the Clay
If you made your clay into a cone, press the clay back into a ball shape or short cylinder. Use the same hand position as you started centering the clay. Use your right hand to press the top of the cone down into the clay. Press your left hand into the side of the cone near the top to keep the clay round as it goes down. It is okay if the cone bends from the pressure. Just be careful not to press too hard.
You can cone up and down a few times if needed. You can also alternate stronger pressure with your two different hands a few times to finish centering the clay on the pottery wheel. The ball of clay should be perfectly round and smooth when you are finished. The top may be rounded, flat, or slightly indented.
Start a Hole in the Middle of the Clay
Make sure the top of your clay is wet and use your finger or thumb to poke a hole down in the exact middle of the clay as it is still spinning. You can put your left hand against the clay and use your left thumb to help steady your right finger. Or use the palm of your right hand against the clay and press your right thumb down into the clay.
Don’t press too far or you will make a hole in the bottom of your pot. But make the hole deep enough so that you won’t have a bunch of extra clay at the bottom which will make your pot too heavy. Getting just the right depth is one of the trickier parts to master while throwing pottery. It will become easier with practice.
Open the Hole to Make it Wider
Make the hole wider by steadily pulling a finger or two or a thumb from the middle of the hole straight toward your body. Make sure you pull parallel with the wheel head so the bottom of the inside of your pot will be flat. If you are making a bowl you can move your finger up as you pull toward your body to create a rounded bottom. Open the hole to about the width you want your pot to be.
Smooth the Bottom (optional)
You may have left some throwing rings or a spiral inside at the bottom of your pot when you opened the hole. You can leave these if you prefer or you can smooth out the bottom with your fingers or a pottery rib. Some potters say that it is good to compress the clay at the bottom of a pot with a rib as well.
Prepare to Make the First Pull
You are ready to start forming the sides of your pot. You will be “pulling” clay up into the air as it spins around. To begin, gradually press a finger from your right hand into the very bottom of the outside of your clay on the right side. For smaller pots a finger tip will work fine. For larger pots with more clay a knuckle can be more stable. Press lightly with your left hand on the inside of the clay ring. You should get an indent at the bottom and the extra clay will move up above your finger.
Pull up the Side Walls
When you see someone throwing pottery, this is the intriguing part! You can slow down the speed of the wheel if you prefer. Make sure there is enough water on the surface of the clay or your hands.
Push out lightly with fingers on your left hand slightly above where you are pushing in with your right hand. Slowly lift your hands together at the same time up in the air and slightly in toward the middle of your pot. Keep the pressure constant with both hands. Your right hand should force the extra clay up to the top of the wall and make it taller. Your left hand should add stability and press the clay out so the right hand can lift it.
Try to keep at least one forearm resting on the splash pan to help keep your hands steady. Keep your upper arms in and braced against your body. Some potters like to hook the ends of their thumbs together or touch the outside of their thumbs together to add stability and keep their hands in unison.
This should be one fluid, but slow motion. Don’t make any jerky movements or change the pressure of your hands as the clay goes around. As you get to the top of the pot gradually release pressure with both hands so your fingers come off the clay just before they get to the very top. In the photo I am pressing in with my right middle finger and using my pointer finger for extra stability.
Repeat Pulling up Clay
Repeat the process of pulling up clay to raise the sides of your pot. Each pull should make the walls a little thinner and taller. Be sure to start at the very bottom so you can push up the extra clay from the bottom. A beginner throwing pottery on the wheel often leaves too much clay at the bottom. But don’t make the walls too thin at the bottom of your pot or it will collapse. With trial and error you will discover how thin your walls can become before getting too week to stand up.
Excess water will also make the walls weaker. Use enough water to make sure the clay doesn’t stick to your hands but not too much. After your first pull you can move your hands more straight up instead of pushing in toward the middle as much as you lift the clay. Try to make the walls the same thickness from the top to the bottom. The final thickness of the walls is personal preference but consider what you may do to the walls after they are complete.
With practice you will be able to throw taller pots.
Smooth the Sides of the Pot (optional)
This is an optional step. Some potters like the leave the throwing lines in the clay. If you want to smooth the sides of the pot you can use a pottery rib to press against the outside as you press your hand against the inside. To smooth the inside of the pot just switch the rib to your left hand.
Start at the bottom and gradually lift both hands just like you did as you were pulling up the walls. Using a rib can also help to even out the thickness of the walls. Curved ribs or differences in pressure as you move up the walls can start to shape the pot as you are smoothing it.
You should end up with a nice cylinder.
Make the Pot Wider (optional)
You can change the shape of your pot if you want something other than a straight cylinder. To make your pot, or part of your pot wider, gradually press out at the bottom of the place you want to widen. You can slow down the wheel even more if you prefer. You can keep your right hand or a rib along the outside with very light pressure for extra stability. Move the pressure from your inside hand up until you have widened as much of the pot as you like. Repeat this process if you want this part even wider. Don’t try to make part of the pot too wide all at once. Be sure the clay inside is wet enough so it doesn’t stick to your hands.
Make the Pot Thinner (optional)
If you want your pot or part of your pot to be thinner, you will squeeze the clay in as it spins. This is called “collaring” or “collaring in.”
Wrap your pointer fingers and thumbs around the pot at the bottom of where you want the pot to be thinner. Try to make contact with the clay all the way around the pot. Gradually squeeze your hands in from all directions and slowly lift both hands together. When you get to the top of the pot or the top of the area you want to be thinner, gradually release pressure as you continue to finish lifting. This process can be repeated multiple times. Don’t try to make your pot too thin all at once.
The place where you squeeze will become thinner but the walls will get a little thicker and/or taller. You may want to do another pull or two for this part to thin out the wall and make sure it is an even thickness.
Change the Surface of the Pot (optional)
When you are happy with the shape of your pot, you can consider the surface. Many potters work on the surface later when the pot is off the wheel and has dried enough to make it easier to handle. But sometimes it is convenient to add some details while you throw pottery on the wheel.
You can use many different pottery tools to add texture or designs to the surface of your pot. You can also use a rib to smooth the surface. You can also use a rib, finger, or other tool to add a spiral up the side of the pot. Press against the side of the pot and lift up as it spins around.
Smooth the Rim (optional)
This is an optional step but adds a nice finishing touch. If you are making a functional pot you will want to make sure there are no sharp edges along the rim. You can take a small piece of chamois, a wet sponge, or something similar and lightly press it around the rim as the pot spins around slowly. Release pressure very gradually to avoid leaving a mark or pulling the rim out of shape.
Cut Away Extra Clay, Prepare To Remove the Pot
There is a good chance you will have a little extra clay at the bottom, especially if you have just started throwing pottery. A wooden trim knife or similar tool can be used to cut away extra clay or shape the bottom of the sides of your pot. As the wheel spins around you can slide the edge of the tool down through extra clay at the bottom. Then you can stop the wheel to remove the ring of clay that you have cut away.
In the next step you will cut the pot away from the wheel head or bat. To make it easier to slide the wire tool underneath and give your pot a nice beveled edge at the bottom, you can slide the point of your trim knife between the bat or wheel head and the bottom of your pot as it spins around. This is demonstrated in the image above.
Cut the Pot Free from the Wheel
In one of the first steps we made sure the clay was firmly stuck to the bat or wheel head. Now that the pot is finished we need to remove it to continue using the pottery wheel. Slide a wire tool between the pot and the throwing surface. Make sure you keep the wire tight as you pull it underneath. Some potters like to keep the wheel spinning slowly as they do this but you can do it with the wheel stopped as well.
Remove the Pot from the Potters Wheel
After the pot is cut free from the throwing surface, remove it from the wheel so you can get more clay and keep throwing pottery on the wheel! If your pot is extra large or fragile, you can leave it on the wheel to dry for a while if needed.
There are a few ways to get the pot off the wheel. You can clean and dry your hands and carefully grab the pot and lift it off. Be sure to support the pot all the way around.
You can also use pot lifters which are made to slide under the edge of the pot and lift it from the bottom. These are convenient because you don’t have to touch the walls of the pot and risk ruining the surface.
If you are using a bat to throw pottery on, you can lift the whole bat off the wheel with the pot on top. Set the whole bat aside until the pot is dry enough to pick up with your hands.
Set the Pot Somewhere to Dry
After you remove the pot from the wheel, set it on a table or shelf so it can begin to dry. Hopefully you have enjoyed the challenge of making a pot on the pottery wheel and will continue throwing pottery. With more practice, throwing on the wheel will become easier, faster, and you will be able to explore more options. Find a process that is most comfortable to you.
Don’t get discouraged if you mess up many times. It happens to everyone because pottery throwing is hard to master. Keep practicing and have fun.
- pottery wheel
- pottery ribs
- trim knife
- wire tool
- bat (optional)
- pot lifters (optional)
Amazon Pottery Wheels for Sale
There are many options if you would like to invest in your own pottery wheel. Most pottery wheels are built to last and you may be able to find a used pottery wheel for sale for a lot cheaper than a new one. You can also find a wide selection of professional pottery wheels at pottery supply shops. Amazon doesn’t offer quite the same selection but is very convenient for many people. There are plenty of options ranging from beginner pottery wheels to wheels for potters that throw pottery full time.
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Tools for Throwing Pottery
Pottery tools can make throwing pottery more fun and efficient. Amazon has a great selection of tools to throw pottery. Learn about all kinds of pottery tools here.