As I’ve been mentioning in my Head & Heart posts lately, I recently completed a six session pottery course at TAFE, along with my mum! This particular course focused on throwing clay on a pottery wheel, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. Our teacher made it all look so easy, but it took some time to get the hang of things and then before I knew it, the course was over.
We started by learning how to knead clay, which is not the same way you knead bread, and is harder than you would think. After kneading the stoneware clay into tidy balls, we then learned how to center it on the wheel before moulding it into a small bowl. Or at least that was the idea anyway – as a beginner it’s easy to fail on the centering part and end up with a wobbly mess that threatens to fly off at any minute, or overwork the clay to the point that the shape collapses. I took a few timelapse videos of the process with my phone balancing delicately next to the wheel.
Wobbliness aside, shaping clay is a really pleasant feeling – you can feel the weight and the texture beneath your hands, and mostly decide whether to add more water or push it one way or the other by gut feeling. After a day of working on the computer it was nice to go to something so very tactile and focused.
After shaping the clay on the wheel, the vessel is scored around the edges, cut off the base with wire and set aside to dry out slightly (to ‘leather hard‘ consistency) under plastic wrap. The next week we moved on to the next part of the process – putting each bowl back onto the wheel upside down to trim the bottom and edges. This is done with various wire tools, and feels a lot like wood turning with a much more soft and delicate material. Some I trimmed a bit too thin at the base and poked a hole in the bottom!
The neatly trimmed vessels then go into the kiln for bisque or biscuit firing, which leaves them hard, brittle and very porous for the next step of glazing.
Once bisque fired, each piece then needs to be carefully dipped into glazes containing various minerals that produce varying colours. In liquid form most of the glazes are a pale grey or green, and are somewhat unpredictable in just how they’ll turn out once fired. They can also be layered for different effects, some of which I found more successful than others! I really struggled with glazing and most of my pieces are a bit patchy or drippy in places, although I think I started to get the hang of it by the end.
Once glazed the base needs to be cleaned off so it doesn’t bake onto the kiln shelf, and it goes back in for a second round of firing. It then comes out as a brightly coloured, very robust, food-safe and dishwasher-friendly piece of ceramic!
I’m not sure how useable most of my pieces are in the end, but I’ve found a place for a few of them around the house as trinket dishes, bud vases, succulent pots (those bowls with holes in the base came in handy after all!) and pot-plant trays.
If you count all the processes and waiting time, it takes three sessions to go from the beginning to glazing (and a fourth to pick up the finished product), so my six week course felt incredibly short! Many of the people in my class were serial potters, doing multiple courses back-to-back over years and making some incredible pieces. Now that I’ve had a taster I’m considering doing the same next year.
P.S. Here’s my experience doing the letterpress course last year, which was also pretty awesome. I love learning things!