Introduction: Clay the Ancient Way....Sort Of
Ever since taking a community rec class as a kid I have been fascinated in all things pottery. There are so many possibilities and I love how something so beautiful can be made from something so plain.
But only recently have I discovered the satisfaction of making pottery the way our ancestors did. Granted, a modem studio with say a kiln would be nice (wink wink); but there is something very fulfilling about finding your own clay, making your own glazes, and firing them in your own "kiln".
Step 1: Getting the Clay
The first thing you are going to need is some clay. There are many types of clay and plenty of places to buy them, but that's boring and there are a lot of places you can find it for only the cost of a little effort.
Clay is common all over the world and you can probably get some without going far from home. It is usually easiest to find near slow moving streams or places where a good amount of earth has been scraped away (like for a road or foundation for a house). But if you don't have access to places like that then you can probably still get it in your own yard, it will just take a little more work. Unless you live right on the beach then the dirt in your back yard will likely have at least a little bit of clay in it, you can remove the clay and put the rest back so you don't have a big hole in the yard. Clay is typically a different color than the soil around it. You will know you have clay by how squishy it is when you get it wet, it will hold its shape more or less and will be pretty sticky too. In its dry form it is easy to confuse with rocks, but you can easily test it by crumbling it in your fingers or getting it wet.
I happened to find a vein of clay in my yard that has worked nicely(the slightly gray dirt in the first 2 pictures), but before I found that I was just scooping dirt from another part of the yard and settling the clay out. Whatever you can get your hands on should be fine, don't worry if it has bits of other stuff in it because that will all be removed next.
Besides being free, natural clay tends to be more forgiving in the firing process and can be fired at a lower temperature. This is good news for those of us who don't have a kiln.
So now that you have a pile of clay/dirt/rocks/etc., all you need to do is separate them. luckily this is pretty easy to do since clay is lighter than other soil types.
If your clay is already wet and saturated then put it all in a container(something glass or clear plastic is best so you can see inside it), fill it with more water, and mix/shake it up. If your clay is dry then it helps to break it up a bit first, I use an ultra high-tech rock I found in the yard, anything to bring it closer to a powder form will work.
After a few minutes in the water you will see it start to separate, but it will take a day or two to fully separate. Once it's separated you can scoop the clay out (it will be the top layer) and discard the rest. Be careful not to scoop into the next layer or you will have grainy clay.
At this point the clay will be very watery, like slip, so you will need to scoop it into something that will allow it to drain. I use an old bed sheet, but any non lint fabric works great. If it's a hot and sunny day the clay may dry in a few hours, but I usually leave it over night.
When it's dry enough to touch without getting your finger gooey then it's ready to be kneaded. Don't worry if you let it get too dry, the next step is to add water. Some people actually prefer to let it dry out all the way, which isn't a bad idea if you have a lot of plant material in your clay because this is the easiest stage to remove it.
Step 2: Prepping the Clay
If you got lucky and your clay is not too wet or dry you may be tempted go straight to making things with it, but if you take the time to prep it there will be a very real difference in quality.
Start by kneading the clay, adding a little bit of water at a time until it is smooth and soft, but not sticky. It helps to have a piece of canvas or a plaster surface because clay will stick easily to wood or marble tables and countertops.
There are two basic ways to knead or wedge clay by hand. The first is called a rams head wedge; using even pressure with both hands, push the clay down and forward. You want your hands to be gently cupped and turned slightly in so that as you push the clay it stretches out in front of you. Grab the end farthest from you and rock it up and toward you and then push down and forward again. After repeating this several times you will begin to notice the clay rolling over itself in a way that resembles ram horns.
The second is a shell wedge and is very similar except that you use more pressure with one hand than the other, this is good for anyone suffering chronic pain in a wrist because they can baby the bad wrist and mostly use it for stability while the other wrist does the work. You will know you're doing it right if it starts to look like a seashell.
Whichever method you use just be sure you wedge it enough; this helps remove air bubbles, get the whole clay body to an even consistency and moisture level, and helps you find any rocks that might have somehow made it into your clay. Keep at it for 10 to 20 minutes, maybe put on some good music to keep you going.
The next part of prepping the clay is to let it rest. I don't know the science behind it but I can tell you it's true; as funny as it sounds, the clay needs to be left alone for a while. A couple of days is good, a couple of weeks is better- just be sure it's in a good plastic bag with no holes because you don't want it to dry out while it ages or whatever it does in that time.
When it's done resting get it back out and wedge it some more to be sure you got all the bubbles out. You may notice that it has a little more plasticity to it, I don't know why but somehow resting does that.
Note: if you find it difficult to knead or wedge the clay don't be discouraged; it's kind of awkward at first. If after a while you still don't have the hang of it try working with a smaller piece.
Step 3: Tools
You can buy tools at craft stores or online for fairly cheap, but to keep with more traditional methods I like to use common household items for the most part. Things like rocks, leaves, and pieces or bark are great for texturing and other details, and things like popsicle sticks and soda cans are great for smoothing, scoring, and blending(although I'm perry sure they didn't have popsicle sticks or soda cans back in the day, so yeah I guess that's cheating a little). A rolling pin is nice for some things but not needed. It is also helpful to have a piece of canvas to work on but if not you can make any smooth surface work, you'll just want to be careful so it doesn't stick.
Many people also like to use a pottery wheel because of how easy it is to make uniform shapes, and if you have access to a wheel then great, but if not you can still make some great pottery without one.
And above all, the most important tool is yourself. There is a lot you can do with just your hands and brain.
Step 4: Make Stuff!
This is the fun part. Let your creativity take over and see where it takes you. If you need a little help, there is a wealth of inspiration online and in the world all around you.
Many cultures all over the world have developed unique methods for making pottery, so many that I couldn't put them all into one instructable. Some of the more traditional (and easier)ones include coil pots, slab pots, and pinch pots.
Pinch pots are made by simply pinching the clay into the shape you want, this is an easy way to make fictional pieces and requires no tools but it is difficult to make it look very good.
Slab pots are made by rolling the clay flat and cutting out shapes which are then molded or joined together, this method is good for boxes, plates, and shallow bowls but doesn't really work for tall round objects.
Coil pots are made by rolling the clay into long skinny coils and winding them on top of each other and either leaving the coil design or smoothing it out, this is a good method for making many shapes but cracks easily if you don't take time to join the pieces well or thin them out.
As I mentioned before, there are a lot of methods, so if none of these sound like something you want to try then feel free to go another route.
Some helpful tips:
Remember to keep the clay moist but not soaked while you are working, keep a small bowl of water nearby so you can periodically moisten your project if it gets too dry.
When joining two pieces together (like when putting a handle on a mug for example), be sure to score both surfaces and dab a little water on them before putting them together, otherwise they will break apart as they dry.
If you can't finish your project in one sitting, cover it in damp paper towels and wrap it with a plastic bag so it doesn't dry out.
And let your creativity take over; if you had fun making it then it's a good piece.
Step 5: Fire It
When you have finished shaping your work it needs to dry; this will take a day or two (or more if you live somewhere humid) so put it somewhere safe and check on it each day.
When it's completely dry you can fire it. This is the part that had me hung up for quite a while; I was worried to try it out since I don't have an actual kiln, but once I did I realized it's not that complicated.
The idea is to get the clay hot enough to transform into ceramic. The necessary temperature depends on the type of clay you have, and luckily natural clay tends to be pretty low fire(around 1100 f). A simple wood fire in a semi enclosed area is enough to do the trick, though it doesn't hurt to add grass and other material to ensure even heat distribution. Just be sure to place your pottery in parts of the fire that are going to be safe from falling logs as the fire burns down.
I use an old 50 gallon drum that is partially buried, and although it isn't pretty, it works alright. Other things that work are brick ovens, a fireplace (which I use when my "kiln" is covered in snow), charcoal barbecues, and even a simple pit dug into the ground- anything that will allow the heat to build up a bit. You might say that if we are keeping with traditional methods than the only acceptable way is in a pit, but many other methods have been used for centuries so I'm willing to slide on this one.
I should tell you, however, your success rate is probably going to be lower without a professional grade kiln. Cracked and spalled pieces are part of the deal when using a homemade kiln. I have been able to reduce cracking by heating it up more slowly, but that can be difficult to manage with some methods, especially with bigger pots.
Step 6: Glazing
When your fire has died and cooled down you can dig out your pottery; this part is kind of like a treasure hunt since it's going to be covered in ashes. This is also the moment of truth; you will find out if your fire heated up too quickly and shattered your work, and you will also find out if it got hot enough to turn your clay into ceramic. You can tell it's ceramic by how it sounds when you tap on it with your fingernail, it will have kind of a ring to it whereas clay sounds more like a thud. You can also test it by getting it wet and seeing if it crumbles apart or holds together. There is a chemical change in the firing process that makes it able to hold its shape when wet instead of crumbling and dissolving.
Once you're sure you have successfully turned your clay into ceramic you can use it as is or you can take it a step further and glaze it. There are a few reasons for glazing, the most obvious being that it looks nice, but it also makes it food safe(depending on the glaze you use) and makes it smoother which makes it more practical to use in some applications.
There are many glazes that can be used and if you really want a specific color, especially a bright one, I recommend buying your glazes. But if you want to go homemade all the way you totally can.
A basic glaze recipe that seems to be very common is simply slip (clay with lots of water) and wood ash. I have heard a few different ratios, but somewhere around 3 cups slip to 1 cup wood ash(I have been using wood from pine trees, but leafy trees are better and will produce a more glossy finish) is where a lot of them sit. But half the fun is experimenting so feel free to try other ratios.
You can also experiment with adding other ingredients or ash from different kinds of trees. Iron oxide(rust), and silica (glass) are very common ones since they have been readily available across the world for centuries. I collect rust by pouring old nails and such in a jar with water and let it sit for a while. Getting silica takes a bit more effort; whenever a glass or window breaks I take the pieces and put them into an old soup can and fill it with water so that I can crush it with a hammer without risk of breathing silica dust which is very bad for your lungs. After a good while of grinding the pieces of glass will be like fine sand.
Other ingredients that have been used for a long time though not in as many places include aluminum oxide, titanium dioxide, silver oxide, and zinc oxide (Basically any oxide or "rust" form of metal).
Getting your hands on some of these things can be tricky, that is why I have only worked with a few so far. I am still experimenting on ratios that work well but I have found that 2 tablespoons of silica or rust to about 1/2 cup of slip and ash mix is about right.
When experimenting I use broken pots as test swatches, that way you don't have to take time to make swatches and there is still a use for things that broke. Also, be sure to label your glazes because they look very similar before they are glazed.
Keep in mind that many homemade glaze recipes won't yield very bright colors; you'll mostly get black, brown, green, and red in very earthy hues. So far all I have been able to produce are back, cream, brown, and a kind of peach color. These colors may not be very appealing to some, but there is a lot of beauty in something handmade and I recommend trying homemade glazes at least once.
Either way, once you have a glaze picked out go ahead and use it. You can either dip your work in the glaze or brush it on in patterns, the are many examples online of beautiful glaze designs that will help compensate for the plain colors.
When it's all glazed you need to fire it once more. Again, try to heat it up slowly and evenly. In the time it takes the fire to die down the glaze should have heated up and set. When it's cooled down, dig it out of the ash once again and enjoy your creation!
And that's it, this takes time and effort but I think it's very worth it. Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it!