Introduction: Mine and Work Your Own Clay

Picture of Mine and Work Your Own Clay

You can do this! The clay is out there, just waiting to be harvested. For the throwing, you'll need access to a pottery studio. Check your local recreation center, senior center, or school, and see if you can use their equipment.

Materials needed include:

A clay source (look along a dirt road or pond)
Large glass jars
Pillow case
Canvas squares for wedging

For a thrown bowl, you'll also need
Pottery wheel
Low-fire clear glaze
Low-fire earth brown glaze

Step 1: Find a Vein

Picture of Find a Vein

Clay is abundant, but some areas are richer than others. I happen to live in an area that was once known as Pottersville, and we have some really good veins. These samples came from two areas nearby; dirt roads are cut and graded, revealing high banks that clearly show the clay veins. If you're digging it, go deep. The better clay is usually way down there.

Using a small grappling hook or a pick axe or even a spoon, dig out the clay, avoiding as much of the surrounding sand and debris as you can. Collect it in plastic bags or buckets, and take it to the house.

Step 2: Saturate the Clay

Picture of Saturate the Clay

Mix the clay with your hands to break up the clumps. A strainer can help you remove any rocks. Put the clay into jars and cover with water. I kept these two samples separate because the color was distinctly different, and I wanted to see if there was much difference. The clay will settle pretty soon. These samples were fairly clean, so there were only two layers--the water and the clay. Sometimes you'll see a third layer at the bottom. That will be sediment and rocks.

Step 3: Pour Off the Water

Picture of Pour Off the Water

After the layers are distinct, carefully pour off the water. If you have three layers, slowly pour the clay layer into a pillow case to let it drain. Stop pouring when you get to the sediment level. Since my clay was fairly clean, I poured off the water layer and poured everything else into the pillow cases and squeezed out as much excess water as I could. Then I hung the pillow cases on the solar dryer and let them drip for about 24 hours.

Step 4: Prepare Your Clay

Picture of Prepare Your Clay

Remove the clay from the pillow cases. My first sample was drained enough to form into a roll, but the second one needed to air out. I spread it out on a piece of canvas and let it air dry for several hours. Now, this difference in the clays was a telltale sign that the first sample had too much sand in it. You'll see what that meant to the throwing process in a bit.

I got about two pounds of the Sandy clay and a pound and a half of the smooth.

Step 5: Get Into a Studio

Picture of Get Into a Studio

Okay, I have two samples. One is sandy and one is smooth, but I'm going to try to throw both of them.

First, I need to wedge the clay. The difference between the two is becoming more and more obvious. If you throw or hand build, you know the feel of clay. I knew as soon as I started that the smooth clay body had potential, and that I'd probably lose the sandy one. I was right.

The wedged mound on the left is the sandy one; the one on the right is the one with purer clay.

The sandy sample threw like cookie dough.

The smooth sample was the easiest clay I've ever thrown. I thought it was a little too moist to hold its shape; fortunately, I was wrong about that.

Step 6: Fire It, Glaze It, and Fire It Again

Picture of Fire It, Glaze It, and Fire It Again

Because this clay didn't come with instructions, I had no idea how it would fire. Some clays are low fire and some are high fire. If you fire a low fire clay at high fire temperatures, it will melt, and you don't want that. I didn't even know if this would survive the low fire bisque, so I made a couple of tiny pinch bowls, just to check. I set them inside a larger bowl in the bisque firing to protect any other pieces, in case they exploded. They both survived, but the sandy one is like old brick--very crumbly. I'll deal with that another day.

Okay, the bowl survived the bisque. I'm going to treat this clay as low fire for the time being. Maybe later I'll see if it will fire high, but not this time. Because I want to retain some of the natural look of this clay, I'm using clear glaze on the inside, with a rim of brown earth at the top and bottom. The band around the outside has been left unglazed. Now back into the kiln for a low-glaze firing.

The final result is now a little treasure, commemorating the earth that I call home!


Dr. P (author)2016-04-27

Thanks for the link, Bigtoothcow! That looks doable. One question--I lay the wood directly on the pots? I'm thinking my greenware won't support the weight.

mandersen (author)2015-07-16

Great instructable, for those people who don't have a potter's wheel never fear! coil pots were made long before the potters wheel was invented.
you simply roll long snakes and wrap them around and building them to the shape you want. then using a smooth stick (a paddlepop icecream stick will do nicely) blend the long snakes together.... try really hard not to leave any pockets of air in the joints as they might explode in the heat.

You can do what is called Raku firing which is a bit like building a long rocket stove to fire your pots in or you can fire in bonfire and the pots will still be functional though they may not last as long and they may be a bit more porous too.

This porosity can be used to your advantage (e.g. If you need to keep something cool the evaporation from a porous pot can help keep the contents cooler, or water may be able to be filtered through a porous pot). Even if a cooking pot starts off porous, if you cook with the pot, enough of the fats and oils from the foods you cook will slowly seep into the fired clay and solve that problem for you, especially if you don't wash up with harsh detergents.

The beauty of wood fired pots is the lovely colour variations that form where the wood or straw or charcoal was in contact or not with the pot during firing.

ThomasB182 (author)mandersen2016-04-13

Do you happen to have a suggestion on making a homemade kiln out of limited materials?

Dr. P (author)ThomasB1822016-04-13

I don't, although wood firing, raku, and anagama are all traditional firing methods that yield some breathtaking results. If you're near a college that has a 3-D art program, contact the faculty members there and see if you can observe a firing. Potters tend to be generous with their information; someone there might be able to give you some guidance.

mandersen (author)ThomasB1822016-04-13

Try a good old fashioned fire.... make it hot and make it last a relatively long time.
look up Raku firing as an example (the times i did it it was a bit like firing in the elbow of a rocket stove)

ThomasB182 (author)2016-04-13

Very Helpful!!! I live in Cottonwood, Ca in an ancient riverbed rich with clay. This is definitely going to help my aspirations to make my own clay firepit. Thank you very much!!

Danieljz1299 (author)2016-01-01


Really inspiring

Dr. P (author)2015-08-06


Saiyam (author)2015-08-06

Really nice instructable. Congratulations.

sabu.dawdy (author)2015-08-05

Congrats on ur win. A well deserving one I must say

Dr. P (author)2015-08-04

Thank you, thank you! I have wanted a wheel for years! What a happy day this is--I think I'll go dig some more clay!

1artsysoul (author)2015-08-04

Congratulations!!! This is a great tutorial! If I ever have the time and find a place with clay, now I know what I need to do to "mine" my own clay!

bullcrabstudio (author)2015-08-04

Congratulations!!!.....I had a great time in the clay contest. Thanks for you're incredibly insightful tutorial. It was SO Much FUN to be a part of this and I have learned a lot from you. Great Job!!

Dr. P (author)2015-07-28

Try a different spot. Come to Alabama.

itsmescotty (author)2015-07-28

So I filled a 5 gal bucket with 'clay' liquified it and used a bloody great paint stirrer to break it up. Strained it thru a window screen to eliminate sand, rocks and a huge amount of organics. Let it settle for a couple days. Siphoned the standing water off. I ended up with a thin layer of clay and the rest was the finest sand imaginable. Oh yeah, the geologist field test where you put a little on your Tongue and rub I on your teeth - takes forever to get rid of the grit?.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-26

I can't rule out any eventuality, MichaelR5. I hadn't thought about it as a survival skill, but you're absolutely right. Information is power. Thanks!

MichaelR5 (author)2015-07-26

My back yard is so full of clay there are lots of spots that the grass won't grow. Too bad I don't have time for digging it up and making pots. This is a great instructable. If you're a survivalist, you might want to print this out and save it in plastic, because in the even of an EMP wiping out electronics, you won't have electronic access.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-16

What mandersen said. Word.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-15

All you can do is try. If you're trying to work it right out of the ground, it's going to need some moisture. A camp fire won't do it. You need 1800-2100 degree at controlled times over a period of several hours.

astril (author)2015-07-09

I know a place with this bluish clay in the shallows of a lake I comes up in sheets and blocks and I tried to work with it but it wouldn't mold at all, using your method do you think it will work? also is a camp fire hot enough to fire clay?

DIY-Guy (author)astril2015-07-15

Some people look for diamonds in blue clay Astril.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-15

Edit: thanks, txma! (Confounded auto text. )

Dr. P (author)2015-07-15

Thanks, Tina!

txma (author)2015-07-15

Your sandy clay would be better for adobe building, so not much of a loss there. awesome indestructible, well done

Dr. P (author)2015-07-15

That should be some good clay! Do it!

itsmescotty (author)2015-07-15

I have clay areas on my property that I can only dig thru with my commercial size backhoe. The trees that grow in the clay areas can not be pushed over, they break a few feet up from the ground. And digging the stump out is a chore. 6" diameter tree, 110 years old and a few feet away is a tree, same age but 2 feet in diameter. I have found layers of extremely fine sand (could be used in an hour glass) sandwiched between layers of the clay.

The clay is whiteish grey and as soon as I rewire my kiln I'm going to give this a shot. Normally I do ceramic, porcelain, and glass.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-15

Ninzerbean, what a great memory. When we're raised by creative people, we tend to have an obligation to honor that by trying to do creative things, too.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-15

LadyLavender21, around here there are old homesteads down dirt roads that identifiable only by the chimney that remains. Those were frequently made from the local clay. They're crumbly, but they're still there. Handmade bricks would have so much character! It would take a long, long time to get them done, but you could certainly make enough to trim a little porch or surround a window or doorway. Do research on firing them to withstand the elements, but absolutely give it a go.

Ninzerbean (author)2015-07-15

My mom used to do this when I was a kid, she's spot clay along the road and gather it. We had a huge tractor seat potter's wheel in the small kitchen when I was young. It took up half of the kitchen in my mind. I wish she was still creative like that. Thanks for a great 'ible.

LadyLavender21 (author)2015-07-14

This is GREAT, thank you! We have a lot of clay soil, which is easily reachable because there's a dam with clay banks. I've always wondered how we would go about making our own clay bricks with which to build a small shed. This article has given us some useful tips!

Dr. P (author)2015-07-14

I'd love to see them, robolimbo!

robolimbo (author)2015-07-14

Lakes have lots of clay. I've dug local clays around lakes and fired them in a wood fired outdoor bonfire. They work great. Easy and fun for kids to do and the terra cotta masks and cups last a good while.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-14

WUVIE, post it. The more information out there, the more folks will feel confident enough to give it a try. It's all good!

WUVIE (author)2015-07-14

Good to see this Instructable. I was in the process of making a similar Instructable, but I'll step aside and not submit. Glad you are promoting local clay, it is indeed a fun process. :-)

steve.fenster.5 (author)2015-07-14

Ok, I have a really basic question.... How do I identify the material as clay?

straif (author)steve.fenster.52015-07-14

There is the geologist trick for identifying clay. If you can see individual grains, it is sand (or larger). If the grains are too small, put a bit in your mouth and with your tongue, rub it against your teeth. If it is smooth, if is clay. If it is gritty, it is silt. And yes, I've done this.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-14

Edit: The top will be water, the middle will be clay, and the bottom will be sediment. You want to capture that middle layer.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-14

It's a good question, Steve. There's some clay in most soils, unless you have pure sand. Most clay bodies that you buy range from a whitish-gray to a brick red, so I'd look for something in those colors. Try to find a bank and look for a streak that is more tightly compressed than the soil around it. (See the photos in my Instructable.) try any small sample. Just break it down and cover it with water let it settle. The top will be water, the middle will be clay, and the bottom will be sediment you want to capture that middle layer. Basically, you usually won't find a pure strain of clay. You have to coax it out of the soil.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-14

HannibalRex, I was pointed to this site: as a guide to the clay, but I haven't been able to find what I needed from it yet. Maybe you can.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-14

Fired at ^06 for both bisque and glaze. I'd love to try it to ^6, because I prefer the mid- and high-fire glazes. Work what you found and post your results. It seems as if people are interested in trying this out. Thanks for looking!

HannibalRex (author)2015-07-14

When you say low fire, are you talking cone 08, 06? I found a REALLY nice vein along a stream in Powhatan, VA, which I bagged probably 20lbs of to test. I've yet to fire it, so was curious to roughly the temp. It doesn't appear to have much, if any iron in it, so I'm guessing for this clay it may (final) fire to cone 6 (not 06 like bisque). It looked like the clay you found might have a little more iron in it than what I dug up, and I'd guess a little lower temp. That said, I usually work with cone 10 porcelain, so this low fire stuff is a little off the norm for me :) I figured if nothing else, I'd make a cone pack ranging from 08 to 6, and fire the stuff I found in my test kiln to try to get an idea where it might mature. Obviously I can't reduce it, but I'm thinking I *should* get a close idea. Great I'ble, thanks!

Dr. P (author)2015-07-14

Sounds like the gypsy life! Good for you! Don't head this direction just now, though--we have a heat index of 105, and that's NOT dry heat. Couple that with the timber rattlers and I'm staying off the dirt roads for a while.

raviolikid (author)2015-07-14

What great directions! I'd love to come and work with you. I live full-time in my Airstream and can go anywhere. Well, anywhere there are roads and a place to park.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-13

Well, thanks! That would be cool! Um, are you related to D?

tinaciousz (author)2015-07-13

This is so impressive. You deserve to win!

Dr. P (author)2015-07-12

Sounds like a road trip, megglie! Thanks for your kind words--I hope folks will dig in, too. There's nothing like it.

megglie (author)2015-07-12

I know where some of the most beautiful porcelain type clay in the world is. Wish I could get back to Michigan and Lake Huron to get it. Used to dig it out of the lake in the summer when I was a kid. Loved your work on this... hope it inspired a lot of people to go out and find their own clay.

Dr. P (author)2015-07-10

Letting it sit probably would be a good idea, but I was eager to get into it! Vinegar is special sauce to a potter.

farticus (author)2015-07-10

I did this decades ago therefore I can't remember the source but I do recall reading that it was best to let your processed clay sit for at least 3 month in an air tight container before use. Also I have read of people adding some vinegar to the clay at the soupy stage to improve the plasticity later on.

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