Introduction: Backyard Pottery - a Howto in 10 Lessons (UPDATE 1)

About: Failure is not the opposite of success, it's part of success.

Until six weeks ago, I really knew nothing about pottery. No special event, in fact - I also knew nothing about rocket science, Icelandic cheese and hallucinogenic frogs. But, as a geologist I've always been interested in the special relationship between earth related sciences and their usefulness in our daily lives.

I knew quite a few things about clay, for example, but really nothing about the way of transforming it in, let's say, a nice tea cup. Or an ugly tea cup. I knew there was heat involved, but there the story ended.

You know, I'm living in Flanders aka the intelligent side of belgium - haha, a region with a very high clay content in the soil, something I discovered in my attempt to make seed bombs. Fascinated by its stickyness I decided to do something with this material.

Working-with-clay became one of those challenges on my bucket list. It was also a dreamed occasion to leave the beaten tracks of my daily workfield - wood & metal, that stuff. Learning new skills, asking different questions, discovering new materials.

Every craftsman needs a goal. Mine became 'making a simple tea cup with the sticky stuff from our backyard' - which would have been a very boring title, btw.

I wanted to know how it felt to drink black tea my Nepali friends sent me, in a selfmade cup. Doing the digging myself, doing the shaping myself, doing the fire-thing myself - that was something I just never did before.

I thought that in the right cup, even a ferocious liquid like yak butter tea could become delicious. I tasted it more than once, that stuff, and even in the best company of the world it definitely was everything - all adjectives tolerated - but delicious. Not allowed to refuse a second filling, between those high peaks on the border between Nepal & Tibet. Not done. Just smile, bro.

And so, finally, this winter I went into pottery. And the art of lowland yak butter tea brewing.

Dedicated to my Nepali friends.

Mistakes included.

Step 1: Just Dig It

'Clay' is more than just sticky stuff. In fact, it's a term used to caliber rock-ish fragments - just a kind of adjective on the scale of size. Like small, medium, large - why isn't there 'extra-medium'? - extra large etc.

Clay is like extra extra extra small.

You know, the biggest rock-ish features on earth are mountains, than you have boulders, than pebbles, than gravel, sand and silt, and than clay. In that logic, clay components are just very fine grained pieces of mountains. They are 'weathered' - taken away from - those mountains by thermal shocks like 'freezing & thawing cycles', abrasive glaciers, friction between boulders in mountain streams etc., and than 'eroded' - read: transported - by water & wind, all the way to the sea. From high to low.

In mountain areas there's a lot of weathering & erosion - harsh environments, you know - but once in lower lands all that transported material is going to be dropped. This 'dropping' is called 'sedimentation', and sedimentation has all to do with the weight of the material. The lighter the stuff, the further it will be transported. The bigger the stuff, the closer it will be deposited to the source - that's why you rarely find big boulders in the lowlands.There are big boulders, of course, but they are dropped there by giants long before humans arrived on earth, in customized comets. Everyone knows that.

In lowlands all you find is sand, silt & clay. And cows, also. But no hallucinogenic frogs. Clay is often deposited in very slow, or not at all, moving water. Once there's movement, it will go into suspension and be ready to travel again. It's that clay, that very fine material, that we need. Most of the time it can be found nearby rivers or river beds, or just in areas where in the fartest fareness there's never been a river at all. In that case, big chance there once was a sea, since clay is the most common sediment on the sea or ocean floor. Tectonic movements can lift it upward, and 'sea' can become 'land'. Geology basics in a nutshell.

Whatever. Where I live, in the western european lowlands, clay particles have also been deposited by winds, taking away morene deposits from the fronts of Scandinavian glaciers during the ice ages. At the time, all that fine material was more or less mixed - more 'sandy' zones to the north, more 'clay-ish' zones to the south and a silt-ish zone between them. The lighter the stuff, the further it could be taken away. Wind or water, same mecanism.

Seen from that angle, Flanders is like a piece of Scandinavia.

Seen from another angle, Flanders is like the rubbish of Scandinavia.

Science is about angles, sometimes.

After the ice ages, plants recolonised the land and 'soils' started to form in the new deposits. The water took the finest aka clay particles away from the upper zones and deposited them back a bit deeper. Layers, called 'horizonts' were getting formed: an organic material rich horizont near the surface, a clay 'poor' horizont just beneath it, a clay 'rich' horizont under the poor and than semi-undisturbed material.

That kind of knowledge was one of the reasons why I started studying geology. I wanted to know the story behind our landscapes. I wanted to hear what the rocks in the mountains had to tell me, what the waterfalls had to say, what the whispering meant of the melting ice. And what kind of peat was best to brew whisky.

Whatever. In my region, I know what to do to get some clay: just shoveling the upper 30cm of soil away.

Grab it in your hands. If it's nicely saucage-able, there's clay in it.

Step 2: DIY Woodstock

It's not a good idea to use that 'clay' right away. It's okay to make seed bombs, but definitely not for pottery.

Backyard clay contains a lot of rubbish - pebbles, pets bones, organic material, WWI bomb shells (really!) etc. - and to give this project a good shot you'll need to upgrade it, taking profit of its most important mechanic characteristic: its weight.

Clay is light, and therefor it will easily go into suspension. Sand particles won't do that, they'll stay on the bottom of rivers and streams, rolling and jumping on the stream bed. Clay guys, in contrary, are hitchhikers - they go with the flow.

To get your clay as 'pure' as possible you're going to mix all that digged stuff with water and filter it - I used a fine steel filter I got from the local hardware store. Organic material, pebbles, sand and everything that's too big will be hold by the filter. Silt and clay will go through it.

Once your gallon is filled with mud the waiting begins. After a few hours or days the fine particles will sediment to the bottom and leave a clear pond behind. The longer you have to wait, the higher the clay content of your mud. Congrats, you just copied a natural sedimentation process - DIY geology!

I waited 3 days to make that 6th picture. Three full days! Just to realise that it just didn't work. In that large bucket the surface of the mud was exactly 20mm (!) below the surface of the water. I expected 200mm, in fact.

So I threw the whole content in a larger recipient to let il all evaporate. And kept on waiting again.

Finally, with a little help of my fan it all went into higher gears. Knowledge has a price.

One month. Between the first and the last picture.

Lesson number one: be patient, when you decide to do it that way.

Step 3: Hot Wheels

There are many ways to create objects with clay.

  • with bare hands - and especially with the tumbs, called 'stickpots'
  • with the help of wooden tools like in Tibet
  • and with the help of a flywheel - called 'throwing'

In a few videos I saw that objects made with bare hands weren't a great succes with unskilled people. The results looked poor, and it seemed difficult to control thickness - a parameter that became really important in the next step.

I wanted something nice, and with even thickness all around. So I copied a design from the net and made a basic pottery wheel, using our spare wheel (message to my wife: the spare wheel's gone!), an aluminium plate - at those moments you don't regret you put yourself to hunger to buy these extremely expensive clock drills, a bearing from an old washing mashine (second message to my wife: don't worry about that machine, it WAS old!) and a bit of scratch. Put those ingredients together and you've got a nice stump based pottery wheel.

Simple & effective. Thanx Hillar Bergman, that design rocks!

Third message to my wife: my plane crashed and I'm sitting on a lonely island. Just me and those two female zumba teams. I'm fine.

Step 4: Lessons of a Wheel

After six weeks I finally got my clay and I got my wheel. All I needed to do was just 'throwing' a piece of clay on it - thàt's why it's called 'throwing pottery' - and shaping that most wanted tea cup. Easy.

So I threw a piece of clay on the wheel like a pro, launched the spin like an idiot and started designing as an amateur. Piece of cake, I saw it hundreds of times on youtube.

In fact, it wasn't.

My hot wheel simply didn't keep it's momentum long enough - some 30 seconds - and after a few tries & errors I realised that this way wasn't going somewhere. I had problems with centering the clay, with shaping, with moisture - with everything, in fact - and without a constant spin it was just impossible to get it all right.

Second lesson: that type of wheel is NOT for beginners.

This baby needed a motor. And so I dismantled a tile cutter, grabbed a rubber wheel on an inline skate and made a quite dirty setup.

Then I put the power on.

Third lesson: high speed is NOT the way to do it.

My clay ball flew straight to the wall.

At least it sticked. Good clay.

Quite accidentally I discovered that with minor adjustments of the hight of the wheel I managed quite well to adjust the spinning speed, and with more luck than craftmanship I turned my first, hum, thing.

But, that playing with the hight of the wheel - my setup wasn't stable, in fact - was everything but though science. The 'wobbling effect' of my wheel made it hard to turn the clay and the wobbling seemed heavily transmitted to the creation.

Instead of relaxing me it was just pushing my nerves in higher gears.

What I needed was a stable turning table. Fourth lesson.

So I made an upgrade.

Step 5: The Turntable Pottery Wheel 1.0

Instead of playing with the hight of the wheel, I decided to play with the hight of the motor. Sometimes you just need to think outside the box.

Contact on between motor and wheel: you'll speed up.

Contact off: you'll slow down.

With a board, a hinge and a piece of foam I built a kind of foot-controlled motorized pottery wheel.

With my left foot I can move the motor up and down, making contact - or not - with the pottery wheel.

That piece of foam? It's just acting as a basic spring.

Simple & effective. If you really want to get the 'I-didn't-have-the-right-tools-excuse' out of the equation than that's the way to do it.

Big advantage: to get this setup right I had to raise the level of the pottery wheel and so my back could stay right up. Hughe difference. Big relief.

Power on. Again.

TPH 1.0 worked just fine. More than fine, even. But I still couldn't get it right. I continued having big bloody troubles with the centering of the clay, the clay also appeared to be uneven in texture and once I managed to turn something tubular it swept off its support one second later.

I even managed to cut a kind of decent piece in two while I was struggling with a piece of rope I used to cut it off the table. No kidding.

Instead of calming my tormented soul, this whole idea woke up the Balrog in the darkest caves of the inside me.

And so some pieces of clay ended their life to the walls.

Fifth lesson: making pottery requires craftmanship. Really.

Step 6: Desperate DIY Potters: Problem Solving

Dispite my desperateness, I continued trying and error-ing. For hours. I woke up a lot earlier than normal to exercise and I stayed hours in the workshop, untill I managed to acquire that handful of basics needed to make not too bad stuff.

And I searched some help on the net, also.

First problem: the centering. It looks simple: you're taking a fistfullsized ball of clay and throw it on the wheel. Two slaps on its bud and it sticks. So far the easy part. But then you start shaping and the whole thing slides off center, powered by that centrifugal force you'll soon learn to hate.

First solution: this one. I learned that without an 'arm rest' it would never, ever, work. So I installed such a thing, and like miracle my centering issue was gone.

Sixth lesson: you need that armrest.

Second problem: I didn't manage to build a wall. Point at the line. Somehow I started to realize that maybe starting pottery with 'garden-clay' wasn't the best idea of the year. On most videos I saw, those commercial clays seemed much different in mine. In structure and behavior. But heck, I did it once, and I was determined to do that again.

It took a lot af sweat and some blood, but I really managed to do some turning.

Seventh lesson: if you never worked with clay before, start exercising with commercial clay.

Third problem: removing the alien from the table went on giving me troubles.

When I used a piece of rope to cut it like cheese, it kind of 'cured' itself. (!)

Using a spatula went well, but it was just impossible to remove the alien from it afterward. Read: I ruined it.

So I looked on the net how the pros did it, and discovered they used removable round tiles, placed on the turning table.

Why did I think of thàt before?

Eight lesson: make your stuff on a tile, fixed on the turning table. Yep, you'll definitely need a lot of tiles, but you'll definitely ruin a lot less pots.

When my wife entered the shop, her first reaction was: 'THERE'S CLAY EVERYWHERE!!!'.

Nineth lesson: install a mudguard, to avoid this kind of support.

Step 7: Dry Baby

This step is the reason why I wasn't able to finish this instructable within the span of the 'Burn It' contest.

If you really hate your own pottery, this is the step to skip.

Before you can expose your creations to heat, they've got to be dry. Completely dry.

And so they've got to be stored in a well ventilated area. The best way to do so is by storing them on shelves. Just like cheese, they'll have to wait to get better.

Let them dry slowly, all you don't want are drying cracks in this stage.

This may take a few weeks. Or many weeks, even.

Mine are drying now.

And I am waiting impatiently.

UPDATE 11 march 2015

Pics 2, 3 & 4 were taken 4 weeks after pic 1. Drying goes steady & succesful. Note the shrinking traces on the shelve.

Step 8: Fire in the Hole

All that I'm writing here, I learned from the net. I looked at almost every pottery video I found, visited a lot of sites, trying to get wiser and hoping to get it right the first shot. I knew I wouldn't, but at least I wanted to give it a try.

I learned that there were many ways to cook these horrible objects I made with love and lack of craftmanship - and even more ways to ruin them.

It could be done...

  • in an open fire
  • in a specially designed oven, called 'a kiln' - wood or gaz powered (that video is just awesome)
  • in homemade ovens like barrels and worse
  • in holes in the ground, filled with sawdust or guinee pig dung

First I decided to keep it simple and give it a try outside, the wild way. In one video I learned that the key to succes was to heat the objects gradually. Throw them right away in the fire and they will explode immediately. Mount the temperature gradually and they will cook smooth & nice - sounded reasonable to me.

The sound of the results seemed important. Aim was to achieve a 'ringtone' at the end. Tingting is great, toktok is not.

About that open fire stuff, actually that's what I initially intended to do.

Doing it that way sounded like choosing the wise, but safe way - though I've never been the safest person on earth. Since we have a very cruel rocket stove at home I decided to switch directly in sixt gear, like the great pottery masters - read: baking the pottery at high temperature to obtain that nice black glaze that made me so jealous.

You get glaze by adding 'glaze' - a mix of clay and some heavily kept secret minerals or metals - upon non cooked pottery, and by baking them at real high temperature. At least, that's what I thought to understand.

So instead of playing it safe in our backyard, I decided to play it unsafe in our living room. No risk nu fun. Nothing to loose, clay is cheap.

How it turned out? You'll read it later.

Tenth lesson: I'm very impatient to learn that one. I know I'll be surprised.

To be continued. Stay tuned friends.

In the meantime, this video is really amazing.

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