Introduction: 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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Clay Contest

Grand Prize in the
Clay Contest