Introduction: Pottery Bird Whistle

One of the most basic projects a beginning potter can attempt is the whistle. It's challenging enough to be engaging, and when it's dressed to the nines, like this one is, it becomes a tiny but endearing piece of art. Follow the steps carefully and you, too, can create a lasting and charming keepsake.

Step 1: Gather Your Materials and Prepare for the Firing


Clay (about half a pound will be gracious plenty; I used mid-range firing clay)

Xacto knife and blade

Toothpicks (for cleaning the holes and scratching surfaces)

Wooden coffee stirrers

Small paintbrush


Mid-range (Cone 5-6) glazes (I used black, a jade green, and a peridot)

A source for bisque and glaze firing (an art studio or college art department, perhaps)

Step 2: Form the Base and Body

Form the base of the whistle by rolling a 1" ball and flattening it to a 3/8" slab. Trace a circle in the slab (I used the lid from liquid detergent) and cut it out.

Form the body by rolling a 2" ball, pressing a thumb into it, and forming a bowl shape. Press the walls of the form to approximately 3/8" thickness.

Check to make sure the bowl and base are a good fit.

Step 3: Join the Pieces

Trim the bowl edge to ensure a smooth connection.

Score the edges of the bowl and the perimeter of the base. Brush both edges with water.

Carefully press the bowl firmly to the base. Smooth the seam.

Step 4: Add the Mouthpiece

Form a rectangle that's an inch long and about half an inch on each side. This must be attached flush with the bottom of the bird.

Score both the end of the mouthpiece and the spot where it will be attached.

Brush both scored surfaces with water and attach, pressing firmly.

Slide the coffee stirrer into the mouthpiece, and push through into the open section of the body.

Step 5: Cut the Air Hole

Lay a stirrer along the base and score a line. (It needs to fall inside the wall--you need a clear hole into the cavity.)

Then lay the stirrer perpendicular to that line and score on each side of the stirrer. Slide the stirrer into the air hole in the mouthpiece, all the way to the front wall. Hold it flat. Using the Xacto knife, cut the scored square of clay completely out and remove it.

Step 6: Make It Sing!

This is one of the trickiest parts. You have to cut a 45° angle adjacent to the air hole; this angle serves to split the air you blow into the mouthpiece and create the whistle sound. Leave one stirrer in the mouthpiece to give yourself something to slice to. Break off the rounded tip of another stirrer to create a blunt tool, and slice into the clay at 45°. Make the cut as clean as you can, because ragged edges will prevent a good splitting of the air.

Now, this is critical: remove the stirrer from the mouthpiece and try out the whistle. If it doesn't work, clean up the angled cut and try again. Here's what happened on this one--first try, I swear!

Step 7: Make and Attach the Beak

Roll a bit of the clay into a long cone.

Split it with the blade and cut it off just past your cut.

Score and moisten the end of the beak and the spot where you'll attach it. (The beak is a matter of preference. It can be long or short, open or closed. It can be aimed up or out. Your call.)

Carefully press the beak onto the body.

Step 8: Dress It Up

Once your whistle is functioning properly, it's time to dress it up. Anything goes here, but I like to turn my creations into little birds. They make me happy.

You can leave the whistle the way it is and go directly to the firing steps, or you can carve designs into the clay with a toothpick, fork, comb--anything that will create a texture. You can also make an ocarina (for a variety of tones you make by covering and uncovering the holes) by adding random holes with a toothpick. If you do this, put the holes in places that are easy to reach while you're holding the whistle. The bird isn't a good candidate for an ocarina, because the feathers would cover the holes.

Before you begin applying the feathers, pick up the whistle and mark where you're holding it. You won't put feathers there, because they're going to be fragile even after firing, and you need a way to hold the whistle.

To make the feathers, I simply scrape a wedge of the clay with the exacto. Practice this a bit, because you can adjust the size of the feather with the angle of the blade. I scrape several times (6-8) for a single feather. If the feather doesn't look right, just work it back into your wedge. Don't try to make a bunch of feathers at a time--they'll dry too fast and you won't be able to attach them.

Okay. Scrapescrapescrapescrapescrapescrape. Voila! A feather. The body of the bird has to be moist, so apply a bit of water with a firm little brush, creating a rough surface at the point of attachment. Moisten the back of the feather. Gently but firmly press the feather onto the roughened surface. Apply in a row arou d the base, and work up in rows.

Continue applying feathers, all the way up around the beak and to the top of the head. (Be careful with the beak. It will want to break.)

You can scratch a texture into the part you left free for holding it. It will just soften the transition to the feathers.

Step 9: Sign It and Dry It

Always sign your work. Just do it.

You're done with the construction at this point. Now allow it to dry, and keep your hands off. The beak and the ends of the feathers will dry very quickly, and if you touch it, they're very likely to break.

It can easily take a week for this thing to dry, but you don't want to rush it. Let it sit uncovered during the day and cover it loosely with a plastic bag at night. After three or four days, just leave it uncovered to dry completely.

Step 10: Bisque, Glaze, Fire, and Enjoy!

The hard part is finding a place to fire your work. The easy part is letting somebody else fire your work. A bisque firing will take the clay to approximately 1860° Fahrenheit, which is clearly not something you can do without a kiln. I used mid-range (cone 5-cone 6) glazes, which were fired at cone 6, or 2232° Fahrenheit.

The finished product is a real piece of pottery. It will last until the end of time, unless you drop it. Then it will break. Don’t drop it. Leave it intact for posterity!

Clay Contest 2016

Runner Up in the
Clay Contest 2016