Throwing a Clay Cylinder on the Potters Wheel

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I'd like to share with you a step-by-step introduction on how to throw a cylinder in clay using the potter's wheel.

Step 1: Gather Your Tools and Materials

Throwing clay on the potter's wheel is a rewarding activity that uses both mind and body. Making a cylinder is the the most basic form and serves as a beginning point for most aspiring ceramicists.

To begin, you must gather your tools and materials. For this demonstration I'm only using a few of the most basic ceramics tools. First you must source a container for water and a sponge. You must also locate a needle tool and a wire-cutting tool. These tools can be found at your local craft store or online at many of the various ceramics supply stores. I also recommend keeping a small hand towel handy for ease of clean-up.

Next are the two objects that may be less accessible. We'll be using a potter's wheel to shape the ball of clay into a cylinder. The wheel I'm using today was made by the company Brent. Brent manufactures many various ceramics equipment. Unless you choose to buy your own potter's wheel, you can often find potter's wheels at local art centers, colleges, and high schools. Maybe there is some sort of ceramics class being offered to the community, so check to see if there's open enrollment at one of the institutions listed earlier.

The final thing you need is clay. You can make your own clay from material found locally or from dry materials purchased from ceramic distribution centers. More often than not, you can buy premixed clay from a ceramics distribution center.

For this demonstration, I'm using about 4 pounds of clay. This should produce a cylinder roughly 10 - 14 inches tall.

Step 2: Mount the Clay to the Wheel

After gathering your materials, you need to mount the clay to the wheel

Take your ball of clay and try to place it as centered on the wheel as possible. Once the clay is placed on the center of the wheel, firmly push down on the ball of clay with your hands in order to securely attach the clay to the wheel. The objective is for the clay to remain stuck to the wheel as we move into the next steps of the throwing process.

Step 3: Add Water to the Clay, Start the Wheel

Now the clay is firmly attached to the wheel, we can begin.

Add small amounts of water to the ball of clay -- just enough for the clay to be shinny, slick, and friction free. I squeeze my wet sponge over the clay to apply the water.

Next we use the foot peddle to set the wheel in motion. Much like driving a car, the foot peddle is used to control the speed of the spinning wheel.

Step 4: Squash the Clay Down

Once the wheel is moving, it's time to start shaping the clay! With wet hands and a wheel spinning almost full speed, I use my fist to push down on the top of the clay, squashing the clay down into a short disc. My right hand forms the fist and my left hand acts as a wall, or a guide, shaping the clay into a disc.

Step 5: Shape the Clay Into a Pillar

Next, I squeeze the disc of clay between both hands to move the clay in towards the center of the wheel. This also moves the clay upwards, into a pillar or cone shape.

Step 6: Work Slowly

Working slowly at this point, I'm shaping and moving the clay more and more into this tall pillar, or cone shape. This act makes the following few steps easier.

Remember to frequently add water to reduce friction between the clay and your hands. You do not want the clay to stick to your fingers!

Step 7: Squash the Pillar Back Down Into a Short Disc

In a similar way to a few steps back, I'm squashing the freshly made pillar back down into another short disc. I'm using my right hand as a fist pushing the clay down towards the wheel with my left hand acting as a wall or guide.

My main focus at this point is getting the clay as centered and uniformly in the middle of the wheel as possible. Centering clay is highly important to throwing beautiful pots on the wheel.

We repeat the past few steps (making a pillar with the clay then squashing it down) at least three times or until your clay is perfectly centered.

Step 8: Remember, Pay Attention to Centering Your Clay

Again, centering is important. When flattening the pillar into a short disc, you center by using your fist and the palm of your hand shape the clay into a perfect disc as close to the center of your wheel as possible.

Note that at this point, your wheel should still be spinning almost at full speed. Or at least as fast as possible with you being able to keep control over the clay.

Step 9: Next We Make a Well

Next we make a well in the absolute center of our freshly center disc of clay. Making a well in the clay is the first step of opening the clay. Opening clay will be the next few steps.

I make the well using my pointer and middle finger on my right hand though you may find it more comfortable to use your thumb on either hand. When making the well, you want to push down into the clay as deep as you can but not all the way to the wheel. Try and leave at least .5 inch between the bottom of the well and the wheel.

Step 10: Open the Well

Next, with the same fingers used to make the well in the center of the clay, you'll open up the well to achieve a wide flat bottom on the inside of the disc of clay. This action is to determine what the inside of the vessel looks like and how wide your cylinder will be.

I used my pointer and middle finger on my right hand to slowly pull towards myself. This takes the previously made well and pulls it open so it becomes larger.

Remember to keep adding water to hydrate the clay and reduce friction.

Step 11: Smooth Out the Wall

At this point, we are almost ready to start making "pulls." A pull serves as a way to pull clay from the bottom of the pot to the top while evening out the thickness of the walls and gaining extra height.

First, I'm using one hand on the inside and one hand on the outside of the pot to smooth the walls and to move the top of the walls inwards creating a hollow cone, or volcano shape.

Step 12: Make Your First Pull

Now we must slow down our wheel speed to at least half in preparation to making our first pull.

With my left hand in the interior and my right hand on the exterior, I reach all the way down to the bottom of the pot. At this point, I pinch the clay between my finger tips and slowly pull directly upwards. It helps to position your body above the wheel and look straight down into the center of the vessel. When making a pull, I recommend pulling your hands directly upwards, or to your nose.

Step 13: Follow Through With Your Pulls

After you start making your fist pull, It's important to follow through each pull all the way from the bottom of the pot to the top. Working slowly, start at the bottom, pinch the clay between your fingers and pull upwards all the way past the top rim of the pot. This helps keep your cylinder's wall consistent and even.

Step 14: Continue Making Pulls

You do not want to move too much material too quickly. I suggest gently pinching and only pulling small amounts of material up at a time. Every time you make a pull, the pot will get taller, so make as many pulls as you need until you get the height you desire.

Step 15: Collar Your Cylinder

Sometimes as you're making pulls the top of the cylinder will begin to flare out. When this happens, the top rim of the pot will become larger than the bottom, also considered the foot, of the pot. This is ok if you're throwing a bowl. Since we're throwing a cylinder, we have to prevent this from happening. We can prevent this by collaring our cylinder, or by taking both our hands and gently squeezing inward give our cylinder an inwards taper.

Remember, keep your top rim of your cylinder the same diameter, or smaller, than the foot of the pot.

Also remember, we're adding water as needed and the wheel is spinning at less than half speed.

Step 16: Slow the Wheel As the Cylinder Gets Taller

As you make more and more pulls, your cylinder will become taller, the walls thinner, and you must slow the wheel down. The thinner the walls are on your cylinder, the harder it will become to handle the clay. Slower speeds help being able to control the clay.

This image is an example of a productive pull. You can see the bump of clay above my finger tips getting pulled upwards.

Step 17: Smooth the Lip Rim

Once you've gained the desired height, there are a few more things we need to do before cutting the cylinder off the wheel.

The top rim, or known as the lip rim, may be rough and uneven. We can fix this by taking our wet sponge and slowly pushing down while gently squeezing the lip rim. Don't push too much, just enough to even and smooth out the lip rim.

Step 18: Trim the Bottom

Next we trim some of the extra clay off the bottom of the cylinder away from the wheel. We do this to aid the removal of the cylinder from the wheel and also to make the cylinder look smoother, with straighter walls, and nicer.

We do this by taking our needle tool and placing it flat on the wheel with the wheel spinning slowly. You'll hear a scrapping sound as the needle tool rubs against the wheel. Now, slowly move the tip of the needle tool into the wall of clay where it meets the wheel. Move the needle tool into the clay a decent amount, maybe and inch or two. Make sure this cut goes all the way around the cylinder. Slowly remove the needle tool.

Next we perform a similar action but rather we plunging the needle tool perpendicularly to the wheel on the outer edge near the bottom of our cylinder. The objective is to cut away the little flange of material that sits right at the bottom of the cylinder at the wheel. Plunge the tip of the needle tool down until you hear it scrapping against the wheel. Slowly remove the needle tool from the clay.

Step 19: Remove the Trimmed Bit of Clay

For the first time since we started, stop the wheel. Use the needle tool to make a cut in the small ring of clay we just trimmed off the bottom of the cylinder. At the spot your cut that small ring, grab it with your finger tips and carefully pull it off the wheel.

Step 20: Remove the Cylinder

Great! We are almost finished. Next we use the wire cutting tool to cut the cylinder away from the wheel. We do this by placing the wire flat on the wheel, then we pull the the wire tool through the cylinder as close to the bottom as possible. It could be you have to pull the wire tool through the cylinder a few times.

Remember, try and use the wire tool directly on the wheel.

Step 21: Move the Cylinder Off the Wheel

Finally, we can take the cylinder off the wheel. By removing one of the splash pans (the two part pan that surround the wheel) we can push our freshly cut cylinder out of place and slide it into your hand. Then carry your cylinder to whatever surface you plan on storing your cylinder on and carefully put it down. Try not to touch to walls of the cylinder too much, the clay will be soft and you'll leave finger prints!

Step 22: There It Is!

Congratulations on your cylinder! Store it covered in some plastic wrap so you can return a little later and trim the bottom before you fire it in a kiln!

In the future, I'll walk you through trimming and firing your pieces but for now we'll leave it at this.

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    DIY Hacks and How Tos

    8 months ago

    Interesting. Pottery is one of those hobbies that I always meant to pick up but just never have. I may have to sign up for a class.