Learn to how to make a coiled clay pot
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
– Pablo Picasso
Learn how to hand-build pottery using clay coils from some of the most talented ceramic arts teachers on the internet. The techniques you can learn from them can save you from some of the years and tears it took them to master their pottery skills. Enjoy
Coil Pot Construction Techniques – Karan’s Pots and Glass
If you are a beginning coil builder, or just need a little excitement to move you out of a rut, you’ll love Karan Witham-Walsh’s coil techniques video. Karan has been teaching ceramics to high school students for almost 30 years. She is a clear, patient, and thorough teacher who believes in unleashing creative freedom while grounding it all in good foundations.
In this video, she essentially makes a “techniques” pot. The goal isn’t a fabulous design (although the end result is pretty cool,) but rather a demonstration of coil building practices.
She is using nice, plastic earthenware, and begins by wedging the clay until it has a consistent feel.
To create her pot, she begins by creating a slab base. Ultimately, the clay slab should be about the thickness of a pinkie finger, and she achieves this by pushing the clay down, tossing it lightly onto a canvas surface, and finally rolling it with a small wooden roller. Then this ceramic artist cuts the slab into an oval shape. It could just as easily have been a circle or a square – this is merely a design choice.
Once the slab is cut, she uses a damp sponge to soften up the edges a bit. Now, she’s ready to build! Karan builds either on top of a board or on top of a banding wheel and suggests placing a paper towel between the board or wheel and the clay project. This prevents the project from sticking.
Now Karan creates a few coils in advance of building. This way, she doesn’t have to stop in between each application to make a new coil. She does a nice job of detailing how to roll a clay coil. It may seem like it should be an intuitive process, but in actuality, it takes some practice.
Her method goes something like this:
- Squish a small handful of wedged clay into a sausage shape
- Take each end of the “sausage” and twist them in opposite directions
- This prevents the clay from “going flat” in certain sections.
- She begins to roll the coil, using the entirety of her hands as she lightly presses and moves the clay coil back and forth in a full rotation
- Her hands move from the center of the coil outward until it even, and about the diameter of a finger.
She offers a bit of basic troubleshooting as well.
- If the coil gets flat, stop rolling immediately, and give it a twist in that section. It will look a little like the threads of a drill bit when you’re done. Then, continue to roll and the flatness should resolve.
- If the coil develops a thin spot, put your hands on either side of it and roll, moving your hands toward each other. This may help to pull clay toward the thin spot, building it back up to the desired thickness.
Next, Karan builds onto her base using a coil. The steps she uses here will be repeated over and over in the whole hand-building process and are essential to the integrity of the piece. Every time two distinct pieces of clay are joined together, they should be adhered to using this procedure: score, slip, blend.
This means that each of the “touching” sides of the clay are scored with a tool, have slip applied to them, and then are blended together using either a finger or a wooden tool.
Score, slip, blend. If you remember this, you’ll be well on your way to hand-building clay in a way that withstands the drying and firing process and emerges in one piece!
Because the pot Karan is building is meant to show the coils, she only blends on the inside of the pot. If you are coil building a pot and want it to be smooth on the outside, then you’ll blend and smooth the outside as well.
Karan demonstrates 9 coil building techniques that an artist may want to incorporate into their hand built clay pot!
- Rope Coil
- Spheres (or “raindrops”)
- Snail coil and variations
- Fence coil and variation
- Rainbow coil
- Flat coil (for carving words)
- Stamped coil
- Slab application
- Attached sculptural element
She finishes her piece with one final coil to create a unified top edge.
On the day she makes it, she is sure to blend all of the interior coils and elements with a finger or a wooden tool, and then does some smoothing work with a rubber rib.
Later, when the pot is leather-hard, she smooths out the interior even mo and cleans up any clay crumbs or smushed areas on the outside of the pot before it becomes bone dry.
There really is no end to the creative projects that you can make, and make well, by following along with Karan’s coil pot construction techniques!
Building and Cleaning a Vase or Bottle Form with the Pinch and Coil Method – Karan’s Pots and Glass
In this video, Karan Witham-Walsh, one of our favorite high school ceramics teachers, walks us through making a vase for a raku fire. Since she works in a classroom setting, her project is spread over five days. If you have unlimited time in a studio, you could most certainly finish this up in one or two days.
There are five phases of work. (Again, these refer to days in her classroom, but. It’s useful to see the breakdown in the process anyhow.)
Day 1: build pinch pot and add coils
Day 2: (leather hard) shape, clean with a sure-form
Day 3: rib and refine using a stainless steel rib
Day 4: final cleaning with yellow and red ribs
Day 5: if carving a design, this is the day to do it!
Karan uses a groggy 239 stoneware clay suitable for raku firing. Taking a lump of clay the size of her fist, she pushes her thumb into the ball and pinches up the sides. She is careful not to leave the bottom too thick and aims for the bottom to be about the thickness of a finger.
Karan emphasizes working quickly so that the pinch pot doesn’t dry out. Inevitably, little creases and surface cracks will form, and these should be smoothed out immediately.
Once the pinch pot is finished, she adds height by attaching a coil. I shared an excellent video on coil building that Karan produced. If you haven’t’ seen it, you may want to check it out to learn a little bit about the basics of coil rolling and building.
As always, when attaching elements in hand building, you’ll want to follow the “score/ slip/ blend” pattern so that your piece won’t crack. Karan likes to use either a wire brush or a serrated rib to score.
Following this process, she adds two coils to the top of her pinch pot, blending as she goes. When the elements are thoroughly blended, she is ready to shape the pot into a vase form. By gently squeezing and collaring the clay, she shapes a neck near the top of the vessel. Again, she emphasizes blending any surface cracks and creases as soon as you see them.
Karan says that the most common problem she sees with pinch pots is that the base is way too thick. She shows an innovative way of remedying this. She uses a wooden paddle to tap and pull the clay downward. She rotates the vase while applying light downward pressure, and the piece naturally thins and elongates.
Finally, she checks for uniformity in the shape of the lip, shoulders, and base before covering her piece and heading for the damp cabinet.
By day two, the piece is leather hard and ready for shaping. She uses rasp type tools made by Mud Tools or Stanley Surform to get rid of any denting and to refine the form. At this point, she narrows the bottom a bit more and takes time to ensure that the lip is even. Karan suggests using the rasp in a diagonal motion to avoid creating grooves, to get rid of denting, and to shape curves.
The next step is to use a flexible stainless steel scraper to smooth off any marks left from the rasps.
Karan uses flexible yellow and red rubber ribs to compress and smooth the clay further. She suggests that if the clay is getting a little drier than you’d like, just dip a finger in water to moisten it. The rib will travel more easily over the clay afterward. If you’re using a really groggy clay body, you’ll want to wipe the rip off after every couple of swipes so as not to gouge the clay.
If you want a smooth-surfaced vase, stop here! You’re finished.
If you want to carve a design into the vase, you’ll do that today (or in this phase.) Karan likes Kemper ribbon tools for carving. She does a great job of demonstrating how to cut a dimensional scroll into the surface of the vase. After she’s satisfied with her carving, she uses a wet paintbrush to clean and smooth the form.
I wish that we could see what these little pieces look like after being in the raku fire, but I guess we’ll just have to use our imaginations. I’m sure they’re beautiful! In any case, great tutorial on how to build a pinch pot vase.
Creating a Pinch Cup with a Handle and Footring (Part 1 of 4)
In this first of a three-part series, our favorite high school ceramics teacher, Karan Witham-Walsh, shows us how to make a delightful little pinch cup with an added handle and footring.
In the series as a whole, she demonstrated pinch forming, how to add clay onto pieces, and how to create a textural design.
She begins, as always, by wedging a ball of clay until it is evenly mixed. For this project, she likes to work with a ball about the size of an orange. She begins to pinch the pot by sinking her thumb into the center and pinching up the walls. The entire pinching process should ideally take about 5 minutes, and no more than 10, otherwise the clay begins to get overly dry.
As she works her way up the walls, she aims to pinch them about the thickness of her pinkie finger. She keeps the entire pot in her hand during this phase, but when she’s done, she sets it down and gently taps to flatten the bottom.
If Karan’s students want to make a shorter cup, they can stop here. She likes to add a coil and pull up a taller mug. To do this, she layers paper towels on a banding wheel or turntable and places the pinch pot on top.
She makes a thick coil, twisting the ends in opposite directions in order to keep it round. She preps the lip of the pinch pot and one side of the coil (score, slip) and applies the coil. Then she blends the coil into the pot on both sides.
Because she’s used a nice, thick coil, she’s able to use that extra material to pinch the pot up a bit more, adding to the height. Before the clay is leather hard, she uses a yellow rib and smooths out the surface of the pot, removing the worst of any denting or surface irregularities.
She rolls one last coil and forms a footring, shaping it, but not attaching it, around the base of the cup. After she’s sized and shaped the footring, she leaves it on the bottom of the cup before the cup goes, upside-down, into the damp cabinet.
In the next video, she’ll shape the cup a bit more and add the footring, and in the last, she adds a “fake” pulled handle.
Creating a Pinch Cup with a Handle and Footring: Day 2, Cleaning the Cup and Attaching the Footring (Part 2 of 4)
Since Karan Witham-Walsh is a high school teacher, her stages of work are usually broken down into class periods and days. For this project – building a pinch cup with a handle and footring – she goes through a three-day process.
By the second day, the pinch cup has been made, and a footring has been made, but is not yet attached. After a night in the damp cabinet, both are leather hard and ready to attach.
Using a rasp, she cleans the surface of the pinch pot mug by moving it in long diagonal strokes. This gets rid of denting and surface irregularities. Using a long, curved rasp, she cleans the inside as well.
Since this is a pinch pot form, the lip of the cup is likely uneven. Witham-Walsh tackles this by making a “jig” (really just a wooden tool and a needle tool held together in a cross shape) and using it to mark out an even line while the pot spins on a turntable. Then, using a Surform rasp, she scrapes down to the line, and scrapes around the lip to round it and make it a bit thinner.
She finishes this stage by doing a bit more cleaning and smoothing with a serrated rib.
Next, she attaches the footring by scoring both the base of the mug and the top surface of the footring coil. She applies slip, and then uses a wooden tool to blend and attach the two leather hard pieces.
Finally, she grabs her favorite tool – the rasp – and levels the footring. She also uses the Surform to shape the outside of the vase until she’s pleased with the form. Day 2 ends with smoothing the entire surface with a soft yellow rib. Then, the mug is back to the damp cabinet for another day!
Finishing and Carving the Pinch Cups (Part 4 of 4)
Finally, the day we’ve all been waiting for is here! We’re going to finish our pinch pot, handled mugs. Because Karan Witham-Walsh loves to experiment with surface design, she digs in to embellish her mug. First, she lightly traces a design and then begins to carve. She does a great job of explaining how to work from low to high relief, so I recommend checking out this part of her video.
When she’s finished, she moves into the final cleaning stage. She starts by cleaning the rim with a wet clay brush. Don’t use a sponge at this point! A sponge removes smaller particles and leaves behind larger particles – which means you’d end up with a gritty, rough lip. The paintbrush, however, creates its own slip and smooths the surface even more. When she’s done smoothing, she uses her fingers to compress the rim into a velvety soft, rounded edge.
She repeats the same process on the foot and then uses her wet clay brush to clean the carved design. It is interesting to note how long she spends on this aspect of the project. It is easy to want to speed through to the end, but her care ensures a sophisticated product.
TIP: Let the mugs dry very slowly to prevent the handles from cracking where they are joined. This is another stage where potters would do well to exercise patience. Don’t rush those precious pots to the kiln! Let them linger and dry under loose plastic in the damp cabinet.
While Karan doesn’t walk us through glazing in this series, she does tell us that she prefers Celadons and Shino glazes because of the ways that they break over texture and enhance the surface design.
Hope you feel you’ve got “a handle” (pun unabashedly intended) on how to make a top-notch pinch pot mug! Enjoy creating!
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4 Coil Pottery Tricks Every Handbuilder Should Know
Andy Ward is an expert in ancient American southwest pottery. He studies the history of the ancient people and places and teaches modern craftsmen to make pottery with simple, natural tools and techniques. His work is valuable and beautiful! I encourage you to check out both his Ancient Pottery site as well as his YouTube channel!
In this quick video, Andy shares 4 tips for coil building. One is rather controversial!
- Push the form out from the inside.
Andy shows us how to build a vertical cylinder, then use a rounded gourd scraper to push the clay pot into a rounded shape from the inside.
- Don’t worry about air pockets
Ok, here’s the controversial part. Andy says that concern about air pockets in clay is overblown. He even goes so far as to say that wedging is unnecessary! This is almost blasphemy to many potters.
His perspective is that air pockets don’t actually cause breakage and that kneading to consistency, rather than spiral wedging is what is important. Andy says that focusing on making a well-formed, structurally sound pot is what makes a pot solid.
- Make flared rims with your thumbs
Lots of ancient pottery is made with a rounded body, collared in around the neck, and then flared out at the rim. Hand-builders can achieve this easily by using the curved shape of their own thumbs.
With thumbs placed on the outside of the rim, and pinching upward, a potter can create a natural flare without any extra tools.
- Know your pinches.
Ward introduces three pinches in this section. I’m guessing that you already use at least two of these without ever guessing that they have a name!
First, the flat pinch, in which the thumb is on one side and fingers on the other. Together they pinch up a flat wall. This is excellent for feeling out and adjusting any imbalances in the thickness of the clay wall. If overdone, however, the pot walls can begin to stretch outward and become unstable.
To correct this, you can use Ward’s second pinch, the compression pinch.
The compression pinch is a “pleating” movement, in which the potter moves his or her hands together on a small section of the coil, compressing the clay. This is really useful for moving a cylinder shape toward a vase or a jar with a narrower neck, or for thickening walls that have gotten too thin.
Finally, Ward shows us the bonding pinch, which should be a familiar movement to anyone who has hand-built clay. This is how one connects one coil to the other. Using a thumb or finger, press down and slightly into a coil, bringing the clay down and into the base of the pot or the preceding coil. This is repeated all the way around for each coil.
Bridges Pottery – Ceramic Slab and Coil Vessel Demonstration
Bamboo Tools Pottery
Patricia Bridges, of Bridges Pottery in Long Island, shows us how to make a gorgeous hand-built vessel using slabs, coils, and bamboo paddles.
Bridges has been doing pottery for over two decades, and it’s easy to see her experience in the very personal and practiced way she handles the clay.
To make this large, balloon-shaped jar, she first rolls a thick slab of clay, cuts it into a circle, and drapes it over a plastic bowl, spraying the clay with a spritz of Pam to prevent it from sticking to the form. Wow! She uses a textured bamboo paddle to press some texture into the clay.
Once the form has hardened enough to build on, she begins to extrude thick coils and adds them to the base. She integrates each coil into the other from the inside as she builds up into a rounded top.
After she’s laid a substantial number of coils, she smooths and then paddles the outside of the jar. Bridges suggests using either corn starch or water to prevent the paddle from sticking to the clay. Because the paddle is made of bamboo, it does not readily absorb moisture, and therefore the water doesn’t create a sticky mess.
At this point, she dips a rounded tool called an anvil into cornstarch and holding the anvil on the inside of the pot, she paddles around the opening, creating a wonderfully rounded shape.
Finally, she cuts the lip and cleans it up, paddles some texture into the top of the pot, and creates a slab form lid.
Once fired in the bisque, she gets ready to glaze. Because her pot is textured, she uses a rubbing stick to file down any rough or high spots. Then, she sponges the surface to remove any dust. Finally, she layers on glazes and wax resist creating a mottled, organic surface unique to her practice.