Learn to wedge clay
Calamity is the test of integrity.
Learning to wedge clay
When we learn to wedge clay properly, it’s not nearly as hard as it seems. The time spent practicing well worth it but if you’re practicing it wrong, you’re just making your life more difficult and you’ll never get beyond mediocre. The artists we feature here will set you on the right path so that your practice pays off with beautiful work that you can be proud of.
Clay Choice, Wedging and Set Up – Tim See
Tim See is a pottery teacher based out of Syracuse, New York. While he hosts ceramics workshops and does shows year round, he also hosts his own YouTube channel. His goal is to make quality ceramics education free for anyone. In this video, this fan favorite pottery teacher lays out foundational information about choosing clay, wedging, and setting up to throw. In just 15 minutes, Tim gives beginning ceramics students a thorough walk through of the following:
- Clay Choice
- How to Prepare for Wedging
- Two Ways to Wedge the Clay
- Setting up the Wheel
- Beginner’s Tools
- Sitting and Positioning at the Wheel
Wedging – Spiral and Ram’s Head Techniques
Hsin-Chuen Lin takes a deep dive into two wedging techniques – the Spiral, which is an advanced technique and will require some practice, and the Ram’s Head, which is suitable for beginners, but probably not quite as efficient as the Spiral.
Lin prefers the Spiral and has mastered it over the 40 years he has had his hands in clay.
Before we dig into the content of this video, it is worth noting how much time Lin dedicates to preparing his clay. This is the patient, practiced, unglamorous part of throwing that yields a beautiful payout. If you’re like me, you’ll come to appreciate the quiet, meditative nature of pushing and pulling the clay into a cooperative state.
- The Spiral Technique
Before he even gets started, Lin points out that the wedging board is an unsung but important piece of equipment. It needs to have these qualities of strength, smoothness, and absorbency. He suggests anything from plywood to cement to plaster, to his preference, drywall.
Now keep in mind as you watch this video, Lin is a master pottery and ceramics teacher, and his Spiral wedge has been practiced over 40 years. He emphasizes that this is a practice, not an “instant results” kind of work. Be patient, keep pushing and pulling, and you’ll produce a beautiful spiral in due time.
The Spiral moves the clay in a counterclockwise direction and is created with an emphasis on the work of the left hand. With his left hand, Lin pulls the clay farthest from him toward himself, just slightly, and then with his left palm, he pushes that clay down into the body of the material. His right hand is active as a constraint, or a support, ensuring that the body of the material is forced counterclockwise.
In between each “push/pull” motion, Lin rotates the entire lump of clay, just slightly in a counterclockwise direction.
Spiral wedging is Lin’s preferred method. It is simply unbeatable in terms of powerfully and efficiently incorporating the clay and removing air bubbles. Sometimes watching a master potter can create the illusion that their work is effortless and easy. Lin gives us a reminder that this is not true by demonstrating a clockwise Spiral.
Since this is not his preference or his practice, it is a bit awkward and the result isn’t a beautiful, intricate seashell spiral. (He says his clockwise spiral is like a beginner ceramics student’s, but I’m not sure I believe him). I think he includes this in the video to give novice potters hope that while they might be producing “ugly spirals”, if they keep at it, they’ll be able to create the beauty that Lin does every day.
Finally, Lin shows us how to gather the spiral into a ready-to-use bullet-shaped cone of clay.
- The Ram’s Head
The Ram’s Head (or the European wedge, or the Monkey’s Head) is a great beginner’s wedge. It is not as efficient as the Spiral, and so will take some extra time and effort, but will produce quality, incorporated clay if you’re willing to take the time.
To do a Ram’s Head wedge, Lin takes a smaller lump of clay, and using both hands on either side of the clay, he pulls it from the back toward his body, and does this repeatedly, folding the clay over on itself.
Because it is easy to trap air bubbles in the clay using this method, Lin uses a wire tool to split the wedged clay in half. This creates two new pieces, each with a flat side and a rounded side. Rounded side to rounded side, Lin pushes the two new pieces of clay together to form a new ball and begins to wedge again. He repeats this process four to five times.
Each time he cuts the clay in half, he checks it for air bubbles by bending the clay just slightly. If there are air bubbles near the surface, they will pop out during the bend.
Finally, after wedging, cutting, bending, and wedging again, the clay is ready! Lin rolls it into a ball and stores it for throwing.
Whether you’re a beginner or have had your hands in clay for a long time, you’ll benefit from watching a master potter practice this essential work.
Dorian Beaulieu is a professor of ceramics at Lake Superior College in Duluth, Minnesota.
Wedging – European and Asian Techniques
Dorian Beaulieu is known for his patient and clear instruction, and in this video, he shows us the foundational skill of wedging clay. Many students just want to get on to the fun of throwing or building, but quality time spent wedging the clay ensures successful work on the wheel and in the kiln!
Wedging accomplishes four important outcomes.
- It mixes and homogenizes the clay
- It removes moisture
- It removes air bubbles
- It aligns the clay at a molecular level so that it is conducive to throwing or building
Dorian shows us two ways to wedge: European style, and Asian style.
The European technique is symmetrical, with both hands moving on the clay in the same way. A good wedge requires 75 – 100 movements, and ends a light rolling of the clay into the shape of ball.
The Asian technique is asymmetrical, with the left hand pushing down, and the right hand containing the clay. The end result is a swirled seashell shape, which is gently shaped into a cone and ready for centering and throwing on the wheel.