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Richmond, CA – Local Ceramic Artist Talks About Wheel Throwing for Beginners

BY: Liz Merolla, Sweet Tarnation

Beginning Wheel Throwing with Sweet Tarnation

Throwing on the wheel is one of those things that you really have to learn by doing. You can take in all the advice and technique as you want, but what’s going to help you improve is hours on that wheel, practicing the skin of your palms off. You may beat yourself up about your mistakes, but going too far is the only way you can get the feeling for just far enough!

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Centering is the start of any wheel-thrown shape and you’ll thank yourself if you take a few extra minutes to wedge that clay more than you think you need to. Well-wedged clay is going to behave WAY better than under-wedged, let me tell you. If you’re trying to get things centered on the wheel and it’s just not getting its act together, chances are more wedging is in order. Once the clay is on the wheel and you’re centering it to get things going, you’ll want to push with both hands on opposite sides of the clay toward the center, forcing the clay up into a cone shape (this is appropriately called “coning”) and then pushing it back down with a focus on centering the clay on the way down. I push down on the cone with the heel of my left hand while using my right hand to set a boundary and control it as it comes into a flattened acorn shape. I only stop coning when I feel no resistance as it spins and I know that the clay is centered. If you feel a wobble or resistance as your flattened acorn spins, that wobble will only grow in strength as you pull your clay out into a vessel and you’ll be fighting it the whole time.

I would challenge you to get on the wheel without the goal of a finished vessel in mind, but rather seeing what kind of shapes you can achieve. Pushing and pulling the clay this way and that, using water as needed to keep things malleable and slick. See how wide you can go before the centrifugal force makes it collapse, or how tall you can go before it’s too hard to control. Change up the speed of your wheel and see how that affects your vessel. I’ve found slower speeds work better for larger/wider shapes or if I’m working with a very fussy clay body like porcelain. This part is fun! Seeing all the things you can do with clay on a spinning surface is really exciting! Smoosh it, flatten it, pull it up, pull it out, just see what the limits are so you can better understand how your particular clay responds to pressure. You’ll eventually oversaturate the clay and it won’t be able to hold the shapes you’re attempting, so don’t get mad at the clay. This is natural and expected, it’s just time to grab another lump and let that one dry out a bit for next time.

Once you feel ready to make a shape that you want to keep, wedge up that clay, slap it on the wheel, center that puppy, and let’s go!

After centering, the next step is opening it up. I do this by using my right middle fingertip to find the center. You won’t feel resistance when you’ve found it, otherwise you’ll be bouncing a little. Take the time to find the point of no resistance. When you have the center, push down to make an indentation. Watch it for a moment and, if it looks centered well, keep going. I often use my left hand as another source of power if my right middle finger is wobbling at all. A sponge can help too; I put it under my right middle finger and use it as a larger surface area. It helps even more if the sponge is wet and as you push water will come out of the sponge to help with lubrication.

How far down you go will take practice. You’ll get a feel for it after you’ve done a couple dozen of these :). I like to leave a thick foot at the bottom for versatility when trimming, but that’s a whole other can of beans. Go as far as you like (I leave about 3/8″ at the bottom) and then start pulling out. I envision how wide I want the bottom of my vessel and don’t let the outside of my vessel beyond that point. That way when I pull up my walls I don’t have to bring everything in too much. As I widen the opening I try to keep the top of my “donut” of clay flat, going as slowly as I need to so it doesn’t get out of control. Wet sponges help a lot at this stage to keep the top flat and regular.

When I have it pulled out to the width I like, I use a fingertip or sponge to flatten the base, going back and forth across the surface with even pressure and more water if needed. Then, using a wet sponge on the outside and throwing in some fresh water on the inside, I use my index and middle fingers to put gentle pressure on both sides, forcing the clay up. I move up slowly, careful not to move up too fast or put too much pressure that will make thin/weak spots in my walls. This move takes practice! Lots and lots (and lots) of practice. There have been many times where I’ve had a breakthrough with technique and it’s invigorating, just keep in mind there’s always more to learn about how your clay behaves. I’ll pull 3 vessels successfully and then have just as many that I just couldn’t find the groove on, whether it was moving too quickly, or pressing too hard, or not enough water. If you’re feeling friction, use more water to help make things slippery again. If your top starts wobbling, gently take off pressure from both sides and flatten out your rim. Pull that clay until you have the vessel you want, using wooden, silicone, or metal ribs plus your fingers to shape it.

Test the limits on how thin you can get your walls, all while keeping them as even in thickness as you can and focusing on keeping that rim flat. If the rim gets too wobbly you can use a metal needle tool to cut off the top. Find where you want to cut it then, holding the tool stationary and parallel to your wheel, slowly push in as the rim spins. Hold it there well after it cuts all the way through, you want to use the tool to flatten the rim under the cut bit, and then pull the tool and the cut rim away. Wet the cut rim with your fingertip and some water to smooth it out. I use a little strip of vegan chamois that I keep wet while throwing, holding an end in each hand and compressing the rim, to finish it up. I also like to reduce the bulk of clay at the base before cutting it off the wheel.

Use a wire cutting tool, an end in each hand and holding it taut, to separate your vessel from the wheel. If you have a bat system, remove the bat and rejoice! If you don’t have a bat system then you’ll need to use a thin metal rib to lift the vessel carefully. It’s a skill, believe me. I’ve ruined quite a few cups and bowls by letting them slip out of my grasp or being careless and slicing too far into the base with my rib. You’ll get the hang of it, especially if you actually want to keep any of these! I have plywood boards that I rest my vessels on while they dry, turning them upside down when they’re hard enough to let the thicker bottoms air out.

That’s just a starter course for you, there’s so much more to explore in the wheel throwing world! Never forget, you got this. Anything can become second nature if you do it enough. I certainly don’t have my 10,000 hours yet, but I’m getting there and you can too.

 

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“Best Ceramics Store in Richmond, CA”

Top Rated Local Custom Ceramic Art Store / Shop / supplier

East Bay Area: Richmond, Oakland, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Marin City, CA

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Liz Merolla

Sweet Tarnation

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

BIO: Hi, I’m Liz and I like making pretty things. I was born and raised in the Bay Area and am currently based here in Richmond, California. Making things is how I've connected to the world since I can remember. I believe good design is where beauty and function collide. Using fun(tional) objects every day is a highlight of life and I hope my vessels and art help you find that joy too.

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Richmond, CA – Local Ceramic Artist Talks About Wheel Throwing for Beginners