Top Tip for Pottery Wheel Success by Sweet Tarnation
Preparation is key to succeeding in most things in life, and ceramics has really brought this home for me. I’ve been so focused on how to make things work on the wheel that I forgot my basics. I’ve always wedged my clay, because that’s what you see ceramicists doing in YouTube videos and we’re taught from the get-go that you need to have air-bubble-less clay, but never have a I felt the affects of a well-wedged piece of clay more than recently. I’ve been struggling to consistently center my clay, even though I’ve been doing this for a while now. Every once in a while I would get it perfectly centered, and could immediately feel how much more friendly the clay would be. It is pure joy to throw with a well-centered lump of clay; you don’t feel like you’re fighting to mold it into the shape you want. It’s a feeling of working together, of everything going right. When learning something new, we’re told “don’t fight it, flow with it” or “be one with the clay”. It’s all very abstract and good when you’re experienced and can wax poetic about your material, but as a beginner, it’s tough to know what that feels like until you actually feel it. The muscle memory of “being one with the clay” is what’s going to serve you time and again when you sit down at that wheel. Maybe I’m just a literal person, but I need physical memory to do something consistently. To get there, I had to understand what was going wrong to see how I could change it and crack the clay code.
It’s definitely about things going right. The right way, that is. Getting the clay particles all going the same direction is what gives us that blissful throwing experience. And I had forgotten that. Before you open up the center and pull up those walls, you need to get all the bits in line, literally. It’s like having a pep rally before a big game (that’s the only sports analogy I’ll ever use here, pinky promise) to get the clay particles to say “all together now!” and then you can begin. It makes so much sense, especially after feeling the difference first-hand. After struggling with a pot that won’t center, has a slight wobble, and it feels almost impossible to get those walls even, you can really appreciate a well-centered throwing experience. It’s infuriating when you’re constantly fighting what you know can be fun and smooth. “I’ve felt it before, why can’t I do it consistently?” This was my inner dialogue almost every time I was on the wheel. I’d have good throwing days and bad throwing days, or usually something in between. Only recently did I realize that my wedging technique was all over the place. I finally understood that if did a spiral wedge, or a wedge where I was going the same direction rather than switching techniques or directions haphazardly (all the seasoned ceramicists are screaming at me right now, I can hear you!) my time on the wheel was way more enjoyable. I know, it sounds obvious, but as a self-taught ceramicist, this is revolutionary and has completely changed my attitude to what I make. So if someone else is struggling with centering and hasn’t quite figured it out, please go back to your wedging and see if your preparation stage can use a tune-up. It may make all the difference!
The coning stage, where you push your clay up into a cone at least a couple of times before opening and shaping, is also a great time to make sure your particles are aligned. I’ve found coning can only do so much and wedging is a crucial step to having a good wheel day.
So the next time you divide up your clay for a wheel session, make sure to wedge properly before you start. Look up wedging techniques online and see which works best for you. I wedge the clay when portioning and right before throwing, just to make sure all my air bubbles are gone and that my bits are in line with each other. It makes for a much more fun wheel experience and, with the clay in a better mood, it means each piece needs less manipulation to do what you want. This has translated into faster throwing for me, which is a mark of improvement as I practice. It’s so satisfying to see boards lined up with vessels after a successful afternoon on the wheel!