Pottery: The Ultimate Guide, History, Getting Started, Inspiration

Where did pottery get it's start? How can you get started with Pottery? This guide will give you an entertaining history of Pottery - the process of learning Pottery - and inspiration for both making pottery - and tasteful examples in decor.

Table Of Contents:

Introduction:

Why Pottery Matters

As one of the oldest human inventions, pottery has been around since before the Neolithic period, with objects dating as far back to 29,000 BC. While in the past, the pottery industry has served marginal niches, today’s pottery companies are thriving thanks in part to a resurgence in consumer demand for unique, handmade goods over mass-produced items.

With such a bright outlook for the future, pottery is perhaps more popular than it has ever been. However, how pottery reached this point is a story filled with rich history.

The History of Pottery

+ A Potter's Perspective

Sometime between 6,000 and 4,000 BC, the first potter’s wheel was invented in Mesopotamia. This brought about a revolution in the way ancient people could create items out of clay. No longer were pottery makers restricted to the long process of hand molding clay — they were then able to have more freedom in experimenting with new forms and aesthetics.

While pottery had always had intrinsic artistic qualities, when the potter’s wheel arrived, it shifted the process even more. Instead of serving utilitarian purposes, it now served artistic ones. While the earliest types of items found by archaeologists were generally undecorated, unglazed, hand-formed clay vessels, by 6000 BC, places like the Middle East, China and Europe had developed a wide array of design techniques.

From intricate painted designs that told the history of a Pharaoh’s reign to highly polished bowls and plates to elaborate animal figures, ceramists attained remarkable skill and ability that was never seen before, thanks to the invention of the potter’s wheel.

If you want to know more about this unique, ancient practice and how it has evolved into the industry it is today, we’ve developed this guide for you. So, let’s get started – here’s the ultimate guide to the history of pottery!

1. What is Pottery?

Before we dive into the history of pottery, let’s actually define what pottery is and how it’s made.

Pottery is made up of ceramic materials and encompasses major types of pottery wares such as earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. To be considered pottery, a piece must be a fired ceramic ware that contains clay when formed.

To create a piece of pottery, the potter must form a ceramic/clay body into a specific object, whether by hand built or wheel thrown techniques, and then heat it at a high temperature in a kiln to remove water from the clay. This allows for changes in the molded object, increasing its strength and durability while permanently setting its shape.

The potter can decorate the clay body either before or after firing, however, some processes require the clay go through certain preparations in order to successfully create a piece of work. With kneading, a process which involves massaging the clay with your hands, it allows moisture within the clay to spread throughout the entire slab. When done correctly the clay will have even moisture content and you’re one step away from creating.

The next preparatory procedure when working with clay is called de-airing. This is accomplished either by a vacuum machine that is attached to a pugmill or manually through the process of wedging. When the clay has been de-aired and de-moisturized, it’s ready to be shaped in a variety of ways. Once it’s shaped, it’s dried and then fired.

2. What do you think it is about making pottery that resonates with people so much?

Pottery has been around since the ancient people roamed the earth. As one of the oldest human inventions, the practice of pottery has developed alongside civilization. The earliest ceramic objects have been dated as far back as 29,000 BC. One of the most popular pieces dated from this time period is The Venus of Dolni Vestonice, discovered in the Czech Republic, a ceramic Venus figurine of a nude female.

Since clay is found nearly everywhere, early humans had easy access to this responsive material, allowing them to mold and shape the world they observed around them. With limited access to tools, clay also let these people mold and shape by hand, creating human statuettes, bowls, utensils and more.

As soon as early humans developed fire, they discovered that heating these formed clay objects transformed them into a different material that was permanent and much more useful to them — mainly items like bowls, plates, and utensils for storing and preparing food.

As civilization made more advances, pottery has always advanced right alongside it, even assisting by helping people survive and providing them with a higher standard of living.

For example, about 21,000 years ago, people located in East Asia were hit with an exceptionally cold climate over a lengthy period of time. To survive, these ancient people had to obtain the maximum calorific and nutritional value from their food. Pottery was the solution. By creating pots, they could then cook their food and improve nutrient intake from starchy plants and meat, the common foods located in the area.

Because of its many utilitarian uses, pottery has been revered throughout history. Of course, over the centuries, it has developed into so much more than just functional ceramic items.

3. When was pottery production revolutionized?

Sometime between 6,000 and 4,000 BC, the first potter’s wheel was invented in Mesopotamia. This brought about a revolution in the way ancient people could create items out of clay. No longer were pottery makers restricted to the long process of hand molding clay — they were then able to have more freedom in experimenting with new forms and aesthetics.

While pottery had always had intrinsic artistic qualities, when the potter’s wheel arrived, it was a game changer! Instead of serving primarily utilitarian purposes, it branched out and shifted to embrace artistic expression. While the earliest types of items found by archaeologists were generally undecorated, unglazed, hand-formed clay vessels, by 6000 BC, places like the Middle East, China and Europe had developed a wide array of design techniques.

From intricate painted designs that told the history of a Pharaoh’s reign to highly polished bowls and plates to elaborate animal figures, ceramists attained remarkable skill and ability that was never seen before, thanks to the invention of the potter’s wheel.

4. How did potters wheels turn before electricity?

history of pottery- first potters wheel

The first mechanical potter’s wheel wasn’t invented until the 19th century, so the first manual potter’s wheel was truly a lasting innovation.

There are many ways to operate a potters wheel without electricity. For the most part, in ancient times, pottery wheels were turned manually, with the user kicking their feet to put it in motion. Other ways to spin a potters wheel included using a stick that is put in a hole at the top of the wheel and then turning it, or simply speeding it up by hand.

Once the mechanical wheel was invented, potters could start manufacturing multiple items per hour, completely revolutionizing the industry once again!

5. How has the making of pottery changed in the past 100 years?

Pottery has changed a lot since the early days of hand-formed ceramic bowls and manual wheels. The biggest change within the past 100 years involves the kiln, another required tool of the pottery trade. Since potter’s wheels have been electrified, so too have kilns moved from gas to electric. Even in the past 20 years, innovators have made progress in the kiln industry, developing electronic programmers to control the temperature and power of the kiln.

When it comes to industrial production, fired ceramic ware has moved from jiggering to pressing. Jiggering is the mechanical adaptation of wheel throwing and is used where mass production or duplication of the same shape, like bowls and plates, is required. Pressing, on the other hand, involves setting a ceramic slab against a mold plate to achieve a customized look.

And some of the biggest innovators in today’s pottery industry have taken a technologically focused approach. Most production lines at major manufacturing facilities have been automated to reduce human power while increasing machine automation.

6. What do you think the greatest advantage is to producing pottery?

Pottery is one of the most durable forms of art, with many fragments found from almost all time periods and civilizations throughout the world. There’s no doubt that ceramic items last much longer than other artifacts that were crafted from less-durable materials. When a person makes a piece of pottery, they’re likely to consider it’s lasting quality and what it means to have something made by their hands be found millenniums later — it’s something that piques the interest of many who learn the practice.

Within the studios of Deneen Pottery, many resident potters say this is the reason they got into the work in the first place. When asked about the longevity of this unique medium, Texas Teena, art director of Deneen Pottery responded, “I think of that often, especially when I design a ceramic mug that has a historic building on it. There could come a time when the only our mug is the only remaining reproduction of that building.”

7. What is the most exciting thing that has happened to pottery within the last five years?

Deneen Pottery Sencha Tea

Thanks to the intersection of pottery customization, marketing and affordability, more and more people are snatching up custom-design items, like branded coffee mugs. From corporations and nonprofits to museums and monuments, even events; everyone wants to take advantage of the many benefits a custom-designed mug offers, making it a hot-selling item for pottery companies around the world.

8. What does the future of pottery have in store?

Throughout the development of civilization, people have relied on pottery to improve their way of life. That shouldn’t change all that much in the near future. People will always have the same need for pottery that they’ve always had, whether it’s for utility or artistic functions. From a potters perspective, the need for pottery won’t be satisfied by manufacturers based in the U.S. Because of steep competition from low-cost imports, many domestic manufacturers are either outsourcing their manufacturing facilities to decrease costs or shutting down.

As for Deneen Pottery, we believe that we have a bright future and confident outlook because our product is more than a simple utilitarian piece. Our work carries aspects of fine art depicting hallmarks of places and events that people want to carry home with them to commemorate a special memory in their life. We’re committed to preserving our customer’s memories for years, centuries, even millenniums (OK, maybe just a few fragments for that last one) to come.

Want to learn more about pottery? Keep reading Deneen’s Ultimate Guide to Pottery for everything you need to know.

How to Get Started

Creating Pottery

Making pottery can be an enjoyable, therapeutic and relatively easy hobby to pick up. Almost anyone can grow their skills as a potter with the right tools, techniques and inspiration.

Just because you’re a beginner, you should never be afraid to get started creating gorgeous, hand-thrown or hand-built pottery. If you’re trying to learn the art, we’ve developed this guide for you. So let’s get started – here’s the ultimate guide on how to get started with pottery!

Pottery for Beginners: Main Techniques of Making Pottery

There are two main methods of making pottery: hand built and wheel thrown. The easiest to start with with is the hand building method, since you just need your hands and a piece of clay. There are three main techniques involved in making hand building pottery:

  • Pinch pot – a simple form of hand-made pottery that’s been around since ancient times. The potter kneads the clay and presses it into the shape of a pot, dish, bowl or cup.  
  • Coiling – using clay, the potter rolls it until it forms a long roll. Then, by placing one coil on top of another, different shapes are formed.
  • Slab – a thick, flat plate, or slice of clay is cut into shapes which are then joined to form an object. The joined edges are scored and slip is used (slip is clay diluted with water to the consistency of cream, used for joining individual pieces of clay).

Wheel-thrown pottery, however, requires special knowledge about how to work the wheel and handle the clay while it’s spinning, among other things. Pottery wheels are used to mold clay into many different shapes. It takes time to become skilled with wheel-throwing, but it’s a much more efficient method once mastered. Pottery wheels can be powered by electricity or manually by the potter kicking their leg.

Pottery for Beginners: Types of Clay Pottery

Now that you know the two main techniques to creating pottery, let’s take a look at the materials you’ll need. First, and most importantly, is the type of clay used. Broadly speaking clay can be classified as earthenware, stoneware or porcelain.

Earthenware is made of baked clay, and often finished in a glaze. Because it’s a porous material, earthenware pottery can crack when exposed to water or heated, such as in the dishwasher.

Stoneware (which is what we use) is one of the most popular clay materials to make tableware with because of its imperviousness to liquid and heat. While it’s hard like porcelain, it’s opaque like earthenware and available in colors from white to tan, red and speckled. The exact composition of stoneware clay can also vary greatly and depending on the region or recipe you’re following the consistency can range from smooth (few impurities) to rough (many additives). Feel the bottom of any pot and you’ll see what we’re talking about. Each mug we make is silky smooth which means we’re using the purest select clay that we can find.

Porcelain pottery closely resembles glass and does best with a dialed in firing process that makes sure that the required firing temperatures were reached. We would not advise starting with  this material. It would be better to hone your skills on either earthenware or stoneware before moving up to porcelain.

Pottery for Beginners: Main Equipment Needed

Beginning potters should know the different techniques and materials used for creating pottery, as well as the relevant, required pottery equipment to achieve various forms.

Kiln tools for pottery - the ultimate guide to pottery

The main piece of equipment you’ll need to get your pottery hobby off the ground is a kiln – a simple device for firing and baking glazes onto the pottery. The primary reason that you will want a kiln is to chemically transform the clay into a permanent lasting relic. Whil

e not necessary for smaller pieces that won’t come into contact with water, a kiln is necessary for creating pieces that you will want to use, like tableware, cups or vases.

Professional potters usually use a mix of firing processes and kilns that include: commercial-grade wood, gas kilns, and electric. As a beginner, you’ll most likely stick to an electric-powered “hobby” kiln that reaches a maximum temperature of about 2340°F which should have easy to use temperature controls and an easy to use guide. 

Small kilns simply plug into a standard wall outlet, while larger kilns may need to be hooked up by a professional electrician and would require a dedicated service.  In terms of cost, you can expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a compact or used model, and up to a few thousand dollars for a larger kiln.

Skutt Kilns are a great option for beginners as they have a wide range of sizes that all provide a high quality fire. A good choice for a new potter is a kiln called the Skutt 714. This kiln that has all of the features of a larger kin, with a more compact size. The capacity of this kiln is 14″x14″ and it weighs less than 100 pounds, making it compact enough for a home studio. Learn more about this kiln, and view other sizes here

equipment needed for pottery

Pottery Wheel

If you’re interested in making more advanced ceramic pieces, you’ll need to invest in a potter’s wheel. These wheels come in both electrical-powered and manual-powered styles, both offering different advantages and disadvantages.

For a beginner, producing pottery on a small electric wheel is a good choice because it doesn’t require the user to develop the coordination needed to kick the wheel while forming a shape. These also provide more torque and speed control to help manage the clay. In our studio we utilize Brent wheels and they are fantastic for both a beginner up to a master production potter. Parts are easy enough to change out and we can verify that one wheel can easily create over 500,000 mugs before any repair will be needed.

Manually operated wheels, on the other hand, can give the user more control than an electrically powered wheel. This is because the potter has complete control of the wheel speed by how much they kick the wheel with their foot.

Pottery Modeling Stand

If you’re sticking with the hand building method of making pottery, a pottery molding stand will come in handy. While not a required piece of equipment, it does make the creation process easier. The potter simply places their slab of clay on this raised, fully rotational surface area, making it simple to form.

Pottery for Beginners: Main Tools Used

While the above equipment is crucial, you’ll also need a variety of special tools to craft the piece of pottery you’re envisioning. There aren’t too many needed right away – in fact, your hands are the main tools you’ll use throughout the entire process. However, there are a few items that can make the process easier, more efficient while helping you expand your abilities.

Pottery Tools for Beginners  tools for pottery -the ultimate guide to pottery

  1. Apron and towels – pottery is a very messy form of art. Don’t wreck your clothes and keep your hands clean with an apron and towels.
  2. Sponges – these versatile tools are incredibly useful when working at the potter’s wheel. Sponges help absorb or distribute water during throwing, making it easier to mold and shape the clay. A sponge attached to an extender can help remove or distribute water to and from hard to reach areas.
  3. Wire – you’ll need a thin piece of wire in order to remove the piece of pottery from the wheel once it’s complete. The wire is usually nylon or metal with wooden notches at each end which the user holds.
  4. Ribs and scrapers – these handy tools help shape and smooth pottery as it’s being formed on the wheel. They can also be used during the rib-and-hand technique used on coiled pottery.
  5. Potter’s needles – these specialized pottery tools resemble long needles and are perfect for a variety of different uses, such as trimming edges on a wheel or scoring slabs of clay for hand throwing applications.
  6. Fettling knives – available in soft or hard temper, these knives can be used to achieve desired angled and curved cuts. Soft fettling knives are flexible and can be bent into a variety of shapes, while hard fettling knives are more inflexible and are better for making clean, straight cuts.
  7. Chamois leather – these tools are great for smoothing the rim of pots or compressing edges of thrown ware.
  8. Loop, wire and ribbon tools – a set of these will give you versatility when trimming slabs of clay, especially when hand molding pottery.  
  9. Brushes – great for when trying to carry water and slip to specific areas when you’re molding clay. You will also need brushes to apply any paint, underglaze or overglaze.
  10. Throwing stick – this tool assists in cleaning up the outside of pottery pieces, as well as making an undercut bevel at the base. A bevel makes cutting the pot from the wheel much simpler.
  11. Wooden ribs – use a wooden rib to smooth the base of your pottery, especially shallow bowls or plates.
  12. Potter’s Calipers – calipers are used to measure the inner and outer dimensions of pots where they will meet with other parts of a working set.
  13. Wooden modeling tools – wooden modeling tools come in an astounding variety of shapes, and are useful for various hand-throwing applications.

Pottery for Beginners: Understanding Glazes

Pottery glaze doesn’t just give the piece a better-looking aesthetic, it also seals the pottery, protecting it from damaging water and heat. After the pottery goes through its initial firing stage to dry the piece, glaze is applied and placed into the kiln again for a second firing. The glaze material melts and sticks to the pottery, providing protection, waterproofing and enhanced aesthetic to the piece.

Glazes normally come in three types of finish, matte, opaque and gloss. In general, gloss finish is used for pottery like tableware, as it’s shiny, easy to clean and non-porous. Matte, offering no shine, is generally used to create a more subdued, sophisticated look. Opaque simply describes a glaze that can’t be seen through, thus covering the surface and color of the clay. Of course, not all pottery requires a glaze flowerpots, for instance, may be crafted without being glazed.

There are also sub-categories of these different glazes, such as semi-transparent, semi-gloss and semi-opaque, among others. You’ll have to test a few to find out which style you prefer.

Glazes come in literally thousands of combinations of colors, textures, styles and types that can be applied in many different ways and fired at a range of temperatures. Some glazes may be vividly colored but still have aspects of the clay showing beneath. For example, you can use a speckled clay and a transparent glaze which can create an interesting and unique look.

We’ve found that what works best is keeping the kiln firing cycle consistent so that you can play with different glaze recipes. Today we have over 170 different glaze combinations from 39 individual solid glazes from our base recipe that was invented in back in 1972. Each color is formulated and mixed from scratch and had a high gloss shine.

We would recommend starting out with pre-made glazes that are designed to give you consistent results with a variety of different firing temperatures, methods and types of clay. Continental Clay on Stinson in Minneapolis is a terrific resource! There are also many options to make a glaze yourself by buying powder from a ceramics supplier or your local art store. When purchasing your first glaze, it’s important to read the temperature rating – the firing temperature must match that of your clay and be within the limits of your kiln.

In Conclusion

Everyone can take-up this enjoyable hobby – so what are you waiting for? Now that you know how to get started making pottery, you can give it a try yourself! Just because you’re new to the art doesn’t mean you can’t create gorgeous, functional pieces of pottery. All you need is the right knowledge, tools and inspiration to help. Best of luck with your first piece of pottery!

Want to learn more about pottery? Keep reading Deneen’s Ultimate Guide to Pottery for everything you need to know.

The Different Types

of Pottery

Sometime between 6,000 and 4,000 BC, the first potter’s wheel was invented in Mesopotamia. This brought about a revolution in the way ancient people could create items out of clay. No longer were pottery makers restricted to the long process of hand molding clay — they were then able to have more freedom in experimenting with new forms and aesthetics.

While pottery had always had intrinsic artistic qualities, when the potter’s wheel arrived, it shifted the process even more. Instead of serving utilitarian purposes, it now served artistic ones. While the earliest types of items found by archaeologists were generally undecorated, unglazed, hand-formed clay vessels, by 6000 BC, places like the Middle East, China and Europe had developed a wide array of design techniques.

From intricate painted designs that told the history of a Pharaoh’s reign to highly polished bowls and plates to elaborate animal figures, ceramists attained remarkable skill and ability that was never seen before, thanks to the invention of the potter’s wheel.

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