Beginning Pottery Wheel Techniques

By Johanna Ehrmann ; Updated August 31, 2017
The potter is using a sponge to smooth the top of the bowl

Throwing a pot using a pottery wheel is a sensual, messy, satisfying experience. The elegant pots you see in fine stores are the result of years of experience, but nearly anyone can learn the skills needed to make pieces that can be used and enjoyed.

Center the Clay

Learning how to center the clay is an absolute requirement, and it's a skill that takes a while to master. When you first put the clay on the wheel, slap it down with force and try to get it on the center of the wheel. Before starting the wheel, shape the lump into a cone. Once the clay is on the wheel, roughly centered in a cone, it's time to truly center it. You will wet your hands and the clay and use your full strength. Rest your hands against your thighs to provide stability. You will know the clay is centered when you can wrap your hands around it and it spins smoothly.

Make the Opening

Once the clay is centered, you make the opening. Use your thumb. It's important to keep the thumb as still as possible, or the opening will be lopsided, and you will have to close it up, recenter and try again. To help keep your thumb still, rest that arm against your side and hold the free hand against the working hand. Be careful not to go too deep down, or your piece won't have a bottom. Once you've made the hole, use both hands to widen it. The fingers should be inside the hole and the thumb on the outside.

Pull Up the Walls

This should be a gradual process. Trying to pull up too much at once, especially when you are just learning, may cause the wall to sheer off or collapse. Place one hand on the outside and the other on the inside, with the thumb over the top. Rest the hands against one another for stability.

Refine the Base and Top

Once the wall is about 1/4 inch thick all the way up, you should trim the base to match that thickness. If the top is not even, use a needle to level it.

Shape the Piece

Press on the inside of the piece to widen it. Press on the outside to narrow it. Use gentle pressure to avoid a collapse. When the piece is shaped to your satisfaction, slide a wire under the base and set it aside to harden up.

About the Author

Johanna Ehrmann has been a freelance writer, editor and copy editor since 1991. She is the author of four nonfiction books for young readers on César Chávez, origami, dance and the Smithsonian, published by Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, and two fantasy stories, published by Houghton Mifflin. Ehrmann holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Brandeis University.