“I plied the fire with fresh fuel round the outside and upon the top, till I saw the pots in the inside red-hot quite through and observed that they did not crack at all. When I saw them clear red, I let them stand in that heat about five or six hours, till I found one of them, though it did not crack, did melt or run; for the sand which was mixed with the clay melted by the violence of the heat, and would have run into glass if I had gone on; so I slacked my fire gradually till the pots began to abate of the red colour; and watching them all night, that I might not let the fire abate too fast, in the morning I had three very good (I will not say handsome) pipkins, and two other earthen pots, as hard burnt as could be desired, and one of them perfectly glazed with the running of the sand.”   –  The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. By Daniel Defoe.


You can do it! Many who wish to make pottery might be deterred by thinking they need a pottery wheel, kiln, or other equipment to start making pots. But the truth is all you need is a lump of clay and your imagination, and you can make your very first pottery projects. If Robinson Crusoe, who was stranded on an island made pots, so can you!  It is so easy a caveman can do it! Wait…they did!  In this post, I will give you a few tips on how all of that can be done and in no time flat, you will be spending your Saturday afternoon creating clay projects you never thought possible. You already took the first step by thinking about it and now the next step would be getting a ball of clay to start with. You will not be able to use these low fire pots for food items, but we can make little planters and other projects.  So first, let’s find a little ball of clay.




The Beginning: Find Some Clay.

“Help! But what type of clay should I use?” I am glad you asked! Since we will be going caveman style, we will use types of clay that you can “bake” at low temperatures. And like Robinson Crusoe, we will start with earthenware. Earthenware is a bit more delicate than stoneware, but it is good enough to start with and practice with. A person starting out can also use raku clay. Raku clay is clay that is intentionally mixed so it can handle “thermal shock” or extreme changes in temperatures of hot and cold without cracking or blowing up. Raku clay also “bakes” at low temperatures. You might also find clay near riverbanks or in the ground. Wild clay needs a bit of testing first and for this project, we will only be using clay that we know will work out. Earthenware clay can be bought at local craft stores or your local pottery supply store. Raku clay also can be bought online or at clay supply stores but is a bit harder to find. So, once you have your box of clay, you now are ready to do the next step. Open the box or bag and scoop out a 1-pound ball of clay.



Step Two: Make a Little Ball.

Congratulations! I am super proud of you! You just went from thinking about making something in clay to doing it! Amazing! Now you need to decide what to make. There are millions of things you can make, but no need to worry about them all and get distracted and overwhelmed. I think for your first project you should make a little pinch pot planter for your aunt Joan. You could put a succulent in it and give it as a gift. She will love it! Now compress the clay into a tight ball. If the clay cracks or is a bit dry, you can put a tiny amount of water on it and knead it in until it is soft and workable. In my opinion, it should be just a bit stiffer than bread dough. Compress and slap the clay to get all the air pockets out and form the little lump of clay into a ball. Now give yourself a thumbs up! You did it!

 



Step Three: Make a Pinch Pot.

Take your thumb that you gave thumbs up with and push it into the center of the clay ball. You only want to push your thumb about ¾ of the way in and not all the way though. The idea is to scoop out the clay gently while rotating the ball. Work the lump of clay by using your thumb to even out the sides. Be sure you get the bottom even also; if there are thick parts, it may take a longer time to dry. It also might not dry evenly. In my opinion, you should take care not to get the top too wide but just wide enough to put in a cute little plant. Now once both the sides and bottom are even, set the pot aside and have a look! You did great! If the pot has cracks, you can take a tiny bit of water and smooth out the rim and edges. Below is a nice video on how to make up your pinch pot.

 




Step Four: Make Three More.

Make three more little cute pots because pottery is about learning through messing up. One of your pinch pots might crack drying, another might crack when you accidentally drop it or when it is fired. But no worries! Making more pots means that you get practice at making pinch pots and by the time you form ten pots, you will be far better at it than what you made at pot one! Now line all the little pots up and have a look at them. They are the very first pots you have made, and you should be proud of them as no matter how good or terrible you think they look, you have met the goal of simply making a pot and you are much further ahead of folks who simply thought about making a clay pot and never did! I’m so proud of you! But these pots are a real snooze fest and in-order to keep awake for the rest of the project and to make the pots look a bit more interesting, we need to do a bit of decorating.

 

 

Step Five: Decorate Your Pots.

Now just like there are a million ways to make a pot, there are a million ways to decorate one. So, for this project, we will simply make impressions in the little clay pots. You can use plants, stones, tree bark, and many other found objects to make texture patterns and impressions. When making impressions, be sure to hold the pot on the inside and not press too hard as you do not want to deform the pot. Press in things as much or as little as you like and when you are all done, line them up and look at the cute little designs you have made on them. Your Aunt Joan will love them! Now we move on to the next step as we need to let them dry.

 




Step Six: Dry Your Pots.


Drying pots is easy because it does not require you to do much of anything. If the walls and base of the pots are even, things should dry out in a few days. As they dry, they will get more delicate, so handle them like eggs. The stages of drying are what pottery folks call leather hard and bone dry.  “Leather hard” is when the clay is not fully dry but is quite hard. At this point, folks trim pots and also carve. At the “bone dry” stage, there is very little moisture left in the clay and the pot is completely dry. In most clays you will notice a color change. Dry the little pots in an area that has good circulation. You could put them in the sun, but for this beginner project, we want them to dry a bit slower so they do not dry too fast and crack. If possible, you could carefully turn the little pots upside down and let them fully dry. If the edges are delicate, leave them right side up, but rotate them a bit every few hours. If you forget, it’s fine, but be sure your pot is not stuck to anything as it shrinks when it dries, and you do not want cracks. Your pots will be dry when they are bone dry. An easy way to tell if your pot is dry is to carefully pick them up and touch them on your cheek. If they still feel cold, they may need to dry a bit more. Rotate them around and expose them to air. When your pots are completely dry, they are now ready to fire!




Step Seven: Get Ready to fire!

Now this takes a bit of research, but don’t be scared! Just like there are a million ways to make and decorate a pot, there are a million ways to fire a pot. If you are just a kid getting into art, you will need an adult to help you with this part as fire is very dangerous and can cause a lot of damage. So, for the love of all that is holy, check with your local authorities about what you are permitted to do and not do. Be sure to follow all laws and safety standards around fire safety. Be sure to fire in a safe place where it is not windy. Plan a way to put out the fire if things go bad. I do not want to see anyone in the news. So, after learning about fire safety and the laws and regulations, we can get ready to fire. For this example, we are going to pit fire. Get a shovel and meet me back here so we can get to it.



Step Eight: Dig a Hole.


Scrape the area 3-foot around your pit so small leaves and sticks do not catch fire from your pit. Use the shovel or some tool to dig a hole. You want the hole to be as deep as your elbow and wide enough on the edges to place all your pots in with a bit of space around each one. The idea is to have a dry hole, dry burnables, dry wood, and dry pots. Place some burnables in the hole and do some burning to dry the hole out some. You can use sawdust. You can get bags of sawdust at the hardware store or at pet supply shops. One bag should be good enough. Place the pots on the edge of your little hole and rotate them to start to slowly heat them up. Use gloves to place in your pots. Place larger pieces of wood on top like you are going to have a campfire. In the video below, this lady fires pots like Robinson Crusoe did. At 19:30 in the video below, she warms them up and places the pots in the fire!

 


Can I Make Pottery in my fire pit?  You Bet!

 



Step Nine: Light the Fire.

Carefully move all burnables like left over saw dust, leaves, and dry wood from the area and place them where they will not catch fire. Carefully light the fire like you are at camp. Add on more wood slowly and let the fire burn all the way down into the pots and in the hole. Never leave a fire unattended! Let the fire burn out. When the pots are cool enough, pull them out with a pair of gloves. When you tap the pot carefully, you should hear a ring that will tell you if your pot at least has reached a temperature to harden it enough.



 

Step Ten: Clean the Pot.

When the pots are cool enough to hold with your hand, clean the pots up with water and a Brillo pad, wiping off all the ash and dirt that might be on it. Congratulations! You just made your first pots without a kiln. Now go buy some succulents and put them in your pots and give them to your aunt Joan as a gift! She will love them!



 

Written By,
Al Wayman
Artist/Owner
Creek Road Pottery LLC

Edited by:
Erika Sickler
Content Writer/ Editor
Creek Road Pottery LLC

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Using stains to enhance your work and define texture.

For the last few years I have been working with oxide stains and have enjoyed the results.  I mostly use red iron oxide and back wipe it once applied to bring out the highlights in texture patterns I press into the clay on the work.  When fired in reduction the oxide goes to a leather looking color that I find appealing. I choose functional forms that can be used with no glaze and simply just stain. Things like  shave brush handles, the outside of mugs , bowls, and handles I leave raw at times to stain.

I found early on a problem traditional wet shavers had been that glazed shave bowls were slippery and users would drop them in the sink.  This allowed me to work up a design with texture patterns on the outside of the bowls to help with grip and I decided to leave the outside raw to give it a rustic look.  I then used red iron oxide to bring out the texture patterns in a more pronounced way. I was able to experiment with many patterns and styles over the years and also save money as I was only glazing half the pot. Red Iron Oxide was far cheaper than any glaze recipe but just took a bit longer to apply.

I also enjoyed seeing the raw clay next to glazed areas and patterned areas in contrast to smooth. I found that lettering looked quite nice when red iron oxide is applied and wiped back leaving the valleys dark and peaks a lighter color.

Applying Stain to the pots.

I put some red iron oxide powder in a dish and add water. The more iron the darker. So at times I may add less or more water depending on the look I might be going for. I then apply the red iron oxide wash with a brush on the bisque ware then back wipe with a sponge. After I am done applying the wash I let the pots dry some and then glaze the other areas last if I decide to glaze at all.

The end result can be quite amazing. I do enjoy seeing the toasty brown color of the clay after opening the gas kiln after the glaze firing. For classes, I give it is possible to have the students make pinch pot planters and have them impress texture patterns in them and later bisque fire and stain them. This can be done for those who wish to only take one class and only return for pickup. In the video here I am loading the kiln full of stained pinch pots done by students. The outcome was quite nice! Below is an example of student work from my last class. The possibilities are endless on how to use stains to make work look interesting and communicate without using glaze. Have you ever used stains? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

I was invited by the Bradford County Regional Arts Council to have a pinch pot class in the historic Keystone Theatre

 

The event was called Thursdays in the Studio and was held on May 13th from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. It was an enjoyable time for sure and I was able to meet a few other local artists from the area who attended the class. We all made three pinch pot planters each and then pressed texture marks into the clay.  There were many creative ideas for impressions as some used shells, stones, stamps, and other used leaves and plant material.  The plants will burn off in the hot kiln but should leave nice impressions.

 

Some makers created pots that were somewhat taller to be used as vases. The pots will be put though two firings. The first is a bisque fire and then after staining them with red iron oxide they will be fired once more in a higher temperature glaze firing.  Participating in events again together with community was so much fun as many were canceled or postponed due to the pandemic. I was able to get all the little pots home without issue. Jokes were made at the class about living in the country and swerving to miss deer with driving home.  It is always nerve wracking driving with pots.  I placed them all in bread racks and stacked them up in the trunk of my car.

 

Keystone Theatre in Towanda, PA was built in 1886 and was formally called Hale’s Opera House. In 1988 funds were raised by Bradford County Regional Arts Council to restore the historical site. You may read more in the history of the building at the link here. The Bradford County Regional Arts Council  is a nonprofit organization dedicated to building and supporting an arts community, supporting the Arts, and preserving Bradford County’s historic theaters as centers for performances, community events and showing movies. To learn more about classes, performances,  events, or to support the Bradford County Regional Arts Council visit their website by clicking here.

 

 

The Mother/Daughter Pinch Pot Class At Harper Hill Crafts

I was honored to have a pinch pot class back home in my childhood town of Susquehanna, PA.

Melissa Dubas  of Harper Hill Crafts thought it would be fun to do a mother/daughter succulent pinch pot class for Mother’s Day.  She was right!
The class filled up quite fast and 16 people had a fun time making up three little pinch pots and impressing patterns and designs into them.

We all took little lumps of clay and worked out the insides then formed the little pots into all kinds of interesting shapes.  Some took the project another direction and created little wall hangings for plants. Then objects pressed into the clay like stones, stamps, and rollers to create interesting designs and textures. It will take the pots at least two weeks to dry before they are stained with red iron oxide and fired out in the gas kiln. Using the stain will bring out the texture patterns and make them more pronounced so each impression and fingerprint left will tell a little story about the creator and the fun time we all had with those who are a part of the Harper Hill Crafts community.

Melissa and Harper Hill Crafts have been doing craft workshops providing a space to be creative with both private and public events to bring community together.  At Harper Hill Crafts you will also find a gift shop filled with home decor items and gifts. Plans are also being made for a coffee house and shop.

Melissa also sponsors events in the town of Susquehanna in an effort to revitalize the historical railroad town.  The next event that is planned is Susquehanna in Bloom- Main Street Market that will take place May 16th 2021 at 11:00am

Thanks so much to Harper Hill Crafts and shop owner Melissa for selling my pots in your shop and inviting me back home to share a fun time with you all!  Now I am under a lot of pressure to fire the kiln right and hope everything turns out without blowing up.