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Stoneware bowl - cobalt blue underglaze, cone 5It has occurred to me that I should provide some more specific help to the person who wants to get started at making their pottery at home. If you want to get your supplies (and have your pots fired) at a local ceramics shop, and create your own one-of-a-kind original pottery pieces, this page was written with you in mind.

I will make some attempt to give you the basic facts you will need to get started, and most specifically, how to deal with the ceramics shop. This page is l-o-n-g, (not broken up into several shorter pages) to make it easier to print (if you so desire).

I will assume that most people who want to work at home (are unable to take a class at a local community center or community college) will probably not be using a potter's wheel. However, if you do have access to a potter's wheel, you will almost certainly need to use some instructional videos, some really good books, or have an experienced potter show you how it's done. Wheel throwing (in my opinion) is not something you can just "pick up" by goofing around on your own.

The reason I am focussing on local ceramics shops is that they are everywhere. "Hobby" ceramics is very popular, so there's a decent chance that even smaller communities have a ceramics shop nearby.

Setting up your studio - tools | Dealing with the Ceramics Shop | An explanation of Cones | Glazes and clays |  Final Thoughts | Pottery Books


Tools and setting up your "Pottery Studio."

You will need some basic tools to work with the clay. I will not describe all the specific tools too much here. However, a few basics would be:

  • A "needle tool" (like a big long straight pin attached to a metal or wooden handle).
  • Chamois. (Smooth strip of leather, used to smooth out rough spots on a ceramic work).
  • "Fettling Knife." A dull knife, used to carve and shape your work.
  • Sponges. Small and large, good quality. A special "elephant ear" sponge is especially helpful.
  • Rolling Pin. Any type will do - you use this to roll out slabs of clay.
  • Spray bottle - for spraying your clay projects down with water while you are working on them.
  • Thin plastic. Plastic bags (like you find at the grocery store), and plastic from the dry cleaners are especially suitable. Used to cover up your projects so they won't dry out between pottery sessions.
  • Empty yogurt containers with lids. (Or any small plastic containers - Tupperware, or just used jars). For keeping especially sloppy, "creamy" consistency clay. This clay is called "slip," and it is used kind of like a "glue" to join clay pieces together. (Like joining a mug handle to the body of the mug.)
  • Pottery book. Hey - I am not able to tell you everything here! Go to the library (or Amazon.com), and get a book that illustrates all the different handbuilding (or wheel throwing) techniques. (Check out my Pottery Book Recommendations Page for some good book suggestions.)

You will also need to set up a room for pottery. Or, just a corner of the room. Get a table, cover it with newspapers, and have paper towels handy. Also, a big sponge - you will use this to clean your work area after each working session. Pottery certainly isn't an unsanitary hobby, but it is messy!

A caution about your plumbing: If you are careless, you can clog up your drains with clay. This is not a big problem if you are careful. The secret is, don't throw any clay scraps down your sink. Save them and "recycle" them (to be used again). Any "sludgy" clay water you have should be poured down the sink with lots of running water. Let the water run for a while, to make sure all the clay particles are washed through your pipes.

Also note - clay (and glaze) dust can be hard on your lungs. Don't vacuum clay dust (it won't really go away). Clean away clay dust with a wet sponge or mop. It's a good habit to wipe down your working area with a wet sponge after each working session. None of us are clean freaks here - but when things start to get dusty, get that wet sponge out and wipe the dust off!

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Dealing with the Ceramics Shop

You will have to find a local shop that deals with "hobby" ceramics. These are places that sell pre-made "greenware" (unfired, dried ceramic pieces cast from molds). The greenware can be in the form of vases, ceramic clowns, figurines, mugs, lamp bases, just about anything. People buy the greenware and paint them up with ceramic underglazes and glazes, and then have them fired in the kiln. They will sometimes paint these pieces up by following a set of specific instructions - kind of like "paint by numbers," but for ceramics.

"Hobby Ceramics" can be very nice, but it is not what I am talking about here. If you are interested in doing that kind of work, the ceramics shop you find will help you out every step of the way. I am attempting to help you use the supplies and resources of these nice little ceramics shops, but create your own original, one-of-a-kind work at home.

To find a ceramics shop, just look in the phone book for "ceramics." Or "hobby ceramics." Or, you can go to the site of a company that makes hobby ceramics supplies (like Duncan) and look for a local shop on their list of "distributors." However, if you don't find any local listings, it doesn't mean that there are no shops in your area. Most smaller shops will not be listed as "distributors" on such web sites.

When you find a shop that you think has potential, call them up to confirm that they sell ceramic glazes and supplies, and that they will fire customer pottery in their kilns. Explain what you want to do - to buy supplies, work at home, and bring your work in to be fired. If they are not the right kind of shop, ask if they can recommend a local hobby ceramics shop to you. They may have some really good suggestions.

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All About Cones

Well, here is where I have to get (semi) technical. I need to help you understand the different firing temperatures of clay. This is important to you, but also very important to the ceramics shop you will be dealing with. They need to be able to trust that you know what you are talking about, before they will be comfortable firing your clay pottery in their kiln.

So here it is, the big technical diagram, explaining clay temps and "cones." Prepare yourself!

Ceramic cones explainedThe term we use to describe different clay temperatures is "cone." A cone is a little thing that potters use in the kiln, to help determine the temperature inside the kiln. But I am not going to give a full explanation of a "cone," just trust me - a "cone" is what it is called. Instead of writing out the word "Cone," some people use the "^" symbol. Or, they use a triangle symbol. (As seen on the ceramic cone illustration.)

There are basically two main temperature ranges in the firing of clay - stoneware, and earthenware. Stoneware is fired hotter (about 2300 degrees) and earthenware is fired to a lower temperature. (About 1925 degrees, give or take.) These differences can be profound to the potter. If an earthenware clay is mistakenly fired to a stoneware temperature, it will MELT. Melt flat, like glass. Bad. Very bad. And the thing is, you can't tell whether a clay is stoneware or earthenware by just looking at it. You have to know beforehand. You have to be 100% sure of what kind of clay you are using.

Don't be scared off - it's not a huge deal. We pottery people don't get confused all that often, as long as we really understand how it works!

When we discuss the firing temperature of clays, we don't usually mention degrees. Instead, we say "I'm firing this at cone 5" or "I'm firing at cone 05" (pronounced "oh-five"). Or, we use the less specific term "stoneware," or "earthenware." And as you can tell by my illustration to the left, there is a big difference between "Cone 5" and "Cone 05." That little "0" isn't so little after all!

Most earthenware is fired between Cone 06-04, or Cone 03 if you are pushing it a little. (As you can see from the diagram, Cone 06 is cooler than Cone 04.) Most stoneware is fired between Cone 4 t0 Cone 10. Actually, there is a "subset" to stoneware temperatures. Cones 4-6 are considered "midrange stoneware," and Cones 7-10 are just "stoneware." Or you can just call 'em all "stoneware." A little confusing, huh? Don't worry, you'll remember it, once you get started with pottery!

Most earthenware (and stoneware) clays can be fired at a range of temperatures. They don't have to be fired at one specific, extremely narrow temperature range. There is a little "wiggle room" there. Usually, earthenware can be fired from Cone 06 to Cone 03. Or even a little hotter - but you are taking your chances, the hotter you get.

So, when you go to the ceramics shop, it might be easiest to just work with earthenware clays and glazes (at least at first). Most ceramics shops deal primarily with the earthenware temperature, as their greenware products are earthenware. It is "safer" for the ceramics shop to fire at that range, since almost all clays can survive an earthenware temperature firing, and not melt. To sum it up: stoneware that is mistakenly fired at earthenware temperatures won't melt, or do any harm to the kiln. On the other hand, earthenware mistakenly fired to stoneware temperatures will most assuredly melt, and in a big, messy, expensive way.

You can still ask about firing to stoneware temperatures, of course. But this is where shops will become especially paranoid and cautious. Some of them have had experiences in the past where a customer assured them that the pottery they wanted fired was indeed stoneware. But they were wrong, or confused - it was in fact earthenware. And the shop ended up with a huge melted puddle in their kiln. So, some shops won't fire to stoneware temperatures. Or, they will only fire to stoneware if you buy clay from them. (That way, they know the clay is indeed stoneware!)

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Clay and Glazes

On my pottery techniques page I give specific details on the brands of clay and glazes I use. This information may be useful to you as well. But on this page, I will also discuss the kind of products you will find in hobby ceramics shops.

When I started out in pottery, I used Duncan glazes and underglazes. They are very popular, and a lot of shops carry them. They are consistent and reliable products. And they come out with new colors and features all the time! If you find a ceramics shop that carries Duncan products, they can tell you all about Duncan! (However, if the local ceramics shop doesn't carry Duncan, that's OK. Gare, Mayco, and Amaco are a few other brands that are excellent as well.) If you want to mail-order your glazes, Dick Blick sells most of the popular brands of earthenware and stoneware glazes.

I especially like Duncan's "Cover Coats" and "EZ Stroke" underglazes (these are the decorating colors used to make a design or decoration. Kind of like "paint"). I also used a lot of the Duncan glazes. (I used their transparent, translucent, and opaque glazes. The clear glazes were used over the underglaze "painting," to seal it and make it food safe, while allowing the painted decoration to show through.) I especially preferred their "Envision" line of glazes, as these are nontoxic (and usually food-safe) glazes. If you don't plan on painting any decorations on your pottery, you probably won't need to use the underglazes. Just stick with the glazes. They are very pretty, and have a wide range of colors to choose from!

A special "heads up" when you are buying glazes and underglazes: Make sure you don't buy a glaze/underglaze that is "non-firing." These shops also sell ceramic "paints," that are basically acrylic paint, to be used on decorative works. These paints come in jars that resemble (at first glance) the "real" glazes, but if you look at the label, they will be clearly marked as being "non-firing."

As far as clay goes, I prefer Laguna clays. But, the ceramics shop you find may not be able to order Laguna clay for you. They might order clay from the local clay supplier. That will probably be fine as well. If they ask you what kind of clay you want (if you are offered a choice) get their white modeling clay. White is best when you are painting decorations on the clay. Also, red clay can sometimes react badly to the glazes and underglazes. Some red clay is great with glazes, some isn't. It's a gamble. My advice - stick to white clay for starters!

Also, a "heads up" when buying clays: if you don't buy your clay from the ceramics shop, be sure to confirm that any clay you buy can indeed be fired to the Cone temperature you desire. There are a few brands of special "hobby" clays that are fired to very low temperatures (even just in the oven!). You don't want to pick up one of these kinds of clays by mistake. So - just make sure that the clay you buy specifies the Cone temperature that it can be fired to.

And, in case you are wondering about the difference between earthenware and stoneware clays: Stoneware is usually not as colorful. The bright colored glazes burn out during the hot stoneware firing process. But, stoneware is fired hotter, therefore the clay is harder, and more durable. Earthenware is more colorful. The bright colorful glazes and underglazes (like you see in the Duncan color charts) can survive the lower earthenware firing temperature. Earthenware isn't as strong or as durable as stoneware, but it still is OK for food use. I eat and drink out of my earthenware pottery all the time.

Another important detail about firing earthenware: the glazes MUST be fired to the minimum temperature listed on the glaze bottle. For instance, if the glaze instructions say that the glaze should be fired to at least Cone 06, it can't be fired to Cone 07 (which, as you can tell from my diagram, is cooler). If it is "underfired" (fired too cool) there is a chance that not all the toxins will be fired out. It may not be "food safe." So, this is an important detail, and not to be overlooked. The ceramics shop you deal with will probably be well aware of this, so it shouldn't be something you have to worry about. But it is a bit of information I felt was important to share anyway.

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Final Thoughts

Have fun, take it easy. Respect the people at the local ceramics shop. Most of them will be really friendly and helpful. They can really know their stuff when it comes to glazes, underglazes, and firing ceramics.

However, I will offer this warning: there can sometimes be a subtle tension between "hobby ceramics" and "pottery." My guess is that the hobby ceramics people have encountered potters that are snobby. (Because hobby ceramics is a little bit like "painting by numbers," and isn't "arty" enough in some pottery people's minds.) I think this is a real shame. I find that a lot of hobby ceramics work is quite beautiful, and shows a lot of painting and glazing skill. I admit, I personally would find hobby ceramics too restrictive (using molded work, following a set of instructions). But, I can see why many people find hobby ceramics to be a lot of fun, and a very rewarding hobby.

So - when you walk into a hobby ceramics shop, you might find that the shop owners eye you with a bit of suspicion. Wondering if you are one of those "snobs." Some shop owners (thankfully, not many) can even have a little chip on their shoulder. It's a pity that this problem exists between some potters and "hobby" ceramists.

My suggestion is to be very respectful to the hobby ceramists you encounter in any of these shops. Be gracious, and enthusiastic. Find something in their store to compliment. (Most shops display samples of different kinds of hobby ceramics work.) While I am confident that most hobby ceramics shops are polite and professional to all their customers, there will be a few defensive folks out there. Your best bet is to be easy-going, and go with the flow. You just want to have the best relationship with these people that you possibly can. They may be the "only game in town," when it comes to ceramics and pottery supplies. Get off on the right foot with them.

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Some good pottery books:

Handbuilt Ceramics: Pinching, Coiling, Extruding, Molding, Slip Casting, Slab Work - Good book for learning various hand-building techniques. (Check out this book on Amazon.co.uk.)

The Big Book of Ceramics : A Guide to the History, Materials, Equipment, and Techniques of Hand-Building, Molding, Throwing, Kiln-Firing, and Glazing - Comprehensive book on pottery, as the title suggests! (Check out this book on Amazon.co.uk.)

The Potter's Guide to Handbuilding - Another good handbuilding book! (Check out this book on Amazon.co.uk.)

The New Maiolica : Contemporary Approaches to Colour and Technique - Beautiful, inspiring book for color surface decoration of pottery.

Read the "big list" of pottery books on the Pottery Book Recommendations Page or Search for more more Pottery books.

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Dick Blick Art Materials - one of my favorite mail order pottery suppliers. They sell Laguna, Duncan, and Amaco brand glazes - both earthenware and stoneware. Dick Blick even offers their own line of glazes (I haven't tested them yet - it's on my list!). Plus, they have potter's wheels, and many other pottery supplies!

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All images and graphics © J.R. Dunster 2001 - 2006

This page last updated: March 28, 2005

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