Well Prepared Clay is the Key to Success.
Before any throwing can commence the clay needs to be well prepared. As a beginner, I struggled to achieve any success on the wheel and the main problem was that the clay I was using was too hard.
My learning began at adult educational workshops and the clay we used came straight out of it’s original packaging; either that, or we used some which had been reclaimed after having been previously used. More often than not the clay provided was very firm and little did I realise that this was hindering my chances of success. I was struggling to centre the clay on the wheel because it was too firm to respond under the direction I gave it. This led to a number of problems in trying to throw a pot with it thereafter. Getting the clay centred on the wheel is difficult at first, as is throwing when you’re first learning. Working with clay that’s too firm, or not at the right consistency, will certainly hamper any chances of succeeding.
It’s very tempting to bypass the clay preparation stage and get straight down to the throwing, but, it’s far less frustrating and much more enjoyable to feel the clay being responsive and able to be worked into a desired work of art.
When using clay from a new bag it’s best to soften it up prior to using it. Here I show you how I do it.
Sponge water into each hole.
Wrap the clay tightly in plastic. Leave for 3 days to allow the added water to soak in.
After 3 days unwrap the clay and pour off any excess water from the holes.
The clay is now quite soft.
Cut the block in half and slam one half down on top of the other. This will start to fill up the holes that were put in the clay and remove the air trapped inside. It will also begin to homogenise the clay. You then need to turn the clay over by 90° before repeating the cutting and slamming process.
By cutting the clay and slamming it down repeatedly the moisture becomes evenly distributed throughout the clay and any softer or firmer areas will integrate to give an even consistency.
Continue cutting and slamming one half down on top of the other until the clay becomes homogenised. The moisture in the clay needs to be even throughout.
Look at the bottom half of the clay here. Can you see light coloured streaks?
The streaks indicate where the clay is wetter and softer. Continue with cutting and slamming until the streaks have disappeared.
You can also see some air holes in the clay.
It is necessary to keep working the clay until all of the air has been removed and there are no holes left.
Notice the half on the left. This is perfectly homogenised clay.
The half on the right is also perfectly homogenised but it has an air pocket still in it. At this stage you can knead the clay to get rid of any air still left behind.
When kneading; if your clay really sticks to the surface that you’re using then it’s too wet. Kneading on a plaster slab will take away the excess moisture.
My preference is to use a stone paving slab instead of a plaster slab. I prefer the fact that it’s not as absorbent and doesn’t heavily dry out my clay while I’m kneading.
Using bisque fired bowls for drying out reclaimed clay.
to a plaster slab.
The main reason being that my studio is tiny and I don’t have the space to store a plaster slab.
These bowls stack, and can fit underneath my kiln for space saving. When in use I carry them outside to dry the clay in the sunshine.
Bisque fired bowls are a way to avoid getting plaster in the clay which is another advantage.
I reclaim my clay in small quantities as I don’t have a pug mill.
Using reclaimed clay to soften up firm clay.
Once the reclaim clay has firmed up in the bisque fired bowls, but is still too soft for using on the wheel, I add it to a new bag of clay. This is an alternative clay softening technique if you don’t have time to wait three days as in the technique above. By slicing clay from a new bag and layering it with softer reclaimed clay you can then work the clay by wedging [cutting and slamming as detailed above] to the desired consistency.