Pottery Hand Building Techniques Molding Memories

Let’s unlock the limitless potential of shaping clay without a wheel. Hand building methods like coiling, pinching, and slab-building offer unique textures and designs, giving a distinct personality to each piece of pottery. Exploring these methods can redefine one’s understanding of Pottery Hand Building Techniques.

Read this article and be look out for my hand building tips that will take your pottery to the next level.

What Are They?

  1. Pinching
  2. Coiling
  3. Slab building
  4. Press molding
  5. Hump and slump molding
  6. Sculpting

1 Pinching

When I first started out in pottery, pinching felt like the most intuitive technique because it closely mimics my childhood joy of molding playdough or wet sand. It’s as basic as pottery gets, but the results can be astoundingly beautiful.

To begin with pinching, you start with a ball of well-kneaded clay. Hold it in one hand and, using the thumb and forefinger of your other hand, press into the center of the clay ball to form an indent. That’s your starting point. Now, you’ll continue to rotate the clay in your hand, gradually pushing and pinching the clay between your thumb on the inside and your fingers on the outside.

As you keep pinching and turning, a bowl or pot shape starts to form. The walls of your vessel grow thinner with each pass, so it’s crucial to maintain an even pressure to prevent weak spots or holes. Pinching gives you a lot of control over the shape, allowing you to create everything from shallow dishes to deeper bowls or vases.

One of the charming aspects of the pinching method is the organic, slightly irregular shape that you get. It screams “handmade” in the best possible way. Also, it’s a method that doesn’t require any special tools. Just your hands and clay.

However, it’s not all fun and games. Achieving a perfectly even thickness throughout requires practice. Plus, larger objects can be a bit tricky, as they might slump or collapse if they get too thin.

For beginners, it’s always fun to start with making pinch pots. As you advance, you can experiment with adding pinched details to other hand-building or wheel-thrown works. Combining pinching with other techniques can yield fascinating results!

2 Coiling

Imagine a child making a snake out of playdough, that’s my vision of coiling! It’s an ancient pottery technique used worldwide, from Native American pottery to African and Asian ceramics.

  1. Preparation. Start by kneading your clay to the right consistency. It should be malleable but not too soft. Then, roll out long ropes or coils of clay. The thickness depends on what you’re aiming for; thinner coils for delicate work and thicker ones for more robust structures.
  2. Base Formation. You’d typically start by creating a flat slab for the base (either rolled out or hand-shaped). This forms the foundation on which you’ll begin to layer your coils.
  3. Layering. Once you have your base, you’ll take a coil and start laying it onto the base, following its shape. Each coil is attached to the previous one by scoring (scratching up the surfaces to be joined) and slipping (using a mix of clay and water as an adhesive). As you go, you’ll blend the coils together, either on the inside, the outside, or both, ensuring structural integrity.
  4. Building Up. Continue to add coils, shaping and curving them as needed. As you layer, you can create everything from simple cylindrical forms to more complex shapes and designs. The sky’s the limit! It’s essential to ensure each coil firmly attaches to avoid cracks or breaks during drying and firing.
  5. Finishing. Once the desired shape is achieved, smooth the surface. Some potters prefer a rustic look, letting the coils be slightly visible. Others aim for a seamless finish, using tools or wet hands to smooth out any visible coil lines.

The coiling method allows for a great deal of creativity. From huge amphoras to intricate decorative pieces, the possibilities are endless. And trust me, once you get the hang of it, the rhythmic process of layering coils can be incredibly therapeutic.

One caveat: it requires patience! Especially if you’re working on a larger piece, it can take some time to build up, but the result? Totally worth it.

Alright, that’s coiling in a nutshell. Feeling inspired yet? I am just talking about it, ha!

3 Slab Building

When you think of slab building, picture rolling out dough for pie crust. But instead of pie, you’re making pottery! Slabs are simply flat pieces of clay, and with these, you can construct both functional and sculptural pieces.

  1. Rolling the Slab. Start by kneading the clay to remove any air bubbles. Once ready, use a rolling pin (or a slab roller if you’re fancy) to roll out a slab of clay to your desired thickness. Ensure it’s even, as uneven slabs can lead to structural problems.
  2. Cutting. Once rolled out, you can use various tools, such as knives or needle tools, to cut the slab into the shapes you need. This could be the sides of a box, the walls of a mug, or any design your heart desires.
  3. Joining the Edges. This is where the fun begins. When you’re attaching two slabs, always remember to score and slip. Scoring means making scratches on the edges of the clay where they’ll meet. Slip is a mixture of clay and water that acts like glue. After scoring and slipping, press the two pieces together, smoothing the seam to make sure they’re securely joined.
  4. Supports. While your piece is taking shape, you might need to support it, especially if it’s large or has a unique form. Use crumpled newspaper, foam, or any other supporting material that won’t stick to the clay.
  5. Drying. This is critical. Ensure your piece dries slowly to prevent warping or cracking. Depending on its size and thickness, turning it occasionally can also help even drying.
  6. Texture and Decoration. One of the best things about slab building is how easy it is to add texture. You can press objects into the clay, carve designs, or even add other clay elements on top.
  7. Finishing Touches. Once the piece is leather-hard (partially dried but still cool to the touch), clean up the edges. Use a sponge, rib, or any smoothing tool to refine your creation.

The magic of slab building is its versatility. Whether you’re crafting a geometric vase, a whimsical sculpture, or a detailed wall mural, slab building offers a vast playground for exploration. And trust me, the first time you turn a flat piece of clay into a three-dimensional work of art, it’s nothing short of exhilarating.

4 Press Molding

Press molding in pottery isn’t about pressing a button; it’s a tactile, hands-on process. You’re pressing clay into molds to capture a precise shape or detailed impression.

  1. Choosing the Mold. Before you start, you’ll need a mold. This could be a bisque-fired clay mold, plaster molds, or even found objects with interesting textures or shapes. The key is to ensure the mold is void of moisture so the clay doesn’t stick.
  2. Prepping the Mold. My trick is: To help release the clay after pressing, lightly dust the mold with cornstarch or a similar non-stick agent. It’s the pottery version of greasing a baking pan.
  3. Pressing the Clay. Roll out a slab of clay a bit thicker than you want the final piece to be. Gently lay it over or into the mold, and then press down, ensuring it captures the shape or texture fully. Use your fingertips, palms, or soft tools, depending on the depth and intricacy of the mold.
  4. Trimming. Once you’ve pressed the clay, trim away any excess using a fettling knife or a similar tool. This gives your piece clean edges and a refined look.
  5. Drying. Allow the clay to set in the mold until it reaches a leather-hard state. It means the clay is still damp but holds its shape. This makes it easier to remove from the mold without warping or tearing.
  6. Releasing the Clay. Carefully remove the clay from the mold. If it’s a deep mold, you might need to turn it upside down and tap it gently.
  7. Finishing Touches. After releasing, smooth out any rough edges or imperfections. Remember, even though it started in a mold, your hand’s touch will make each piece unique.
  8. Applications. Press molding is great for creating plates, bowls, or decorative wall pieces. It’s also popular for making tiles with detailed designs.

What’s so special about press molding is the ability to reproduce consistent shapes and intricate designs, especially when creating a series. Yet, every piece will still bear the unique touch and essence of the potter. It’s a dance between precision and personal expression.

5 Hump and Slump Molding

Both hump and slump molding rely on using a mold to shape the clay. The difference? It’s all in the direction.

  1. Hump Molding (also known as “drape molding”):
    • Concept. Clay is draped over a mold (hence the name) to take on its form.
    • Mold. Typically, a plaster mold or a bisque-fired clay mold shaped like a mound.
    • Process:
      1. Roll out a clay slab.
      2. Gently drape it over the mold.
      3. Smooth and shape the clay as it hangs over the mold’s curves.
      4. Once leather-hard, trim the edges and refine the shape.
    • Use Case. Ideal for creating concave forms like bowls, plates, or even lampshades.
  2. Slump Molding:
    • Concept. Here, clay is pressed into a mold to assume its shape, like filling up a cavity.
    • Mold. Often a plaster or bisque-fired mold with an inward curve or indentation.
    • Process:
      1. Roll a slab of clay.
      2. Lay it into the mold’s cavity, pressing it to capture the shape.
      3. Trim away any excess clay.
      4. Once leather-hard, gently release from the mold.
    • Use Case. Perfect for dishes, trays, or any convex form.

Key Points:

  • Versatility. Both techniques allow for a lot of creativity. You can use found objects as molds: think of items like bowls, baskets, or even seashells!
  • Surface Details. Add textures or patterns to the mold so that when the clay is draped or pressed, these details transfer onto it. Talk about a customizable approach!
  • Release Agents. Just as with press molding, it’s crucial to ensure the clay doesn’t stick. A light dusting of cornstarch can do wonders.
  • Applications. Beyond dishes and decorative items, these techniques are fantastic for sculptural forms and architectural details.

The allure of hump and slump molding lies in their simplicity, yet they yield sophisticated results. They’re like the understated heroes of the pottery world, taking a back seat but delivering consistently show-stopping performances.

6 Sculpting in Pottery

  1. Concept:
    • At its core, sculpting is the art of manipulating clay into three-dimensional forms. It’s not just about making functional pieces; it’s about crafting a story, emotion, or idea.
  2. Tools of the Trade:
    • While hands are a sculptor’s best tools, there are many others at their disposal. Wire loop tools, kidney-shaped ribs, and various wooden and metal implements can carve, shape, and smoothen. But, in essence, it’s all about touch and connection.
  3. Process:
    • Initial Form. Start with a basic structure or armature, especially for larger pieces. This could be wire, metal, or even crumpled newspaper. It gives strength and shape.
    • Adding Clay. Gradually build upon this base, adding and subtracting clay. It’s almost like painting but in 3D—layer upon layer, stroke upon stroke.
    • Detailing. Once the basic form is established, it’s time to dive into details. Eyes, fingers, patterns, textures—the minutiae that bring a piece to life.
    • Drying. Very important! Sculptures are thick, so drying them slowly and evenly is essential to avoid cracks.
    • Firing. Depending on the desired finish, you might bisque fire and then glaze fire, just as you would with other pottery.
  4. Challenges and Rewards:
    • Patience. Sculpting demands it. You’ll be working slowly, sometimes redoing parts multiple times. But oh, the satisfaction of seeing your vision come alive!
    • Vision. Unlike more “technical” pottery techniques, sculpting often requires a clear vision—or at least a willingness to let the clay “speak” to you. It’s as much about intuition as it is about skill.
  5. Applications:
    • From miniature figurines to grand statues, from abstract forms to hyper-realistic portraits, sculpting can manifest in myriad ways. In the pottery world, you might find sculpted details on vases, decorative wall pieces, or standalone art pieces.

Sculpting is where the lines between “craft” and “art” often blur. Whether you’re echoing ancient Greek statues or forging ahead with modern abstract forms, sculpting in pottery offers a deeply personal journey. It’s not just about clay; it’s about soul brother!

What Are Some of the More Advanced Hand Built ottery Techniques That Experienced Artist Use?

Let’s dig into the world of advanced hand building techniques in pottery. Here are my top 9 advanced techniques to take your pottery to the next level:

Multi-component Construction

  1. Detailed Texture and Surface Treatments:
    • Experienced potters will often craft their own texture tools or stamps. They might also use techniques like sgraffito, where a layer of slip is applied and then selectively carved away to create intricate designs.
  2. Oxide Washes and Layered Glazes:
    • Using multiple glazes and washes, advanced crafters can achieve depth and complexity in their finishes. Oxide washes, in particular, can highlight texture and give an antique look.
  3. Complex Slab Constructions:
    • Instead of simple flat or curved items, advanced potters use slabs to create multi-faced or geometric designs, combining straight and curved edges.
  4. Integrated Sculptural Elements:
    • More than just a bowl or a mug, these pieces integrate sculptural designs—like a vase with a sculpted bird perched on the edge.
  5. Hollowing Out Solid Forms:
    • For larger sculptural pieces, an experienced potter might start with a solid piece of clay and then hollow it out to ensure even drying and firing. It’s a tricky process requiring patience and precision.
  6. Undercutting:
    • This is a sculptural technique where parts of the clay are cut away to create depth and shadow, adding a three-dimensional quality to designs.
  7. Using Armature in Construction:
    • Advanced potters sometimes use external structures or armatures to support their work, especially for larger or more complex designs.
  8. Mixed Media Integration:
    • Combining clay with other materials like metal, glass, or wood. For instance, a hand-built clay sculpture might incorporate metal wires as decorative or structural elements.
  9. Alteration of Dried Pieces:
    • Rather than shaping everything while the clay is wet, some advanced techniques involve allowing the clay to semi-dry to a leather-hard state and then carving or altering it.

Advanced hand building techniques in pottery reflect a deep understanding of the material, patience, and an expansive imagination. It’s a journey of learning and experimenting, where experienced hands coax clay into forms that often defy expectation and always captivate attention.

How Do I Construct Complex Sculptures Using Slab Construction Techniques?

Constructing complex sculptures using slab construction techniques is like piecing together a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, but with wet clay! Let’s dive in and review what I do:

  1. Conceptualize & Sketch
    • Start by visualizing what you want to create. A detailed sketch from multiple angles can be an invaluable guide.
  2. Prepare the Clay
    • Begin by wedging your clay to eliminate air bubbles and achieve a consistent texture. Roll out your clay into sheets, or slabs, of the desired thickness using a rolling pin or a slab roller.
  3. Templates & Cutting
    • For geometric or repeating shapes, consider creating templates from cardboard or paper. Place the templates on your slab and cut around them using clay knives or needle tools.
  4. Texture & Detail
    • Before joining the pieces, it’s often easier to add textures or other surface details. You can press objects into the clay, use stamps, or carve designs.
  5. Slip & Score
    • Wherever two pieces of clay will connect, score (make small crosshatches) the surfaces with a needle tool. Then, apply slip, a creamy mixture of clay and water, to act as glue.
  6. Assembly
    • Begin piecing your slabs together, using the slip and score method. Be mindful of weight distribution, ensuring the lower parts can support the structure as you build upwards. Use your fingers or blending tools to smooth and secure joints.
  7. Internal Supports
    • For larger structures, you might need temporary supports. Crumpled newspaper can be used inside hollow structures, or you can use props or external armatures to maintain shapes until the clay firms up a bit.
  8. Drying:
    • Dry the sculpture slowly and evenly to prevent cracks. Cover it with a plastic bag and allow the moisture to even out. Once it’s leather-hard, it can be more safely uncovered to dry completely.
  9. Refinement & Carving
    • When the piece is leather-hard, refine the surface, carve in additional details, or clean up any seams.
  10. Firing & Glazing
    • Once bone-dry, your sculpture is ready for bisque firing. After the bisque firing, you can apply glazes for color and finish, then fire again.
  1. Additional Techniques
    • Consider incorporating coil techniques for more intricate details, or combine with pinching for organic forms. The blend of techniques can lead to truly unique pieces.

Building complex sculptures using slabs requires patience, vision, and, above all, a sense of play and exploration. The beauty of slab construction is that it provides a solid foundation (literally and figuratively) upon which you can layer, carve, and refine to your heart’s content. So, grab your clay and tools, and let your imagination guide your hands!

What Safety Precautions Should be Taken When Working With Clay, Especially When Creating Large Scale Works of Art?

Safety first! When working with clay, particularly for large-scale art pieces, you’re not just crafting a masterpiece, you’re also handling materials and tools that require a good deal of care. Here’s my comprehensive list of safety precautions to bear in mind:

  1. Protect Your Lungs
    • Dust. Clay, especially when dry, can produce silica dust which is harmful when inhaled. Always work in a well-ventilated area. When sanding or handling dry clay, consider wearing a dust mask.
    • Kiln Fumes. If you’re firing clay, be aware that kilns can release toxic fumes. Ensure you have proper ventilation, especially if using certain glazes that may contain heavy metals.
  2. Protect Your Skin
    • Wet Clay. Extended exposure to wet clay can dry out your skin, sometimes leading to clay dermatitis. Wear gloves if you have sensitive skin and moisturize afterward.
    • Glazes. Some glazes contain chemicals that can be harmful if absorbed into the skin. Always wear gloves when handling raw glazes.
  3. Mind Your Posture
    • Large sculptures often mean prolonged hours of work. Ensure you have an ergonomic workspace. Alternate between sitting and standing, take breaks, and stretch to avoid strains.
  4. Safety with Tools
    • Always store sharp tools securely. When using them, be aware of your hand placement to avoid injury.
    • If using electric tools or equipment, ensure they are properly grounded to avoid electric shocks.
  5. Heavy Lifting
    • Large-scale works often involve heavy materials. Use proper lifting techniques: bend at the knees, not the waist. Consider using rolling carts or seeking assistance when moving heavy items.
  6. Stable Infrastructure
    • If your artwork is tall, ensure it has a stable base to prevent it from toppling over.
    • When constructing or carving, make sure your piece is adequately supported to prevent collapsing.
  7. Fire Safety
    • Kilns can get incredibly hot. Ensure they’re located in a safe area away from flammable materials. Always be present while the kiln is on, and have fire safety equipment like extinguishers on hand.
  8. Chemical Awareness
    • Know the materials you’re working with. Some clays or glazes may contain materials that require special handling or disposal. Always read labels and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for any product you use.
  9. Cleanliness
    • Regularly clean your workspace to prevent the accumulation of dust.
    • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling clay or chemicals, especially before eating or touching your face.
  10. Storage
    • Store chemicals in a secure location, out of reach of children or pets.
    • Label containers clearly, especially if you’ve transferred materials to a new jar or bottle.

Remember, art should be an enjoyable process. By taking these precautions, you ensure a safer environment, allowing you to focus more on your creative journey and less on potential hazards. Happy sculpting!


The Potter’s Bible: An Essential Illustrated Reference for both Beginner and Advanced Potters by Marylin Scott. Scott, Marylin. The Potter’s Bible: An Essential Illustrated Reference for Both Beginner and Advanced Potters. Quarto Publishing Group USA, 2006.

Mastering the Potter’s Wheel: Techniques, Tips, and Tricks for Potters by Ben Carter. Carter, Ben. Mastering the Potter’s Wheel: Techniques, Tips, and Tricks for Potters. Mastering Ceramics, 2016.

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