Six Top Tips for Beginners Learning How to Wheel Throw

Learning how to wheel throw can be challenging. It is a skill that requires a lot of practice, just like playing the piano, or driving a car. Often, beginner potters will get frustrated and ask what the “magic trick” is to centering clay. Unfortunately, there is no “magic trick”, but with enough practice, and the right instructions, you can master throwing on the potter’s wheel in no time.

In this post, an excerpt from Pottery for Beginners, Kara Leigh Ford shares her top six tips for being successful on the potter’s wheel. You’ll definitely want to read these before your next wheel throwing session!

As with driving, you need to learn the practical skills and the theory of wheel throwing. The clay isn’t going to do anything you don’t ask of it. The earlier you understand how the clay responds to the forces you and the wheel are putting
on it, the easier it will become. Here are some top tips I have accumulated over years of throwing. Read these before getting on the wheel.

Top Tip #1: Brace, Brace!!!

When throwing, imagine you’re in a plane crash (Ha! Not really—but hopefully that will help you remember). If your elbows aren’t braced against something, you’re making everything 100 times harder for yourself. I always have my left elbow braced against my left hip—this is called my foundation arm—and my right forearm resting on the splash pan. My arms only become free when the pot is pretty much finished.

Top Tip #2: Speed

The speed of your wheel is so important. The wheel needs to start out fast and gradually get slower. Centering should be done with your wheel at full speed. This feels counterintuitive, but trust me, the faster your wheel is going the easier it is. Once centered, you need to shift down the gears as your pot gets bigger. The taller your pot, the stronger the centrifugal forces will be on it, the thinner the walls and the more likely it is to flop. Your wheel should be at three-quarters speed when opening out and compressing the base, then move to half speed for pulling up the walls. The taller your pot gets, the slower your wheel needs to turn.

You always need to be moving slower than the wheel is turning. If your hands are moving quicker than your clay, you will end up with a wonky pot! Do every step s-l-o-w-l-y. Transition your hands from one position to the next slowly. Pulling your hands away from the pot too quickly will pull it off center. Even when you don’t have your hands on the clay, move slowly! So many times I have leaned over to get a tool, moved too quickly and knocked my beautiful freshly thrown pot. Having said that, you need to work to get quick at centering. If you spend 10 minutes trying to center your piece of clay, it is likely to get smaller and smaller because all the clay you’ve just spent ages centering will be eroded by all the friction and water and end up in your splash pan.

Top Tip #3: Technique Over Strength

Once you have fallen in love with pottery, you want to ensure you are able to keep throwing forever, so it is really important to look after your body. Throwing is essentially about physics and working out how to ensure the wheel you’ve potentially just spent a lot of money on is doing all the hard work. Picking up bad habits at the start will often lead to injury or make your progress as a potter much slower. The importance of body position when throwing pottery cannot be overstated. You do not have to have masses of upper body strength when throwing, even for larger pots. You just need to get your body position right so you are using the weight and the strength of your skeleton (not your muscles) to work with the forces of the wheel and not against them. This kind of harks back to the elbows point; bracing against your skeleton will give you much more strength and require less effort than trying to brace with your muscles.

I often find lots of new potters aren’t sitting close enough to the wheel head. Throwing at arm’s length is asking way too much of your body; you should be utilizing the weight of your upper body to guide the clay. You shouldn’t come away from a session at the wheel achy. Think hard about minimizing the pressure on your joints, wrists, knuckles, elbows and back. If you have a weak back, I know quite a few potters who work standing up. Alternatively, try bracing your back against a wall. Excluding old injuries, if something is hurting, you probably aren’t doing it right and need to work out why before you do yourself a disservice.

Top Tip #4: Water

We are back to being water managers again. The amount of water you use while throwing is key; you don’t ever want your clay to feel sticky, which is a surefire way of getting a wonky pot. But at the same time, if you use too much water your piece is likely to get smaller and smaller because all the clay you’ve just spent 30 minutes centering will be washed away into your splash pan. If the clay absorbs too much water, the walls won’t be strong enough to hold themselves up and your shape will flop. To keep the balance right, try not to flood your pot with water, but instead keep it glossy with water at all times. Remove any excess water from the base of the pot regularly with your sponge. Only with a little experience will you be able to get your water usage right. I always throw with a trickle of warm water. It’s better for your hands. If you have ever tried to put a key in your door on a January morning after walking the dog, you’ll know that cold hands don’t quite respond in the way you want them to. The muscles and ligaments in your hands and fingers work better when they are warm, so do yourself a favor and throw with warm water! You want the entire process to be a nice one.

Top Tip #5: Be Okay with Being a Beginner

Getting good is not a quick process (for most people). When learning to throw on the wheel, you might be one of those annoying people who centers on their first try (I was not one of those people and you likely won’t be either). It will take time, patience and perseverance. Don’t beat yourself up, give yourself the time to learn. Enjoy the process. Keep your hands linked for extra support. Use your sponge as a water reservoir.

Top Tip #6: Finish on a High

Clay is a bit like a horse. Bear with me on this one . . . When I was a teenager, I learned how to ride horses (a lot of cars had to be washed to afford those lessons!). Even though I wasn’t a natural on horseback, I had a great teacher who gave
me the confidence to keep going even when I fell off. I feel like there are a lot of parallels between learning pottery and riding horses. Clay is essentially a wild animal; you need to understand its behavior in order to work with it, not against
it. Granted, pottery is a bit safer than getting on the back of a 17-hand thoroughbred, but the disappointment felt when not achieving what you want can be equally as painful as falling off said thoroughbred. My riding instructor taught me to always finish on a high.

So, if after an hour sitting at the wheel you finally manage to center your clay or to make a perfect cylinder, then stop and give yourself a pat on the back. It is really important to hold on to positive energy when learning something new. This will
take you into your next session with gusto and help you build confidence to know that the last thing you did was good. An important point when just starting out is not to focus on making something every session; just try and get a grip on one part of the process (like centering, pulling the walls, compressing the base or getting a nice 90-degree angle where the base and the walls meet). Don’t overwhelm yourself; instead, follow the steps I’ve provided for you above and enjoy!


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