What Is Wheel Throwing?

There are many ways to work with clay and build something attractive, functional, or ideally both. Hand building and coiling are common ways to start out, often with varying results. Potters soon develop a desire to move onto a wheel and try throwing instead. However, this can be intimidating as the method looks to be so complicated and for experienced potters. Still, we all have to start somewhere and even if your first attempts are a mess, your first thrown vase or bowl is a step towards something better. In this guide, you will learn a little more about wheel throwing to help prepare for your first lesson.

What Is It? 

Wheel throwing simply means centering a lump of wet clay onto a spinning potter’s wheel and using the motion to create beautiful forms. With practice, you can learn to add height and interesting curves to different practical items. As you get used to the motion of the wheel and the pressure needed on the clay, you can get more experimental and add design elements. 

What Is The Difference Between Hand Building And Wheel Throwing?

There are different approaches that you can take when creating items made of clay. Many new potters and clay artists will start off with hand building. This is the simple act of shaping clay in a structure or decorative piece using tools or your fingers. This is perfect for sculptures and busts. You can also make pots, tableware, and vases this way if you use the coiling technique. However, this method is rustic and may not lead to the most practical of curvaceous forms. 

Wheel throwing is different and the more common choice for making rounded objects like those pots, vases, bowls, etc. The motion of the wheel and the pressure of your hands creates a perfectly round form that you can actually use when fired. You can start with some wet clay on the center of the wheel and manipulate it into different forms. With practice, those pieces will become even more functional and visually appealing. You can add slips, glazes, and other decorations too. 

Why Is It Called Wheel Throwing?

The common assumption here is that the name throw comes from the physical action of throwing the clay onto the wheel to get started. There is certainly satisfaction in throwing the material down like this. However, there is the suggestion that the term comes from the word ‘thrawan’, which relates to the twisting motion of the wheel and the shapes created. Either way, the common expression has become a part of the pottery lexicon and it doesn’t really matter if it is inaccurate. 

What Can You Make When Wheel Throwing? 

Wheel throwing may be a difficult art to master, but it is worth it if you are serious about creating your own homemade items for personal use. That is because you can create a wide range of objects from decorative pots, vases, and fruit bowls to more functional items such as: jugs, cookware, and more. It is a different way of creating items that you may have tried to make with hand-building or coiling. Coiling has its merits as an old-fashioned technique. But, there are limitations in quality and form. Those that master the wheel can create pieces that are of better quality and that look nicer.

Is Wheel Throwing Difficult?

To begin with, there is a good chance that you will find the art of wheel throwing to be very challenging and frustrating. The majority of items that you put on the wheel will either collapse or not look right when taken off. There could be centering errors that make it uneven, walls that are too thick or thin, issues with the form, and even holes in the base. The good thing about clay is you can ball it up and start again as many times as you like. 

It helps to maintain a positive mental attitude and sense of humor when starting with the clay on the wheel. Acknowledge the problems, learn from them, and go again. Laugh off the weird creations and maybe even document them. This is a good way to see the funny side, but also to view progress over time and offer some encouragement for the next throw.

Is It Easier To Use An Electric-powered Wheel?

Absolutely! Many potters love to use the old-fashioned models that you pump with your foot. They can get into a good rhythm and not have to deal with the sound of the motor – or the energy cost. However, this is another action to master and it takes some coordination to keep the right rhythm with your foot while working the clay. Keep this in mind for the future, but stick with the mechanized version for now. 

Why Do Some Potters Throw With Their Eyes Closed?

With all this talk about the complexity of wheel throwing and the likelihood of mistakes, you might find it odd to see potter working blind. This isn’t just a fun challenge or why to show off. There is a risk with wheel throwing that you try and focus on too much information at once. There are sensory cues from the feel of the clay, the sound of the wheel, and the sight of the clay transforming in front of you. However, when you stop looking, you can get more in-tune with the feel of the clay under the pressure of your fingers. You also get a better idea of how it centers on the wheel. This is a great way to fine-tune techniques and become a little calmer at the wheel. But, you might want to develop the fundamentals first. 

What Is A Good Throw?

The term good throw is something that you will hear a lot in competition-based television shows or in pottery classes. This doesn’t refer to the visual appeal of a pot created on the wheel but the way that potters have controlled and shaped the clay. A good throw to start off is essential for allowing for a good symmetrical form. Without centering the clay correctly, you won’t have the stability to then bring the walls of clay up and create an even thickness. You will probably find inconsistencies at first with your throws, often with thicker walls at the bottom. But, you can develop a good throw with practice. 

Controlling The Wheel

None of this is possible without knowing how to control the wheel. This can take a lot of practice because there is so much to think about. You want a steady rotation and consistent speed that is suitable for keeping the clay centered and in place on the wheel. Deviations, particularly with taller pieces, can cause them to collapse. It is easy to lose focus when fixated on getting a specific form in the clay. But, it is a little easier with a mechanical model than one with a foot pump. There is one less physical action to worry about. 

Decorating And Embellishing Pots On The Wheel

Once you become more in control of the wheel and able to create items that pass as useable bowls, vases, and jugs, you can move on to decorating your pots. There are different options available here when using a clay extruder, slips, cutting tools, and other items. A good set of clay cutting tools, as seen in our other guide, can create interesting textures and marks on a pot. Good wheel control should make this even all the way around. You can scratch into the surface, use the motion of the wheel for straight brush marks, use a sponge, and much more.

You can also add functional details to the pieces, such as handles and spouts. Extruding and forming handles is highly satisfying and finishes off a jug or teapot nicely. 

Removing The Item From The Wheel

Finally, it is important to know how to remove a pot efficiently from the wheel. This is called wiring-off. You use a wire, which is basically like a cheese-cutting wire to separate the item from the wheel. You can then put it on a board ready for firing. This can be the most nerve-racking part as one misstep could cause damage or cut the clay in the wrong place. 

Getting Started With Wheel Throwing

If this all sounds like something you are interested to learn, there are two options you can take. The first is to take part in a pottery class at a community college or workshop. This should provide great instruction on how to handle the wheel and the clay. Or, you may decide to jump into the deep and get a wheel of your own. A mechanized wheel is more user-friendly than one with a foot pedal. 

In short, wheel throwing is a brilliant skill that many potters will love to learn. It shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for hand-building and coiling, as these are important skills themselves. But, it will open up doors to building more practical items with interesting techniques. Don’t be afraid to give it a try!