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Newbie Needing Advice For Handbuilding

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I want to start making ceramic dishes (plates, bowls, mugs, etc) as well as clay cooking pots and pans and different figurines and things of that nature. I'm googling and searching YT videos but there's a ton of different info and I'm not sure what to go with.


What tools do I need as a beginner handbuilder for sculpting and finishing/glazing? What type of clay for what I'm wanting to do? Any and all advice is greatly appreciated!

I'm wanting to sell my pieces on Etsy.

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it is great that you have a goal.  i hope you are being realistic about when you might be skilled enough to offer your things for sale, anywhere.  ceramics is a huge field, handbuilding is a skill for making shapes from clay.  before you get to any of the actual working, try your local library for some basic books.  yes, most of the good ones were published many years ago.  the basics do not change.  do not start with a thin book showing how to do a particular style, that is for later on.


read many of the posts here re the kind of clay you might choose, the way you will turn that soft clay into hard items by firing, the kind of kiln you will use, whether your own or at a distant studio.  


you are only taking the first half-step of a 1000 mile journey.  it is worth it as you can see by the length of time many of us have been working with clay.   good luck.

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Welcome to pottery!


Handbuilding can be done by just using your hands or with a hundred tools. The very basic tools are usually available in a beginners type kit from ceramic supply places ... local or online.

Clay choices ... again, go to a ceramic supply place and read the descriptions. You need to pick the color and the Cone temp. you want to work with.

That said, do you have a kiln to fire your work in? You will need to fire any pieces you make.

Also, clay cooking pots and pans are a whole different thing that you might want to hold off on until you have more experience.

You should also count on at least a year or two of learning before your work will be food safe and ready for sale.

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"Food Safe" is a big deal, with legal ramifications. It is not sufficient to just go with a notice on a jar, bag, or web site that says the glaze is tested and rated "food safe". I am learning about some of the many legal and safety concerns I just would never think of, including issues involved with selling ceramic dinnerware online.


I am mostly learning that I can't just ignore the information once I know the information. Having learned a little bit about selecting food safe clays/glazes, I am avoiding making anything for people to eat from :)  .

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I would agree with Chris that you need to determine the color and temperature of the clay you want and then go for hand building qualities like some frog which helps prevent warping. What type of kiln will you be using?

As for tools, I'd say minimally: a rolling pin, a knife and a hacksaw blade cut to various sizes.



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Here is a good start . . . https://www.amazon.com/Handbuilt-Pottery-Techniques-Revealed-Handbuilding/dp/1438001991Very good how-to book for hand-building. Covers the basics well, including coiling, pinch pots, slabs, tools, etc. And it has a number of projects with which to start. One of the first I bought for myself.


Types of clay, etc. -- it depends: where you are located? Do you have a kiln or are you using a community kiln (and those places often have limits on types of clay and glazes), your experience level. Have you taken classes? Pottery and ceramics is not a very exact science or craft -- It depends is an oft used qualifier to any advice given.


I am a largely self-taught hand builder, a lot of trial and error. You will find a lot of wheel classes, not too many hand building. But the main thing is to try and learn; you get better over time and with repetition.


There are a number of threads on the forum regarding Etsy . . . from the main forum page, go up to the search box in the upper right hand corner, type in Etsy and hit go. The business forum has a number of good discussions on the business side of pottery that might be helpful or developing personal styles . . . or check out the websites and blogs of two members -- Chris Campbell or Mea Rhee (Good Elephant Pottery; you can find lots of good practical advice there.

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Lots of variables to determine if a glaze is food safe or not. Short of lab testing every glaze there are some common sense approaches to take to rule out some.


Simple things to do and look at would include using a liner glaze with no questionable materials. Fire the glazes to maturity. Under fired glazes are far more likely to leach than mature ones. For food surfaces using a (mature) gloss glaze is going to be less likely to leach than matte. 


From the chemistry side you don’t have to go into extreme analysis to get an idea if the glaze is likely to okay. Make sure the alumina and silica levels are high enough, limit charts with glaze calc software give you this info, if either is too low then chances are there is too much flux in the recipe and the glaze won’t be durable. If there are materials in the over fluxed glaze that are unsafe then its more likely they will leach out.


Look at the metal colorants in the glaze, are they in reasonable amounts or over the top high. Example would be cobalt carb, under 2% (in a balanced glaze) is fairly common, if you see 4 or 5% then alarm bells start going off as to the safety of that glaze. Avoid ingredients like cadmium stains unless you are willing to get the work lab tested. Encapsulated cadmium is turning up in all sorts of commercial underglazes and glazes now, it’s not just the bright reds and yellows anymore. 


Do home leaching tests, both acid and alkali ones, if these show deterioration of the glaze surface then fix the glaze or don’t use it. If they look fine after home testing but contain dubious colorants (or fluxes), or levels of them, then consider getting glazes lab tested. I believe Pugaboo had some done recently and the cost was minimal.



One of the huge advantages of using glaze calc software is you know what is in your glaze and don’t just have the next to useless MSDS from the commercial manufacturer. For commercial glazes I would take a guess that the clears and whites are probably safe, the razzle dazzle runny heavily saturated colours are not and the rest somewhere in between. If you are selling work then legally you are responsible, not relying on what it says on glaze jars.

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Don't get discouraged right away.

There is a steady market for pottery utensils if that's what you're really into. Just make sure you're really into it because it's a serious artisan-craft just like woodworking or metalworking, and should make you happy while doing it, at least some of the time, or you won't have the patience and determination to learn it successfully.

FYI I'm also basically a newbie and largely self-taught hand builder. I'm not trying to brag but I've found making simple vessels doable right from the start using coils and rolled slabs and slump molds (now I know what all those plastic containers at the Dollar Tree are really for.

It can be both as simple and as complicated as you want to make it. I try my hand at sculpture, I also make marbles, etc.


Youtube, Youtube, Youtube. There is nothing like seeing it being done even if the info is spotty at times. It's also encouraging to realize there are other people actually doing this for a living with your own eyes. For what you can't find on Youtube, -browser searches. You'll simply have to make time to do your research. I have a few old books but use them infrequently. Instead I make notes from internet research and reference my note collection a lot.


Discover your limitations whatever they are and work within them until you can do better over time.


For example some of mine are space: don't have any; so I bought a substantial workbench and focus my ceramics around it. The bench and supplies are in my face every day and there is no simple way to avoid it.


Here's a List of the things needed if I was only making plates and vessels:


Place to work: A sturdy heavy flat surface with a large enough area to roll out clay and keep tools nearby. Mine is usually a mess while I work. It has some storage underneath.

Place to dry and store your unfired work. I have a large metal rack from home depot.

Place to keep your clay, glaze, and miscellany. I keep some under my work bench and the rest in two deep-shelved waist-high bookcases.

Place to fire your work. You'll want to visit the place, ask some questions, and make sure you can work with the people running it. Or- buy your own kiln and learn how to use it.

Clay: You probably want a mid-range (cone 6) pale clay that has a little grog in it. I use a clay called BC 6 a lot, it's available online. It fires off-white and works easily. Nice backdrop for glazes. Some version of it should be easy to find and not expensive. 

Place to store both your bisque-fired, glazed, and finished work.

Rolling pin, the typical heavy hardwood type for making pies.

A 'classroom' set of wooden clay tools. You can reference this online and see pictures of what they look like easier than I can list them. Wood tools are easier to work with for the most part for most things especially in the beginning.

A sturdy metal needle tool.

A wire tool/cutter.

A piece of cotton duck/canvas -same thing as denim used for heavy duty jeans like Levi's. To roll your clay out on. (Honestly I just use my bench surface but I got lucky, it's nicely thick masonite and works great for clay, and I just keep forgetting to buy the damn canvas :)

A big cheap sponge for cleaning your work area, smaller sponges for smoothing leather-hard clay and dry clay.

Plastic buckets, I have some of those and also some plastic wastebaskets. Also I have a few plastic basins that I put in the sink to wash my hands in. DO NOT let clay go down your drains.

Dust mask for sanding dry clay or if your work area is dusty.


There is surely more but it's hard to figure out what you need until you start working, there are a few 'standard' tools I bought that I hardly ever use, others I had to make myself that I use constantly.


Best of luck to you!

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Min covers the "why not" for me. I guess I just don't trust commercial glazes enough to take the risk as a seller. I use glaze in some not-so-traditional ways, and use a lot of commercial crystalines and runny glazes. If I mixed my own it would be a different story, but I am not going to be doing that anytime soon.

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Another important area which you should research and know about is safety. i would say this knowledge would be an important part of your tool kit.


There are a lot of threads here talking about safety. safe about inhaling dry clay. dust. silica. simple things as how to clean your area (mop, not sweep), how to wash your clay clothes, how to be careful about clay laden water without hurting your plumbing. i am saying this because you want to make stuff seems like regularly - not just here or there. 



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