Getting the excess weight off your bottom and other pottery tips

Heh, heh….

One of the classes I occasionally teach is called “Better bottoms” and the students usually get a smirk or two out of the associations with fitness, exercises, and such. Well, the truth is that if you take certain things for granted in making pots, you sometimes find things are a bit bottom heavy. Pots can get flabby down low all too easily if you don’t train yourself to go the extra distance in keeping thing nice and trim and focused. Firm up those buttocks, er…, bottom areas, with our patented formula of new and improved exercises.

There is, of course, no one right way of doing things on the potters wheel, and even poor instruction can be overcome by intuitive and intelligent hands. That’s why I often orient my teaching toward maximizing the sophistication of my student’s hands rather than a reliance on pure technique. If a potter’s hands are smart enough they can figure out ways of doing things that are balked by the limitations of only knowing particular techniques to address particular problems. Smart hands will always be the potter’s best tool.

So one of my aims as a teacher is to put students in a position where their hands eventually are smart enough to understand the clay, its limitations, and also its possibilities. But that understanding does not often come immediately. Quite often students will have to understand things with their heads and their eyes before their hands are ready to take over. Often students will need to have a conceptual understanding before their intuitive awareness can compensate in what they need to do. And so, part of my job as a teacher is getting students to see where there are potential problems and give them the tools for addressing these stumbling blocks. Eventually, it is hoped, their hands will be so sensitive and intelligent that they can feel their way through whatever issues confront them.

One of the hardest things for potters still learning their skills is understanding how thick the walls of the pots are around the bottom area. Its hard to know what you are looking at, and at this stage your fingers often don’t properly interpret the information that they are getting from the clay. They don’t know how good or poorly they’ve done in getting all the excess clay out until they pick the pot up off the wheel or cut it in half. Cutting pots in half is a great visual proof of how well you’ve done, and its a good sacrifice to make as there’s no sense in keeping pots if they are excessively thick. The temptation to keep every precious thing that lifts off the wheel must be tempered with the knowledge that mistakes need to be acknowledged to be learned from. Don’t be afraid to chop up a few pots if it can be the incentive required to make the necessary improvements. Its not always worth keeping simply because it came off the wheel…. Aim for pots that are worth taking off the wheel.

One connected bit of advice I heard when in school was that if you think you are done thinning the walls do three more ‘pulls’. The idea being that at this stage of our development we shouldn’t trust what we think we know but instead always push ourselves harder. What you have to do is often more than what you think you have to do. You simply can’t trust what you think you know. This advice suggests that our conscious opinions can deceive us, and that instead we need to simply ignore our innate satisfaction that we’ve already done a good enough job. We need to cultivate a critical and even a suspicious mind where our own pots are concerned. Its a caution that that seductive voice is selling us short, that if we are sometimes afraid to push it farther we are not challenging ourselves to do as well as we can. Go farther than you think. Sometimes its only our mind that is holding us back….

It is always hardest to perceive the thickness with our fingers the further down from the rim one goes, so giving the bottom area of the wall a few extra ‘pulls’ is often a good counter measure. But remember: There is no rule that says you must start a ‘pull’ all the way at the bottom and always finish right at the top. You work the area that needs working. And if the bottom is excessively thick, then that is the area to concentrate on. Simply squeeze the clay where it needs to be squeezed and leave the rest of it alone. Teach your hands to identify and address the specific qualities that are at issue. Try to be conscious at all times during the process and not simply enacting some preprogrammed rote performance. Think “Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this here? Why am I doing this now?”

But we have other resources besides not trusting our germinating insight and infatuation with precious pots. One thing you can also notice is the visual comparison between the inside diameter and the outside diameter of the cylinder while it is still on the wheel. The shapes should fit together in the same way. Usually what you will find in a poorly thinned pot is that the cylinder will have straight vertical walls on its exterior but that on the interior the walls taper to a narrower shape at the bottom. Until you learn to judge the thickness with your fingers you simply can’t trust your hands to give you that information. And if you can’t trust you hands at this point, sometimes you will need to trust your eyes. If there is a difference in the thickness of the wall often you will be able to assess this simply by comparing the inside and the outside volumes. A thick bottomed pot will have a far lesser volume at the bottom than it should, and your eyes can often see that. Learning how to see what we are doing is part of our education with the process.

The camera view is different than our binocular vision that has two viewing perspectives to create a composite from. Your eyes will see the difference a lot clearer, but you can still see it here.

The camera view is different than our binocular vision that has two viewing perspectives to create a composite from. Your eyes will see the difference a lot clearer, but you can still see it here.

Maybe its easier to see the difference in volume from this perspective. You can tell the inside bottom is far less open in comparison to the thinner top section. The difference can be seen as resulting from thicker walls at the bottom area.

Maybe its easier to see the difference in volume from this perspective. You can tell the inside bottom is far less open in comparison to the thinner top section. The difference can be seen as resulting from thicker walls at the bottom area.

One other way of visually assessing the difference in thickness is to stop the wheel and put your hands on both the inside and outside of the wall of the pot. By moving your hands down the wall and looking at what is happening to them you will often notice that they are separating more the further down they go. This is one more way to tell visually whether you have done a good enough job on that bottom area.

If you are working on modest sized pieces of clay, another exercise might be to actually push the clay so far that it starts to weaken and becomes too thin. You can tell when you’ve gone far enough because you have brought the pot into peril. If its not under threat you haven’t pushed it far enough. Don’t be afraid to lose several pots like this until you get the hang of how far is far enough. Sometimes its important to find where the limits are and even to exceed them so you are in a position to dial it back to where you need to be. Eventually our hands become smart enough and can do the right things naturally without needing to second guess ourselves.

One of the other difficulties in not being able to get the clay out of the bottom corners is sometimes that the curve of our finger tips on the inside of the wall actually promotes a curved shape on the bottom of the wall on the inside. By holding our fingers in such a way on the inside a curve naturally develops. Its just not easy using the soft curve of our fingertip to thin out a corner. One way I have of counteracting that when I’m throwing is to stick my fingernail into the corner to dig out that extra clay. You can do this either by pointing the fingernail down into the corner or by bending your hand so the knuckle is pressing downward on the floor of the pot and the nail is extended out toward the wall.



The knife edge of your fingernail is simply much harder and much sharper than the soft pad it protects. By getting a hard corner down at the bottom I feel I am better able to get a thin and consistent wall all the way up. Establish the corner early, while the walls are still short or while you are compressing the floor, and the inside wall will (generally) more easily maintain a perpendicular relationship as you work at keeping the thickness consistent. If there is a curve in that bottom corner you automatically know that the walls are not all the way consistent…..

Remember: Your hands are your best tools, and your fingers are the most versatile. sensitive, and adaptable parts of that. By turning them and by holding them in different positions you can radically alter the effects you are having on the material. This only makes your mastery of the material easier and more accomplished. One of the goals every aspiring potter should have is to make their fingers the most intelligent and sophisticated tools they can be. Once your hands are smart enough none of the so called rules of technique you have picked up along the way really matter. You can invent new ways of doing things and discover alternatives that suit your own strengths and limitations. The only question that matters in the end is “What works?”

Hope that helps!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Ceramics, Clay, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Getting the excess weight off your bottom and other pottery tips

  1. Hi Carter, I tried the ‘fingernail’ approach today and I can see an even bigger improvement than my earlier tests that you kindly commented on. Thanks again for taking the time to pass on this information.

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Excellent insights and advice! And chock-full of quotable ideas:
    • Smart hands will always be the potter’s best tool.
    • The temptation to keep every precious thing that lifts off the wheel must be tempered with the knowledge that mistakes need to be acknowledged to be learned from.
    • We need to cultivate a critical and even a suspicious mind where our own pots are concerned.
    • One of the goals every aspiring potter should have is to make their fingers the most intelligent and sophisticated tools they can be.
    • Once your hands are smart enough none of the so called rules of technique you have picked up along the way really matter.

    Re: technique, this was a key discovery for me after a few years of throwing: “Establish the corner early, while the walls are still short or while you are compressing the floor…”. Especially the *early* part.

    I’ve told students to set the inside corner right after compressing the base, and before the first pull. Sometimes they tend to round it back out during pulling — beginner’s don’t have an innate sense of the line their hands are drawing in space, so the inside hand often pushes the wall outwards off the base more than intended — so I’ve even advised making that corner sharper than 90º, so that it ends up at 90º after pulling and shaping.

    And to your point about orienting one’s fingers in whatever way works, I set that corner with the thumbnail on my inside (left) hand, momentarily closing my fingers into a fist and aiming that thumb downwards into the right-hand corner. With practice, that gets to be a pretty fluid transition from compressing the base, to setting the corner with the inside thumb, to moving that thumb to the outside for the first big pull using “The Claw” grip.

    • Cool beans!

      I like the idea that the hands are “drawing a line”, I think that puts it into perspective much better, since we all seem to be raised to understand 2D lines better than 3D proportions…..

      One companion piece of advice I give beginners is that their smart hand, right for righties and left for lefties, is the one they need to rely on to do most of the sophisticated stuff. It is already their most intelligent hand, and probably has much greater strength and stability as well. So I phrase the thinning/pulling of the walls as requiring that their inside/off hand only be there for support rather than actively pushing/squeezing the walls. If you can train that hand to just stay put and provide the support against which the outside/smart hand pushes then you have more control more easily at that beginner’s stage. You are not confusing things by involving your lesser hand in the sophisticated requirements of learning the clay. Its the ‘dumb’ hand, so give it simple tasks. And if they do it right, the keep that inside wall perpendicular to the floor, and that corner stays sharp. If they start to move their inside hand actively rather than dumbly supporting then they often get into all sorts of complications…..

      That’s how it seems to make sense for me, at least!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Exactly! I like labeling them as the “smart” and “dumb” hands — it’s accurate and the kind of thing that gets peoples’ attention!

        I’ve put it in terms of letting the inside hand “catch” the pressure from the outside hand, rather than actively pushing against it, and for cylindrical forms to try to just bring the inside hand upwards in a straight vertical line (or, to “draw” a plumb line in space). Maybe that’s my right-handed, North American bias — assuming that the inside hand is the dumb hand, and that the left hand is inside, and that the wheel is going counter-clockwise — but even for lefties I’ve advised to let the outside hand lead. Maybe I wasn’t doing a very good job teaching lefties!

        • Just realized that what you described probably means you did not have reversible wheels. Its great that Brent and the other manufacturers have been producing reversible motors. I have 5 left-handed beginners in my class on Sunday nights. Not sure I’d be able to manage with only single direction wheels…..

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Yes, they were older Brents; non-reversible, if I remember correctly. I can imagine how nice it’d be to have the option to just flip a switch — especially with five lefties in one class! I’ve never had more than 2 out of 15, and I guess I managed to help them muddle through.

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    I meant to say something about proprioception, too. (From Wikipedia: “the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement”.)

    As we’ve discussed before, it’s literally a sixth sense, a physical/mental skill that we all have, but that most haven’t developed very well. (And that seems to be on the decline with the general extinction of hand labor and craft skills (unless, of course, you count typing and texting as craft skills)).

    It seems to me that this is the primary thing that people are improving as they learn to throw — what would more generically be described as “dexterity” or “hand-eye coordination”. And so, in the case of gauging the thickness at the base of a cylinder, for example, it’s key to developing that sense of how far the fingertips of both hands are apart (in addition to the visual cues you detailed). Eventually, we stop needing to look at the inside and outside profiles so deliberately, or checking every base with a needle tool, as the proprioception sense improves.

    • Agreed! That intuitive sense of body knowledge is being trained out of us, or at least is being stunted rather than actively developed…. We are steadily becoming alienated from our own bodies and our visceral connection to the world…

  4. Lori Buff says:

    Thanks Carter, this is what so many new potters need. I’m sharing this.

  5. Pingback: Clay Blog Review: September 2013 | Pottery Making Blog

  6. Kat says:

    The inside hand as support really has been a great help to me. Thanks!

  7. Penny says:

    I have read the tips here and will start applying the finger nail technique first thing in the morning. Heavy bottomed pots are also what I’ve been throwing but I have learned a lot with trimming that is helping. However, this technique may take care of that issue!

    I am a beginner and am learning lots — however, when I start my first pull, I am actually having an issue where my outer wall comes up unevenly in such a way that I often have an outer ring of clay that comes off as soon as I get to the top. What am I doing to cause this? I have looked at a lot of sites, but none seem to address this, and certainly… I am not the only one this happens to? 🙂

    • I don’t know the level of your experience other than that you self identify as a ‘beginner’. The advice I will give you may not be appropriate, because students require different information the more they know, but these are the things I would tell anyone showing up in their first several classes:

      I prefer not to teach trimming to beginners because it takes pressure off learning how to throw well if you feel you can correct every poorly thrown pot by trimming it. If pots are not thrown well they do not deserve to be trimmed. The time you spend trimming could have been spent learning to throw a better pot. It trades the benefits of a developing skill set for the short term gain of this one poorly thrown pot getting salvaged. This one pot does not matter. Your ability to throw better pots is what you should focus on. I prefer to teach that only a pot specifically designed to be trimmed (even walls, appropriate shape, etc) should be trimmed. You do no learn as quickly if you are not focused on how to get the most out of your clay. Trimming for beginners is a shortcut to making poorly thrown pots less bad, its not a technique for making good pots. Its giving a person a fish rather than teaching them to fish.

      The problem you are having with a band of clay separating from the wall is not unusual. It would be difficult to know exactly what you are doing without observing your technique. My guess would be that you are not keeping the walls as consistent as you might, the pressure you apply in squeezing the walls is more focused than dispersed, and you are not sensitive enough to release your hands when a problem starts to develop. My first suggestion is that when you first notice things going wrong don’t just power through. This is your chance to learn something about both the clay and your own relation to it. See why things are going off kilter. Try doing it a bit different. Try to understand the physical principles you are working with and how those things limit what you can do.

      For instance. keeping the walls as consistently thick/thin allows you to work without the danger of thin spots weakening the structure. You are aiming for consistent walls, so keeping them as close to that ideal as you go makes sense. The technique should serve the purpose, so know what you are trying to do and find the most direct and accessible way to get there. You will find that the technique itself is less important than understanding what you are doing. It may turn out there are alternate and even better ways of getting there. Focus on what you are trying to achieve rather than mastering a technique. The technique is just a tool. Sometimes its a good tool. But if you don’t know what a hammer is for, no matter how well you have learned to swing it you can’t build things. The technique is not the purpose. Don’t not learn it. Simply know what part it plays in what you are doing.

      Clay separates from the pot for even experienced throwers, but beginners often lack the sensitivity to make it less problematic. Often beginners apply pressure to the wall in a focused way. When things go wrong it sometimes is like using a laser where a flashlight would be more useful. The tight focus only helps you if you already know what you are doing, where you are going. You can get away with so many more things once you have some skills and understanding under your belt. Until then do what it takes to maximize your learning. Your smartest tools will always be your finger tips. They are the most sensitive and useful tools you’ve got. Get them involved as much and as often as you can. So, rather than just one point of focus on the clay wall, spread your fingers to cover more of the vertical surface of the pot. Get as much of that wall under your supervision. Learn to use each finger tip as a delicate instrument rather than blundering through the process wielding a sharp knife. The more you spread the influence of your fingers the more information you will gather from what you do.

      Think of technique not just as a process to get a specific job done. Also understand why you are doing it, what the advantages are, and what the clay itself allows you to do. You are in a relationship with the clay, and your job is as much trying to understand what the clay wants as figuring out what you yourself would like. Its only going to work if you are sensitive to the needs and are able to put your best foot forward. Know the clay and your own abilities enough to know what is required when. Try not to put the cart before the horse. In the long run you will get results by having listened to the clay. Your finger tips are the most sensitive part of your hand for listening. Give them the space and opportunity to play their role.

      Hope that helps.

  8. Penny says:

    Thanks for your insight. I have looked at your suggestions for proper finger placement. I think I was letting my right fingers ride up too high, and maybe overlapped the inner fingers. I carefully pulled another pot and was cognizant of my finger placement. There was barely a ring of clay to remove so I think this is what I’ve been doing wrong. I was putting more force on my inner fingers and less force on the outer — completely opposite of what I should have been doing.

    The end result was a nice looking vase! I will continue to practice this way and see what is what.

    I am a very patient person, so taking time is not a problem at all. Thank you for answering so quickly!

  9. Amy Harned says:

    Thank you so much for this advice. It was very freeing. I’m realizing there are lots of techniques and I need to find the ones that work for me. Trust in my fingers!

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