Your pots by the hour

Seth Godin just summed up part of my uneasiness in hearing other potters talk about charging for their work based on the time it takes. Seth puts it like this:

Most professionals ought to charge by the project, because it’s a project the customer wants, not an hour.

Surgery, for example. I don’t want it to last a long time, I just want it to work. Same with a logo or website design.

Or house painting. The client is buying a painted house, not your time.

One exception: If the time is precisely what I’m buying, then charging by the time is the project. Freudian therapy, say, or a back massage.


Seth has a good point, but as the artists ourselves this is a hard lesson. When you make something you stand inside that process and you can compare what you are doing to your other projects. No wonder we see the differences and that it seems reasonable and fair that we get compensated correctly for the time it takes. Quick projects should be cheaper and more elaborate and involved ones more expensive. Its not just that the quality built into something is more realized the more time we take, but that its our time, and we deserve something for it. From our own point of view this does make sense. Seth simply makes the point that the people paying for our work are NOT paying for our time, and that our charging prices based on the time it took is not necessarily an easy reconciliation.

But I have other issues with artists justifying their prices based on compensating for labor. For instance, what is the difference between how long it takes a novice to do something and a practiced professional? The more experience we have the quicker we do things. Should professionals be penalized for being more efficient? Is there an incentive for mediocre potters to not learn efficiency? Or should we say that a new professional’s work is worth x dollars an hour and a more experienced potter’s work should be worth some multiple of x$/hour? 2x$/hour? 3x?

But isn’t this just an attempt to quantify a qualitative difference? In what universe would a beginner’s pot ever be worth as much as that of a qualified professional? Would 5 beginner mugs be worth one good one? Fifty? Could 100 bad handles ever be worth as much as one excellent one? Somehow selling ten beginner pots at $5 a piece does add up to one professional pots worth $50, but that seems to only work on a quantitative level. Its an illusion of comparison. Apples and oranges can cost nearly the same thing, and if you want apples or you want oranges any difference in the cost is simply irrelevant….. The sameness of the money involved merely casts an illusion that what we get for our money is comparable and potentially equivalent. You can get ten cups of coffee or a decent handmade mug. Is this a quantitative decision?

So there is an issue with quality that charging for our time can’t fully embrace. For instance, if we try to push time=money in our own work, never mind comparing experienced potters to novices, are all details equally worth our time? And that’s not just an issue from our own qualitative perspective, but to our customers as well. Will they pay more for one type of pot than another? Will they pay for a certain surface treatment and mostly ignore others? Is it worth our time to give them what they want? You see, its not just that more time is worth more, but that what we are doing is either worth more or less. And that is an issue for both the success of our pots in our own eyes and for their acceptance with an audience…..

Tony Clennell puts it like this:

There is certainly a different skill set to throw a nice teapot. You have to be able to make a nice form, a fitting lid, a spout that pours, put a decent handle on it and it has to function without dripping. This is what I call hard money. This is not an item someone makes right out of the starting gate. It is also harder to sell at prices over $100.

On the other hand there is the slab tray. I call this easy money. You could probably hire a high school student to make them for you and very easy for the beginning potter.

In what sense is it better to spend more time working on a detail that no one will ever notice or fully appreciate than it is gobbing on details that are in the audience’s face and obvious? The audience will pay for what it can see and what it likes, and perhaps not for what it doesn’t. If its a matter of the ‘right’ product in our audience’s mind, then clearly our labor can be well spent (financially) or not. A pot we labored over that no one understands can sit on our shelves for years while the generic stuff flows out the door. Not to mention that customers have budgets and sticker shock (as Tony suggests) can be a real disincentive to some.

So we get to ask: A pot that never sells is worth how much? In other words, it can be more cost effective/efficient use of our time to give them what they want. Supply and demand. But sometimes you’ve just gotta do what you’ve gotta do. Shadow May asks, “Imagine all the mugs I could’ve made with this.”

"Imagine all the mugs I could've made with this."

“Imagine all the mugs I could’ve made with this.”

Which is to suggest there are plenty of reasons to put prices on pots. And that is exactly the point. Time is quantitative and sometimes its qualitative. The pots we make are quantitative and you hope they are qualitative. And when we reduce them simply to one or the other we quite possibly miss some important aspects. Pricing according to our own investment of time says nothing what so ever about whether its a good pot or a bad one. We can even spend more time on our failures than our successes, but does that justify charging more or them? Is it more important that its a good pot we are selling? Pricing your pots merely by the hour is as reasonable as expecting to get paid for picking your nose. Some things we do are not worth much at all to other folks, so how can it be justified in terms of the time it took? If we take a stand that “My time is worth x amount” are we essentially turning our back on the audience?

Time is NOT money, unless it really IS, and we are actually doing something it makes sense to charge for by the hour. Seth Godin was right. (And amazingly I don’t get paid for either the work I do to prepare these essays on my blog or the quality of the questions I ask.) Artists sometimes have an awkward but understandable ambivalence about charging for the things we make, and that simply means that the easy answers are never entirely right. But if we are interacting with actual customers and hope to make sense to them, we may need to learn to ignore the temptation to price simply by our investment of time…..

For anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years, one of the things I have pointed to repeatedly is how very different things can seem from the inside and from the outside. Everything from quality to our motivations either makes sense or not depending on the way things are being framed (Hint: This is very important). Pricing pots could never be as simple as merely getting paid by the hour for our work. Its always a factor, psychologically speaking, but there are so many other things to consider.

Things to think about, at least.

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, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Your pots by the hour

  1. togeika says:

    A Scottish Potte I met in Kasama, Japan once told me:

    “You can always get more money
    But you can never get more time.”

  2. josephatravis says:

    At the same time I wouldn’t want to sell pots at a price less than minimum wage, which is the main reason I would advocate knowing how long it takes to make an object. Money isn’t has never been a motivation for me, but I wouldn’t want to be giving the pottery away as it were.

    When it comes to time it was Adam field that was the first potter to really convince me that every single part of pot is worth considering and spending time on. This really convinced me that I shouldn’t be in the process of making 100s of pots in an hour, but taking the time to give each pot what it needs.

    When handmade pottery like a painting are luxury products, so you really want to sell something that is special.

    When I am designing I do try and design with a price point in mind. I have even pondered what it would take to make a cup that was worth more than the average for a mug in this country of £15-25 for one made by a professional potter.

    (lastly sorry I haven’t been keeping up with your blog I have been lost in the world of my dissertation since August, it is almost over)

    • togeika says:

      Certainly, studio pottery is a product of the middle class, but unlike paintings, they are not necessarily “luxury items.” If food and mindfully presented meals are thought of as necessary to everyday life (Like they are in Japan), then good pots are not a luxury, and are actually, more durable and cost effective than many discretionary purchase like electronics or entertainment.

      Much of pricing depends on the market. For example, prices for tea ware here in Minnesota are much lower than they were for me in Japan.

      On the other hand, I sell mugs here and in Japan for $30.00 or 20.45 British Pounds which is pretty common.

      I see some items as being loss leaders and missionaries: once people own them, they consider other, more expensive purchases.

      In reference to Tony’s comment on tea pots, unlike his, mine are for daily use (not the mantle) and cost much less than $100.00. They function well and are carefully crafted for all the various tea traditions you find in Asia. These ways of enjoying tea are becoming better known here in the Upper MidWest.

      • josephatravis says:

        But they are a luxury especially where I live in one of the most deprived areas of the UK, most locals cannot afford £5 for a cup never mind £20, I can’t sell pots around here for what they are “worth” to me. It doesn’t matter who cheap I sell them here they are never going to be missionaries or loss leaders for me.

        People also don’t have the mind set that these are an investment, the only people locally I have sold things to are those that make things themselves. when I had a shop it was generally people coming from further afield that would buy from me.

        I am also not much of a tea drinker and those that I know that do drink tea make it in a mug, pouring water in from the kettle, most people don’t use teapots and if they do they pick them up cheap.

        As much as people want to make them fast and sell them cheap they are in the minority in this country.

        Look you can go through my maths if you want it isn’t hard to make minimum wage on the production factor of of pots. This is only the cost for electric fired pots, not for wood or gas, which are more intensive and cost more to fire, but generally fit more in the kiln.

        The cost of the potters time is the most expensive element, and I always think if I wanted to up production I would have to pay someone else, and legally I would have to pay them minimum wage so this has to be a factor in what I make.

        • togeika says:


          If you think of your work as being like oil painting, it will limit your chances of sucess and/or making a living from it. The likelihood is much higher of making a modest living from functional pottery than there is oil painting.

          As I mentioned, studio pottery has always been connected to the middle class. With the shrinking middle class, demand has fallen as discretionary income has disappeared. I would say luxury items compete with things like fine jewelry, fancy cars and more than adequate homes. Discretionary purchases compete with coffee at Starbucks, dining out or going to a movie.

          Here are some discussions at a painting BBS that illustrate my point:
          Psypomp Psypomp Senior Member MD, United States

          Join Date: Jul 2009 Posts: 170
          Hails from United States
          Pricing a large oil painting?
          I was recently asked for a price on my most recent painting. This is the first time I’ve been asked for a price, and I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to overprice it, but I did work my butt off to complete it!
          Working time: ~4 hours/week for 7 weeks (about 28 hours total)
          Hand-built stretcher– cut the wood & nailed it together, primed canvas
          Size is medium to large, 36×40″

          And then there’s material cost.. oil paints aren’t cheap.
          And two replies:

          Greg Long Greg Long WC! Guide
          Join Date: Aug 2003 Posts: 10,458

          Hails from Ireland
          Re: Pricing a large oil painting?
          have a look here for a Ball-park figure
          Also it would depend on what your normal sale price is on smaller works, and your sales history. I would say, if you are not happy with the price, don’t sell at it.


          Use Her Name Lord of the Arts New Mexico

          Join Date: Feb 2006

          Hails from United States
          Re: Pricing a large oil painting?
          Greg Long is right. I average about $350 for a 20X20, so I would charge about $700 for a 40X40. To me, it does not matter how many hours were used to create the work. I find what sells best are paintings that took only a few days to do (over those that took a long time). I’ve done drawings and paintings that have taken thousands of hours that have ended up in the wastebasket.
          Your sales record has more to do with pricing than your skill level.

          Yes, the biggest cost in functional pottery is the potter’s time. This last sentence speaks to another aspect: Your sales record. Another aspect is what other people are charging where you live and what kind of audience you have. If you can’t sell to your neighbors, you have to find shops or sell online.

          Enough for now. I have a deadline on an article for the Korean Quarterly (that I won’t get paid for) on the Buddhist Temples around Mungyeong S. Korea, where I have been attending as a guest potter at their Tea Bowl Festival. When that is finished, I will work on my presentation: Korean Buncheong Ware and its influence on the studio arts movement in Japan, Europe and N. America for the Minnesota Arts Pottery Association next week.

          We have tea several times a day, including matcha before meditation in the afternoon. This is what I made for my wife Jean this morning:

    • Scott Cooper says:

      “I wouldn’t want to sell pots at a price less than minimum wage…”

      So let’s say there’s a pot you really want to make, but the market won’t pay you more than minimum wage for the time it takes to make it. What do you do? Not make the pots you really want to make? Make them “on scholarship”; eg. funded by some other activity? Make them, but not bother trying to sell them?

      I guess my point is that there are trade offs to be made here, as in so many other aspects of studio work, and that which ones each of us chooses says a lot about our underlying motivations and values.

      • josephatravis says:

        I have worked out previously as a though experiment what it costs to make my electric fired pots and the only real cost is my time. That is here

        If I wanted to employ someone else to work alongside me making pots I would have to pay them minimum wage. Pots here in the UK aren’t as decorative as in the US amongst most makers, perhaps that is an issue I haven’t considered?

        Look I earn £8.25 per hour in my other job but I only work part time so I still have time to make. At the moment I haven’t really sold pots for 3 years as my when my second son was born I decided I needed to take life more seriously. I undertook my teacher training and I am qualified to teach in schools in this country. I have even been offered temp jobs at over double the minimum wage, I have turned them down as I don’t want to be that unhappy.

        I have made 100s of pots and most of the time I don’t even fire them because for me the only enjoyable part of the process is making, finding a market is far harder. I live in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. of the 20 most of them are in Blackpool which is the biggest town in our area.

        • Lee Love says:

          josephatravis, Maybe you have heard the story:

          Friend asks the potter, “How is the pottery going?”

          Potter answers, “I’ll keep making pots, as long as the money lasts.”

          But seriously, have you considered selling online?

        • Scott Cooper says:

          “…for me the only enjoyable part of the process is making, finding a market is far harder.”

          You’re definitely not alone in this — I’m pretty sure this is true for every potter I know. Usually, the selling is the worst of it, no matter what the venue. If you happen to find a situation where sales are brisk, that can be enjoyable, but getting the pots to the point of sale is, in my experience, always a slog.

          Having the time to make pots, but not the market to buy them is a tough problem, but another one that I think is pretty common. Most people who make pots do it “as a hobby”, meaning that they’re giving it only their spare time. Committing to doing it “professionally” — eg. with time that otherwise would have to go to paid employment — is a big leap. In my experience, that leap includes embracing the unenjoyable stuff of business: promotion, setting up your own sales venue, packing and shipping, or hauling pots to places where they’ll sell. (Back to the original topic, maybe for some, that business includes doing a time and motion study and and profit and loss report on their studio time; for me that’s a bridge too far.)

          Local markets are relative, but for what it’s worth I live in a pretty poor county, too, in the US midwest. Most of my local sales are to customers affiliated with the small college here. If I didn’t have that audience, I’d have to take my pots to fairs, or bite the bullet and try to sell in galleries, or — god forbid — wholesale. But I’d probably do those things before I sold my pots for a lot less than I think they’re worth, or made only the stuff that a average local person would buy.

          In general, I think living in a poorer area is offset by lower property costs and so forth, but maybe not. The ideal seems to be living in the cheaper rural zone within close proximity to a good sized, more affluent city. But chances are if you find one of those, you’ll also find plenty of other potters who had the same idea.

  3. Seth Godin followed up his post with this one:

    The crowd, your work, and a choice
    The crowd prefers sweets.

    The crowd gets on its feet when your band plays the big hit, and sits down for the new songs.

    The crowd will pay far more for a steak dinner than a vegetable one, regardless of cost or effort or value.

    The crowd will always pick the movie over the book.

    The crowd would rather wait in line for the popular attraction.

    The crowd likes to be chased.

    The crowd likes explosions, resolved plots and ample lighting.

    The crowd would prefer a digest.

    The crowd never liked Ornette Coleman very much.

    The crowd’s favorite words include fast, easy, cheap, fun, now and simple.

    The crowd needs a deadline.

    The crowd is the group of people who don’t get what you do, who loom on the horizon as the reward for making your work more popular.

    And yet, the crowd continually gets more than it deserves, because people like you make work that matters. Work that you’re proud of.

  4. Scott Cooper says:

    I experimented with pricing based on time, at some point, years ago. As you said, it has the lure of the simple. And it seemed like a good way to explain my prices — which were otherwise almost completely arbitrary, to my customers.

    But it didn’t work for me — I discovered it had big costs that came with it. The worst one was that it created kind of a toxic mindset: suddenly, I had to rationalize every step, every action in the studio. I was *accountable*, and not in a good way. It added guilt (already in no short supply) to any time I wasn’t identifiably “on task”. It prompted questioning the processes and methods that felt right, even if they took a little longer, and which had been hard-won over years of practice. It threatened to turn my studio into a little factory, and myself into just another disposable employee. Oh, and it added the annoying overhead of tracking; time management itself takes time.

    Anyways, if that approach seems appealing, I say save yourself the trouble of all the calculations and just skip ahead to making mugs. Only mugs. As simply and quickly and blandly as possible. Forget about subtleties like form and the quality of the clay you’re using — your $x/hr customers probably won’t notice those, anyways. Also, slather them in bright colors, or with dragonflies and shit on them.

    Your accountant will love it.

  5. togeika says:

    Sometimes the object isn’t necessarily to sell, but as a creative exploration. You might not get the time you put into the pot (many woodfired pots are this way for me), but you learn from the making and the process. It is an investment in your work.

    I came to pottery after studying to become a zen Priest and an interest in anthropology and archeology. My 3 year apprenticeship, was being a Clay Monk. It is a very different mindset compared to coming out of a Studio Arts environment.

  6. Pingback: Admit it, You’ve Got… | Liz Crain Ceramics

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