The Potter's Wheel
( Originally Published 1937 )
THE POTTER'S WHEEL is the most fascinating machine in the world. The rotary movement it imparts to the clay almost partakes of the character of a spiritual force...the two-dimensional, horizontal plane is annihilated or metamorphosed into a single dimension which, returning on itself because of its rotation, has no measurable length and thus may be said to approach infinity. The clay, under this seemingly metaphysical force, grows up as if imbued with life itself, and responds instantly to the merest touch of the fingers. Small wonder that the wheel has been a symbol of creative power for uncounted generations.
If it is true that the master's hands can alter the form of the pot with the slightest touch, it is also true that acquiring mastery in the art of throwing is an arduous pursuit fraught with disappointments and failures. But the reward of effort in this, as in other arts, is in the sense of power which. mastery gives; and the accomplishment is well worth all the effort it takes.
BUILDING A WHEEL
Most of the ceramic supply houses stock wheels but the price seems out of proportion to the amount of work involved in building them. If you have the money nothing could be simpler than to order one. But do not let the lack stop you, because a wheel can be built for a very little. I remember building my first wheel when I was about twelve years old. I got a blacksmith to make a shaft with a crank in it for which I paid him 15 cents. I set the shaft up in an old table, the bearings being merely holes bored in the wood. I set a wheel of some kind on top and wired a cast iron grate on it for a fly wheel, fastening the head of a paint keg on top of that again for the working surface. The treadle and connecting rod were equally crude. But it worked and gave me much pleasure. I threw pots out of a crude local clay, and fired them by putting them directly on to the red hot coals of the furnace. I cannot now under-stand why they did not blow to pieces, but they didn't.
The wheel shown (fig. 20) is made of odds and ends. The shaft is an old Ford axle. At top and bottom are the original ball bearings of the car. The flywheel is from an old circular saw and is filled with cement. The wheel head is a clutch plate fitted tightly on the shaft end, and filled with plaster. The plaster was next turned true and recessed to hold bats of a certain size, by nailing a temporary tool rest across and turning the plaster as if it were wood on a lathe. The rounded front guard is half of an old paint pail. And the seat is one of the older style, made of cast iron, from a hay rake. The cast iron ones are much superior to the pressed steel variety. I show this wheel because it has proven very handy. Young children of seven or eight find it easy to use and yet I, who am not a small man, can use it quite comfortably. The built-in seat seems perfectly adapted to the work. The craftsman will find no difficulty in building any one of the three main types of wheels from the drawings given.
How TO THROW
Learn to spin the wheel so that you can do it steadily without conscious effort. See that everything is ready to hand—a few balls of clay as large as good size oranges, a bowl of water, some plaster bats, a piece of wire as fine as thread, and some wooden tools for cleaning up the corners.
The plaster bats are made by pouring plaster into an oiled frying pan, or into plaster moulds made for the purpose. They are discs of plaster about 1" thick and of varying diameters. The wheel head may be turned to receive the bats or you may attach them to it by pressing wads of clay against them all around. A better way is to put a little slip on the wheel head and lay the bat right in the center on the slip. If the bat is dry its absorption of the moisture out of the slip will make it adhere firmly to the wheel head.
The clay should be in good condition, wedged and free from lumps. Set the wheel spinning, moisten the bat slightly and throw a ball of clay smartly onto the middle of it. It will wobble, of course, and your first problem is to get rid of the wobble by "centering." Holding your fingers close together, put the backs of the left fingers against the front of the right, and bend your arms so that the palms come together like a pair of nut-crackers. Practice squeezing with them, using your arms as levers. Then dip your hands in the water, lean forward, keep your elbows tight to your sides, put your "nut-cracker" over the ball of clay and squeeze it while it revolves. If you keep your arms rigidly at your sides, steadying your wrists—if necessary—on the edge of the board in front, the ball will promptly stop wobbling and start to mount in the center. Continue squeezing until the clay has climbed up to about three times its former height; then leave your left hand sup-porting the base of the clay but apply your right to the top of it and crush it down low again. Clay must always be controlled on both sides; it must be shaped by pressure; so keep a firm grip on it always. Now repeat the squeezing and drive the clay up high again, then crush it down. This should be done three or four times thoroughly to prepare the clay.
When you have mastered this stage, but not before, you may proceed to shape a pot. Take a fresh ball of clay. (Never attempt to use clay a second time on the wheel without first allowing it to dry a little and re-wedging it.) When it is centered and properly prepared by squeezing up and crushing down, put your hands around it in the "nut-cracker" position, and cross the center of it with the thumbs, the right on top of the left. Keeping plenty of water on the clay as a lubricant, spin the wheel and press the thumbs down together. The wall of the pot begins to rise at once. When the thumbs are as far down as they will go, you are to take a new position. Put the hands straight out face to face in the attitude of prayer. Lock the left thumb over the right. Lean forward with the elbows tight to the waist, and turn the hands till they point downward over the right wall of the pot. Now lower them, straddling the wall, the right outside and the left inside of the pot. If the pot is small, you may be able to put only two or three fingers inside it. Press downward with the middle finger of the left hand until you judge that it is deep enough to leave the right thickness of the clay below for the bottom. Then draw it toward the right, pressing the clay between the fingers of the opposing hands so that it rises into the wall. Letting the two thumbs clutch one another firmly, draw the clay upward, increasing the height of the wall until it is of the right thickness.
Practise making cylindrical pots until you have mastered all the stages. You will then find no difficulty in making pots of any shape you wish. If the top is irregular or if you wish to reduce its height, take your small wire wound around a finger of each hand and trim it off, holding one end of the wire inside the pot and the other outside. Use an angular point on a stick to trim out the bottom against the bat. Scrapers or modeling tools of different shapes may be used to thin down the pot and refine its shape while it is still soft. It may also be "turned" with sharp scrapers after it has become "leather hard" or fairly stiff. To do this it is necessary to re-center it upside down on the wheel, and hold it in place with rolls of soft clay. A "foot" or raised edge may be turned at the same time.