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Potters have been throwing on the wheel for at least 5000 years, which makes it one of the longest held traditions still kept by modern craftsmen. Despite its ancient origin, and use by what we can assume to be billions of potters over the millennia, every potter's technique at the wheel is personal, if not unique. To help you start to build your technique, here are the basic steps of wheel throwing.
To make any piece on the wheel you need to accomplish three things:
Before we begin you will need:
This two-part guide will assume that you are right-handed (or prefer to throw right handed AKA “western”).
Start with a lump of wedged clay that you can hold comfortably in one hand – for an adult with medium to large hands something between the size of an orange and a grapefruit – throw it down as close to the center of your wheel head as possible (don't worry if it is slightly askew). Start the wheel spinning at half speed. Fill your sponge with water and squeeze it out over your lump of clay to get it wet.
Now turn your wheel up to full speed (Not all the way if you have a particularly fast wheel, but it should be the fastest it can while still allowing you to work). Plant your feet flat on the ground. You will get most of your leverage from your feet (not your bottom, that's just keeping you from falling over).
Push your left elbow firmly into your hip and lean over the wheel. Place your left palm on the spinning piece of clay with the side of your hand barely touching the wheel head. Rest your right hand on top of your clay, contacting your left hand (some potters hook their thumbs together, others rest the thumb of their left hand in the palm of their right and use the side of their right hand on the clay). Begin to center by pressing with your left hand on the outside of the clay. Don't try to push from the shoulder; with your left elbow pressed into your hip, you can simply lean into the wheel and use the weight of your body to center the clay.
While centering, use your right hand to push the clay into the shape of a cone. When it is nearly centered, move both hands to the outside and squeeze the clay upward into a tower, then push it back down again. This is called coning and it helps to homogenize any imperfections, such as air bubbles. You may now find that the clay is easier to center (you may repeat this step two or three more times).
The best way to judge if your clay is centered is by feel; centered clay will glide smoothly under your hand but off-centered clay will feel like someone is tapping on your palm as it turns.
Once your clay is centered, it is time to open. Use your right hand to flatten the top of your clay to change it from a cone to a cylinder. Put your left hand on the clay like you would pick up a soda can. Look at the space between your left index finger and thumb. Place your right hand so that your index, middle and ring fingers fit in that space. Leading with your middle finger (which is your strongest and longest finger), drill from the top down, making sure to leave enough clay at the bottom for a foot. Slowly start to pull open, using your left hand for compressing the walls and the rim (this will keep your clay centered now and while you throw). Open the inside to the desired final width of the bottom of your piece.
Now you are ready to begin throwing in earnest.
Check out part two for info on drawing up, shaping, and finishing.