By Simon Woodhouse
Everyone knows what the oldest profession is, but what's the second oldest? Perhaps a definite answer has been lost in the annals of time, but pottery has got to be a major contender. Why is pottery so close to the top of the list? Probably because in its most basic form, it requires very few raw materials (clay and water) and not much practice. For this reason, amongst others, it makes a good beginners hobby. Also, it's the sort of pastime you can do on your own. And if you enjoy working with your hands, it's even more likely to be your cup of tea.
First of all, before you start thinking about clays and glazes and the few tools you'll need, you're going to have to make sure you can get access to a kiln (unless you have your own, which is very unlikely if you're reading an article called Pottery For Beginners). Now this isn't as daunting as it sounds. Ceramics shops that deal with 'hobby' ceramics are everywhere, and most of them will be happy to let you use their kiln - for a fee of course. By the way, if you're not sure what a kiln is, it's an extremely well insulated oven that can get very hot. Besides letting you use their kiln, the ceramics shop people will be all to pleased to sell you all the necessary bits and pieces to get you started, as well as give you friendly advice.
So what will you need to get started? The simple answer is, not much, and some of the things you will need, you probably already have lying around the house. Sponges, both small and large, are good for smoothing and shaping, as well as cleaning up after you've finished. Plastic bags are also handy, as they help to stop your work drying out if you have to leave it before it's complete. A spray bottle full of water is good for keeping your work wet whilst shaping it, and a rolling pin is excellent for working larger slabs of clay.
When most people think of pottery, they picture a skilled expert sat at a potter's wheel, shaping all sorts of wonderful items as if by magic. If you're just starting out, chances are you haven't got a potter's wheel at home (much in the same way you probably don't have your own personal kiln). But that's no reason to be discouraged. An excellent way to get a feel for basic pottery techniques, and also to become familiar with the consistency of clay and how it handles, is to 'hand-build' items. As the name suggests, this involves creating things with your hands instead of a potter's wheel. One of the simplest projects (and therefore a very good place for beginners to start) is a pinch pot. To make one of these, all you need is some clay and the ability to pinch. To start with you take a lump of clay about the size of a tennis ball, and work it into a vague circular shape. Push your thumb into the middle, not too deep, probably up to the first knuckle will do, and then give the clay a pinch. Keep pinching, whilst at the same time turning the lump of clay in your hand, until the hole is big enough to get your other thumb in there as well. Now you can pinch with both hands. Keep turning the pot as you go, as this'll help to make sure the sides are the same thickness the whole way round. Finally, tap the bottom gently on a level surface to give the pot a flat base. And that's the first stage over with, but the pot's not quite complete yet.
Now put it in the plastic bag so the drying out process takes a bit longer, and therefore means it'll be more even and the pot is less likely to crack. From here you need to take the pot along to your local hobby ceramics shop, and ask them to fire it in their kiln. If you bought the clay you used from them, this'll be a great help. I'll explain, but not in too much technical detail. As far as putting stuff in a kiln goes, clay comes in two basic types - earthenware and stoneware. Earthenware clay fires at a lower temperature than stoneware, quite a lot lower, nearly 400 degrees in fact. If a piece of earthenware is fired at stoneware temperatures, it'll melt and create a horrible mess inside the kiln. This will make the people in the ceramics shop very angry. However, if you bought your clay from them, chances are they'll remember you and thus know what sort you bought.
Ok, so you've made your pot and had it fired. Now it's time to apply some glaze and perhaps a little paint. If you're going to paint it, that comes first. The paint is also referred to as underglaze, because it's made of similar stuff to regular glaze. I suggest only painting something simple on your first pot. Geometric shapes are good - circles, triangles, squares, that sort of thing. Rather than worrying about the shapes and patterns, try to have a bit of fun with the colors. Once you've got the paint on there, it's time to put on the glaze. Glazing seals the pot and makes it water proof. Once it's glazed you'll even be able to drink out of it. For the glaze to do its stuff, the pot needs to go back in the kiln. Inside the kiln, the glaze will melt onto the pot, thus creating the waterproof seal.
After this second firing, the whole thing is done. I suggest keeping this first piece of pottery out of harms way. There's nothing more satisfying than looking back at your first piece, and seeing just how much you've improved. But don't be embarrassed by you early efforts. Hand made pottery has an endearing quality, especially if it's a bit 'rough around the edges'. It's the uniqueness of each piece that sets it aside from the mass-produced, store-bought stuff.
What you'll probably find, after having tried a bit of basic pottery, is that you'll want to become more adventurous. Joining a pottery class is an excellent way to learn, and before you know it, you'll be knocking out pots like a pro.