A Beginner’s Guide to Ceramics, Part II: Ceramic Techniques and Glazes to Know

Katie Mudd tan and yellow stoneware sipper cups
Elizabeth Magalski

This ceramics guide breaks down the three major types of pottery techniques — wheel-throwing, slipcasting, and handbuilding — and which types of clay each technique is best for. We also discuss the main types of glazes — satin, gloss, and matte — and share which glaze is best for which type of vessel.

There are many layers and nuances to the craft of ceramics — after all, it’s an art form that has been around for thousands of years! 

Our Beginner’s Guide to Ceramics series, though, aims to break down the basics of this craft for those at the beginning of their journey into the world of pottery. (Read Part I of our ceramics guide to learn about the most common clay types used.)

In Part II, we’re diving into the various pottery throwing techniques and the three types of glazes used for ceramics with the help of expert ceramicist Katie Mudd.

What Are the Different Pottery Throwing Techniques? 

There are three main methods for working with clay, as Katie Mudd explains. A ceramicist can use wheel throwing (which is the primary technique Katie uses to create her pieces), hand building, and slipcasting. Below, we’ll explain what each technique is and which clay type each technique is best suited for.

Katie Mudd Wheelthrowing
A behind-the-scenes photo of Katie Mudd wheel throwing!

What Is Wheel Throwing?

Wheel throwing is the process of shaping clay on a pottery wheel. A potter first forms their clay into a ball, throws the ball of clay onto the wheel, and uses their hands to form the clay into the desired shape using a multi-step formation process. The first pottery wheels were powered by foot, but today, most wheels are electric-powered. 

Any type of clay can be wheel-thrown, but it’s essential the clay is “throwing-friendly” and not too gritty, Katie Mudd explains — otherwise, the clay can tear up a ceramicist’s hands.

Artisans from Middle Kingdom wheel throwing porcelain pieces
An artisan from Middle Kingdom wheel-throwing a porcelain piece

Artisans from Middle Kingdom wheel throwing porcelain pieces
A close-up of a Middle Kingdom artisan wheel-throwing one of the brand’s pieces

Stoneware is the easiest type of clay to throw with because it’s very sturdy. If the potter sees a wiggle in the stoneware clay during the process, it’s easy to correct while throwing the clay without affecting the final outcome, Katie shares.

It is possible to hand-throw with porcelain as well, although Katie points out that one must develop a certain skill level, because porcelain — which she calls the “princess of clays” — doesn’t accept anything except undivided attention.

A Few of Our Favorite Hand-Thrown Ceramics:

What Is Handbuilding?

Handbuilding is an age-old form of pottery that does not involve any large tools. The three most widely used types of handbuilding are slab building, coil building, and pinch pottery. 

This method is far more time-consuming than other ceramic techniques. It isn’t uncommon to spend five hours crafting just one piece! Katie Mudd shared with us that it took her three hours to handbuild a simple tray earlier this year! Due to the time and labor-intensive nature of this method, handbuilt ceramics will usually have a higher price point than wheel-thrown or slip cast goods.

In contrast to wheel-throwing, grittier clays (which are typically types of stoneware) are ideal for handbuilding. Because these grittier clays have a longer shelf life, a ceramicist can work with those clays over a longer period of time (e.g., they can work with the clay one day, cover it overnight, then pull the clay out another day to work on it again.).

Porcelain can also be handbuilt. While this type of clay is typically smooth and buttery, sometimes it can be firmer, which is the type of porcelain that somebody who is handbuilding would use.

What Is Slipcasting?

Slipcasting is a method commonly used for higher production and mass-produced pieces. It can also be a useful method for creating shapes that are not easily achievable with a pottery wheel.

This method essentially involves filling molds of the desired final vessel shape with slip (liquid clay) and keeping that clay in the mold until it has dried and hardened so it can be removed from the mold.

As Katie Mudd points out, the main benefit of slipcasting is that it’s more time-efficient, so using this method can buy you more time for detailed glaze work or finishing work, like painting on elaborate decorative designs.

Slipcasting started as a technique for fine porcelain, and slipcasting is the easiest way to work with porcelain. But as pottery has advanced, you can now slipcast stoneware as well. 

What Types of Pottery Glazes Are There? 

There are essentially three types of glazes you’ll find used in ceramics — matte, gloss, and satin — and Katie Mudd breaks down what we should know about each of these glazes below.

What Is Matte Glaze?

A matte finish glaze has a beautiful flat appearance without much shine. Matte glazes are more porous, so they’re best for pots, vases, and other items that you are not eating off of or drinking from.

Middle Kingdom Mini Porcelain Vase 4 (Semi-Matte Glaze)
Middle Kingdom Mini Porcelain Vase 4 (Semi-Matte Glaze)

What Is Gloss Glaze?

Gloss glazes, on the other hand, are shiny and reflective, and they are also less porous than matte glazes, which makes them a better choice for food and beverages. 

What Is Satin Glaze?

Satin glazes are not quite as shiny as gloss and are not as porous as matte, so they are also a good choice for food and drink vessels. Katie Mudd’s pieces are typically made with satin glaze, which she purchases, whenever possible, from a small company around the corner from her studio.

To explore a variety of well-made ceramic pieces to furnish your space, check out the ceramics collection on Made Trade.

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