Learning to centre clay on the wheel
Throwing is arguably the hardest technique to master and nothing can be achieved on a wheel until you learn to centre the clay properly. Here, we show you the required hand positions to take you through all the key stages of centering, but the fundamental key to success is practice, practice, practice – success is literally in your hands.
Before you begin:
- Wear something short-sleeved when throwing to keep your hands and arms unhindered.
- As a beginner, you’ll find the whole process of centering much easier and far quicker if your clay is well prepared. Knead the clay thoroughly to eliminate air bubbles and remove any unevenness that may be present.
‘Coning up’ is a process for doing this on the wheel itself and is practised by most experienced potters, but it requires the clay to be centred first and can be bypassed in many cases if the clay is well prepared.
- Prepare several balls of clay – about 2lb is a good starting weight.
Store your prepared clay balls in a plastic bowl – it keeps them contained and prevents the clay from drying out. The bowl should be covered with a sheet of plastic.
For the beginner, the most important factor when choosing a throwing clay is that it has good plasticity (an ability to retain its shape when worked, to produce a smooth and unbroken surface). Choose a smooth variety that’s recommended as a good throwing body. Other important decisions about clay will need to be made as you gain experience, but first you need to practice.
As a beginner you’ll find it easier to centre softer clay but if it’s too soft it will struggle to hold its shape as the wall is pulled up in the process of throwing.
In contrast, if the clay is too hard you will have to apply greater strength to centre and more pressure to shape the form, which can be disheartening and give a false sense of lack of ability.
It’s generally considered best to begin with a softer clay to master the initial centering technique.
Let’s get started
1 The wheel head must be clean, dust-free and moist for the clay to stick. Wipe over the surface with a damp sponge – DO NOT use excessive water or the clay will slide off the wheel head as it gathers speed.
Using your thumb as shown, remove excess water from the wheel head.
2 The underside of the ball of clay should be perfectly convex to prevent air being trapped as it’s placed on the wheel.
Now, position the ball of clay at the centre of the wheel then pat it down with the palm of the hand to fix it in place. Use the concentric lines on the wheel head to position the ball as centrally as possible.
3 Start the wheel spinning and smooth the clay at the base of the ball with the fingers of the right hand. Use the left hand to steady the right hand, as shown, while you do this.
This action will seal the clay to the wheel head.
The wheel should be spinning fast to centre, slowing down later when you open out and lift the walls.
Arm and hand position
4 Brace the left arm on the side of the pan. This hand controls the side of the clay. Keep your back and shoulders rigid, with your elbows tucked into your body for support. Position the left hand with the fingers pointing away from the clay, as shown, with the thumb down to contain the clay at the top of the ball.
If you imagine a line from your elbow through your arm, it should continue through the centre of the clay if your hand position is correct.
5 Now, set the wheel spinning and dribble a small amount of water over the clay. Lean your upper body weight down through the left arm and apply pressure with the hand on the side of the clay so that it rises as it rotates.
6 The picture shows the correct position for the right hand. Brace the right forearm on the pan and position the side of the hand over the surface of the ball to control the top of the clay.
Now, with both hands in place, apply pressure with the side of the right hand on top of the clay while gently relaxing the pressure from the left hand so that the clay goes down.
It’s this up and down movement and alternating pressure while the clay’s rotating that gently eases it into the centre. You may need to repeat the process several times before you get it right.
7 Finally, level the top of the clay with the side of the right hand to prepare for the next stage of throwing.
The clay is centred when it runs smoothly through the hands with no wobbles.
It’s vitally important that you take your hands away from the centred clay gently, because it’s easily knocked off-centre by jerky movements.
You will have to practice many times before centering becomes second-nature, but you’ll find that all of a sudden you have it, and there’ll be no looking back.