Clay Hand Building Techniques

Hand building with clay is an ancient technique that has been used to make functional ceramics for as long as humans have been making ceramics. 

Clay being pinched into a plate form.

Ceramics hand building techniques

Clay handbuilding techniques are methods that can be used to create pottery items using only the hands and fingers and simple tools, rather than a pottery wheel.

Handbuilding definition: creating clay forms with hands fingers and simple tools, without the use of a pottery wheel.

Sometimes slip-casting is referred to as a handbuilding technique, but it is not as the piece is created in a cast, not built by hand.

Hand-built pieces do not have the uniformity or consistency of wheel-thrown pieces, but the main benefits of this technique are that the techniques require less practice than throwing pots (on a wheel), and that it allows the potter to create a variety of shapes and forms that cannot be achieved using a wheel.

At the same time, the charm of hand-built pottery lies in the subtle non-uniform quality which belongs to no other material or method.

The three basic hand-building techniques

The three basic techniques that are often used for hand-building pots are pinch pottery, coil building, and slab building.

1. Pinch pottery method

A small pot being made with the pinch pottery method.
Pinch pottery method.

Pinch pottery, also known as pinch pots, is probably the simplest of the classic handbuilding techniques. It is a simple and versatile technique that can be used to produce almost any shape of a vessel with a wide range of surface textures. This method is traditionally used to create functional items like flowerpots, bowls, spoons, and cups, but its lack of a wheel also allows the creation of sculptural pieces.

The process of pinching results in a pot with a distinctive look that can be quite attractive. Pinch pots are common in Native American pottery and in the pottery of Japan. Pinch pots can be used to make candle holders, small pots, cups, or vases.

Although it is a simple technique, it results in a beautiful form, which is why the pinch pot has endured for more than 20,000 years.

Pinch pot creation involves taking a ball of clay and pinching it into the desired shape. Bear in mind that the object will not be as strong as one thrown on a wheel, and larger pinch pots can be quite difficult to construct.

The basic process for making a simple pinch pot is:

  • Take a lump of clay and insert your thumb into the center to create a hole.
  • Slowly pinch the clay and stretch it around that initial hole to slowly move the clay into the intended shape.
  • Add additional small pieces of clay to create a larger form, pinching the firmly into place to ensure they bond with the original pot.

2. Coil building

A pot made using the coil pottery technique.
Coil pottery technique

Small pieces of pottery, such as dishes and candlesticks, may be molded with the hands from a single piece of clay but, for larger pieces, the strong and simple process of building up with coils of clay is more satisfactory.

Coil building, also known as coil pottery, is a pottery technique in which coils of clay are built up into a piece by placing coils next to each other and joining them together. Each coil is attached to the previous one by scoring with a needle, and applying liquid clay slip to adhere the coils together.

The coils may be left visible, or finished with a wooden rib tool to a smooth surface, where the coils are not recognizable.

  • Create coils by rolling out small balls of clay on a flat plaster surface or a bat. 
  • Form a base for your pot – either use a hand flattened slab, or coil one of the coils on itself to create a flat shape. 
  • Add coils to start building up the sides of the pot
  • Pinch the edges firmly together and weld each joint with soft clay or add slip as the coil is added to adhere it.
  • Raise and flatten the sides of the pot by pinching it flat.
  • Smooth pot surface with a rib as you build (or leave the coils visible if preferred).
  • Continue until the pot is the desired size.
  • Finish the pot by cutting the rim straight with a knife or wire, then smooth the rim and sides of the pot with a damp sponge or other pottery tool.

You can create a more uniform piece by building inside a mold, or using a cardboard outline to check the shape as building progresses. 

3. Slab building

A bowl being made from a clay slab.
Slab building method.

Slab building is a technique where the clay is rolled out flat, cut into pieces, and then then shaping them into a form. Slab-built pieces are attached together by scoring and then applying a coat of slip along the edges to be adjoined.

It is a good technique to build pots with angular shapes or square pieces. Though it can also be used to create a plate or shallow shape by draping the slab over or inside a mold and allowing it to partially dry, or creating edges using he pinching method.

To create a large slabs of clay of a uniform thickness, a slab roller can be used. Alternatively, you can use a rolling pin with thickness guides (small flat pieces of wood) placed either side to get a consistent thickness.

Basic steps for slab building:

  • Roll clay to a consistent thickness using a slab roller (or rolling pin with thickness guides).
  • Mark out the base and sides of the shape to be built.
  • Run a thin knife round each shape, and carefully separate the pieces.
  • Construct the piece by roughening the edges that will be adjoined, applying some slip and then pressing the edges firmly together.
  • Smooth any sharp edges and angles with the fingers or a damp sponge the clay hardens.