Pottery on the lathe

The potter’s or potter’s wheel is a machine that exploits the contrast between the centrifugal force suffered by the clay placed over a head or disc, usually metallic, and that carried out by the hands of the potter or lathe-maker, in order to obtain a smooth and regular shape.

Types of lathe for ceramics

There are pedal lathes, also called foot lathes, and motor or electric lathes.
The former, older, allow the increase and decrease of the speed of the disc through a pedal and require a certain skill in coordinating the movement of hands and foot. For this reason they are the favourites of many professional ceramists linked to more traditional techniques.

The motorized clay lathe, on the other hand, allows the adjustment of different standard speeds with manual controls or, more frequently, with the action of a pedal. These controls allow the automatic preservation of the speed without the need for human intervention until a different control is started.

Mechanisms and technique of the clay lathe

The plate of both types of clay lathe usually has concentric circular grooves useful for centring the earth and creating a symmetrical work, not dissimilar from the potter’s wheel or turning wheel. The usefulness of the latter, however, is limited to a better visualization and processing of the work, since there can not be the characteristic rotation force of the lathe.

Using the lathe at a good level requires an initial technique to be refined over time with constant exercise. It is not uncommon in fact, after a break, to master the machine less and regress in terms of skill.

Pottery working on the lathe

The initial phase of the lathe working process takes place with the centring of a more or less large earth ball on the previously moistened disc. The clay is made to adhere firmly to the surface and pressed with both hands firmly while the lathe is operated and the disc turned at a rather high speed.

Once the raw material is centered, it is “pierced” with the thumb or index and middle finger: the appearance is that of a rudimentary very thick bowl.
The subsequent action of the hands, possibly assisted by spatulas and sponges and the slowed down speed, taper the earth distributing it in height or width. depending on the shape you want to obtain: a plate, a vase, a bowl open or closed, a bell, a cap, a ball.

The possibilities, for an expert lathe worker, are really multiple since, when the shape is brought to a standard height, it is possible to open or close it in one or more points, creating swellings and curves or bell.

What kind of clay for the lathe?

The type of clay used is usually the specific one called “lathe clay”, although it is also possible to use other varieties of clay such as semi-refractory clay suitable for subsequent cooking raku. The chamotte present in this type of clay, however, makes prolonged work painful for the hands and therefore requires the use of a sponge that avoids the continuous direct contact of the hands with the clay.

Wooden or flexible steel spatulas are always useful both in the working phase and in the finishing phase; a metal tool that thin the bottom during the rotation cannot be missing in the turning equipment, while the steel wire is indispensable to “bubble” the mouth of a vase and to separate the base of the piece from the surface of the head.

The result that is obtained with the clay lathe

The object just made on the lathe is placed over a piece of rough wood; it is very soft and damp and it is not possible at this stage to add or finish it until a greater hardness is reached. It is possible to cover the creation with a plastic bag so that the drying process takes place slowly and partially; a few hours later, or the following day, it will be possible to make additions or decorations, or turn the object upside down by placing it back on the lathe to trim the bottom

The lathe is an ancient tool to which every potter usually approaches and, although not everyone chooses it as a favourite method, it is right to remember that it is not only useful for making vases, cups or plates but that every moulded form can be born with a lathe base. In this sense the use of the lathe is complementary to ceramic or modelled sculpture and vice versa.

For this reason and for the great manual skill required in mastering the technique, the lathe is to all intents and purposes a machine that takes nothing away from the manual, artisan and artistic activity, creativity and individual expression of individual ceramists.