How did primitive potters harvest clay? People have been making pottery for millennia, and convenient hobby shops have only been a thing for a few decades at best.
Before that, people harvested their own clay right from the soil.
Clay is present just about everywhere, and even soils described as “sandy loam” can contain as much as 20% clay. To the naked eye, it may look like sandy soil, but with a 20% clay content, every 10 pounds of soil is hiding 2 pounds of clay ready for harvest.
With a little effort, you can harvest your own clay for craft projects or even something as advanced as a backyard bread oven.
Though most soil has some clay content, the yield will obviously be higher if you find high clay soils. Look for areas where the water tends to sit after a heavy rain.
Our soils are very shallow, and there’s usually somewhere between 8 and 18 inches of topsoil before a layer of dense clay. We’ve been working to slow the water runoff from our land, and the clay harvest happens more or less by accident while in the process of digging small slowing ponds.
If you’re curious how much clay your soil contains, try doing a test jar. Fill the jar about halfway with soil, add water and stir to completely break up soil particles. After a few minutes, any sand and silt will settle to the bottom. Anything that’s still left suspended in the water is the clay content.
This jar started at half full, and it’s now 1/4 full with silt, sand, and rock. I’d estimate that my soil sample is roughly 50% clay.
There are two traditional methods for harvesting clay: dry and wet.
Dry Clay Harvest Method
The dry method involves completely drying out the soil, sifting it repeatedly and pounding the clay globs until it’s completely uniform and flour-like. This sifting is followed by a few rounds of winnowing the clay onto a collection surface.
The dried clay powder is then rehydrated and kneaded into workable potting clay.
This method is a great option in water-limited areas, but it requires a lot of time and energy. If you have baking hot sun and very little rain, it’s practical to completely dry earth.
None the less, the process of sifting, pounding and winnowing will take hours for just a few pounds of clay.
Wet Clay Harvest Method
The wet harvest method involves adding both water and soil to a bucket. The soil is then stirred into the water, and allowed to sit for a brief period to allow the rock, sand, and silt to settle out. The clay stays suspended in the water for longer.
The clay and water mixture is then filtered through a fine cloth or sheet. What’s left is a ball of smooth clay.
The wet harvest method is much more efficient and allows gravity to do most of the work. If you have access to plenty of water this is the way to go.
Up here in Vermont, we’re never short on water, and it’d be hard to find enough hot rain-free days in a row to completely dry the soil out for the dry extraction method anyway.
The wet extraction method is also a lot more fun, and allows kids to join in on clay processing. My 18-month-old was a huge help loading soil into the bucket and stir it up, and I couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic helper.
Processing Clay for Pottery
To use the wet extraction method, start by filling a bucket about 1/3 of the way with soil. Add water and use your hands to break up the soil particles as finely as you can get them.
Allow the soil to hydrate for a few minutes, or preferably a few hours. Then use your hands to break up the soil pieces again.
Give the whole bucket a good stir. A shovel works well for this, or a boat oar, or just an arm.
Our soil has so much clay suspended in the water that an arm in the bucket comes out completely covered in the clay slurry.
Once the soil is fully suspended in the water, give the bucket a few minutes to settle. The rocks fell out of suspension almost immediately, followed by the sand.
The silt will take 2-5 minutes to settle down, leaving only the smallest clay particles suspended in the water.
While you’re waiting, get a sheet ready inside a bucket or colander. Anything with a fine weave will do, I’m using an old bedsheet.
The sheet has a relatively loose weave, so I’ve folded it into quarters.
The water moved through the sheet quite slowly, and I think next time I’ll just double it instead so I don’t have to wait 24 hours for the water to completely drain.
I’ve read in rural India, women who filter water through 7 layers of sari cloth actually filter out cholera. With 4 layers of bed sheet, I was able to filter a clay slurry to completely clear water.
I wouldn’t imagine that I removed bacteria, but it’s good to know that I can take scummy water and make it clear enough to boil for fresh drinking water.
My daughter has been drinking from our pond all summer using a life straw, mostly for novelty value. She gets a kick out of being able to drink right from the pond, but filtering the water to remove dirt first seems like a much more sustainable long-term solution for water.
With 4 layers of bed sheet, it took about 24 hours for the water to completely drain. As I said, 4 layers is definitely overkill.
Next time I’ll cut this sheet in half and make two clay extractors, each with two layers of a bedsheet.
To speed up the process, I gathered the corners of the sheet and hung it from a tree.
In the end, the top inch of clay was still pretty wet and slimy.
After 24 hours, I pulled all the clay out of the sheet, kneaded it together and let it dry in the sun for a few hours. At that point, the texture was just right.
Since it’s not commercial clay, it’ll take a bit of effort to learn how to fire it correctly. The right firing temperature may be hard to achieve, but our next step is to make a primitive kiln in the backyard.
I’m really inspired by the maker of the primitive technology videos on youtube, and he has a beautiful homemade rocket stove kiln. Temperatures in that won’t be exact either way, so it’ll be a learning curve regardless of the type of clay used.
I’ve read that inconsistencies in homemade clay can make it liable to crack during firing and that some potters actually mix in stones to their pottery vessels to help stabilize them. Soon enough I’ll find out when we go to make primitive pottery.
I can pull an unlimited amount of clay out of our soil without much trouble, so even if it takes a while to get the pottery process down it doesn’t much matter. It’s all part of the journey.
We worked our first lumps of clay into very primitive bowls, and thus far I’ve found that it’s much easier to make clay than it is to make attractive pottery.
It’ll take a lot more practice to make something worth firing, but in the meantime, we’ll try firing these practice bowls to refine our technique.
Overall, the process was almost effortless. Though I haven’t tried the dry method, there’s no way it could be this easy.
By description, it’s pretty grueling and it seems like you’d be inhaling a lot of clay dust in the process.
I’ll stick with the wet method and mud splashing with the kids.
I absolutely love this post, and I’m going to try your wet method for harvesting clay as soon as I can get a bucket filled with some of our clay-y soil and some water. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
I know that this reply is several years overdue, but hopefully it can be of some use to others, if not for you yourself.
In order to make stronger, longer lasting pottery, ancient people almost ubiquitously mixed in other things to their clay. Even now, it’s a good idea to do so. Below I have a few things that could be re-mixed back into the harvested clay for additional strength;
Fine sand was a popular choice throughout the bronze and iron ages;
Paper pulp is a very common additive today, and could be made at home by soaking old newspapers in water and blending them in the water to make a slurry;
Plant matter, such as straw, can be mixed in to the soil used to build the kiln or other such “industrial” objects, like an oven;
And finally, grog. Grog is a little bit more adventurous, as it is more labour intensive to make, but it is a good test for your clay, as it essentially is the process of firing raw clay, breaking it up into a powder, and mixing it back into the clay.
None of these are necessary to make beautiful pottery, but it does make it last longer, and makes it easier to work with while building.
It might also be interesting to experiment with pressing a coating of sand onto the pots, in order to see if the silica content of your local sand is high enough to make glass.
Serena van vranken
I’m wondering after reading this if it’s necessary to pull out the very small few pebbles I have or the very few grass roots? My clay comes out of the ground looking almost like pottery’s clay that was cut off a slab. I can’t find anyone to show or talk to about this! Your post is the closest I’ve found to good information for the kind of clay I am starting with! I’d love to show you what I’m working with if you have time to look! 🙂 Thanks!
A good rule of thumb is the more yellow the clay looks the higher the alumina content. And the less likely it will shrink a lot when you dry and Fire. You should be able to find records of the types of Clay and other minerals in your area through the local universities. I have a nearly pure seam of kaolinite running underneath my topsoil
This sounds like the perfect project to do with my kids. I thought clay extraction would be difficult but this sounds so easy!
I just have to say how much I LOVE your site! I always learn something new and unique! We’re building a home right now so there’s LOTS of almost solid clay laying around… time to get busy 😀
Thanks Quinn =) You write one of my very favorite blogs, and I see you’re just getting another site off the ground too. Congrats!!!
The clay in my Connecticut stream bed is 18 in thick…A very handsome light grey…very silky smooth.no grit…Does anyone know what this clay holds as far as mineral deposits? I read about a 14,000 year old glacial lake deposit from Vermont to Long Island NY…
But I am curious if this clay can be used as a fertilizer or watering tea for plants.
Look upstream, both upstream in that creek (could be any direction) and the “general upstream for your area (usually north.) Keep looking upstream, on a map if you have to, as the land goes higher. When you get to the top, stop.
You asked “Does anyone know what this clay holds as far as mineral deposits?”
That is what the clay in your stream bed contains. One hundred percent of it is made up of stuff upstream from where you gathered it.
That is an awesome blog note. I spend a summer in Kenai Alaska back in the 80’s, and a then young art student named Brian Bolden showed me that the silt at the mouth of the Kenai River going into Cooks inlet was pure enough clay and had a low enough firing temperature that it could go through a minor quartz inversion in a hot campfire. If I recall (and understood correctly), it had to do with the sulfur content in the clay due to the amount of coal in the area that caused it to do this. We built a kiln on the beach with rocks, clay and a scrap piece of culvert, then used low grade coal that was in the hill side to fire it. What a memory.
I grew up in kenai ak and spent my summers on that beach. I now live not far away and have my own kiln. I will have to try it this summer. great idea.
This is fascinating! My last garden had almost solid clay soil, I’m regretful that I didn’t try this! There are also spots along the coast of CA where there are ‘veins’ of straight clay.
I recently attended a women’s retreat and we did primitive pottery, but from store-bought clay, and fired them in a trash can. It was packed with sawdust, woodchips and the pottery bits, and then lit and slowly burned.
This is awesome. I cant wait to give it a try!
I love this blog, well done, i too am an off-grid homesteader, mother in the middle of nowhere in Portugal…. I too love primitive tech, i watch all his video’s, i hope to aspire to be primitive one day, love your work, keep posting, hope to see more.. one love <3
Thanks for a fantastic post! I was looking into this the other day, since I now live in an area where the soil pretty much is only clay! Do you have any insight intousing self-made clay that could – I have no idea whether this is even possible – somehow airdry, i.e. eliminating the need for a kiln? I’d love to give it a go and see if I like it before the incurring the costs associated with buying or building one. We have no such resources close-by so firing up in someone else’s sadly isn’t an option.
We tried air drying ours and it looked great…then I handed it to my 1-year-old and he snapped it in half with his hands in under 3 seconds. It would have been nice if that worked, but at least for ours, it didn’t. I have seen primitive techniques that just bury them in a fire pit, which might be an option if you have a charcoal bbq grill.
It’s been awhile since you posed, so perhaps you’ve already figured this out. When clay air-dries, it’s not fused into pottery (and not actually 100% dry). This ‘greenware’ is quite fragile (as you discovered). Even a relatively low-temperature firing (e.g. a campfire) will cause some of the particles to melt and fuse together, making the pot much stronger. Before you try to raise the temperature much, you have to drive out the moisture that is adhering to these particles (otherwise it will turn to steam and crack your pottery before it has a chance to fuse).
I hope that helps.
Thank you so much for sharing your tips!
Wow! You are most refreshing and informative. I appreciate your good works. Sincerely Yours – Lisa, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma residing in California
can you also use this to make clay to make sculptures with?
Yup! Or at least my little ones did. I couldn’t speak to high-quality art though…since I’m not super familiar with that type of clay and how it may differ from what we pulled out of the ground.
Years ago I read a book about people who recreated an iron Age village in England. They were lucky: before the year-long project started, they had a pickup truck load of commercial clay dumped for their use, so they did not have to use natural clay. But they found their pots kept on bursting asunder when fired, or they would fire well but then burst during use.
Turned out, the clay was actually TOO pure. Their pots improved when they added bits of stone or gravel. But either way it took a lot of practice and experience to get the firing process right.
I have long wanted to play around with clay, but it never occurred to me you could make your own from non-clay soil, until I saw the process described on the web!
I come from people who love outdoors but sadly imwent into fister care and my dad who took me into the forest is now dead and the people who are going to adopt me hate outdoors and finding this gives me something to do.
Hi Mady, I’m sorry to hear that but happy you’ll have a new project. I hope you find the outdoor time you need, best wishes. -Ashley
Hi Mady, Just saw this over a year after your post.
Exploring your creativity in any way, shape, or form will help to keep you centered, and also connected with your pops.
Best wishes, GG
I came from a google search and the article was so fun to read. I never expected it to be this good. Thanks for the effort.
Im going to give you a protip: If you want to mix and match the “drying method” vs wet method then you can dig up a long, thin section of earth. Use what you dug up to process ina bucket of water. Swirl and separate clay from soil. Wait 5 minutes, then pour the water out into that same trench. Hold a few fingers in the water as you slowly pour it out from the side of the bucket. When you start feeling thicker, muddy consistency through your fingers, stop, fill the bucket some more with earth, and repeat this process. Once the bucket is half full of silt and sand, flip it over and pound the bottom so it drops out. Then do this again. Since the clay is in the ground, and since it is an open, long pit, it will dry within 1 to 2 days depending on heat, sunlight, etc.
Really great idea, and saves needing a cloth to filter. Excellent!
Martin le Maitre
This post is PERFECT for my needs, THANK YOU!
I’m not actually wanting to make pottery, I just want some natural (and cheap) clay for bonsai landscapes.
I’ve asked various people and websites, and here at last is the answer!
Very impressed with your project, good luck with it! I see the post is over a year old, how are things progressing?
Blessings, regards. Martin – Joburg, South Africa.
I have some red rock from Utah canyon lands. It has been sitting in my back yard for almost 20 years. It has been crumbling over the years as it is soft in nature. Is it possible to turn it into clay…? Thanks, Teresa Antosyn
That’s a good question that I don’t have the answer to. I have no idea what that would be made out of. Limestone that we have out here crumbles too, but it wouldn’t make clay.
I’m originally from Oklahoma a state rich in red clay..as a child in Native American Heritage class we did the dry method using flour sifters. We made coil bowls. They are easy and we used smooth rocks to rub the inside and outside of the vessel before we had it fired. My grandmother had that little bowl for over 40 years.
You have brought back great memories. I’ve also harvestedclau with the wet method. It is easier.
Hi. That sounds very much like decomposed sandstone. People indigenous to the area are not using the local rocks for red clay, though it has a similar to terra cotta color that can remind us of clay. It is simply stained by the same mineral particles as the clay in the earth below it is, that they do dig up and use. I have several friends who are Native potters, & my mom had already had the “yes, but, can’t I…?” conversation with a couple of them. It is unfortunately what, once fully eroded, is filtered out to get just clay – or sometimes a little is used as temper. It can be ground up and used in a sand painting, though, if it is really falling apart Grind with a rock on a large flat rock on top of a tarp, old school. (It will dull any metal grinder, so I don’t recommend that.) Winnie it through a screen type strainer. Paint glue in a desired shape on a board, sift on sand, let dry and shake off excess, then do another part of the pattern with regular sand if you like. That’s one way to save it and do something creative. You can draw lines with an Elmer’s bottle, even, or put down painter’s tape, paint on glue, and get precise lines or edges by removing the tape before the glue dries. I suspect there are sand painting videos… “everything is online these days” applies especially to creative things. Hope that helps.
I be Anglo-Saxon Norse Viking, I produce clay old fashioned tobacco pipes.
Question, by pulling the clay from the ground would be as the ancients did it however, would I mix with anything else?
To be strong enough, especially when exposed to heat again, you need to add a temper of some kind, like ground shell or mica. Mix it into the clay before forming. Look up “clay temper suitable for clay pipes” and you should find instructions. I have seen it done but I was little. I don’t have details. I do remember being told it was important for strength in general, to avoid breakage, and especially for cooking vessels, clay pipes, or incense burners. I have a Native friend who makes clay ceremonial pipes and I know he uses mica or shell, ground into powder and added from the beginning, to clay powder or kneaded into wet clay. You do not want pipes exploding & if they crack it can be like that with embers flying, and they are held near the face. He points out that would not make for a peaceful peace pipe at all. Many cultures have used tempered fired clay for cooking, baking, or pipes. There is a lot written on tempering pottery, and probably local materials used are line too!
Very informative article. One question. I have a creek near my home. Does the soil In the marsh area is considered clay? Or does it have higher content if clay?
We have huge chunks of clay all over our beach. I processed some one time but when I was all done. Washed, dried, crushed, strained, and rewet, it wouldn’t stick together. I was told it didn’t have enough “plastic” to actually make anything. What do you do about that? I’d love to process my own. We have an over abundance lying around in giant chunks.
You either don’t have clay, or didn’t do it properly. There’s no such thing as clay that isn’t plastic. Clay is inherently plastic. Plastic means it’s ability to be kneaded and worked, not plastic as in petrochemicals btw.
Clay that is less plastic is called short clay. You can make it useable by purchasing powdered ball clay to add in. Work a small amount at a time until a small test piece of clay, when rolled into a coil and bent over your finger doesn’t crack.
Great post! Thank you! We recently moved onto a property with what looks like a large amount of almost pure clay. I was trying to figure out how to purify it to play around with the kids. Will give it a go – thanks!
Love this post! Our soil is more clay than anything else. I have to try this!
You really shouldn’t use the word “primitive” in your description of the method and people who use it considering there are cultures, and yourself, that are now using it. Most, if not all, anthropologists agree that the word is derogatory and insinuates lesser intelligence or social complexity. It’s just a matter if respect for cultures other than your own. You don’t even need to include primitive in your sentences. You can say pre-industrial methods since it’s machines that process clay nowadays. Thanks!
Pretty sure the use of the word Primitive is on the mark.
relating to, denoting, or preserving the character of an early stage in the evolutionary or historical development of something.
Perception is not reality.
Exactly. The procedure, not any demographic, is referred to. The method being primitive and ancient often is what people love about it, too – connection to ancestral lifeways, self-sufficiency without machinery or corporate sources, natural materials with no chemical so-called purification. The intent & tone here are certainly not derogatory at all. Hand-forming is referred to as primitive by friends whose cultures get stereotyped and who are very much connected to their cultures, bc it does not imply less skillful at all, but rather more hands-on and not commercialized! It’s good to realize it might bother someone but I see no disrespect here, rather the opposite, an appreciation for gifts of the earth and primitive technology is still technology, and in fact imies wiser for lack of it being mostly done for us! It takes work & becomes a skill! It could be said that assuming primitive means lesser, is rude. Yes, all in the perspective.
People should get over being “offended” so much. They would be a lot happier just letting a lot of stuff go! Enjoyed and appreciate stumbling on this article very much. We just found a bunch of sandy clay, and didn’t know what I needed to do with it to get it ready for use. I am part Native American, and am eager to learn more of the PRIMITIVE ways of doing things. These may be very useful in a disaster situation.
John C. Calhoun
Get a life! You mentally unstable liberals want to criticize everyone and redefine the world. Primitive is a perfectly acceptable term for rustic plastic arts and you don’t know what you are talking about.
Just…no. Have you ever watched the show Primitive Technology? Maybe you should find someone who is the demographic you are “defending” and ask them. All of the people I know who do this type of work consider themselves primitive artisans. Maybe grow up and mind your own freaking business Karen?
“The wet harvest method is much more efficient and allows gravity to do most of the work. If you have access to plenty of water this is the way to go.” <- If you're okay with 75%+ losses. You will end up with almost four to five times as much processing the same materials dry as you do wet.
It’s been MANY years since I played with the mud.. but I recall somewhere in that past, someone saying to me that they used pulverized pieces of their cracked pottery as an added aggregate to their clay…I never knew why…perhaps you’ve explained that in this wonderful article, regarding cracking pottery…You are blessed, and so, we are. Thanks!
Looking for clay-rich soils is also important in cob construction…
Looks like a great activity. Kids love to mess in the mud, and they love to be helpful. I am an art educator and a ceramic artist. Our own children certainly benefited from similar activities and are living very creative lives today. I have several articles about working with kids to foster their creativity. These two URLs are articles with more ideas on these topics.
Wonderful, thank you!
I just read your article. So cool.
I live in Mississippi and our soil here on our land it’s extremely sandy. But ive noticed a washed out area that is completely gray clay. Can this be used for pottery?
It’s possible, one way to find out =)
😂 so true. Im going to collect some and see how it does.
I know my neighbor had a clay mine? Where they used it for clay masks? Maybe.? Anyway it was something to do with beauty products. Lol
Love, love, love this site! I just came across it searching for info on harvesting clay for a cob oven I plan to build. I am now living in the Caribbean, building a home and trying to incorporate as many live off the land elements as possible. some things are easier here, others more challenging, but your site is a great inspiration and this article is exctly what I was looking for in perfect detail. Thank you!
You’re welcome! I’m so glad you’re here. Enjoy your Caribbean home!
Our soil contains pretty much clay. I was able to create stuff from the soil without any of these methods, built a small fire pit and everything went very well. Nothing even cracked. Now I want to try this wet method because sometimes i find small stones in the clay and this will definitelly be the better way to go!
How do you pour the water/clay through the sheets while leaving the rocks/sand/silt behind. I feel like I missed something. Lol looks like fun though!
Hi, my son has been doing this too, after being inspired by a YouTube video. We are doing the wet method and using 2 buckets, repeatedly poured tbe mixture through a fine sieve to remove stones & sand. Word of warning, ours ended up with gnat larvae in the water (partly due to leaving the mixture to settle for several days). Haven’t got to the final stage yet though!
Oh no, just a quick question.. what did the gnat larvae look like? And how did you know it was there? Asking because I don’t want this to happen to me haha!
Lisa, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, back here again to say that “I did it!”. I noticed that the soil near my apartment looked very cay-like and did indeed hold water puddles after a hard rain so I mustered up the courage to swipe a few scoops and sure enough it worked! I hung up my muddy looking bed sheet ball just like yours outside on the balcony and the next day I had clay. It was still pretty wet so I stuck it in my compost bin and can’t wait to go try it out. Thank you. Perfect COVID-19 project!
Awesome! I’m so glad it worked for you, Lisa!
Ho can we use Dry pond mud to make this clay to make clay sculptures?
Likely, give it a try!
I am having trouble separating the sand from my clay soil
As an archaeologist, let me just say that I have never, nor do I know anyone who has ever, found pottery fragments that are pure clay. There is always some other tempering material involved, to do exactly what you are worried about: preventing cracking. Sand, ground rock, ground failed pottery all go into the mix. And yes, it’s a trial and error method of determining what works best. This is an awesome blog post, thank you!
Thank you so much!
I understand this comment is very old, but I have recently dug clay directly from my garden. I didn’t follow the methods in this post and simply sifted it through old flyscreen. I did not add any form of temper to it, and it has fired to 1000 degrees without cracking or exploding. Wondering if you could shed some light on this..?
I think the issues may come in when it is heated again at a later time, not necessarily during the initial firing. This is especially important for items that will be used as cooking vessels, pipes, etc.
Same here, I dig my clay from the rock and roots then filter it with a screen. I haven’t fired anything yet but I’m curious how well it will fire
To add to Evan’s comments freshwater mussle were used as tempering agents.
I just stumbled onto this blog it’s wonderful thank you so much. Your kids are lucky!!
I am a terracotta sculptor and I find the best way to strengthen Clay is by adding powdered shard of broken pottery. Ofcourse you still need to fire it and that as you rightly said is a trial and error method
. I wish you every success- with lots of love from Indis
Hello! I followed this tutorial, but I didn’t have a fine woven sheet or something, so I took a bunch of some old stretchy pants and a very thin shirt and layered those. When the water started coming through it wasn’t that clear, but it wasn’t that dark either! I found that after leaving it overnight that it was clogged so I took it and layered the still kind-of wattery mush thick onto a plastic placemat and let it sit for the day. After the day went by, I then went to look at it and it was a clay-like consistency!, but only in the areas that it was thick and not so thin, the thin parts (mainly toward the edges) were already dry and it cracked like a chip. But the other parts were fine so I put it into a plastic bag, it actually feels like clay you buy at the store! So cool!! Thanks for making the tutorial, others were not as good as this one. 🙂
You’re very welcome. So glad you enjoyed it.
Andy does a great job of explaining how to low fire pottery above ground with out a kiln. Just an open fire.
How do you get the clay to harden after you’ve made it ? Does it air dry or do I need to heat it? And if I do need to heat it, how?
Air dry won’t give you “pottery” as it needs to be heated in a kiln to set. There are a lot of options, some even in an open campfire, just do a bit of research on firing homemade clay good and pottery. Good luck!
When you fire your parts in a pit or a fireplace, wherever you fire them, if some of them crack or break and you decide they are unusable a good thing to do with them is to take a rock or brick or a piece of cinder block and break them and grind them up into us a sand as fine you would like (This takes some experimenting.)
I have the grit that you have created back into a new batch of fresh clay. Don’t put too much in; maybe one tabs or 1/8 of the amount of clay you have. Knead it into your clay so that it is mixed in evenly and make your next pots with this new clay and “grog “ mixture.
Doing this should make your pots stand up better and not slump. They should dry faster. And they should be less susceptible to breaking when you fire them. People have been doing this as long as they have processed clay and made pots. Native American people sometimes used their metates, their corn grinding stones, to make grog from their broken pottery. Large pot shards can also be used to cradle new pots and protect them from the flames when you are firing them. This will allow them to heat more evenly and makes them less likely to break in the firing, also.
Thank you for sharing these wonderful tips!
This article neglects to mention how important it is to add ground up already-fire clay powder to your clay to prevent cracking! Use any broken pottery.
My kids have such short attention spans and I’d hate for them to be upset with the process not working after having spent a long time on it. We too, live in Vermont, along the Battenkill in the southern part. I’ve never encountered and clay in our soul. Maybe right near the river. Again though, hate to disappoint!
I know i’m replying to an old comment, but felt compelled for what it’s worth. You said “I’d hate for them to be upset with the process not working after having spent a long time on it”. While disappointment is an uncomfortable feeling, it’s one of the very important emotional experiences that builds resilience in people. Attempting to do something, identifying better methods, having expectations not met, trying again, really working at something, problem solving, triumphs and failures are EXACTLY what kids need. Short attention spans can result and as kids become older they can often feel disempowered, incapable and easily defeated because they simply didn’t have the learnings and experiences when they were younger. Life skills require practice, so one of the ways we can prepare our kids for an exciting and fulfilling life is to give them practice at all the skills you wish for them to have as adults.
Alison Stern (Former Los Angeles Valley College Ceramics student)
As someone who took seven semesters of ceramics making this is a great blog article. My teacher said that you need a bit of ground up bisque clay to add strength as well as if your clay is actually just wet enough to grow a little bit of mold it will be a better smoother clay for both building your materials as well as for the strength of them.
The other important thing is to make sure what ever you have made needs to have dried to “bone dry” so that the water content in it won’t make it explode. Placing it in a cool dry place with a cloth covered board under it will help it to wick the water content out to get to that bone dry state.
Good luck on your projects!
Thank you for sharing this! It made the light bulb turn on for me…it’s the water threat makes it explode.
I’ve find your site is my go-to when I need information.
Thank you from Porquis Junction, Ontario Canada!
I have a question about seeds. Is there a contact page?
We can answer any questions that you have right here. Just drop a reply and we will get back to you as soon as possible.
Jessica D Morris
I can’t wait to try this with my kiddos!! Thank you!!
Hello! My name is Kristen and I am making an apothacary cabinet and all of the utensils that I may need. I started making small spoons from wood I had laying around. Now I’m needing a mortar and pestle, and I am wondering if this would be a wonderful way to use for the bowl? Would it be strong enough to mash up the herbs? And, would it be better to have a wooden pestle? Thanks for the wonderful information you have allowed us all to find! I have to say, I have been trying to get my daughter into something else other than her phone, and this is perfect and inexpensive!! Do you have a recipe for any glazes for use on the pottery?
It looks like you can purchase clay mortars, so I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. It probably depends on what you are grinding. If it is just leafy herbs then it should work fine. It does look like most of the clay mortars that I have seen have a wood pestle so that is probably a good idea. We have a post here that talks about using wood ash for pottery glaze. https://practicalselfreliance.com/wood-ash-uses/
I love reading your articles. I gotta ask, how the heck do you find the time to write them while juggling family and homesteading? I used to write a lot but as a new mom I’d be happy just to be able to finish this comment! Haha.
It can definitely be a challenge juggling it all. You just have to have a great support system, prioritize the things that are really important and make use of little pockets of time.
Can you please make more primitive skills posts? I like them a lot and wish to create another living area out of natural materials.
That’s a great suggestion. We are working on new content all the time.
HI, thanks for this extremely useful article! I found it a few weeks ago and tried it out, and it has been working perfectly — so far I’ve reaped about 60 lbs of high-quality grey earthware from the soil in my (Oakland California) backyard! But I have had a very difficult time with the sheets I’ve been using to drain. Even though I am only using a single ply (as opposed to your 4 folds), the water is just not draining enough. Even after a few days, with regular squeezing intervals, the clay is still far too soupy to take out of the sheets. To confound the situation, the water that drains from it at first is definitely NOT clear, but the same opacity of the clay itself, so much so that I collect it to reuse in my next slurry batch. And then after a few hours the drips stop completely, and the water just remains in the sheet.
This might be part of the problem but it has been so productive that I would like to keep it up if possible: I went to the thrift store and bought an old window screen. As an intermediate step before pouring it on the sheet, I pour it from one bucket to another, with the screen laying over the bucket. Then when I pour that slurry into the sheet, it has been completely filtered already, free from rocks and organic matter. Sand still sifts through, but that is a useful additive (as many people mention in the comments). Do you think that this much thicker slurry, with sand, is the problem? It really shouldn’t be, if all the water is just draining out anyway over time…
Again, thank you for your article and advice!
If you’re having trouble with the wet method, you may want to try the dry method described in the post. It is a bit more labor intensive but perhaps it might work better for your clay.
Hi, me and my kids tried this recently but found our creations cracked badly while drying. We followed the instructions and have super clay soil (the bane of my garden). Any suggestions?
You probably want to add some kind of tempering material into your clay mix to avoid cracking. If you scroll through the other comments, you will find lots of helpful suggestions from ground rock, sand, or even ground clay from failed pottery pieces.
Goodness! You are generally invigorating and useful. I like your benevolent acts. Truly Yours – Lisa, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma dwelling in California
Thank you so much. I am glad you are enjoying the blog.
Great stuff. I’ve been doing primitive pots for 16 years. I usually get my clay from old Indian sites. But have it all figured out. It all started when picking up Indian pottery. I’ve even gone so far as copying. The designs. If anyone needs help please contact me. I’ve got everything written down that I’ve done. An archeologist told me to make sure I sign my pots bacause he couldn’t tell them from the real thing. In making your pots make sure you hand build them using the rope and coil method as the Indians did. Thanks. Great site. Hope more people would try it. Gary Northcutt. Dahlonega Georgia.
Would you mind if the admin gave me your email address? I live in Dahlonega too, and would love to learn more!!
One thing isn’t clear so I’m guessing: You pour the suspended clay/ water mixture out of the bucket into the sheet LEAVING the sand/stone particles in the bottom of the bucket? This seems obvious but isn’t clear in your write up. Ted
I would actually add the sand and stone particles in as well. Many times people actually add stones or broken pottery pieces into their clay in order to help stabilize it.
But how do you get rid of organic matter and other impurities in the soil?
What kind of organic matter and impurities are you concerned with?
Just a tip, even if the original clay isn’t stable, after the first firing, you can grind up the ceramic that was made and add it to your clay mixture as grog, really stabilizes the clay.
There are 2 more ways to get Clay. If your soil drains well you can just pure the slurry into a hole cover it for some hours or over night and scrape the upper 1/2″ to 1″ away. For pottery it might be even ok to pull off the clay layer. I made this for eating so I took only the upper 1/2″ layer. It’s chocolate fine. To avoid soil particles falling into the hole just smear the upper 2/3 and the rim and cover for example with the lid of a big pale. I also applied the soil on my leprosy diseased foot. The wounds closed everyday a little more. The other method is using Termite clay. A post of a shed was eaten by termites. So I took the post out of the soil and scraped out the termited clay. It made over a dozend balls as you show in your pictures. My plan is now to place internodes of Bamboo with the node on top into the soil just below topsoil level and have it filled by termites. This might be the least laborous way of geting pottery clay and additional it might have already some of the additives from the termites to make the material more durable.
Could someone please explain what, “winnowing the clay onto a collection surface” means? Specifically what winnowing means?
Winnowing is the process of sifting heavier and lighter components using air. You would pour the dry material from a higher level allowing the heavier particles to drop straight down and the lighter particles to be separated by the air.
Phil The Alchemist
Hi i’m an ameture gold prospector from Queensland Australia and we go out and dig up pay dirt to put through our sluice and remove the gold, however it often is heavy with clay and its diificult to wash the gold out of the clay when its wet so I dry it in tubs in the shed then put it in my cement mixer with a heap of random size rocks and put a lid over the front then turn it on while i have a beer. Then when I open it up the dirt feels like moon dust you can wave your hand through it like a fog. I then tip it through a screen to seperate the rocks and run it through my sluice which has an enclosed recirculating water system and it quickly fills up with silt which is a pain to deal with but now reading this I think I might know what to do with the silt which has passed through 4 settling tubs and is super fine, its obviously pure clay at this point. By the way I call my little home made trommel and sluice The Alchemist because it turns dirt into Gold.
Sounds like a fun adventure. You will have to keep us updated on how your clay turns out.
Very interesting article. I enjoyed it very much. Great work!
You’re very welcome. So glad you enjoyed it.
I want our clay for soap making, We have that black clay soil that cracks when we get no rain, and it shrinks. Give the yard some good rain and the soil will raise up as much as 2″ or more.
That’s very interesting. I don’t believe I have ever seen black clay soil before. Where is it that you live?
Hi, Thanks for this post…I’ve been meaning to ask this for a while now: when the bucket with soil and water has been stirred and left for a short while, do you then scoop off the water with clay in suspension and filter that, or do you tip the content of the bucket, including the soil into the sheet to drain? That part wasn’t very clear to me. It feels like the whole lot would get mixed together again if tipping it all in to drain…..?
Hoping to try get some clay for grandkids project soon.
Really enjoy your posts/information
The heavier particles should stay towards the bottom of the bucket as you pour it as long as you do so slowly.