Published Sep 13, 2023
It’s one thing to learn how to make handles for pottery. It’s another thing all together to make pottery handles that both function well and look right on the pot. It can take quite a while to get the second part down. I have been making pots for longer than I care to admit, and I am still on a quest for a better handle!
So in today’s post, an excerpt from the beautiful second edition of Clay: A Studio Handbook, we are posting handle-making guidelines that you can follow. When combined with practice, these tips will help you improve the look and function of your handles! – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor
General Guidelines for Pottery Handles
The following apply primarily to side handles on mugs, pitchers, and teapots, but include concerns for the function and aesthetics of handles in general. None are rigid rules, but are based on thousands of years of potters making handles. Once you absorb this information, look at vessels in galleries and online and come to your own conclusions about the beauty and utility of handles you see.
Pottery Handle Techniques: A Handle Should Be No Longer/Larger Than It Needs To Be
A good side handle on a cup, mug, pitcher, or teapot should not stick out from the form any further than it has to in order to fit one, two, three, or four fingers (your choice) without your knuckles touching the surface of the vessel. Or to put it in more practical terms, a side handle should never move the hand further from the center of gravity than is necessary. My favorite design for a mug handle is one that comfortably fits two fingers, with the other two outside the handle helping to support the weight. Too often we see oversized handles that move the hand further from the center of gravity and make it harder to support the vessel.
Pottery Handle Techniques: Attach the Handle Well and as Soon as Possible
The longer you wait, the greater chance of shrinkage cracks at the attachment point. Some clay bodies join well without scoring and slurry if joining is done when both surfaces are very wet. Do tests and see if this works with your clay body. In some cases, applying Lana Wilson’s “Magic Water” to the joining area gives a strong attachment without scoring or slurry. Otherwise, always score thoroughly with a serrated rib and apply ample slurry made from the same clay body. Clean off all extra slurry, and do not try to fill a gap or corner with slurry that will shrink more than surrounding clay and likely crack.
Pottery Handle Techniques: Avoid Sharp Edges
A handle should not have sharp edges or ridges on the inside or the outside surfaces that are uncomfortable against the fingers or knuckles. Most people hold a mug/cup handle with several fingers inside the handle and a finger or two against the outside, thus both surfaces must be considered. Some potters pull handles with their thumb in the center of the handle, but that can create problematic ridges even if you rotate the handle back and forth 180 degrees for every pull. Experienced potters find that the most comfortable and effective cross section is a flattened oval as explained above.
Pottery Handle Techniques: Avoid Round Cross Section Handles on Cups and Mugs
A cup or mug handle with a round cross section is awkward to grasp. As you raise the vessel to your lips, the vessel tends to swing downwards unless you grasp it very tightly. Round cross section handles are found on cheap mass-produced forms and generally look awkward on handmade cups or mugs.
Pottery Handle Techniques: Not Too Thick, Not Too Thin
A handle can be quite wide and still be very comfortable and attractive, and it can be thick at its attachment points, but a handle that remains thick throughout its length can look clunky depending on the particular form and application. When pulled or handmade by the above methods, a mug handle can be about ¼ inch to ⁵⁄₁₆ inch thick at its midpoint—thicker above, thinner below. A good mug handle is generally at least 1 inch wide at the upper attachment point, and might taper to a little less than that at the midpoint. As another simple guideline, there should be a correlation between the thickness of the rim and the average thickness of the handle. A mug with a thin rim and thick handle looks awkward. A thin handle on a mug that looks thick and heavy seems flimsy and precarious.