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Published Sep 4, 2023

This post is all about carving into clay and the best tools and techniques for doing so. In this post, potter Ann Ruel gives us the ins and outs of carving low relief designs into wet clay. - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

The process of carving breaks down into two basic categories: low and high relief. You may choose to incorporate additive or subtractive techniques to create relief ranging from sgraffito to sculpture in the round. Low-relief describes carving into non-freestanding clay. That leaves the design visually attached to the background area. Clay is removed or added to strategic areas which play with light and shadows, thus creating an illusion of superficial depth across the clay surface. High-relief carving describes undercutting design elements so they appear to detach from the background space. Further, it may also incorporate sculpted clay added to certain areas on top of the background to create added depth.  

Consider the entire piece from top to bottom and develop a successful strategy from beginning to end. Know how the piece will be used. This question is important if your piece will hold liquids or be subject to a lot of handling. Adding clay to the outside of a mug increases its bulk and may not be a good choice. Remember that users need a comfortable place to rest their fingers and a smooth rim for their lips. Keep the inside of the mug or bowl free of crevices so it can be cleaned easily. You can draw a freehand design using a pencil to lightly sketch the outline onto a moist clay surface. Mistakes are easily erased by gently smoothing over the top of the unwanted mark with a slightly wet finger.  

Computer clip art or line art is very easy to transfer to the clay surface. Print out your design and cut away the excess paper around the design. Press the design face down against your vessel and gently rub the paper until the ink is transferred to the clay (an Inkjet printer will give the best results). Keep in mind the design will be reversed on the clay surface. Another option is to draw your design on a piece of paper and cut around the outline. Place the paper on the areas where you want to transfer and use a pencil or sharp edged tool to lightly trace around the shape.

If you plan to carve multiples of the same shape, carving a stamp is a good idea. To make the stamp, I use a rubber eraser or a cut square of print block material. Draw or transfer your image on the stamp. Keep in mind that your image will be the reverse once imprinted. Carve your shape with an artist's gouge carving tool. This and the print block can be purchased at an art supply store. While the clay is fairly wet, place the stamp where you want your carving to go and gently push the stamp to create your outline.

Carving Tools

Pottery supply stores sell many types of carving tools you can use to achieve the results you want. The needle tool is very handy for cutting into tight corners. A variety of different sized loop tools can be used for extracting negative space areas. Beveled edges are easy to carve with the right size ribbon tool. Finally, for undercutting, texture and cleanup, the curved side of a double headed clean up tool works well.


Plan Ahead

Success depends on the careful planning of your object, a systematic method of extracting the clay, and a slow drying time. It's important to remember the more clay you cut from the body the more delicate the piece may become. If it's a tall cylinder, begin cutting away from the top to avoid having the piece collapse due to a weak bottom and heavy top.  

Carving Techniques

To achieve the look of low relief, draw an outline onto the clay surface. Keep in mind that the area within the outline is the positive space and the area outside the outline is the negative space. Carve away the negative space areas with a loop tool. Don't worry that your cuts are exactly at the same depth. A variety of different length and depth cuts enhance the illusion of mass. After the negative space is cleared away, examine the design. To create the illusion of perspective, first decide which objects will be in front and which will need to appear to recede. This may be as simple as overlapping some objects over others or deciding that the smaller objects are further back in space. Once you have your plan, begin to shave just enough clay from the areas where the shapes overlap so the one in the visual foreground is physically higher than the object that should appear behind it. You will also want to shave clay from any of the other objects that will be receding into the background.

Undercutting techniques create pieces with even higher relief areas. Instead of completely cutting away clay from underneath the edges of the design element, use the curved side of the clean up tool to gently separate the edges of the element from the background. This leaves extra clay on the positive areas, adding depth and leaving more material on which to add detail. Use other tools to add texture and detail to the design elements that need it. Remember, texture is easier to see on objects closer to you than objects farther away from you. In other words, the addition or elimination of detail can also be a way to create depth in your carving.

Timing and Drying

Timing is crucial with this process. If your clay is very wet when you begin carving, it may not have enough strength to hold its shape and the clay around the cuts will sag. If you attempt to make the cuts when the clay is too dry, the clay may crack or chip. If you have a large piece that is taking a considerable amount of time to complete, cover the areas you aren't working on to keep them wet and avoid cracking and unusual stresses. Try to dry the piece very slowly due to inconsistent thicknesses created by carving. Clay walls with varying depths will dry at different rates and have an increased chance of cracking. Place several sheets of plastic loosely around the piece and leave it until it is totally dry. To learn more about Ann Ruel or see images of her finished work, please visit

**First published in 2010.