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Published Apr 3, 2023

Twinkly lights are pretty magical and can transform the vibe of a space. And when I saw this project for making a lovely clay nightlight, I knew I had to share it.

In this excerpt from the Pottery Making Illustrated archive, Elizabeth Paley explains how she throws and pierces clay to create a nightlight that casts beautiful shadows and beats a store-bought nightlight any day! - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

Throw Nightlights

To throw a nightlight as a single, closed form, center a pound of clay on the wheel head. Open to a diameter at least as wide as the combined length of the bulb and socket, and compress the bottom. 

Over several pulls, guide the wall out, up, and inward to create an onion-shaped dome (1). The diameter about halfway up should eventually be at least 1½–2 inches wider than the combined length of bulb plus socket, so that the bulb will not butt up against the wall of the fired cover.

End each pull by guiding (or collaring) the clay inward, until the clay can be pinched closed at the top (2). Compress the exterior with a rib; the air inside will provide counter-pressure as you refine the form (3).

Use the pointed end of a wooden rib to remove excess clay from the base. Wire the nightlight off the wheel head and set aside. Poke a small hole in the form with a needle tool to allow moist air to escape, then dry until leather hard.

1 For a nightlight, the diameter halfway up should be 1½–2 inches wider than the combined length of the bulb and socket. 2 End each pull by guiding the clay inward until the form can be pinched closed at the top. 3 Compress the exterior with a rubber rib. Use the tip of a wooden rib to remove excess clay from the base. 4 Prepare nightlights by cutting a hole at the base for the socket to clip into.

Carve the Covers

Prepare leather-hard tealight covers for carving by cutting away any excess clay at the bottom and smoothing the edge with a sponge.

Prepare nightlights by cutting a hole at the base for the socket to clip into (4). Have the socket and bulb on hand to confirm hole size, and remember to account for clay shrinkage. Socket wings can be bent outward to accommodate a hole that is slightly too large, but little can be done to fit a socket into a too-small hole once the clay has been fired. 

When planning surface designs, consider the appearance of the cover itself as well as the shadows it will cast. Small holes help conceal the light source and protect candle flames from wind, while groupings of small holes cast more dynamic shadows than a single hole of the same total area. 

Descriptions of three freehand designs follow, progressing from the most forgiving to the most fragile (until fired).

Round Holes

5 Begin piercing tealight covers along the top, where the clay dries fastest. 6 After carving the entire form, smooth the surface with a moist sponge.Nightlight, 3¾ in. (10 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and pierced white stoneware with glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 2021.

Pierce round holes by inserting your chosen hole-cutting tool through the clay with a gentle twist. Begin along the top of the flue, where the clay dries fastest, and proceed downward (5). If the clay is too soft to easily remove the cut pieces, let the cover dry a little longer before proceeding. Continue piercing until you are satisfied with the design. Smooth the surface inside and out using a moist sponge (6).

Elizabeth Paley is a ceramic artist based in Durham, North Carolina. She teaches pottery classes at the community studio Claymakers (, was the founder and curator of The Potters’ Penguin Project (, and is a collaborating artist with the math-art installation Mathemalchemy ( To see more of her work, visit or Instagram @geekpots

**First published in 2021