Tips from the Pros: How to Get a Handle on Handles


Handles can often be afterthoughts. They are put on at the end of the building process and, at that point, I think many potters are ready to move on to the next pot. But they are important elements, both functionally and aesthetically, so they should really get the attention they deserve.

In today’s post, excerpted from the November/December 2010 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated, Annie Chrietzberg takes us through Paul Donnelly’s handle-making process. It’s a great alternative to pulled handles because it cuts down on the mess and the drying time, and still makes lovely, elegant handles. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.



donnelly_01Handles seem to be a bump in the road for aspiring potters, and I’m always pleased to find a different handle making technique that’s simple and direct. Paul Donnelly’s finished handles are both elegant and well-balanced. His process is whittled-down to simple and direct actions and isn’t water-intensive or messy.

Paul starts by rolling a coil that’s skinny in the middle and thick on both ends. Since most beginners unintentionally roll them that way, they’re already familiar with the first step. He then slams the coil down on the table to flatten one side and pulls a damp sponge along it to smooth it out and align the particles (figure 1).

donnelly_02He makes several handles at once for efficiency and to give himself options with each cup (figure 2). To create the curve at the top of the handle, Paul uses a long, thin, metal rib, bent so that the ends meet and the fairly sharp edge of the curved rib cuts through the clay (figure 3).


This post was excerpted from the November/December 2010 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated.
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donnelly_03Using a fettling knife, he cuts away some of the bulk from the front (convex side) of the top of the handle (figure 4). He then uses his thumb to compress, shape, and widen the top of the handle (figure 5).


donnelly_04With the top done, he moves to the bottom, making a diagonal cut and removing clay from the back or flat side (figure 6). Holding the handle by the top and the bottom, Paul now bends the handle into the desired shape and holds the handle up to the cup to check the shape and possible placement (figure 7).


He then allows the handle to set up so its moisture content is equivalent to the cup it’s being attached to. Paul finishes the piece by scoring and slipping the areas of attachment on both the handle and the cup and joins the two. He cleans up any visible slip or excess clay from the scoring, being careful not to overwork the handle or the area of attachment.



For more great pottery making techniques, be sure to download your free copy of Five Great Pottery Wheel Throwing Techniques: Tips on Throwing Complex Pottery Forms Using Basic Throwing Skills.


Paul Donnelly’s cup, showing an elegant and well-balanced handle.

Paul Donnelly’s cup, showing an elegant and well-balanced handle.

Paul Donnelly received his MFA from the New York School of Ceramics at Alfred University, and currently teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. To see more of his work visit


**First published in December 2014
  • I have been pulling handles for years but I like the ‘clean’ look of these handles. It beats that muddy mess I usually have. I will try it today!

  • I have exactly the same sentiments as toni, above. That ‘muddy mess’ is very off putting, so I too will be giving this method a go.

  • Awesome–I struggle with handles, maybe I can use this technique to finally get handles proportional with the cup rather than too small.

  • This was very helpful, thanks! More how-to and quick “Try This” ideas are exactly what I need to keep improving my pottery.

  • As a beginner, my handles and cups rarely look like they belong together. I’ll definitely try this technique…although step 3 is a little confusing on first read. I wish this was a video!

  • I’ve been extruding handles because I feel like such a klutz pulling them. Neat and good looking but really really too much the same. I’ll definitely try this technique for good looking + unique. A tip on length – I found that making the handle about 1/2″ longer than the cup height, then attaching at about 1/2″ or so from the top and bottom leaves the right amount of space for a good grip without looking like Dumbo ears.

  • The handles are beautiful to look at, but from experience, a handle placed that low on a cup makes it difficult to hold. One has to exert considerable pressure on the top of the handle to keep the cup level.

  • I agree with the above post- and personally think that these handles are upside down- unless meant for one finger. Form follows function. I make good handles- both pulled and extruded- and my customers often prefer the extruded ones. Consider the design of your fingers before you consider the handle.

  • I started throwing pots on my time off about a year ago and have pulled a lot of handles because I’ve made a lot of cups and pitchers. Glad to know about your technique.

  • I like making handles, its attaching the handles that is harder.I don’t make “cups” I prefer mugs. There is nothing like a big 16 or 20 oz. mug of coffee or hot chocolate or even soup on a winter day! But I am going to try this other method & see how I like it.

  • You say he “allows the handle to set up”. How does he keep the bend? Does he lay it on a curved item, does he lay it on a board in a curved shape? Explain please.

  • If your handles look like an afterthought .then you need to start pulling handles directly off the mug. Yes its takes some time to make handles but they will never look like part of the mug if your not pulling it from the mug. Make a mug, no handle ,fire it to bisque temp and soak it in water,start pulling handles on this form. Yes ,over and over!remove your handles and see how you progress. Its like driving a car with a standard transmission .You can only learn to shift by stoping and starting over and over. If you get on the freeway and drive 1000 miles in 4th gear ,you learn nothing ..Start pulling the handles.

  • Nice, I saw Fong Choo do a demo with smacking rolled handles onto a table to get the shape he wanted and they turned out just as nice as the ones above. Just goes to show that there are always more than one way to get a great result. Excellent post… Especially the bent rib cutting the top of the handle !!!!

  • Always worth a try. You never know what you will learn no matter how long you’ve been doing something…I will give it a try too.

  • Thanks so much for sharing your technique! I like the idea of making multiples…when making a set of cups I always run into the problem on my handles not looking enough alike. I’ll have to try this next time *
    Thanks again **

  • Handles can be a pain, in my opinion, tend to avoid them. This is a great little tip. As others have said above there are many ways to make handles and it all depends on the style you are working with and the look you want to achieve. I have pulled handles and I have flattened coils by rolling them out. They have all worked, each having its advantages and disadvantages. All tips welcome. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thanx for another way to make handles. They are as custom to fit one, two or three finger as the upper rim is to meet the mouth. Just a lot of things to consider when when making a mug. The hardest thing for abeginner is to learn that there are several parts of a bowl or a mug and considers for each part that makes up the whole. I hope Some of my beginners see this

  • I accidentally deleted the video and want to have the recipe for the ‘magic water’ that eliminates the need for scoring and slip. Where can I get it?

  • I so wish Ceramic Arts Daily would make the photos enlarge-able. Clicking on the photo makes it only barely larger (and often text is still too small to read), and there are times I really want to zoom in on something. The mini-lessons are great daily reminders to get into the studio!

  • Well timed, doing mugs tomorrow. Will have to re-read the bit about the curved rib. Didn’t get it the first time.

  • ‘Potters’ complaining about, “a muddy mess” and work that leads to understanding (practice)! Whatever next?
    Have a look at some 18/19C industrial (made in a factory, ma’am) pottery for some interesting handles and forms.
    Then… practice, practice, practice.

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