Considerations for Carving Clay: How to Create Beautiful Carved Decoration on Your Pottery

Carving into a clay surface can be very gratifying, but when you’re making pieces for use, you need to be make sure that the carving accentuates the function and doesn’t hinder it. It’s easy to get carried away and end up with a piece that doesn’t function as well as it could. Being attentive to a few basic design considerations will help you keep your clay carving appropriate to the form.

In today’s post, potter Emily Reason shares her secrets for getting her clay carving just right. Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

Considerations for Carving

Dinnerware is a challenge to make because it demands specific qualities. It must be consistent in design, size and shape if it’s to be a set . I find that if I don’t make all the plates or all the bowls for a set in one sitting, they’ll vary from one series to the next. Dinnerware pieces should also nest and stack well, and be durable, yet lightweight. In addition to the challenges of making dinnerware, there’s the logistical challenge of efficiently loading a kiln with mostly broad and flat wares.  The variables in reduction firing present further challenges in attaining consistent glaze surface. I therefore try to fire entire sets at once. Dinnerware needs to fit in well with daily lifestyle, including the ability to go in the dishwasher.

Know When to Say When

I’m currently obsessed with carving. Very few pieces I make aren’t carved. Clay is truly the ideal material for creating texture; especially since clay objects are so often meant to be touched.  Making functional ceramics with texture is therefore fitting for me.  Creating beauty, while maintaining a standard of usefulness, is my major goal.

It’s important that my carved and slip trailed surfaces don’t deter from the function of the piece.  My dinnerware design has a scalloped service rim that is carved. The food surface itself has no texture and a glossy glaze for easy cleaning.  It’s easy to get carried away with making texture, so I try to leave quiet areas on each piece where there is none.

I use a homemade carving tool, which was modeled after a tool used to create carved patterns on Chinese Yaoware pottery (see page 49). The L-shaped blade, set in a bamboo handle, is used to create a pleated pattern of lines. For me, carving lines is a rhythmic motion that achieves even, consistent marks. The corner of the L, carves into the leather-hard clay, making the deepest part of the recessed line. The tool is effective in achieving a line with depth, allowing the glaze to vary as it pools in the deepest part of the line.

 Make Outstanding Surfaces!
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Candlestick holders, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, porcelain, fired to cone 10 in reduction, 2010.

Candlestick holders, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, porcelain, fired to cone 10 in reduction, 2010.

The dinnerware I make is pretty labor intensive, so I have to price it accordingly.  My customer demographic for it tends to be folks with disposable income.  They also seem to be people with knowledge of and an appreciation for fine handmade craft.

I’m still learning as I go about marketing strategies for selling my work.  I know for certain that professional quality photographs are where good marketing begins.

Emily Reason lives and works in Marshall, North Carolina. To see more of her work, visit


  • guilin d.

    Dear Emily,I can not get through your website

  • Maurine H.

    thank you for sharing your beautiful work. It’s breathtaking, and anything served in these would look gourmet!

  • guilin d.

    Dear Emily, you work is really fatastic . Can I translate it into chinese and introduce you and your works on our journal? Would you please email me?

  • guilin d.

    That’s really beautiful.Thanks for share it.

  • Elsie S.

    Beautiful work Emily! I have done a little carving but now feel inspired to try more! Thank you for sharing this with us.

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