Topic: Articles

Wheel-Thrown Ornaments: Forming an Heirloom from Clay




Fall is always hectic for potters. You’ve barely had time to put away your art fair tent and it’s time to start making inventory for the holidays. I help get myself in a festive mood by starting with something fun. I make one-of-a-kind, wheel-thrown ornaments. Learning to throw them is a great addition to a potter’s skill set. Whether you make ornaments for shows or just for gifts, they are a wonderful way to express your individual aesthetic without the demands of traditional functional work. I also love the thought that they’re passed down for generations along with other cherished family heirlooms.

Throwing Off the Hump
The fastest way to throw ornaments is off the hump. Start with a 3- or 4-pound ball of wedged clay. Loosely center the ball into a cone shape and center the clay at the top using both hands. I’ve found that centering an amount of clay about the size of a lime works well as a starting point. Open the centered ball with your thumb and pull toward yourself to form a floor and walls, just like you are throwing a small cup. Always take time to compress the floor—I use a small flat burnishing tool that’s shaped like a mini rib (1). Compressing the floor can help prevent S-shaped cracks from forming in what will become the top of your ornament. Mark where the floor starts on the outside wall. This will help you know where to cut it off after closing the form.

Next, start pulling and thinning the walls to form a rounded cup shape with a narrow top. Be mindful of the wall’s thickness. If you plan on carving later, allow extra clay. Otherwise a wall about 1⁄8 inch thick is ideal. Gently begin to collar in the top of the cup shape toward the center (2). This causes the wall to thicken, so alternate between pulls and collaring until you ease the ornament closed. Don’t forget to sponge out standing water before closing the form completely.


1 Use a small flat tool shaped like a mini rib to compress the floor to help prevent S cracks from forming in the top of the ornament. Remove any slurry from the interior.


2 Alternate between pulling up to thin the walls and collaring in the form to ease it closed. Don’t forget to sponge out any standing water before closing the form completely.


3 Use your fingers and tools to create an interesting shape. Spend time refining the tip, then use a tool to define the bottom where you’ll cut the form off of the hump.


4 Use a wire to cut the ornament off. Also wire off a small clay cookie beneath your ornament to grab on to. Lift them both off together and set them aside to firm up.

Now you may change the basic shape you have thrown. Air trapped inside the form helps support the structure. Use your fingers and throwing tools to push the ornament into an interesting shape. Curves and edges can be formed by applying light pressure to the ornament’s surface with a soft rib or your fingers. Spend time refining the tip. Keep in mind that you have thrown it upside down. The tip will become the bottom of your ornament, so add a little flourish (see 3).

Once you have a shape you’re satisfied with, use a tool to define the bottom where you will be cutting (3). Then use a wire to cut the ornament off. It’s helpful to also wire off a separate clay cookie (or waster disc) beneath your ornament to grab on to. Lift them both off together (4), and place on a ware board. Continue throwing more shapes until you run out of clay. I like throwing 6–12 ornaments at a time in a variety of shapes.


5 Try both traditional clay tools and other found objects to carve and stamp your ornaments with textures and patterns after they become leather hard.


6 One of my favorite tools is an old, broken-off TV antenna. I can build up a great hammered-metal-like texture with the ball end of the antenna. Photos 1–6: Tony Drehfal.


7 To finish the top, cut out pieces of a textured slab with a cookie cutter and attach them by scoring and slipping.


8 After the bisque firing apply either homemade and/or commercial glazes with brushes and/or by dipping. I like to layer multiple glazes to add variety and to promote glaze movement and running. I fire my ornaments to cone 6 in an electric kiln.

Carving Decoration
When the ornament is leather hard you may choose to trim it using a clay chuck to hold it in place. I prefer to carve any excess clay away by hand (5), and then handbuild a top. I use both traditional clay tools and other found objects to carve and stamp my ornaments with textures and patterns. One of my favorite tools is an old, broken-off TV antenna, which I use to make a repeating indented surface design (6). Other tools include cake decorating tools, commercial rubber texture mats, and paper lace doilies, to name a few (7). There are no rules. Trial and error leads to great discoveries when making marks on clay.

I treat my ornaments as playful extensions of my established body of functional work. The way you choose to decorate your ornaments should complement your style.

Finishing, Glazing, Firing
Smooth surfaces, sgraffito, painted surfaces, carving, and stamping can all be beautiful. Glazes, underglazes, oxide washes, and decals are all optional finishing techniques. Even non-traditional finishes like paint can be used since there are no food safety issues to contend with.


9 I hang my ornaments on high-temperature bead wire balanced between kiln posts. I place a piece of scrap clay underneath each ornament to catch any glaze drips.


A variety of wheel-thrown ornaments. Each piece employs carving, stamping, and handbuilding techniques along with brushed and dipped studio-made glazes. Photo: Tony Drehfal.

There are many ways to finish the top of your ornament and make a hanging mechanism. I like to cut out sections of a textured slab with a cookie cutter and attach the pieces by scoring and slipping to join them (see 7).

Always remember to use a needle tool to pierce a tiny hidden hole in the ornament. This allows any trapped air to escape during the bisque firing and the hole fills in with glaze during the second firing. After the bisque firing I apply glazes with brushes or by dipping (8).

To fire my ornaments without having to use stilts, I hang them on high-temperature bead wire balanced on kiln posts (9). After the glaze firing, I use copper or colored wire to make a sturdy hanger for the tree. Of course they don’t always end up on a tree. Sometimes they hang in a window or on a porch all year long.

Amy Higgason is a studio artist living in Lake Tomahawk, Wisconsin. To view more of Amy’s work follow her Pigeon Road Pottery Facebook page or visit her studio’s website at


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