Topic: Articles

Me and the Wheel vs. the Clay



Students ask me hundreds of questions daily when I’m teaching, which keeps me on my toes. Constant repetition, demonstrating, and lecturing have forced me to be able to make mostly anything quickly. As a ceramic artist, I try to make work that stands out with my own personality. Even though humans have been working with clay for thousands of years, to me, what makes a ceramic piece interesting is the way each person touches and plays with the material—leaving behind unique marks. Clay is remarkably responsive. If you had a good day, you may touch the clay one way; if it was a bad day, maybe your touch was more aggressive.

Touch also depends on how much time you have available to work in the studio. Usually, the work I make is best on the days when I don’t have much time, when I have to rush. When teaching, I have to be able to move fast, or the students may lose interest. So, my style is based on moving fast, touching the clay more directly, and highlighting the imperfections. In class, I always tell my students, “Eventually you want it to be you, the clay, and the wheel working in harmony.” While I do believe this is the ideal, because my personal time in the studio is limited, I have to force the clay to listen to me—it becomes me and the wheel versus the clay.

1 Expand a thrown cylinder by using your fingers to push out from the inside to the metal rib.

2 Continue to expand the form while looking at the profile. Remember that the curve has to support itself.

3 Collapse the rim to create a gallery for the lid. I don’t leave much material at the top, so instead of splitting the rim, I fold it over.

4 Drag a palette knife quickly over the clay while the wheel moves slowly to alter a form.


On the particular day of making this jar, I was trying to make pieces for another show. Before I do anything that requires thinking, I always warm up with forms that come naturally. That day, I was warming up with jars. It seems the pieces made spontaneously have the most energy in them.

Beginning with a Cylinder

Almost everything that’s made on the wheel begins with a basic cylinder. The cylinder is important because just like each person’s life, it represents potential. It can be anything. I like to think about it this way: If you’re nice on the inside, then your outside will be nice too. By shaping from the inside, the form on the outside mimics what is on the inside, and the stretched walls of the pot show tension as the clay struggles to expand, or grow (1, 2). I don’t leave much material at the top, so instead of splitting the rim to create a gallery, I fold it over (3). To do this, I support the rim on the inside while pressing down and in with my index finger on the outside. Then, I use my thumb to press down on the inside of the rolled rim to create a gallery, while supporting the underside of the rim with my index finger.

This jar is inspired by the tea ceremony mizusashi, or water jar. A lot of what intrigues me is the sense of imperfection and directness in these types of vessels.

5 Use calipers to measure the diameter of the gallery before making the lid.

6 Center then throw a small piece of clay into a low, wide disc in preparation for making the lid.

7 Open the clay into a low bowl, then match the diameter of the rim to the caliper measurement.

8 Once the lid reaches leather hard, add a small ball of clay, and throw it into a hollow or solid knob.


Altering the Jar

My basic form is altered by dragging a tool and my fingertips over the surface. I use a stiff painter’s palette knife to create lines and distortions (4). These marks help me break up the space and give the piece movement, creating different shadows and imperfections that alter the glazed surface. I try to do this movement quickly, while barely spinning the wheel. I push out single points of the form, emphasizing the end points of the marks made by the palette knife by pushing out with one finger from the inside. After the marks are made, expand the form slightly, mainly toward the bottom of the jar to give an inflated feel.

Making the Lid

Next, I use calipers to measure the jar opening to create the lid (5). The lid starts with throwing a disc of clay so that it’s slightly smaller than the gallery (6). Pull the walls up into a shallow bowl that matches the gallery diameter (7). When the lid reaches leather hard, flip it over, attach and center a small ball of clay, then throw it into a solid or hollow knob (8). Check the fit of the lid, and trim as needed (9).

9 Check the fit of the trimmed lid on the jar and make adjustments as needed.

10 Center the upside-down jar on the wheel, secure it with clay, then trim the bottom.

11 Put the lid onto the jar again, make sure the lid fits after trimming, and check the final proportions.

12 When glazing, spray the jar upside down first to catch the undercuts. Finish spraying once the jar is upright, with the lid in place.


Trimming and Finishing

As soon as the jar reaches leather hard, I center it on the wheel upside down and trim the bottom (10). Then I turn the jar over, place the lid on top, and check the final proportions (11). The process is fast, because I try to complete the jar from start to finish in one sitting. Again, this is because of my development as a ceramic artist and teacher. Throughout my career, I have taught night classes as one of three to five concurrent jobs. Doing so, I could either prepare ahead of time like in a cooking show, or use a torch to quickly dry demonstration pieces so they’re ready for additional steps and any finishing within a half-hour time frame. For my own artwork and in preparation for night classes, I like to use a torch to speed up the drying process.

Surface Decoration

For this jar, I used 100% red iron oxide diluted with water on the outside surface. Usually, when I use red iron oxide, I use it as a stain that is later wiped off to accentuate texturing. When doing so, I noticed that the recessed parts fired to a metallic black, so for this jar I used straight red iron oxide and sprayed it on. Everything is one big experiment. And when I experiment, I do it on the pieces I like the best. I don’t normally use test tiles. My experience is that when I try to replicate the test, it doesn’t turn out as good as the original. I fire to cone 10 in a reduction atmosphere in an updraft gas kiln. The inside of the jar is glazed with a basic white liner glaze.

Finished pot with red iron oxide sprayed on the outside, and a white liner glaze applied to the inside prior to firing to cone 10 in reduction.


Daven Hee is a potter, ceramic artist, and teacher from the island of O‘ahu, Hawai‘i. He teaches ceramics at Mid-Pacific Institute, the Hawai‘i Potters’ Guild, and the University of Hawai‘i. To see more of his work, visit


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