Image of colorfully decorated hanging ceramic planters by Round Trip Clayworks.

I found my love for surface design in clay early on in my ceramics journey. The evolution of my work started with simple carvings on thrown forms and became more complex and decorative over the years. I love bright color combinations contrasted against a raw clay body. I also have a fondness for functional pieces. In the development of my hanging planters, I played with the idea of giving function to a hanging sculptural object. I also love the addition of the natural texture of a live plant cascading down the side of the pot. To me, the plant complements the planter just as a latte can complement the cup. Many of my planters are a round form with a decorative, elongated point, which was inspired by a trip out west. While browsing in an iron shop, I fell in love with a display of various hanging mosaic lamps with ornamental iron points. In the early stages of figuring out this form, I found it best to throw them upside down as a closed form where I could pull up a little point from the top of an orb. 

Image of colorfully decorated hanging ceramic planters by Round Trip Clayworks. Image of colorfully decorated hanging ceramic planters by Round Trip Clayworks.


Start with a 2–5 pound (0.9–2.3 kg) ball of clay, wedged and ready to throw. Over the years I have used a few different speckled buff, brown, and porcelain clay bodies made by Laguna. 

Once centered, open the clay as wide as you want the opening of the planter to be. Open down to the bat not to waste clay. Because these pots are thrown upside down they won’t need a base (1). For the first pull, I go for a volcano shape, keeping the base wide and tapering the walls in as I pull higher. On the next pull, begin to round out the belly of the form, but keep the rim tight in and under control. Next, collar in the shoulder and rim of the pot. The goal is to close this form up into an orb, so make sure to leave extra clay at the rim. You want the top third of the pot on the thicker side so you don’t run out of clay before the form is fully closed (2). 

Sometimes when aggressively collaring in, the rim can become off-center. Trim it off with a needle tool before it gets too out of hand. The pot must be as centered as possible to close it and pull a little point. I keep the belly of the pot round while continuing to close the form. To do this, collar and pull at the same time. Hold the clay steady and collar with one hand while pinching to pull up higher with the other (3). Then, with the extra clay, pinch the form closed completely. You should be left with a little nub of clay at the top (4). You can pull this nub slightly higher if you want a longer point. 

1 Open the clay down to the bat. This form doesn’t need a base. 2 Pull the walls up and in. Round the belly and keep the rim thicker and centered.

3 Collar with one hand while pinching to pull up higher with the other. 4 Pinch the form closed, leaving a little nub. Pull the nub higher for a longer point.

Now that the clay is closed up you essentially have a big air bubble. The air trapped inside will support the clay so you can press on it with more force than you would an open vessel. This is your opportunity to refine the form. Using a flexible steel rib round and smooth out the surface of the pot (5). I use a steel rib to smooth the surface of every piece I throw. I like to remove all the slip and water from the outside of the piece so the surface is as smooth as possible. Once you are satisfied with the pot’s shape and surface, carefully cut it from the bat. Make sure not to warp the walls. Remember, it has no base holding the walls in place like a vase would. I use a needle tool while spinning the wheel to cut off rather than a wire tool to avoid warping (6). 

Before you wrap up your pot, dry poke a little air hole with the needle tool in the closed form to release the air. Sometimes the pot will suction back to the bat after cutting it, and with nowhere to go, the compressed air can cause a split in the top of the closed form, especially if you have thrown thin walls. To prevent this from happening, I will poke an air hole to be safe. 

5 Use a flexible steel rib to round and smooth out the surface of the pot. 6 Cut the pot from the bat, being careful not to warp the walls.


To trim, first, throw a chuck for the pot to sit upside down in. Make sure the chuck is on center and thick enough to support the piece. Remove all the slip from the outside of the chuck with a steel rib. This will prevent your piece from getting stuck to the chuck (7). After centering the piece in the chuck, use a needle tool to further trim out the thicker edge of the base so the walls at the opening are even (8). Remove any extra clay (9). This is now the top of the planter so take time to refine it by trimming and rounding the rim. 

Next, flip and recenter the planter on the wheel so the point is right side up. Using a small trimming tool, trim and refine the shape of the point (10). Making this little ornate detail can be very fun. It is also stressful. Take your time and go slow to avoid snapping off the point. 

7 Throw a chuck with thick walls and remove any slip. 8 Trim out the floor with a needle tool. This will become the planter opening.

9 Remove the excess clay, then trim and refine the rim. 10 Using a small trimming tool, add detail to the point coming down from the base.

Decorating, Carving, and Painting 

This is where the fun starts! Laying a pattern, carving, and painting is the part of the process where I spend the majority of my time. I rarely sketch out my designs beforehand, rather I get inspired by the process of building the pattern along the way. I let the placement of each shape inform my decision on the placement of the next. 

While the clay is still leather hard, measure the planter into sections. I use a laser level and a decorating disk, but a ruler works just fine too. With a marker, gently draw guidelines down the pot (11). Using a hole poker, pierce the holes for the planter’s hanging cord, evenly spaced, about ½ inch (1.3 cm) from the rim (12). 

11 Using a laser level, measure and draw out guidelines with a marker. 12 Poke holes to later string a cord through for hanging the planter.

Next, start to lay out your design. Use a needle tool to lightly trace and draw your design, building the pattern—I have a variety of homemade templates of my favorite shapes (13). Once you are happy with the layout, begin carving. I use a handful of different carving tools, including some homemade ones. My favorite is a DiamondCore Tools carving tool with a V tip (14). Next, use a small hole poker to create little drainage holes. I line the holes up evenly with my pattern (15). These are also a design choice. You may choose to omit them. 

13 Use homemade paper templates to lightly draw a design with a needle tool. 14 Carve out the lines in the design using your favorite carving tool.

15 Optional: Within the design, pierce drainage holes through the walls.

Next, paint the design with different underglazes and slips— Amaco Velvet underglazes are my favorite. Two to three coats give solid color coverage (16). Once you finish adding color, go back and carve more fine details through the underglaze (17). 

16 Paint on two to three coats of underglaze or colored slip 17 Carve fine detail lines through the underglazed sections.

Glazing and Finishing 

After fully drying the pot and bisque firing it, prepare the planters for glaze by gently wiping them with a damp sponge to remove any dust. Next, brush over the entire carved surface with a thick layer of glaze (18), and then wipe the surface glaze away, leaving only the carvings filled with the glaze. 

18 After bisque, glaze then wipe the surface clean of glaze, leaving it in the carvings. 19

When the planters come out of the glaze kiln, string them up using different types of macramé cord and rope (19, 20). I love the way these look hanging in groups together, especially when they have plants planted in them. Also, I read somewhere once that it’s a fact that plants are happier in a pretty planter. 


Erika Novak lives and works in Connecticut. She began her career as a full-time potter directly after graduating from Central Connecticut State University with a BA in ceramics and geography. She and her partner, Drew Darley, work side by side in their studio, Round Trip Clayworks, at The Farmington Valley Art Center in Avon. Erika is the head of the vibrant art center’s ceramics program where both she and Drew teach classes and run workshops for their community. To see more of her work, visit or and follow her on Instagram @roundtripclayworks