About a year after my retirement in 2008, I enrolled in a one-day-a-week Introduction to Pottery class at nearby Montgomery Community College in Troy, North Carolina. The school has a very impressive setup and is reputed to have trained many of the potters who live and work in the pottery-rich Seagrove, North Carolina, area. I quickly realized that I was the only beginning student in the 18-student class, which meant that, in addition to the instructor, I had 17 other teachers. That was 12½ years ago. Many of the students, like me, have been enrolled in the “introductory’’ class ever since, and we continue to learn from and support one another—in pottery and in life. 

Within 18 months after walking into that first class, I was able to add a 25×12-foot studio to my home. Having made that great  financial investment and being half Scottish, I knew the new studio had to be more than just a playroom. Consequently, I became a pottery junkie, spending time almost every day in my pottery haven. 

As I continued to grow and improve, I learned that I could save considerable money by buying clay in bulk, so I started buying my clay in 500-pound purchases—the amount at which there was a price break. Time progressed, and so did I. A few years ago, I discovered that the next price break came at 2000 pounds. Egads! A ton. Who could possibly use a whole ton of clay before it dried out? Still, the savings was considerable, and by then, I was using mostly porcelain, which is pretty darn pricey. So, I bit the bullet and ordered 2000 pounds of porcelain. 

Fortunately, there was plenty of room in the garage to store the clay. Since the garage is attached to the house, there was no fear of freezing. However, I have to admit that by the time I got to the last few hundred pounds of clay, it was getting mighty firm, and though I am pretty strong, it was a major challenge to throw with it—as in, impossible. 

A potter friend advised me to add half a cup of water to the bag of clay, seal it tightly, and soak it in a large bucket of water for 24 hours. Sounded like a plan. Except, the result was 25 pounds of mushy porcelain, which had to be dried on a large plaster slab. Definitely more malleable, but what a mess.

Next, I tried a technique advised by another potter friend. This time I used a chopstick to poke holes in the clay, added a little water and wet towels, wrapped it up in plastic, and waited. The result was pretty decent: a nice soft, wedgeable clay. But when I began throwing, I discovered that even though the clay had been wedged extensively, it still contained air pockets. I tried another few approaches, then came up with one that has worked for me. So far.

1 To reclaim dry clay, soak several towels in water, wring them fairly dry, then fold them around 1-inch slices of clay. Wrap the entire set in plastic and allow it sit for a day or two.

The Slice-and-Fold Method

First, I soak several small bathroom or kitchen towels in water, then wring them fairly dry. One is folded in half and laid on the table. On top of the end of the damp towel, I place a slice of clay (about one inch thick) from the 25-pound block, and then fold the towel over it. Another slice of clay is added, with towels wrapping each slice until the block of clay is all sliced and wrapped in towels (1). The block of sandwiched clay is wrapped well in a plastic bag and allowed to rest for a day or two. 

When the bag is opened, it is like a miracle. The clay is moist, but very workable. Since I like to use a softer clay, it is perfect for me. Though I try to do a thorough job of wedging, there are still a few air bubbles, but nothing like the chopstick method. 

Though I have only used this method with porcelain, I imagine it would work for every type of clay that has become too firm to throw with ease. If it gets too wet, try wringing your towels out more, so they are only moist, not wet. A longer wait will also result in a drier clay. If that doesn’t work, try buying some chopsticks.

Anne B. Crabbe earned degrees from the Universities of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska, before spending 42 years in education as a teacher, instructor, and administrator. She lives with her two Siamese cats (ChoiChoi and Sipsong) and two rescue dogs (Winston and Dickens) in Pinehurst, North Carolina.