Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Making pottery-simply art or sophisticated science?

As I was watching an experienced potter throw beautiful shapes recently it made me reflect 'how incredibly simple it seems in the hands of a true expert'! Starting from a lump of clay, shaping it into an interesting form, drying, finishing, glazing, and firing can take up to 2 weeks. A labour of love to create that special unique piece! But those who have tried to make pottery know that these are mere headings for skill, artistic flair,experience and a good deal of knowledge and science.

Incredibly, in the pottery industry where 'lean manufacturing' is all the rage they attempt to produce finished ware in a matter of hours! They breakdown every operation down to its most basic level (steps). Each step in the process is identified and the skill, tools, material, manpower and time required. By defining the process in this way it is possible to identify the number of steps and value of each step in an operation. Lean manufacturing philosophy requires the removal of waste in all its forms. Waste doesn't mean just waste material, but wasted human movement, wasted product movement, overprocessing, excess stock, not right first time, or wasted waiting time.

Often the target is to improve efficiency and the first step is to remove as many non value added steps as possible. An example of this might be to remove the clay ware from the sponge/fettling stage immediately to the biscuit kiln instead of to an intermediate storage area. Often by looking at operations in this way new or more robust ways of processing are identified and introduced.

"So what" I hear the true potter say-this means nothing to me. And he is right in some ways! It is often by trial and error that his artistic flair can flourish. A missed out glaze ingredient creates that wonderful new glaze colour or the kiln underfires showing unusual but unique glaze effects!

However he is also wrong in some ways. He has already adopted some of the lean principles without knowing it! Often the potters studio is laid out so all his tools, materials equipment are close at hand (thereby reducing waste movement). He recycles the clay and glaze (reduces waste materials) and tries to make a number of items at a time not just one (reduces waste time).

I believe that both the studio potter and industrial potter can learn from each other. The studio potter can learn to reduce waste allowing him the time to be more creative and the industrial potter can learn to be more creative in design allowing him to sell more product.

Surely making pottery is both a simple art and a sophisticated science! What do you think? I'd welcome your comments.


  1. I don't know if you are still looking in for comments. I found this article and wondered about tips for reducing glaze waste down the drain. I have to believe there is a way to minimize the environmental impact. I do my best, but it isn't enough. Any thoughts or links if you see this. I am a novice in terms of my own business. I have done pottery for years off and on though. Thanks in advance.

  2. Cheryl,
    Thank you for your interesting comments. There are a few ways of recycling clay from a studio. In essence these use the principle of settling of solid and removal of water. 2 methods can be found in the following links:

    Glaze can be tackled in a similar way. However flocculating the glaze will help the solid glaze to settle in a thick mass with water separating on top. Some potters combine all the glaze waste together then use it to produce purely decorative pieces. (mixing coloured glazes usually ends in a dark brown or grey colour!)
    Hope this helps?


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