How to make pottery without wrist pain

How to Make Pottery Without Wrist Pain

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Wrist pain is a common problem for potters.  I wanted to share what steps I myself have taken in learning how to make pottery without wrist pain.  I believe it is possible to make adjustments to your wheel throwing that will help wrist pain.  However, it may take a bit of trial and error to find out what works for you.

You can learn how to make pottery without wrist pain by adjusting your technique.  The main culprits for wrist pain are centering, throwing, wedging and carrying clay.  Changing the way you do these key tasks can help prevent the odd twinge from becoming a longer-term issue. 

Disclaimer

Firstly, I want to say that I am not medically trained.  I am just a potter who has had wrist pain and had to adjust the way I throw pots.  In this article, I will be looking at changes I’ve made to my wheel throwing technique.  I’m not going to be discussing treatment for wrist pain, as I don’t have the necessary qualifications for that!

It is important for me to say this because what worked for me, may not work for you.

My suggestion to you would be to try things out and see if they help.  You don’t want to make changes to your technique that make the situation worse.  I would recommend that you consult a medical professional to get a clear picture of what is going on.

That being said, I have found that making the following changes helped me continue to make pottery without wrist pain.  So, read on….

Wrist pain can come from different problems and is common amongst potters1.  The causes most common causes amongst potters are carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, and tendonitis. 

My own particular wrist pain is caused by carpal tunnel syndrome.  I’ve had it for almost 4 years now, and I’ve had carpal tunnel surgery on one hand. 

A few people have suggested the following to me:

  1. Take breaks whilst I’m throwing at the wheel
  2. Do stretching exercises
  3. Warm up my muscles before I start working
Some suggestions about pottery without wrist pain
My face when someone suggests stretching
and breaks for my carpal tunnel

I dare say that these are good suggestions and unlikely to do any harm.  However, if you have had significant wrist pain you will know that these measures won’t make enough of a difference.  I’d say they are remedial at best.

I have had to think about ways to change my approach to wheel throwing. 

Three Things in Pottery that Aggravate Wrist Pain:

  • Centering and Throwing at the wheel
  • Wedging
  • Lifting and carrying in the studio

I will look at each of these areas individually.  And I will describe different adjustments that may help you find how to make pottery without wrist pain.

Centering and Throwing Pottery Without Wrist Pain

Centering:

Centering can be tough on the wrists.  It is common for potters when centering to position their hands at a 90 degree angle.  This can cause hyperextension in your wrists, which means you are pushing them past their comfortable limits.  

Once they are in that position, potters then put more pressure on their wrist by pushing the clay hard.  When centering, potters often use their left hand to push hard into the clay.  The combination of your wrist being bent backward and pushing the clay can make for a lot of wrist pain. 

There are a few adjustments that you can make to address this:

Wrist Angle

Firstly, try to adjust your throwing position so that your wrists are not at such a severe angle.  Some potters suggest trying to form a line between your elbow and your wrist.  

I have found that my wrist angle depends a lot on where my elbows are.  Some potters suggest fixing their elbows in at the hip or even in their stomach area.  I think the reason for this is that it makes the arms very stable and helps brace against the clay. 

However, my experience is that it is hard to relax the angle of my wrist if my elbow is tucked far into my body.  I have found that the easiest position for me is to anchor my elbows on my thigh.  In fact, I tend to position my elbow at the lower part of my thigh, somewhere above my knee.  I also tend to keep my knees relatively close together.

A bad position for me is to have my elbows high up my thigh and my knees far apart.  This position makes it very hard not to put my wrists at an awkward angle.  I see other potters sat comfortably like that, and it feels impossible to me. 

It is important to remember that potters come in all shapes and sizes.  What works for me in terms of position might not be right for you.  I would suggest experimenting to find a way of working with a neutral wrist position.  It may be that keeping your elbows into your side is the easiest way for you to do this.  The aim is to keep your elbows and wrists aligned.       

Wheel Height

Another thing to consider is the height of your wheel.  If your wheel is not at the right height for you, your wrists are more likely to be in an awkward position.  They will be bending up or down to accommodate the height difference.    

A potters wheel that is too low can cause wrist pain
A low potters wheel can put strain on your wrists.

If your wheel is too low, there are simple ways to adjust this.  You can buy leg extensions that are specifically made for certain wheel models. 

A higher wheel and a more neutral angle puts less strain on your wrists.

Or you can keep it simple and raise your wheel with bed risers, or cinder blocks.  Bed risers are relatively cheap and come in different heights.  So, you can adjust your wheel to the height that is most comfortable for your wrists.

How You Are Using Your Hands

As well as the angle of your wrist when centering, consider how you are using your hands.  The part of your hand you use to press on the clay makes a difference.  Are you pressing the clay with the part of your hand between the middle of your palm and your knuckles?  If so, then you may well be pushing your wrist too far back. 

It is recommended that you use the heel of your palm to press into the clay when centering.

Some potters find themselves using the mound at the base of their thumb to press on the clay when centering.  This can involve angling your wrist in an awkward way.  One recommendation is to use the heal of your whole hand, rather than the base of the thumb.  That way you spread the pressure more evenly throughout your hand.  

Pushing or Pulling as You Center?

Because of the strain pushing has on your left wrist, some potters recommend a technique that involves pulling the clay.  The idea is that you put force on the clay by pulling it towards you rather than pushing away.  Cupping your hand and pulling the clay in, puts less strain on the wrist.

A version of this method is to use your right hand to pull the clay into your left hand.  In this method, your left hand is at 7-9 o’clock on the wheel.  The wheel is spinning counterclockwise.  And your right hand is pushing the clay into your left hand.  The idea is that most of the force is coming from the cupped right hand. 

Throwing Pottery and Wrist Pain:

Undoubtedly, the toughest part of wheel throwing on your wrists is centering.  However, positioning your hands and wrists at awkward or unusual angles repetitively when throwing can also cause problems. 

Experiment With New Techniques

You may have a particular way of throwing pots, that you use again and again.  Repetition can be problematic for wrists.  Consider whether there is an aspect of your technique connected to the pain.  Think about ways you can adapt your style to put less pressure on your wrists.

Here is a video by Janis Hughes demonstrating an elegant adaptation to throwing technique.

Changing Your Clay

There is a consensus that if you have wrist pain, softer clay is better.  If the clay you are using is dry, hard or inconsistent it is going to be tougher to work with.

There is however disagreement about what kind of clay it is best to use.  Some potters recommend avoiding recycled clay.  They argue that if you reuse clay it will inevitably have harder sections, and be less workable.  These potters suggest that the best clay to use is fresh clay out of the bag for the first time.  

Others suggest that commercially bagged clay is difficult to use for a couple of reasons: 

Firstly, it is under a lot of pressure, having been mechanically extruded.  The solution to this is to wedge it well before using it.  But wedging in itself is quite tough on the wrists (see below). 

The second point that is sometimes made about commercially bagged clay is that it can be hard.  This is because of hardened bands of platelets that run through the clay body.  These are also the result of extrusion.  

From this point of view, using clay that has been recycled and wedged may be easier on the wrists.

Again, it is a matter of personal preference which clay feels easier on your wrists.  However, experimenting with different types of clay is a good idea.  It is likely that you will find what clay is best for you through trial and error.  If you would like more information about how to soften up your clay, check out this article. 

Working on Smaller Pieces

Whilst your wrists are giving you pain, work on smaller projects, until your hands feel stronger.  Larger pieces involve stretching your hands and bending your wrists more than smaller pieces.   

Changing Your Schedule

You can reduce the strain that you are putting on your wrists by mixing up your routine.  Rather than working at the same thing for long stretches, break up your schedule.

One suggestion, for example, is to wedge as you go along.  Rather than wedging a whole batch of clay and then spending hours throwing that batch.  Throw a few pieces, then wedge some more.  This may help you avoid the injuries associated with repetition. 

Alternatively, you could alternate throwing at the wheel with hand-building some pieces.

Wedging Your Clay Without Wrist Pain:

Potters also complain that wedging can make wrist pain worse.  Wedging is important to get rid of air bubbles and ensure that clay is homogenous. 

So, what is the solution if wedging is hurting your wrists?  Here are some suggestions that may help you wedge pottery without wrist pain….

1) Use Soft Clay Straight Out of The Bag

As with wheel throwing, potters have their own opinions about which clay is easier to handle and wedge.

Some argue that clay straight out of the bag is air free and soft.  As such, it simply needs to be slapped against a table a few times to loosen it up before throwing.

Others state that bagged clay can be hard and that in spite of being newly bagged it does contain air bubbles.  From this point of view, wedging thoroughly is essential.

My experience has been that clay straight out of the bag is softer.  As such, I get away with slamming it against a hard surface a few times before using it.  I find recycled clay needs more work because the consistency is often not as even. 

2) Change Your Wedging Technique

One approach to wedging that reduces wear and tear on the wrists is the ‘Stack and Slam’ method.  Also known as ‘wire wedging’. 

This method involves cutting your clay into two pieces with wire, then stacking them on top of each other.  The stacked pieces are then dropped or slammed against a wedging table or suitable surface. 

The process is then repeated, with the clay being sliced in two, stacked and slammed on the table.  Repeating this about 30 times is normally enough to thoroughly mix and wedge clay.  

Stack and slam doesn’t involve pressure on the wrist.  The video below is a step by step demonstration of this approach. 

Sometimes potter’s will use their hands to bring the clay down on the table quite heavily. However, you can spare your wrists further by either dropping or throwing the clay down.  This will help you avoid the impact of banging your wrists. 

3) Unusual Ways of Wedging Clay to Avoid Wrist Pain

I have heard of other ways that potters wedge clay to suit their needs.  Some potters put clay scraps in a heavy-duty plastic bag with water and throw the bag against the floor. 

I also read of a potter who recommended wedging with your feet!  I’m not sure how serious he was being, but if you think about it, it could make sense.  People learn to do all sorts of things with their feet.  Some people become accomplished painters with their feet.  So, maybe wedging is an option too!  

The video below is posted tongue in cheek.  But it’s a great clip none the less.

4) Check the Height of Your Wedging Table

If your wedging table is at the wrong height for you, it might be putting strain on your wrists. 

Is your wedging table at the right height?  You can use the following rule of thumb to find out.  Stand next to your table and let your hands hang by your side.  The table is the right height if your fingertips are just about touching the surface. 

With the table at this height, you can use your body weight when you are wedging.  This will spare your wrists. 

5) Outsource Your Wedging Chores!

A creative solution to the wedging problem is to pay someone else to do it for you.  Do you have a local college with willing students who want to earn a few bucks?  Do you have a teenager in the house? 

6) Invest In A Pugmill

Another way to make pottery without wrist pain is to get a pugmill.  A pugmill is a machine that helps mix and blend clay until it has a homogenous body.  Some pugmills are specifically designed to be de-airing too, so you don’t get bubbles in the clay.

Pugmills are expensive, but you may be lucky and find a company that is willing to rent one to you.   

How to Lift Clay Without Wrist Pain

The last aspect of pottery that can contribute to wrist pain is the sheer act of lugging heavy clay around.  Lifting and carrying clay throughout the course of the day can take its toll. 

One suggestion to minimize the amount of lifting you do is to get a lifting dolly for your studio.  This doesn’t have to be a heavy industrial dolly.  It just needs to be one that will take the weight of your clay.  You still have to get the clay onto the dolly, but it will reduce the strain you put on your wrists.  

Final Thoughts

My experience is that once you have wrist pain, there is no quick or easy solution.  However, you can gradually learn to make pottery without wrist pain if you are thoughtful about the way you work. 

Being willing to try new ways of doing things that put less strain on your wrists is a good start.  Sometimes this can involve learning new habits.  However, it is worth it in the end, if it means you can carry on with something that you love.  

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Pottery Tips from the Pottery Wheel

Lesley

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Pottery Tips from the Pottery Wheel

I’m Lesley Milne, the creator of The Pottery Wheel.  Like many people, I used the potter’s wheel at school.  But then I began to focus on clay sculpture and I left the wheel behind.  However, more recently, I found myself being drawn back to pottery and the potters wheel.  And so, I have tried to pick up where I left off all those years ago at school. This blog is a chronicle of what I have learned as I got back into the potters saddle!

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