12 Reasons Why Clay Goes Off-Center When Opening


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pottery clay goes off center

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We have all been there as beginners.  We are sure that the clay is centered. It’s looking good and it feels smooth and even.   Then moments later your pottery is wonky and bumping around beneath your fingers.  So, what is going on?  Why does clay go off-center? and what can you do about it?

Clay can go off-center on the wheel for a number of reasons.  It can be to do with your technique or it can be related to problems with the clay.  It can also be affected by your state of mind.  Each of these factors is fixable, so read on.

Why Does Clay Go Off-Center on the Wheel?

My experience has been, that centering clay is a bit like learning to ice skate.  It feels all wobbly and wrong, and it feels like you will never get the hang of it.  Then one day things stop wobbling so much and it comes right.

What worked for me was lots of practice.  But there are a few things to look at if you find that your clay keeps going off-center. 

Is Your Technique Causing Your Clay to Go Off-Center?

There are lots of videos online about how to center clay.  So, I won’t go into a lengthy description here.  Besides, if you are struggling to keep your clay centered, you already know how to center in the first place.  You just need to learn how to keep it there. 

Here are a few technical mistakes that can cause your clay to get wobbly once it has been centered.

1) Are You Coning The Whole Length of The Clay?

Whilst you are centering, make sure that you cone the whole length of the clay.  It is important to make sure that the bottom of the clay cone is getting narrower in diameter too.

pottery clay can go off center

If your hands are positioned above the bottom of the cone, the base may not be centered.  It may feel like the clay is centered where your hands are at work.  But it may be wonky at the base where the clay joins the wheel head. 

This can cause problems when you start to open the clay up.

Any small wonkiness in the base of the clay will become amplified as you start to make your piece.  The deeper you get into the clay as you open up, the more obvious the wobble will become.  This is because as you get deeper into the clay, you get closer to the base that isn’t centered fully.

Solution 1

Focus on including the base of the clay as you cone.  One suggestion that some potters make is to think about coning the clay in sections.  What they mean by this is that you focus on coning the first ½ inch of the clay and then move up to the next ½ and so on.

By doing this you make sure that the whole structure gets your attention.  This method sounds a bit awkward, but with time it is something that becomes automatic. 

2) Is the Clay Spreading Out Over the Surface of the Wheel Head?

Sometimes when you are centering your clay, the clay can spread out over the surface of the wheel head.  This means that you get a ‘thinnish’ layer of clay fanning out from the base of the piece like a skirt. 

The clay layer can be uneven, or it can get dry and sticky and grab at your hand.  Either of these issues will cause your hand to wobble and this wobble can translate into a wonky piece of clay. 

If your hand is moving over an uneven surface this will cause unevenness in your clay.  Ideally, your hands need to be in contact with the even surface of the wheel head.

Solution 2

You can scrape the layer of clay off with a tool.  But in general, aim to push your hand down onto the wheel head.  This will remove the clay fan or prevent it from spreading out in the first place.  Push down at the same time that you are pushing in at the base of your piece.  

3) Is Your Clay Really Centered?

Sometimes, clay can look and feel centered, but still be a bit off.  If that is the case, then as you work on it the wonkiness will become more apparent.

When Pottery Goes Wrong

Solution 3

Make sure that when you are centering your clay to start off with that your body is held firm.  You need to brace your body through your arms, legs, and feet.  Potters have different preferences regarding where they position their elbows.  Some like to tuck them into their hips, others like to anchor them on their leg.  Find which position feels best for you. 

You will hear some potters say that your body needs to be as braced as it can be.  Whilst this is right, you need to find a balance between holding the clay firm and pushing it too hard.  If you push it too hard in one direction, it can be pushed further from the center.  Or if it can skid off the wheel head altogether. 

Remember to apply pressure equally with both hands.  And, find the right balance between bracing, and not pushing too hard in one direction.  This takes practice through trial and error.  As I say, it’s a bit like ice skating.  All wobbly until you get the knack. 

4) Are You Opening Up Your Clay Right?

Once centered, avoid pressing your finger or thumb straight down into the clay at a 90% angle.  If you press directly down onto the clay to start opening it up, the clay can twist your finger. 

If the clay grabs and puts a twisting force on your finger or thumb, the opening will be off-center.  Also, you will have a harder time seeing how deep you are going if you push down directly from above. 

Child at Potters Wheel
My 3 year old, showing me how it’s done!

Solution 4

Go into the clay at a bit of an angle.  Somewhere between 30 and 60 degrees to the wheel head.  Use the pad of your thumb or finger if you prefer.  Angle your thumb (finger!) so that it creates a V shape in the clay, rather than a thumb-shaped hole.

5) Are You Opening Up Your Clay Dead on Center?

If you start to open the clay up and your thumb is not in the center, this can introduce a wobble.  A little bulb of clay may form in the middle if your thumb is not close enough to the center. 

Equally, if your thumb is too far over the center, a ridge can form in the clay.  This ridge can introduce a wobble to your piece. 

Solution 5

Focus on having your thumb right on the center of the clay before you start to open up. 

6) Are You Pulling Your Hands Away Too Quickly?

Removing your hands quickly from the clay can throw your piece off.  I have done this before.  I’ve been so delighted that the clay is finally centered, that I pull my hands away in triumph.  Unfortunately, this action can cause the clay to wobble and ruin all your good work.

Solution 6

Once you have centered the clay, remove your hands slowly and carefully from the piece

7) Is Your Wheel Moving at The Right Speed for You?

If the wheel is moving too fast, it can be harder to control what the clay is doing.  It is sometimes a good idea to slow the wheel and your hands down whilst you master the basics.

That being said, you need to be sure that the wheel isn’t moving too slowly.  It is possible to open, pull, or lift the clay faster than the wheel is turning.  If you do this, it can put pressure on the clay.  As a result, the clay can tear or go off-center. 

Solution 7

Experiment with wheel speeds and find a speed that is fast enough to let you shape the clay.  But not so fast that you lose control of what the clay is doing.

Is Your Clay Causing Your Piece to Go Off-Center?

Issues with your clay can also make it difficult to keep your clay on center.  So it is well worth considering some of the following points…

8) Air Bubbles can Cause Your Clay to Go Off-Center

Air trapped between the clay and the wheel head can lift up one side of the piece making it uneven.  Even if you manage to ride out the wobbliness and throw a pot, the lip will probably be uneven. 

Solution 8

Make sure the clay is smooth and ball-shaped before you slap it onto the wheel head.  If it is concave or lumpy, it’s likely that you will trap air as you fix it to the wheel.

9) Dry Clay Can Cause Your Piece to Go Off-Center

If your clay is not wet enough it can grab your hands and drag the clay off-center. 

Solution 9

Make sure that you use lots of water and slip to make the clay slippy.  This will prevent your hands from snagging the clay.  Keep a bowl of water nearby, to dunk your hand and drip water on your piece when you need it.

10) Hard Clay Can Cause Your Piece to Go Off-Center

If your clay is hard, it can be tough on your hands to wrestle it into place.  Not only that, hard clay is difficult to work with.  You may manage to center a piece of clay that is too hard.  However, you will have to apply a lot of force to work with it.  This can, in turn, cause the clay to move off-center.

Solution 10

If your clay is hard, wrap it in a damp/wet cloth.  Then put the bundled-up clay in a plastic bag and leave it overnight.  This will soften off the clay and make it more workable.

Bracing at the potters wheel to center clay
Image by Anne Worner.  ‘Centering‘.  Some rights reserved.  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

11) Is Your Clay Homogenous?

Homogenous clay is clay that has the same consistency throughout.  If your clay has some hard areas and some soft areas, it will be hard to keep it on center.  Once you start opening it up, it will be difficult to apply even pressure to your piece.  This will translate into unevenness in your piece.

Solution 11

Make sure you wedge your clay sufficiently before you start throwing, as this will ensure an even consistency.

Is Your Attitude Causing Your Clay to Go Off-Center?

Pottery requires motor skills and creative instinct, and both of these can be thrown off by stress.  

12) Are You Getting Frustrated and Tense?

Frustration at the potters wheel
I sometimes find myself with this expression at the potters wheel.

If you are getting upset with yourself or your piece, this may be contributing to the clay going off-center. 

Pottery is quite often described as having a meditative impact on the mind. If you are relaxed and focused, throwing is a good way to zone out or tune in, depending on your outlook. 

But if you are irritated at the wheel, it will affect your work.  You don’t need to be the Dalia Lama to know that.

Solution 12

If something isn’t working for me, I tend to persist at it like a dog with a bone.  Usually way past the point of being productive.  However, I do know that this is exactly the time to step away from the wheel!

If you find yourself getting wound up and despondent, take a break.  Either take a moment away from the wheel to relax or come back another day feeling more hopeful.

Final Thoughts:

There is a lot to be aware of when you are learning how to center clay.  It is like any skill that involves coordinating a lot of different physical activities.  It takes time and practice.  You can use the above checklist as a way of trying to isolate why your clay might be going off-center.  Good luck! 

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