Clay Modeling Techniques


Making figures out of clay is a relaxing and rewarding hobby. Don't worry about modeling the figures for accuracy. Instead, concentrate on enjoying yourself.

Ground Rules

  • If you are making a model from clay with the intent to have it fired, you must remember a few rules. Before beginning your project, the clay must be wedged. This means that you must knead the clay like dough, pressing out all the air bubbles. If there are any air bubbles or hollow enclosed parts of your project, it will explode in the kiln.

    In order to attach one clay part to another, you should use a method called "scoring." Score the clay by using a needle tool or a modeling tool to make hatch marks in the two pieces of clay. Make the hatch marks only where the two pieces will be touching each other. Next, wet the hatch marks with water or slip (which is water with clay suspended in the mixture), and then attach the two pieces to each other. This is scoring. Scoring is necessary because without it, the pieces will likely crack and fall apart from each other either when they dry or in the kiln.

    The final product must be no more than one inch or one and a half inches thick. It must be completely dry before firing. When the clay has completely dried, it will be hardened and lighter in color, and it will be room temperature. They clay will take anywhere from two days to several more days to dry, depending on its size.

Slabs, Coils and Pinch Pots

  • Unless you are working at a potter's wheel, pots, containers and structures in clay are often made through one of three ways: with slabs, coils and pinch pots.

    Pinch pots are probably the easiest structure to make in clay. Pinch pots are frequently the first project taught to children in pottery classes. Start by rolling the clay into a ball. Hold the ball in one hand, and press the thumb of your other hand into the ball, until it is midway through (or a little farther). Now, hold the ball with your thumb inside and pinch the wall of the ball between your free fingers and your thumb. Rotate the ball 30 degrees on your thumb, then pinch again. Rotate, then pinch again. You will notice the hole in the center of the ball growing wider. The ball will no longer be a ball at all; instead, it will take on the shape of a cone or a bowl. This is your pinch pot. Continue to mold the pot until the walls are the appropriate thickness and shape.

    Pinch pots have many uses in clay modeling. Try making the pinch pot into an animal by attaching feet to the bottom and a head and tail to the sides. For a slightly more realistic-looking animal, turn the pinch pot upside down before attaching the head and legs, so that the pinch pot becomes a body and loses its functionality as a bowl.

    If you need to make a larger clay body for modeling a larger object, try making two pinch pots and scoring them together to form a sphere with a hollow center. Remember that the hollow inside will cause the object to explode in the kiln, so be sure to use a needle tool to make a small hole in the body of the clay. One tiny hole is enough to allow air to pass back and forth between the inside and outside of the clay body.

    Another method for creating structures in clay is with coils. Use your hands to roll a coil (a long tube like a snake). Shape the coil into a circle, then begin to stack coils on each other to form the walls of a tube or a pot. Remember to score the coils together. Smooth the coils for the appearance of a uniform wall, or leave them in their coil form for decorative purposes.

    The final method is by making slabs. Slabs of clay are rolled out with a rolling pin and then cut into whatever shape desired with a clay knife or needle tool. These slabs can be used to make the walls of a box or a clay house or a mug. Flat objects such as signs and tiles can also be made this way. To make a completely round slab, trace around something that is already round, like a cup or a coffee tin.

Organic Figures

  • Make an organic figure by first picking a subject to make. You might want to look off of something real to model from. Examine the textures of the figure, and consider how you will proceed before beginning. It is often best to break a figure down into its most basic parts and assemble the figure piece by piece. As an example, if you were making a fish, you would start by forming the body from a hunk of clay. You would form the tail from a slab or another hunk of clay and score the tail to the body. The head of a fish is more or less a part of the body. You would use a needle tool to make the eyes and give texture to the tail as necessary. By pressing small-hole netting into the sides of the body, scales would be formed. After working with the clay and alternately smoothing and texturizing to your tastes, form the fins and attach to the sides by scoring.

    Once the figure was made, then you would hollow out the figure from the bottom if necessary and set it to dry.


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