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What are Pottery Wheels?

Updated May 16, 2024
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The people of the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, now known as southern Iraq, are the likely inventors of the first pottery wheels. Before these hubs of civilization grew into towns, early nomads made their own cooking and storage pots for their family's needs. As cultural centers grew in population, individual citizens began to specialize in trades--some of which became potters.

Initially, potters were primarily women, using pinch or coiling methods of creating pots for household use. But as people grouped together and engaged in commerce, the need for more storage pots increased dramatically. In order to meet the demand, people needed a faster method to make pots. A new discovery was about to help.

Mesopotamians are credited with the invention of the wheel. Using the wheel to drive tools and rudimentary machinery, a wealth of practical tasks were made easier. One such task was making pots, as the pottery wheel emerged to answer the call.

The technique of throwing pots on pottery wheels soon spread throughout the known world. Pictures of stone and wood pottery wheels have been found on Egyptian tombs dating back to 3000 B.C. The earliest pottery wheels were simple pedestals with a revolving wheel at the top that served as the worktable, and was propelled by the potter pushing the wheel around by hand as she worked. Second generation pottery wheels included a stationary working surface at the top of a pedestal, with a wheel at the base driving the working surface by kicking the wheel with the foot.

Many people improved the design of pottery wheels through the ages. During the time of the Industrial Revolution in the West, inventors modernized the kick-type flywheel by adding a foot treadle to drive the motion of the wheel. With the discovery of electricity and the ability to harness its force, inventors added electric motors to drive the circular action of pottery wheels, although to this day, many purists still use the treadle pottery wheel because they can control the speed.

Regardless of the types of pottery wheels preferred, the technique of throwing a pot has remained much the same since the days of ancient Mesopotamia. Potters work their clay, and place a wedge of clay on the turntable of the pottery wheel. As the wheel turns, the potter uses her hands and the centrifugal force of the circling wheel to shape, extend and thin the block of clay into any manner of shapes such as plates, vases, or bowls. Once the item is finished, it is glazed, decorated, and fired in a kiln.

Whether for simple artistic expression, as a part-time hobby, or for generating products to sell, people today continue to enjoy making their own pottery. Pottery wheels for both private and commercial use are available through art supply stores or online suppliers, and vary in size and price.

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