Exploring Pottery Techniques

What are the major differences between decorative and functional pottery?


Key Staff

Art Teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing
Developing Arts Literacies: Comparing Styles
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


This lesson introduces students to the age-old techniques used in constructing and decorating a burnished coil pot. Using Idaho artist Kerry Moosman’s "#4 untitled"—a burnished terra cotta coil built pot—as a contemporary example, students will draw connections to similar pots that have been created by civilizations through the centuries. They will learn about traditional decoration methods used by American Indians and other cultures, and make informed choices in the construction and decoration of the finished object.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Look at, describe, discuss, and compare ceramic bowls that are made for decorative and functional purposes from different categories, using Kerry Moosman’s clay bowl "#4 untitled" as a focal point.
  • Use the Internet, if available, to explore two interactive Web sites designed for kids to learn more about pottery-making.
  • Create a small, three-dimensional clay bowl using water-based clay and burnishing techniques for the surface treatment.
  • Watch a video or view images of work by Maria Martinez and discuss her techniques (optional).
  • Become familiar with pottery throughout history in different cultures.

Teaching Approach

Arts Learning

Teaching Methods

  • Demonstration
  • Hands-On Learning
  • Studio Practice

Assessment Type



What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • Internet Access
  • Projector
  • Speakers
Required Plugins
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should be familiar with the history of ceramics and how they have been used throughout history. Teachers will need experience constructing and decorating a burnished coil pot. They should also be familiar with Native American decorations. More information can be found at the Woman Artists of the American West and University of South Alabama websites.

Prior Student Knowledge

It is helpful if students have some experience working with water-based clay prior to this lesson.

Physical Space

Visual Arts Studio


  • Individualized Instruction
  • Large Group Instruction


Procure materials
Make relevant photocopies
Test internet connection

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



Clay is an exciting material to use. Students usually respond to the sensory stimuli of the clay as soon as they have it in their hands. The feel of clay is an automatic "motivator."


1. Review the objectives and the Vocabulary Handout located within the Resource Carousel. Present a historical overview of basic clay pottery, being sure to include examples of a variety of finished surface decorations, particularly burnishing. Some helpful information can be found at this InfoPlease website. Be sure to talk about the use of ceramics in the cultures of ancient Greece, ancient China, Japan, England and the Americas.

2. Remind students that clay has been used to create functionary items for many centuries. Shards (small pieces of fired pottery) are found from every culture in our past. How and why were clay pots made and for what purpose?

3. Ask students: How does clay feel in your hands? Is it cool? Smooth? Malleable? Easy-to-use? Would your ancestors have used clay? When? Where would they get it?

4. Explain the difference between burnishing and glazing pottery. A good resource is CeramicArtsDaily.org which explains the technique necessary to burnish ceramics.

5. Show a variety of clay pots that are burnished rather than glazed. You may choose to show the video of Maria Martinez mentioned earlier. She used the burnishing effect to create pots that are considered to be in classic Native American style.

6. Discuss these points with the students: Why burnish? What is the difference between burnishing and other methods? When is glazing better? When is it not necessary? What are we going to do that is different or unusual in this lesson?

7. Using two interactive Internet sites designed for kids (primarily fourth graders) students will learn (through guided or free exploration) about the basic concepts of pottery making (both sites require a Quicktime plug-in). Depending on the availability of resources, you may choose to either project these web sites using an LCD projector and go over the material as a class or you may have students visit and explore the sites on their own if there are enough computers.

  • Visit Making Pots to learn more about the process involved in moving clay from the ground to the finished product.
  • Go to Hands On Crafts and visit The Studio to learn more about making coil, slab, and thrown forms.

Older students may use the sites as a jumping-off point when conducting Internet research on the media, technique, and history of the clay vessel, both functional and decorative.

8. Introduce students to the work of Kerry Moosman. Using Moosman’s #4 untitled as a focal point, have students look at, describe, discuss, and compare ceramic bowls that are made for decorative and functional purposes throughout history.

Build Knowledge

1. Demonstrate a basic pinch pot (or coil pot, if your class is a second-level ceramics class). Emphasize the importance of maintaining an equal thickness throughout the clay body. (This is important no matter what level or clay technique you are teaching.) If necessary, introduce or review the scoring/cross-hatching technique, as well as the process of slowly drying the clay piece.

2. Using pre-made clay bowls, demonstrate burnishing with a polished stone or spoon in three stages:

  1. gently, just as the bowl begins to harden;
  2. when the bowl is leather-hard; and
  3. when bowl is air-dry (this is the final burnishing).

(Lightly mist the pot with water before burnishing in steps 2 and 3.)

There are quite a few options as you approach the end. Some potters like to use sandpaper for the final burnishing. Others suggest spraying the outer surface of the dry bowl with vegetable oil and then rubbing. Mr. Moosman uses lard. All produce smooth results when combined with patience and persistence.

3. Review objectives, vocabulary, and processes. Specify storage, drying, and clean up procedures.


1. Carry out the following process when it is time for students to make their own bowls.

  1. Pass out materials and 1-2 pounds of water-based clay to each student. (More if students are advanced in ceramics.)
  2. If making a coil bowl, roll clay into two balls, one small and the other quite a bit larger. Shape/pat the small ball into a circle (hamburger shape) about one-third of an inch thick and use it as a vase for the coils.
  3. Pinch into bowl shape (pinch pot technique) or into coils to make symmetrical, solid bowls about one quarter to one-half inch thick. Label the bottom with your initials or name.
  4. Cover/gently wrap the clay in plastic to slowly dry.
  5. When the bowl is almost leather-hard, unwrap the clay and gently burnish the surface. (Be sure the base is smooth and the walls are consistent in width.)
  6. Wrap the bowl lightly in plastic again until leather-hard. Burnish a second time.
  7. Leave exposed to the air until bone dry (completely dry throughout).
  8. Burnish a final time using one or more of the techniques listed in the demonstration.
  9. Clean up, let the clay dry, and then fire the clay. Bisquefire according to the kiln instructions, using the appropriate temperature for your clay.
  10. Rub the finished bowl one last time with oil or wax to bring out the kiln-produced colors (oil is easier).


1. Distribute the Reflection Prompt located within the Resource Carousel. Have students reflect in writing their responses to the prompt.


1. You may assess the students using the following questions:

  1. Using Kerry Moosman’s #4 untitled as a focal point, did students look at, describe, discuss, and compare ceramic bowls that are made for decorative and functional purposes throughout history?
  2. Did each student create a small, three-dimensional clay bowl using water-based clay? Did they consciously incorporate burnishing as their final surface treatment?

2. Optional Questions:

  1. What is the difference between clay bowls made for decoration and those made for functional purposes?
  2. Did each student create a small, three-dimensional clay bowl? Did they consciously incorporate burnishing to make a smooth, glossy surface texture?
  3. Study the final, three-dimensional clay bowl. How successful is the original shape? The burnishing?

 Extending the Learning

  • Create a burnished or leathered look on bisqueware by applying paste wax shoe polish and then rubbing to a sheen with a rag or soft cloth. Hint: use an old toothbrush to get the wax onto textured areas.
  • Produce an "authentically old" or stained look by heating waxed bisqueware for a short time. (This can be done in a home oven.) The wax will melt into the clay body, leaving a matte finish; however, the piece will lose its "sheen" or burnished look.
  • Extend this lesson by having students deliver brief reports on the techniques they used and those used by various pottery-making cultures. Students may also participate in group critiques using the visual art terminology learned in this lesson.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
Visual Arts

Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard 2: Using knowledge of structures and functions

Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard 4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures

National Standards in Other Subjects
Historical Understanding

Historical Understanding Standard 1: Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns



Daniella Garran
Original Writer

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