Making Containers via Primitive Process Pottery

by Todd Walker

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Coffee drinkers like myself usually have a favorite mug or cup. My all-time favorite “tankard” developed a crack and DRG trashed it. A sad day indeed!

My sob story may seem petty, but there’s nothing trivial about not having a way to “contain” stuff. Think of all the ways you use containers daily. Then imagine all your modern containers being gone… poof, no more. Welcome to the Stone Age!

Here’s what else disappears with your containers. Your ability to…

  • Cook stuff without skewering it on a stick
  • Collect, disinfect, transport, and drink water
  • Raise plants and livestock
  • Store food without stuffing it in an animal stomach
  • Dispose of waste
  • Personal hygiene
  • Ferment food and drink
  • Make medicinals
  • Gather food
  • Keep stuff clean
  • Organize stuff
  • etc., etc., etc….

This is why containers are king! 

After attending a local two-day primitive pottery class, my respect and appreciation for the humble container grew exponentially. Making primitive pottery is not an emergency survival skill. If you’re making pottery in a 72 hour survival situation, you’re doing something wrong. There are easier ways to contain stuff in short-term scenarios. You’d have more important priorities to attend to than digging clay and firing primitive pottery. This is why your should always carry a metal container on outings.

The Process: Harvesting Clay

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

One of our instructors digging clay in a deep gully. The top inset shows a small piece of raw clay formed into a pyramid with polished sides.

Clay can be found in most parts of the round ball of dirt we call home. Some forms are better suited than others for pottery. Test the clay by rolling it between your hands to form a rope. If it bends into a pretzel without breaking, you’ve found a good candidate. Too much sand in the clay will cause it to the raw clay to crack and break.

There are ways to process marginal clay to make it useful stuff. Practical Primitive has an easy water extraction method here.

We used both commercial and locally harvested clay in our class. Incidentally, the commercial clay came from Lizella, Georgia, only 15 minutes from where I grew up.

Crafting Containers

Break off a orange-size piece of clay and work it in your hands. Before molding your container, temper the clay. Crushed rock, wood ash, and fired pottery chards can be used as a temper. The temper agent helps to control thermal shock and shrinkage during the drying and firing of your pottery.

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Burnishing my pot with a smooth stone

Satisfied with the shape of our creations, pots, pipes, and beads were set in the shade to dry for an hour. After that time, designs were added to the pottery.

Tools

Like any craft, specific tools are needed. Below are some of the tools Brian Floyd, our guest instructor, uses to make his amazing pottery.

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

A few of Brian’s tools of the trade

The paddles pictured above are used to paddle the clay against an anvil (solid surface; rock, knee, etc.) which, if my memory serves me, helps hold the clay together as you mold it. Stamped paddles also add a design to your clay pot.

Brain demonstrated how to carve a paddle with primitive tools.

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Splitting poplar with a hand ax and maul to make a pottery paddle

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Primitive adze shaping paddle

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.comMaking Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

 

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.comMaking Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Beaver tooth tool for carving paddles and other woodworking tasks… sorry about the focus

Each student received the following basic tools:

  1. Paddle
  2. Anvil
  3. Awl of river cane
  4. Scraper

Drying and Firing

We sheltered the pottery on Scott’s porch to dry for two weeks before firing. On our second day of class, two weeks later, a long fire was burning when students arrived for class. Scott and Brain had our pottery on wood rounds in a semi-circle near the fire for pre-firing.

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.comMaking Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Heating the dried pottery too quickly will cause it to break into pieces. We gradually moved the items closer to the fire.

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.comMaking Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

My container blew up

 

Eventually all the way into the fire.

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Hurry Up and Wait

Watching primitive pottery fire is like watching paint dry. Modern primitive practitioners take advantage of the long wait by making other primitive stuff… “burn and scrape” wooden spoons and carved pottery paddles.

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Blowing a hot coal through a section of river cane to burn the bowl of my spoon

Once your spoon is carved, place a hot coal from the fire on the bowl of your spoon. Balance the coal and blow through a hollow reed or section of river cane. Use a green twig to hold the coal in place as you blow.

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Scott Jones demonstrating how to do the stuff

After burning a layer of wood on the bowl, scrape the area with a flint flake or other sharp stone. Repeat the burn and scrape cycle until you have reached the desired depth for your wooden spoon.

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

My new serving spoon for camp chili

After the final scrape, burnish the wooden bowl with a smooth stone. The blackened bowl can be sanded clean if you desire. I like the burned look and plan to seal the spoon with walnut oil and use as is.

Finished Pottery

Many of the student containers made it through the firing process. Mine did not. Not all is lost. I plan to use the broken halves as mixing containers at my shelter to make pitch sticks and other primitive projects. The chards can be ground and used as temper for my next pottery project.

Here’s a few pics of some containers that made it through…

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

The two containers (pictured above) and the cook pot in the fire below was crafted by our instructor, Brian Floyd. His primitive pottery is functional as well as being works of art.

Making Containers from Primitive Process Pottery - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Brian Floyd, our guest instructor, made a tasty stew in one of his pots for lunch.

This was my first experience with primitive process pottery. Though my bowl broke in firing, I plan to make more.

For more information about Workshops in the Woods, click here for upcoming classes.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,

Todd

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Categories: Bushcraft, Doing the Stuff, Preparedness, Self-reliance, Survival Skills | Tags: , , , , , | 13 Comments

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13 thoughts on “Making Containers via Primitive Process Pottery

  1. TexasScout

    Great article on primitive living skills. These are truly “works of art”. I did a little ceramic work when I was younger (jr hi) and I still have the items. However, I would consider this more “Art” than “necessity” in this case. If you can’t find something metal to cook and carry water in, even years after a SHTF situation, you have more problems than can be dealt with by clay.

    Tex

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
    I wanted to re-blog this excellent post about functional pottery construction from “Survival Sherpa”. I’m no great pottery maker but appreciate the craft for sure. Have a look.

    Like

  3. Another great article! In my opinion, experimental archaeology is one of the most important sources of inspiration for bushcrafters!

    Like

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  8. Gem

    Great! Thanks

    Like

  9. Great post!

    I understand that clay fired in a normal fire instead of an kiln, it can not hold water and other liquids, but you say some one made a stew? How did he treat his pot to avoid leaking?

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    • Hi Marius, I just got clarification on your question from Scott Jones who taught the class. Here’s his response…
      “Howdy there Todd, hope you’re faring well in the tropical storm. No, no special process for primitive pottery. I think there’s a poor understanding of open-fired ceramics. A well-made pot hold liquids just fine. Being unglazed, they are somewhat porous and will “sweat” sort of like a gourd, which makes them good for water storage. I’ve found that the more they’re used for cooking, they seem to become less porous as the voids (presumably) fill with food residues…sort of like seasoning a cast iron pan.”

      Hope this helps.

      Like

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