Starting A Pottery Business (Later in Life): Advice For New Craftspeople

How to Become A Potter - Sabine Schmidt
Have you always loved pottery and wondered how to start a craft business, especially at a later point in life? If so, you may find it useful to read this article. It takes you on my unusual journey as a potter (who started making ceramics at age 55) and ends with a list of advice I wish I had been given before taking this adventurous step.

This Article Contains

  • That Moment When The Idea Of Becoming A Professional Potter Takes You By Surprise
  • Balancing Enthusiasm and Doubt: What If I’m Too Young/Old Or Simply Not Good Enough?
  • My Journey From 14-Year-Old, Prospective Apprentice To ‘Mature’ Pottery Newbie
  • Some Words of Advice From Someone Who Started A Handmade Business At Age 55 

That Moment When The Idea Of Starting A Pottery Business Takes You By Surprise 

Maybe you have been ‘touched’ by clay early on in your life, and the desire to create, to work and intensify your relationship with clay, has been dormant in you for a long time, running quietly in your life like an undercurrent. Maybe you have considered becoming a potter over and over again, but life went in other directions. Or maybe the impulse to work with clay has just come up recently, perhaps, when holding a handmade pot in your hands, and the whole idea took you by surprise. But now that you’re looking at this ceramic object in awe, feeling its texture, its weight, and seeing its colours and beautiful form with new eyes, you suddenly find yourself longing for the opportunity to work with clay. So, ‘Why not become a potter?’, you might think.
 Making Stoneware Pots - Rustic Studio Pottery

Balancing Enthusiasm and Doubt: What If I’m Too Young/Old Or Simply Not Good Enough? 

Some of you can probably relate to this. Quite often when we feel completely inspired by a new plan, excited and full of joy to begin, doubt sneaks in and tries to convince us that we are definitely too much or too little of something – too young, too old, not talented enough, not experienced enough, etc. And for those of us who happen to be a little bit older when the dream of starting a craft business first grows in us, additional worries and questions might arise such as:
What if there isn’t enough time left to develop the required skills? How do I make space and time for new professional work and training, at the same time, in my already busy life? And how do I even go about starting a new pottery business, later in life?
Becoming A Potter Later In Life - How To Start A Craft Business
If this sounds like you, don’t stress yourself out! Doubts are a normal part of the process. What is important is to keep your dream in focus and to take realistic steps towards its practical application. And maybe get some advice from craftspeople who have been through the process and might be able to help you on your way.
At the end of this blog post, I will therefore share with you some of the steps I took to bring my little pottery business into existence and the advice I wish I had been given before starting out as a new potter.
For this, I will begin by sharing my own story of an (almost) lifelong journey with clay. This journey takes us from my teenage years, when I first briefly considered a pottery apprenticeship, to my 50s when I finally revived this dream and became a potter.
Sabine Schmidt Pottery - Contemporary Studio Potter

My Journey From 14-Year-Old, Prospective Apprentice To ‘Mature’ Pottery Newbie

Sometimes the most obvious things in life stay hidden from our awareness – unnoticed, ignored, abandoned – for a long time, even if life keeps presenting hints to us over and over again, never tired, patiently waiting until we are ready.
Let me tell you how I ignored the impulse of becoming a potter for decades and how it found me again when I least expected it, at age 55.
It all started at the age of 14 when I had just finished Middle School and the question of what kind of apprenticeship I would like to do first came up. I thought about becoming a potter and went with my father to visit one of the many potteries in a town famous for its ceramics in Germany. But during our visit to the studio, instead of supporting me in my request, my father – himself quite a famous local artist – took over the conversation by chatting with the potter about his own work, thereby getting carried away and forgetting about the purpose of our visit. I was too young and insecure to interfere. We went off, and I was left being puzzled, not knowing what all this was about.
Two years later, the opportunity to attend art school was offered to me and I got my A-level equivalent in fine arts. During that time, the pottery class was the one I enjoyed most and was looking desperately forward to each week. I loved working with clay, creating three-dimensional vessels, felt at ease and that I belonged. But for some reason, I didn’t follow that second hint, either. I became a bookseller instead and worked in a book shop for several years, the last one of them in England.
Making Pottery-Drying Stage
Then, in England, the call of clay came, again, in the form of a brief relationship with a potter. During that time, I got to know all the different phases, pleasures and challenges of a potter’s life. I spent hours in the studio observing all the work processes, doing bits myself and loved it. Still, it didn't occur to me that this could be a life I could set up for myself. Far from it. Back in Germany, I therefore studied  graphic design and took on a part-time job in a gallery, specialising (somewhat ironically) in selling ceramics made by British potters. And, after finishing my degree, I worked as a graphic designer for a famous television programme for over twenty years.
So, how did I end up returning to my first vocational choice after all these years?
One day when I was 55, more or less out of the blue (as I hadn’t thought about pottery as a business option for years), a friend of mine gave me a magazine in which I came across an interview with a British potter who creates tableware. I remember sitting on my old Chesterfield, staring at the article and the colourful pots shown in it happily staring back at me, when it finally hit me: Maybe I could do this, too, after all!
 Being a food lover and passionate cook, I felt an immediate longing to create tableware. At that moment, I felt that I had abandoned this inspiration for all those years, and it became crystal clear to me that I needed to try it at last. The article pulled me out of my ignorance so that the next day, I went to get some clay from a local shop.
I started without any introduction or instruction at my kitchen table, trying to figure out how to form the first object I had in mind – a particular bowl with a certain wonkiness to it. It was all trial and error. I made the first exciting steps but very soon realised my limitations. I knew I needed help and got in contact with a nearby potter who advised me to join one of her weekly evening classes, which I did with much hope and enthusiasm. To be honest, one could even say that I was a little obsessed with learning how to throw bowls on a potter’s wheel at this point. Each time I returned from the class, I couldn’t wait for the next lesson, to get back to the wheel.
So, after a few weeks, I booked a second class in addition and practised at home in my garden shed as much as I could. During the lessons, I observed other students, asked a lot of questions – probably more than the tutor cared to answer. But I didn’t mind. All that mattered to me was that I learnt the basic skills before I moved back to England in 2015. A plan that had also grown in me over the years.
An old Shimpo wheel given to me by friends as a present to take with me to the UK was the central starting point of my new professional endeavours on the island. The place I lived in had barely any space for it, which led me to set up my first workspace in my tiny conservatory. I don’t know where the energy came from, or the motivation and resilience to get up and try again every day.
Despite all initial frustrations, I just couldn't stop. I even joined a small local pottery group to be able to have access to a kiln. Again, lots of mistakes happened which left me puzzled but even more driven. I read books, watched hours of tutorials and tried to get the hang of it. I knew where I wanted to go, had the design and form of my tableware in my mind, but my hands and my skills simply weren’t ready yet.
Wheel-Thrown Pottery - Sabine Schmidt
Years went by until I found the right clay, mixed the slips to achieve the colours I wanted, found the right glaze and got more experienced to a level of my own satisfaction. Since I wanted to keep it simple and focused, I limited myself to three main designs which I call WHITE IMPATIENCE, MERRY MUSTARD and GREY COINCIDENCE today. And still so many breakdowns, so many mistakes occurred on the way. There was no one around who could answer my questions, and I struggled, comparing myself with other people who had been formally trained as potters.
However, as the years passed, it dawned on me that this missing formal training might have been my advantage, my strong side. What seemed as a weakness at first was really a strength of mine. Today, I am glad that my pots never reached perfection as it is through their organic design and (now) deliberate wonkiness that they gain a certain vitality and freshness that enhances the pots in use. Here are a few examples:
Wonky Stoneware Bowls - Studio Potter UK
I would even go as far as to say: Meals look more delicious, tea and coffee taste better. The pots tell a story of the close connection between maker and user, unique and unrepeated. For the user, I hope, the pots demand an awareness, a carefulness in handling them. I'm happy now that I made it ‘my own way’, learning by lots of mistakes and, as a side effect, appreciating the beauty of imperfection.
So, what advice would I give to new craftspeople, young and old, who are considering pottery as a profession today?

Some Words of Advice From Someone Who Started A Pottey Business At Age 55

My own long and unusual journey made me the potter I am today. Maybe starting that late in life with all my experiences in other professional fields prepared me just fine for this new stage in my life. The journey continues and I wonder where it will take me.
So, if you, too, are considering this professional path as a craftsperson, rest assured that it is never too late to start. And if you are still feeling unsure and worried about the whole process, let me give you the following points of advice. They are basically tips I wish I’d been given when I was in your position.

13 Useful Tips For Pottery Beginners

  • Listen to your gut! Take the steps YOU feel you need to take to be successful, and make the pottery YOU want to make, even if it contradicts common standards.
  • Allow yourself to be unorthodox in your creative process if you feel it serves a good purpose. Don’t be afraid to break the rules or to ignore well-meant practical advice from other potters (including mine!).
  • Try to become aware of what inspires you, what you feel drawn to and fascinated with. When you come across a ceramic pot you like, pick it up and look at it closely to see what it is that brings joy to your senses.
  • If money is tight, buy a used potter’s wheel to begin with. While basic tools are quite cheap and can to some extent be improvised or made by yourself, new wheels can cost a fortune and may not be a good investment in your first year(s).

Pottery Tools - Sabine Schmidt Pottery

  • Keep it simple. Don’t get confused by focusing on too large of a production range. To be able to assess your results and progress over a short period of time like a year, you need to focus your attention on a few basic items such as mugs, plates and bowls in a limited number of forms and sizes. Try to improve what you have, rather than starting new projects all of the time.
  • Limit forms and colours to what’s feasible for you to develop in depth! Find one or two clays and glazes that you like and try to get to know them as well as you can. Do not throw too many factors in the mix when it comes to making your own tableware or clay art objects. It will get difficult to find out what caused unwanted changes or mistakes in the manufacturing process, when things go wrong.

Rustic Studio Pottery - Sabine Schmidt

  • Remember that (almost) everything starts with a cylinder when throwing pottery. Take your time practising cylinders, even if the process seems dull at times.
  • Do your research on where you are going to sell your pottery once you are ready. Small local potters’ markets are a good start to learn what it’s like to present and sell your pots to the public. It is very important to get direct feedback from customers. But make sure you apply only to places where people tend to appreciate handmade ceramics. Online marketplaces like Etsy are another good option, but don’t forget to work on your own website as well. Online marketing takes a long time to learn and do right. Consider paying someone to help you with this.
  • Ask yourself what kind of potter you want to be. Would you like to express yourself as an ‘art-potter’ who makes individual object pieces and one-of-a-kind pots, or would you rather like to create standard tableware for everyday use and decoration where the aim is to have large piles of stock of the same items and you combine beauty with functionality? Of course, you can also do both: unique objects and standard tableware.
  • Watch other potters' work and treat yourself to individual pieces whenever you can. It’s important to hold ceramic objects in your hands to be able to appreciate the full haptic and visual experience. Here are examples of my pots with a unique texture and feel to them that need to be grasped with all senses to really come to life:

Ceramic Jar with Lid in Brown-GreyLarge Stoneware Bowl-Ramen BowlContemporary Ceramics-Sabine Schmidt

  • Be aware that you need to develop self-discipline, excellent organisational and time-management skills as a self-employed potter. There is nothing worse than losing a batch of mugs, for example, because you forgot to prepare the handles on time.
  • Be a meticulous note-taker. Take the measurements of your pots (with a particular focus on height and diameter), both in their wet and dry states. Make sure you note the weight of the portions of clay that you work with, and always write down what glazes you used, in which water/glaze ratio.
  • And last but not least: PRACTISE. PRACTISE. PRACTISE. Don’t forget that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a given professional field… And if that thought is a little daunting, perhaps, try to think of it this way: even if you manage less than 10,000 hours in your life, any practice you put in today will get you one step closer to where you want to be as a potter tomorrow. 
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1 comment

I have read many how to starts as of late but yours brought something fresh, inspiring and encouraging (as well as a reminder to not ignore that gut feeling) so thank you and continue to make beautiful work AND great posts!


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