The Clay Dilemma: Time or Money

"The cheap can be very expensive"

What is going to be the source of my clay? Since clay is essential in making pottery or ceramic sculpture it is a question every potter has to consider. The answers can range from economic considerations to personal preferences.

Working with clay is labor-intensive. This is just a fact that will determine many production operations. If you are making pottery or ceramic sculpture as a “hobby” and not depending on it as a source of income you have the freedom to spend your time as you see fit. Potters in this position often make their own clay for several reasons such as a personal standard they impose on their work, the ability to control this aspect of production, the flexibility to change a clay body formula, or the reluctance to deal with a commercial clay making company. What often not considered or valued is the time involved when reprocessing clay scraps or making clay. Whatever the reason for this labor-intensive activity it takes time away from making pottery. If after consideration of this trade-off and you still want to reprocess trimmings and make clay, go to it.

If you are selling your work the labor-intensive issue of your craft becomes an activity that is directly related to how much profit if any you will make. There is a saying in making pottery, “the more you touch the work, the more it costs to produce.” This fact can also be extended to making your own clay and reprocessing trimmings. Making your own clay is in a sense starting a business (making clay) within a business of making and selling pottery. Now you are responsible for purchasing and maintaining clay mixing machines, pug mills, as well as ordering and storing raw materials for the clay making operation. Such considerations do not take into account the production space needed for equipment that could be used in making pottery.

The control and satisfaction of making a pot and being paid are exciting but the economics of this activity has to be thoroughly understood. Your time is costly and it must be determined how to use it. The profit margin for making pottery is extremely low and there is not much room for production inefficiencies. For example, how much is your time worth making clay and reprocessing trimmings? I think you would pay yourself or others more than a few dollars an hour. As opposed to pre-mixed clay costing a few cents per pound? How many pots could be completed and sold if you were not making your own clay? The profit is coming from the sale of pottery not supplying yourself with clay. Your labor and time are the largest costs of production, not raw materials, kilns, supplies, or studio expenses.

  • Once understood and recognized that labor is the largest cost of production there are a few points to consider when ordering pre-mixed clay.
  •  Order pre-mixed clay from the supplier with the greatest degree of quality control wherever the company is located. Finding a supplier with less expensive clay or shipping is not worth it if the quality control is missing.
  •  If possible have the clay delivered to the closest point of production, ideally under the wedging table in the studio.
  •  Negotiate with the ceramics supplier on a reduced price based on the clay packaged in just plastic bags and not cardboard boxes. Why pay for cardboard boxes if you do not need them.
  •  If the studio layout allows keeping moist clay as close as possible to the forming operations. Moving clay cost time reduces profit margins.