First, the clay has to be at the right consistency before it can be thrown. If we're planning on throwing a larger piece, the clay should be a little firmer than usual. The trick is learning what that actually means. How firm is "a little firmer" and when does it become too firm? There's no way to answer that question through words alone. Instead, we have to build up good judgment or wisdom through reflective experience. Experience alone won't teach us this; we must learn by thinking as clearly as we can about what's happening right in front of our faces and be more aware of how the clay feels. When I first started throwing clay, I assumed every bag of clay would be ready to throw. I know now that some bags are too moist for what I want to do and have to be dried out a bit and others are a little too hard and need the addition of some water or wet clay. Every bag of Black Mountain I get from HPG is too moist to throw large pieces, so I have to cut it into blocks and put it out for a few hours before I can use it. I tried to use it straight out of the bag many times and was unsuccessful. I'd get the cylinder to a certain height and couldn't get it any higher. The clay would sit back down every time I pulled it up. After drying the clay for several hours, however, I could throw it to any size I pleased.
Second, clay has to be the right consistency before it can be shaped. If I'm carving the clay, if I'm cutting it and folding it together, if I'm pushing it in or poking it out, each of these can be more successfully done when the clay is at a certain consistency. We talk about clay that's soft leatherhard, leatherhard, and firm leatherhard. No one can adequately explain what these mean; these are approximate terms that each of us has to learn the meaning of through reflective experience. Many times I've tried to apply techniques to the clay before it was ready, and the results were usually not good. I've even found that when I'm carving the whole pot from top to bottom, a bowl for instance, I get a better result when I carve the top half first (which is more dry than the bottom half), let it dry for several more hours, and then carve the bottom half. When the clay is too dry, my carving is too shallow; when the clay is too moist, my carving is too deep and I've cut holes in the bottom half of pots as a result.
Third, clay has to be dried at a certain pace or it will develop cracks. Impatience is the enemy of good timing. I have sales coming up in April, so I'm tempted to dry some of my bowls too quickly. I can put my vases out in the sun and they don't have any problems. They're ready to bisque in about 2 days. My bowls, however, take about 7 to 9 days depending on how thick they are. My bowls are pretty wide without a lot of support, so I also have to know when I can put plastic on them. If I put it on when the clay is too soft, it can cause the bowl to collapse. If I wait too long, the rim can dry too quickly in relation to the rest of the bowl and it will crack. Knowing the right time to put plastic on is for me a matter of touch rather than sight. If I can actually see how quickly the clay is drying at the rim in relation to the rest of the bowl, I may be putting the plastic on too late.
Fourth, one of the trickiest things to judge correctly is when a piece is ready to trim. If I trim a vase too soon, it gets deformed when I put it upside down in a chuck. The wall at the base may also be too moist and can't hold the weight of the pot once I turn it over. I've had several pots sag on me because of this. If I have this happen, I usually put it back on the chuck, use a rib to push it in, and then put it out in the sun to stiffen while it's still upside down on the chuck. If you feel it might be too flimsy to stand upright, just put it in the sun for an hour while it's still on the chuck and it should then be firm enough to hold its weight. It's especially hard to determine when a large bowl is ready to trim. I've messed up so many bowls that were too soft or too hard. It's especially hard to judge when at least half of the bowl is pretty thin before I trim it and the other half toward the base is pretty thick which means one half is going to be quite a bit firmer than the other half. I've thought alot about my successes and failures in trimming pots and that's helped the number of successes to rise in proportion to failures. Again, touch is what I use to determine when a pot is ready to trim. But I always keep my eyes open and make whatever adjustments are necessary to minimize problems. For instance, I found that most of my bowls would get scars on them where they rested on the chuck, so I found that I needed two layers of bubble wrap to keep the chuck from digging into the clay.
Fifth, knowing when to glaze pots is extremely tricky. I wash my pots thoroughly after they're bisqued, and it takes a while for them to dry. Even if I put them in the sun, they usually aren't ready to glaze that day. Of course, I'm just impatient enough to try and often the result isn't that great. The pot is too saturated with water and the glaze flakes off. Now I tend to glaze the inside of pots one day and glaze the outside another day. I can usually get away with doing both the inside and outside if I'm spraying both sides (except for thin bowls), but I can't do that if I'm pouring or dipping. I've messed up some nice pots by trying to glaze both the inside and outside on the same day. At first it seemed to work, but then the second side I glazed would often have places where the glaze would crawl. Then I'd reglaze those areas and fire the pot again. My impatience ended up costing me even more time than if I'd been more patient and glazed it at a better time. Timing is also important when applying accent glazes. If you're like me, you've had the unpleasant experience of applying accent glazes at the wrong time and seeing them crack and flake off. Timing is especially important when you're applying an accent glaze to a vertical surface.
These are just a few examples of how important timing is to our success as potters and why it's one of the most important skills we can learn. Remember, knowing when is just as important as knowing how.