Hands at work
Potter says life good, but not easy

by Laura Umthun
Idaho Spokesman-Review Handle
June 25, 2005

"Look before you leap." This is Brad Sondahl's advice for young potters. And Sondahl should know, since he is celebrating his 30th anniversary as a professional potter. "Nearly everyone who falls in love with ceramics considers throwing away everything in pursuit of the pottery profession," Sondahl says. "As a professional potter, I can affirm that it's a good life, but few potters would say it's an easy one."

Sondahl says that there is plenty of competition out there, and earning a reasonable income means selling a large amount of ceramics.

"If you don't want to spend at least half of your time selling your work, you probably will have a difficult time as a potter," Sondahl says.

If there is one thing potters like to do, it is to talk with other potters, share ideas and learn new techniques. It is no wonder then that Sondahl has, in a very short time, sold more than 100 DVD sets about wheel-thrown pottery.

Sondahl's two-volume set sells for $25, which includes postage. It is available at Sondahl's Web site, He has written and produced and is now distributing the instructional DVDs completely on his own.

The first 60-minute DVD is titled, "Wheelthrown Pottery Volume 1." It includes 10 narrated demonstrations for throwing and trimming French and dome-topped butter dishes; bowls with graffito decoration; double and triple condiment servers; canisters and casseroles or tortilla warmers; small covered jars and honey/jam pots; goblets, lotion pumps, minipots, mugs and pitchers.

The second 50-minute DVD is titled, "Wheelthrown Pottery Volume 2." It includes four narrated demonstrations for throwing and trimming berry bowls and planters; disk vases; plates; and teapots. There is also instruction on basic glazing tools and techniques as demonstrated on large and small pots, and a special section on doing brushwork on the wheel.

Sondahl also demonstrates use of the Tobikanna (Toe' Be Kah' na), which is a simple decorating tool traditionally used in Japan. Its name means "Jumping Iron," which is descriptive of the way the tool hops and plunges against a moving clay surface, creating texture and incised decoration simultaneously.

Since the Tobikanna is not available commercially, Sondahl's Web site gives instructions about creating the tool, and how to apply it to produce various decorations.

Sondahl is currently working on Volume 3, which will include introductory lessons on wheel throwing and glazing. His oldest son is the "video guinea pig" as Sondahl is teaching him how to throw while videotaping.

"I always wanted to teach pottery but my studio is too small to accommodate students," Sondahl says. "These instructional DVD's were a way to help people learn."

Sondahl's wife, Althea, was originally from Spokane. She convinced him to move back to the Northwest after they met and married at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

The Sondahls arrived in Spirit Lake in 1983, bought a house at the west end of Maine Street, and have had their business there since. Their outdoor pottery sales area is open every day.

A visit to Sondahl's pottery studio would convince most anyone that it doesn't take much in terms of space or equipment to produce pottery. It consists of a 10-by-12-foot workshop, a 10-by-12-foot kiln room, and a 12-by-12-foot showroom and outside gazebo.

Sondahl uses at least three tons of white stoneware clay a year. His pottery is lead-free and is designed to be functional and affordable.

Sondahl's major inspiration, Shoji Hamada, was a Japanese potter who had a great influence on the development of handmade pottery in the 20th century.

Hamada learned his craft from local potters in the village of Mashiko, and believed pottery was the "the art of the people." Hamada is regarded as one of the most influential masters of studio pottery, and has probably inspired many potters.

Hamada, who was declared a "national living treasure" by the Japanese government, was also known for his influence and working relationship with another famous potter, Englishman Bernard Leach.

"The simplicity of Hamada's designs meant that he was not consciously trying to make art, but was trying to make beautiful, functional pottery," Sondahl says.

When reflecting on the evolution of pottery during his professional involvement, Sondahl says the greatest change in the last 10 years has been the exchange of information.

"The Internet makes it easy to access pottery technology, glaze recipes, and other ideas," Sondahl says. "Pottery issues are the same around the world."

As a contributing author to nationally circulated magazines such as Ceramics Monthly, Journal of American Art Pottery, and Pottery Making Illustrated, Sondahl addresses subjects such as "Sprig Decoration on Mugs," "Adding A Coil Foot," and "Collecting Pottery – A Potter's View."

His honest and candid remarks in many of his articles are refreshing. For instance in "A Potter's Tale of Terrors," Sondahl describes how he continues to practice his craft, despite the mishaps that have occurred – mishaps like the receipt of bad clay, a fire started by a kiln plug, and the creation of a foamy glaze as a result of mixing it in a bucket that formerly held soap-bubble mix.

Sondahl also believes that potters must be aware of the environmental aspects of the art and craft.

"Ceramic materials should be recycled whenever possible, and electric kilns cause less pollution than wood or salt kilns," Sondahl says.

Sondahl's articles can be found on his Web site as well as many other "pot thoughts." If you are interested in art, music, literature, photography, cooking or gardening, a visit to his Web site will be rewarding.

"Although my pottery prices have remained fairly constant and have not kept up with inflation, I have been able to make up the difference by increasing production," Sondahl says.

"I view the Internet as a potluck, and it is best to bring good things to a potluck, which includes my Web pages and the pottery videos on Youtube," Sondahl says.