The Economics of Pottery Production

January 14, 2008
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False economic ideas abound in the field of pottery production. Producing pottery for sale is a labor-intensive, repetitive activity. Any inefficiency in the production process has a multiplying effect on costs. Whenever you touch the clay -- whether it’s packaged in 50-pound boxes, wedged, formed on the potter’s wheel, hand built, trimmed, glazed, stacked in the bisque/glaze kiln, or packaged for transportation and sale -- the predominate cost is time and labor. The price of clay, supplies and equipment is a small percentage of the total cost to produce pottery. This fundamental economic rule is often overlooked or not even considered by many potters.

The group of people who choose to make pottery are often disinclined to join a structured business organization and want to make their way independently. It is often said that the most successful potters were business people first, and then they started making pottery. The least successful group is potters who discover they have to become business-people in order to continue selling pottery. The economic lessons they have to learn in order to succeed in selling pottery are very expensive.

Deceptively, pottery making has low barriers to entry. It is not terribly costly to acquire the tools of production, such as kilns, potters wheels, work tables, etc. It is also easy to make and sell enough pottery to pay for equipment and supplies by selling pots to friends and neighbors. However, selling pottery on the next level is much harder to achieve. Many potters cannot understand that, at this point, working harder and simply making more pots is not as effective as working smarter in business terms. Economic success involves developing a business plan and an organized, efficient approach to pottery production and marketing. Since labor is the most overlooked cost, any plan should take into consideration the labor-intensive factors involved in pottery production.

One example that illustrates economic blindness happened when a potter called me concerning a defective glaze used in production. After spending an hour discussing the problem and possible corrections, he mentioned grossing $100,000 last year but only netting $15,000. Clearly the problem was not with a glaze, but a lack of fundamental business principals in producing pottery.

With many college-educated potters failing to earn a living from their craft, college ceramics departments oddly do not train potters to survive in a business environment. While they offer courses in kiln building, glaze calculation and clay body formulation, classes in business are significantly absent. A possible explanation lies in college ceramics professors not being dependent on the sale of their own work for a livelihood. Professional potters would do well to take business courses at their local community college, and/or possibly work for a potter who is actually earning an adequate profit from their business.

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