Kurinuki Yunomi: How to carve a teacup from a lump of clay

In this pottery tutorial, I’ll take you through how to make a kurinuki yunomi. This is the first post in my kurinuki series on the Blank Earth Pottery Blog, and is suitable for beginners wanting to learn handbuilding pottery techniques. Yunomi is the Japanese term for a handleless cup for drinking tea, however, we use ours mostly for gin and tonic! Kurinuki is the traditional Japanese method of carving from a single block of clay and is my favourite pottery handbuilding method to use. Watch the video below to see how I make a kurinuki yunomi. At the end of the post you can download an illustrated handout for quick reference.

Preparing and Shaping Clay for Kurinuki

Before you start, ensure the clay is wedged and firm for carving (similar to modelling clay), you can refer to my post on reclaiming and preparing clay for more information. Kurinuki is all about carving from a single block of clay and we can make this process easier by moulding the clay into a similar shape to what we want our final piece to be. In this demonstration I made a teacup that is as tall as it is wide, so I started off with a cube of clay. I find it easier to wedge and shape the clay while it’s on the softer side and then leave it to dry a little and firm up before I come to carve it.

Carving the clay into the General Yunomi Shape

Place your lump of clay on a banding wheel; if you don't have one of these you can just use a piece of cardboard to help you move the clay around. First, carve the inside to hollow the clay out. For this, I use a large loop tool, if you don't have one of these you can use items you find around the house e.g. a spoon. Keep the walls fairly thick at this point because we’ll be carving the outside as well, about 1.5-2 cm thickness is good for now.

Yunomi traditionally have a high foot that helps you to hold the teacup when it’s hot, as there’s no handle, so it’s important to leave a thick base, about 2cm. So don't carve the inside too deep! You can measure the base thickness by using a ruler or stick to measure the inside length and subtract from the outside length to give the base thickness. Use a large carving tool such as a knife or Polyfilla tool to carve the general shape of the outside. I wanted my yunomi to mimic a traditional English teacup shape, so I bevelled out the base so that the walls would slope into the foot at the base. This doesn't have to be too precise as we’ll refine the shape later on. Leave your clay to dry out so that it firms up a little before carving the rest, you are looking it to be a little firmer than leather-hard. The clay should still be easy to carve but not too soft that you can distort the shape easily.

Carving the foot ring of a kurinuki yunomi

Flip over your cup to carve the foot ring into the base of the kurinuki yunomi. I use a loop tool to cut into the base at a right angle and spin the pot around to remove the clay from the outside of the foot ring. I then carve the center of the foot ring using a small loop tool, again if you don’t have these tools to hand you can use a knife or teaspoon. It’s helpful to mark where the foot ring will go before you start carving so that you don’t carve too much away by accident.

Decorative carving to add the finishing touches to your yunomi

Now that we have the general shape of the yunomi carved we can go in and carve out decorative patterns and cuts. These will be visible on the finished piece so it’s important to be more thoughtful in the placement of these. It is preferable to have your clay on the harder side of leather-hard so that it’s soft enough to carve easily but firm enough so that the shape doesn’t distort while carving. During this final carving, aim to reduce the weight of the yunomi by trimming the walls just enough so that they are thin but still strong.

Experiment with different types of tools to give varying textures and effects, for my kurinuki yunomi I like to use Polyfilla spatula tools because they’re thin and flexible which gives smooth cuts that I end by tearing the clay off which gives texture to the piece. I use a small loop tool to carve the inside of the cup in a decorative wave pattern, following the circular shape of the cup. I carve a swirl in the bottom that is mimicked in the foot ring at the base. This is the time to really have fun with it, trying different tools and carving patterns. Just remember not to get too carried away and make the walls too thin! I have lost many kurinuki cups by going straight through the wall, making a hole!

I hope you found this helpful, and I would love to hear about your pottery journey - come and find me on Instagram @blankearth. I will be posting more pottery tutorial videos on my YouTube channel BLANK EARTH Ceramics. You can view my work in the gallery and my shop - the shop gets updated with new pots a few times a year so please sign up to my mailing list if you want to get early access and be notified when the shop opens.

Download a quick-reference how-to guide on carving a kurinuki yunomi teacup by clicking the picture below:

Happy Pottering