How to Use a Handheld Clay Extruder: Make Perfect Handles Every Time!

Published by Scott Pierce @cynicalceramics @theclaywarehousebc

We get it…. Making handles for your mugs isn’t always the best time (understatement), and even if you are stellar at pulling handles, you may not look forward to pulling 20+ during times of heavier production. Maybe you find pulling handles difficult or flat out just don’t like to do it! Making handles, indeed, is one of the more difficult things to learn when you begin developing more pottery-making skills.

It takes a fair amount of practice, and if you practice enough, you’ll get better at it. While pulling handles, I’ve found that when producing a lot of mugs, it was hard to get them even and look consistent across the different pieces. After reading about different methods online, I began to roll slabs of clay and cut handles that way; although this limited the shapes and sizes, I could produce them quickly and efficiently.

A few years ago, I invested in a handheld extruder!! It wasn’t anything too special, and it had a quite short barrel, but I was finally able to start whipping out 40+ handles quickly, and I was happy with their consistency.

Some examples of my extruded handles below:

When we opened The Clay Warehouse, I knew handheld extruders were something we wanted to carry and help customers feel more comfortable using one. We searched and reviewed several different extruders, but when most came from the US, you get all the fun stuff like shipping, customs, and even damage during transit. The dies that came with the extruders (metal discs with shapes cut into them to extrude the clay) were basic and repetitive, and I wanted something different. We knew we had to do something unique, so I began working on The Clay Warehouse Extruder! (Original name, right? LOL)

I wanted a longer barrel made with harder material and some more unique dies to make new and exciting handles; we were able to source the extruder from a Canadian manufacturer. I had been collecting dies throughout the past few years; some basic ones, some I picked up along the way in my travels, and even some I had made myself  I was able to take my extruder die collection to a local CNC machine shop located just a block away from us in Port Coquitlam, and they were able to make new sets of them in aluminum! (I know…. I’m way too excited about this…)

The Clay Warehouse Extruder was born, and we haven’t been able to keep them on the shelves since!

Lets Get Started!

Making Handles with a Hand-held Extruder:

Begin by grabbing some nice soft, well-wedged clay, your extruder, and pick out a die.

It’s important to remember that the state of your clay is extremely vital to extruding good handles. If your clay is too hard, it will be difficult to push through the extruder, and it may be too dry or firm to shape your handles in the desired way. It’s best to use new clay right out of the bag or soft enough that it will pass through the die with ease. If your clay is too dry, you’ll want to wedge moisture into it until your clay has a smooth, even consistency throughout while making sure you wedge enough to remove any air bubbles. When your clay is nice and soft, it's ready to load into the extruder.

Loading Your Clay Extruder

Take about 2 pounds of soft clay and form it into a tube shape to fit into the cylinder. The cylinder for most handheld extruders is about 2 inches in diameter, so you’ll want to roll it out just a bit smaller than that so it can slide into the extruder barrel. You can do this by rolling out the clay or making the shape with your hands.

Remove the cap at the end of the extruder by unscrewing it. To pull back the plunger, press the silver release button on the back of the handle. While holding this down, you can pull back the plunger with the "T" bar to make room in the chamber for clay. This plunger can only be pulled back while you are pressing the silver release button.

With the end cap removed, slide the clay into the cylinder. If the clay doesn’t fit, don’t force it in; remove the clay from the tube and make it thinner. You also want to avoid making it too thin; this will add extra air into the clay while you extrude, resulting in pesky air bubbles in your handles.

Install Your Die

The Clay Warehouse Extruder comes with our Expansion Pack # 1 of dies; these will be your basic shapes, such as a circle coil, triangle, square, and a flat rectangle handle die. We also offer two additional expansion packs that will give you all sorts of handle shapes and sizes!

Check them out HERE

Choose a Die shape for your handles and place it on the clay in the tube. Align the threads of the cap with the cylinder threads and twist it on. The cap only needs to be snug, don’t tighten it too much; it may become difficult to remove afterward.

Extruding the Clay

Squeezing the handle together will move the plunger forward inside the chamber to create pressure behind the clay. As you continue squeezing, the clay will be pushed through your die and take the shape you selected.

One method for keeping your extrusions straight is to lay the extruder on a tabletop and squeeze the handle with one hand while you guide the extrusion with your other hand.

I find the best method for keeping the extrusion straight is to hold the extruder vertically and extrude it towards your table or surface. This will reduce the stress on the clay and help prevent it from curling or getting kinks in your handles from the die as it extrudes. Once some material is extruded, the weight will help guide it straight. Because the clay is soft and the extruder is light, it’s very easy to use. If the clay starts to curl in the beginning, just straighten it out. As your clay continues to extrude across your work surface, maintain this vertical position and begin walking the extrusion across the table.

If the handle is hard to squeeze, your clay may be too hard or dry. Remove the cap on the bottom of the cylinder and press the handles together until all the clay comes out. Wedge some more water into your clay, shape it again, and place it back in the cylinder.

PRO TIP: It’s a good idea to place a small amount of clay in the cylinder and test the clay until you get a feel for how smooth it should be.

It’s best to extrude a long length of clay onto your work surface. You can smooth out any marks or air bubbles while it's on the table; I use a finger to smooth out marks and a Mudtools White finishing sponge. The clay will be moist enough to clean up the extrusion; try to avoid adding too much water during this stage. Assess if you have enough extrusion to make the number of handles you need. Using a wire cutter or a potter's knife, cut your extrusion into the length of clay required.

PRO TIP: if you’re making handles for 6 mugs, extrude and cut to size at least 10 handles, it's always best to have extras if a few don’t turn out as you’d like them; also, cut your handles longer than you need them to be, you can always trim length off when attaching, but you won't be able to make the handle longer. It's worth mentioning as well after you form your handles and wait for them to firm up, the ends of the extrusion are prone to dry quicker than the rest, so you may want to trim a little off each end before attaching. Long story short, longer than you need is better!

Change The Shapes of Your Handles

It’s very easy to change the shape of your handles if you want variety; you can even do it midway through! Unscrew the cap remove the die, place a new die on the tube and twist the cap back on.

PRO TIP: If the clay sticks to the plate, take your potter’s knife and place it in between the die and clay; this will give you leverage to remove the die.

Cleaning Your Extruder

If you still have clay in the chamber after you're all finished extruding, you can simply remove the front cap and squeeze the plunger past the opening to easily remove the clay. The plunger will help remove clay that is stuck to the inside of the barrel.

To make cleaning the plunger and the inside of the barrel easier, you can remove the barrel by unscrewing it from the back-end cap.

Sometimes it can be difficult to remove all the clay from the details of the extruder die; simply wait for the clay to become bone dry, and it will release from the die easier. If there is still clay stuck to the die, soak them in water, and the bone-dry clay will slake down and be easier to sponge away.

Handheld extruders are a great way to make small batches of similar shapes and can be used anywhere. I can’t tell you how much time and energy a clay extruder has saved me, not to mention giving me the confidence of a refined look these handles add to my pieces.

You can find The Clay Warehouse Extruder at the below link, as well as a link to our expansion packs which will offer you a whole new selection of handle possibilities!

The Clay Warehouse Extruder:

The Clay Warehouse Extruder Expansion Die Packs:

Keep an eye out for our next Blog Post; We’ll walk you through a tried-and-true process of attaching handles. You’ll be a pro in no time!

Thanks for following along!

Hopefully, this will help you along your clay journey whether you have an extruder or you’re looking to try one out. Reach out to us if you need some more direction, we’re always happy to help

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