Prairie Pursuits workshops to teach pottery, knifemaking

Prairie Pursuits classes allow adults and teens to learn various trades, including pottery. 

By Ephraim Rudolph
This Saturday, Conner Prairie will present two Prairie Pursuits workshops geared towards teaching adults and teenagers different trade skills: Fun at the Potter’s Wheel and Primitive Knifemaking.

Scheduled to run from 9:30 a.m. to noon., Fun at the Potter’s Wheel is an introductory pottery class taught by Larry Gilliam, Conner Prairie’s senior historic trades interpreter.

“It’s an introduction to the potter’s wheel, maybe for someone who’s always wanted to try it but never did,” Gilliam said of the class.

Primitive Knifemaking classes show participants how to make their own hand-forged knife. 

All of the pottery created by participants will be wheel-thrown, so at the beginning, Gilliam said they’ll learn to center, open and pull cylinders.

That’s the basis of everything, regardless of what you’re making,” Gilliam said. “You can’t make a pot until you learn how to center the clay, because otherwise the clay is just wobbling around.”

Once participants master how to center clay, they’ll be able to create many pots of their own.

“The least I’ve ever had someone end up with at the end of the class is around three pots. Everybody ends up with some finished work, whether they’ve got three pots or seven pots,” Gilliam said with a laugh.

If Fun at the Potter’s Wheel sparks an interest in further pottery-making opportunities, Gilliam said people then often sign up for the more advanced six-week class, Basic Pottery, which runs January-February and February-March.

Another Prairie Pursuits Class, Primitive Knifemaking, will show participants how to forge their own one-piece knife. Nathan Allen, the class facilitator and Conner Prairie historic trades manager, said participants will get to start with some basic lessons in tool use and learn how to use a pull forge before setting to work building their knives.

“We use reclaimed steel (for the knife blades),” Allen said. “It’s actually coil springs out of old cars. It’s really good-quality steel.”

The coils are flattened out by Allen and his team, who heat them up and hammer them into a flat steel bar so that class participants can forge them into knife blades.

Conner Prairie provides blocks of wood for participants to shape into knife handles, but Allen said, “If someone brings along a bit of deer antler or bone, we let them put that on instead.”

The level of knife customization in Primitive Knifemaking is itself relatively primitive.

“Peoples’ blades won’t look the same but the basic pattern is something that I will set,” Allen said.

Participants seeking a more advanced and creative knife-customization class may be interested in Making the Hand-Forged Knife, a six-week Prairie Pursuits knifemaking class offered in February.