Handmade Pottery in Costa Rica

February 22, 2010 - Filed under Ceramics, Classes & Courses, Travel

In my quest for crafty adventures while we travel I came across the Guatil Pottery Studio in Playa Tamarindo. It’s a small shop run by Arbin Espinosa Guevara, who learned the traditional art of Chorotega Pottery from his mother in the village of Guatil (about 1/2 an hour from Tamarindo). In addition to selling his beautiful pieces, Arbin teaches classes to anyone wanting to learn. I spent a few days with Arbin at his studio, learning the traditional ways of Chorotega Pottery, a pre-columbian form of pottery, that has been handed down from generation to generation for over 800 years.

The whole process starts with a dense clay-like soil called barro, which is found in the hills that surround the village of Guatil. The Chorotega indians believe that the barro must be collected at the end of the lunar cycle, otherwise the density and strength of the clay is compromised. The barro is combined with a fine sand, called Iguana Sand, and then mixed with water by foot, similar to stomping grapes!

mixing clay

The pots are made using a “coil” building technique, piece-by-piece on a manual hand wheel. You start by rolling your clay into a ball, and then using your thumbs to pinch the clay into a bowl like shape (a pinch pot), that will become the base of your pot. You then roll more clay into a long log shaped strip and coil it on to the base. You use your fingers to fuse the clay together then spin the clay on the manual wheel, and use traditional tools like corn husks to help shape the pot. You continue in this way, adding coils until you have your desired shape.

handmaking pottery

Once you’ve shaped your pot it needs to dry for about 24 hours, before you can polish it. Hand polishing is done using small pieces of smooth plastic or stone that are rubbed over the clay to work out all the lines and imperfections created when shaping the pot. It’s a long tedious process, but worth it. The more you polish your pot the smoother it will be after firing.

polishing pottery

After polishing a white-clay is painted on and allowed to dry for a couple of hours, before painting and etching begins. For my piece I chose to do a black base with a design etched into it. For this I needed to polish the white clay like in the previous step, then paint a black base, and then polish it again. At this stage polishing is just as important, there are no glazes used in Chorotega pottery so polishing is done to make it shiny after firing.

painting and polishing pottery

After painting and polishing, the piece needs to dry overnight again. The next day I etched out a design exposing the white clay beneath. This part made me a little nervous, as there’s no fixing it once you’ve started etching, so you have to be sure about your lines. (I chose to do something a little more modern, but in addition to etching, traditional pieces are often painted with clay that has been mixed with different colors of sand.)

etching pottery

Once the piece is completely done it’s fired in a wood burning kiln made of black earth, bricks and dried horse manure. The entire piece is created pre-firing, so once it’s fired in the kiln and cooled it’s done.

Wood-fired Pottery Kiln

Finished Gualit Pottery Piece

If you’re heading to Costa Rica, I highly recommend spending a few days with Arbin at his Tamarindo Potery Studio. Not only did I have a great time, but now I have a fantastic souvenir of our time in Costa Rica.

For more information visit the studio’s website.

Posted by: kelly

7 Comments so far

  1. Claypot November 19, 2010 8:18 pm

    I definitely admire hand made pottery designs. The designs here are so wonderful and amazing! I’m thinking of going to Costa Rica then. Hope I could.

  2. Amalia Ortiz February 18, 2011 8:35 am

    Awesome to see people loving my Country, hope u have a great time here!!! oxox
    P.D.: Love your blog!

  3. Ana L October 9, 2011 3:39 pm

    It is not a special clay called barro; one of the spanish words for clay is barro, the other arcilla. By the way loved your ceramic piece.

  4. kelly November 9, 2011 2:08 am

    Thanks Ana, glad you liked it. I was just quoting what my instructor said during the class.

  5. Connie June 12, 2012 11:22 am

    I just got back from Tamarindo. While there I purchased 4 pots on the beach that I’m sure are this type of pottery, with beautiful patterns on them. I was wondering if they are safe to put guacamole in them, which is why I bought them, since they have no glaze.

  6. Connie June 12, 2012 11:30 am

    My comment is the one about the guacamole in the Costa Rican pots. Please notify my by email of followup comments.

  7. kelly June 12, 2012 11:32 am

    I’d be wary of putting food in them if they are not stained… especially something like guacamole which would be hard to clean. If you decide to stain them be sure to read up on food safe stain for pottery.


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