How to Clean Up Clay and Glaze Safely!

Messy Maker tips gif by Karen Wilde

After completing my Visual Arts degree in 2021 and moving from ‘institute student studio life’ into ‘unsupported garage studio life’ – I’ve been pushing the limitations of my experimental glazed ceramics at home. It’s been fun! But it’s also been very messy and I was worried about how I would dispose of clay and glaze clean up properly, without access to a fancy wet studio setup. Here are some basic tips on how I clean up after messing around in my home studio while being conscious of the environment and water consumption.

This information is specifically for small batch artists working from home. If you’re producing ceramics on a larger scale, then you might want to invest in special sink traps that catch clay and glaze runoff, similar to what you would see in a professional or teaching wet lab environment.
Tip: keep your clay tools and glaze tools separate while in use. This will help avoid any cross-contamination during the same art session.

Part 1: Clean-up After Clay Play.

This is fairly easy, as clay is natural and doesn’t contain chemicals and possible toxins like glaze. I simply use two big buckets. One is for washing my hands and tools (if you’re a very messy artist, you may wish to have a few buckets for this process and move to the cleaner water in stages). And the second bucket is where I put the recycled sludge from the first bucket.

To make the sludge, I simply leave the cleaning water from the first bucket to settle over a day or two and then carefully pour the water off. This water can go directly down the wastewater drain or be used to water your plants. Just be careful not to disturb the sludge underneath. You don’t want any clay going down the drain because it can build up and block your pipes. You can use a syringe or turkey baster to pull off the last little bit of water that can be tricky to pour out.

The residual sludge can be left out to dry and added to your clay reclaim bucket or I just add it directly to my slip sludge bucket, which is currently a mixture of different clays including wild clay collected from New Zealand coastal sites. I’ve been using this slip to create textured patterns on large slabs and experimental jewellery (which l will show you how to do in a future blog post). I can also dry it out a bit and wedge it into recycled workable clay, but for the moment I’m enjoying using my sludge to make experimental slips as seen in the images below:

Part 2: Clean-up After Glazing

This part is a little more complicated. I generally use non-toxic glazes but there are still chemicals, not to mention the other materials, both organic and inorganic, that I often add to my experimental glazes.

Firstly, I always try and glaze over a clean wood board or directly onto a stainless steel table as that way I can scrape off the dry glaze for recycling. You could also use acrylic, thick plastic or a glass base, anything that can be scraped clean later. Many people use brown Kraft paper that they throw away afterwards but I personally don’t like this option as it just adds unnecessary waste to the landfill. Once dry you can collect the glaze chips in a designated glaze recycling container.

Here’s where the fun begins. I’ll soak my brushes in a small jar of water to get rid of the worst glaze. Then I’ll repeat this process a number of times until the water runs clear, discarding my wastewater into my larger “glaze waste bucket”. I’ll use the same bucket to wash any other glaze pots and utensils. I’ll then leave this bucket to settle for a few days and carefully pour off the clear water that has risen to the top, same as with the clay recycle cleanup method, BUT the only difference is that I throw this wastewater onto a patch of unused lawn or dirt area outside. It’s very unlikely it will affect my plants as I use non-toxic glaze and I probably could discard it in the wastewater drain but I’m just being extra careful.
Tip: Soak brushes in a jar of water straight after use. Old dry glaze is more difficult to remove from brushes and your brushes will last longer if you clean them while still wet. Also, dry your brushes horizontally on paper or a towel to prevent water from dripping down into the ferrule (the part that connects the brush head to the handle) which can degrade your brushes faster over time.
Tip: Wear an apron or overalls to protect your clothes. I see a lot of social media artists getting clay all over their nice clothes and it’s concerning to think that they most likely just throw them in the washing machine after a single wear. It’s much easier, and better for the environment, to just wear your unsexy uniform over and over and occasionally wash that in a bucket first.

Back to the glaze bucket… once you’ve siphoned off the settled water you will be left with sludgy glaze. I leave this bucket with the lid off to dry or pop it in my drying cupboard (which is actually just my hot water cupboard) until I’m left with a film of dry glaze on the bottom. This can now be chipped off and added to my mystery glaze jar for future fun experimental glazing.

Now it’s time to make some new pieces to test out my growing collection of recycled glaze chips! If you’re interested in seeing more experiments and pottery tips, please visit and subscribe to my growing youtube channel.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: