Remember that beginner's pottery class you took years ago? Stress melted away as you kneaded, smoothed and shaped hunks of damp clay, transforming thick globs into almost perfect -- at least in your family's loving eyes -- decorative vases and functional bowls. Eventually, you lacked the time to continue taking courses and reluctantly found that your home couldn't accommodate your budding hobby's stray clay and dust, let alone potentially hazardous glazes and a pricey firing kiln that required a special electrical hookup.

Or perhaps you tried your hand at photography, learning to develop your own film, make prints of different sizes and cut mats for the perfect finishing touches. The framed black-and-white originals added unique artistic accents to your home and made great gifts. With no ideal space for a darkroom, however, and a lack of money to invest in the necessary chemicals and supplies, you found your interest petering out.

No more excuses: It's time to dig out your old set of clay-encrusted tools or find that 35mm single-lens reflex camera that's hiding in the back of a closet. Whether you're in need of a relaxing pastime or thinking about making unique holiday presents, you can pursue pottery and photography along with such interests as drawing, woodworking, jewelry-making and glass designing at fully equipped workshops available for public use. Nonprofit community, recreation and arts centers throughout the Washington area offer affordable, regularly scheduled open studios, not only for their own students but for amateur and professional craftspeople who have the necessary skills but lack the required resources.

"It's such a good deal, and a lot of people don't know about it," says Sheri Bartholow-Whysall, community art specialist for Arlington County's Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. "People usually say this is one of the best-kept secrets."

Several times a week, the county's Thomas Jefferson Community Center Art Studios open for blocks of time during which people can use on-site equipment such as potter's wheels, acetylene torches, photo enlargers and saws to create ceramics, jewelry, black-and-white prints and wood projects. Trained monitors are on hand to operate kilns, answer questions and make sure participants take proper safety precautions; but the studios generally provide unstructured environments where visitors work at their own pace on individual activities.

Open-studio settings provide an opportunity to work on craft projects that often prove far from mess-free. "It's really dirty -- it's not something like painting that you can do at your house," says Karen Askin, a Rockville Arts Place resident potter who started as a student there.

"I like to do it here [instead of home] because it's dusty, very dusty," says Napapan Carpenter of Oak Hill, who regularly visits the open pottery studio at Audrey Moore RECenter in Annandale. Cleanup -- mostly requiring rinsing tools and wiping the potter's wheel with a damp cloth -- takes only about 10 minutes, a lot less effort than what would be necessary if doing the work in a residential setting.

At most open studios, participants provide their own basics: Potters tote clay-shaping tools, photographers bring photo paper and woodworkers supply wood. But one of the sites' biggest draws is access to machines and supplies not available at home.

"There are a lot of people who can't afford or don't have the space for the equipment," says Kathie Lynch, resident artist and head of the glass program at Rockville Arts Place in Gaithersburg. Some devices, such as kilns needed to heat and finish clay and glass pieces, are priced at $2,500 and more, making them cost-prohibitive for most hobbyists, who also lack proper ventilation and electrical grounding to accommodate machines that heat up to as high as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The glass workshop, available for open studios twice a month, features a ring saw, tile saw, grinders, small kilns for firing jewelry and -- a favorite of many patrons -- a sand blaster, a compressed-air gun that shoots sand particles at glass to create a frosted effect. The art center's kiln room, used for firing ceramics and glass projects, boasts a "coffin" kiln, which resembles a 2-by-4-foot casket and accommodates big glass pieces that won't fit in a standard-size kiln.

At open pottery studios like the four weekly sessions at Audrey Moore RECenter, visitors purchase 25-pound blocks of clay on-site, ensuring that the material used is compatible with the facility's kilns. Clay artists hand-build pieces at a large table or work on thrown pieces at 18 electric potter's wheels. They also can ooze clay through an extruder, a contraption that, like a giant Play-Doh machine, creates strips of different shapes. While participants provide their own basic tools such as sponges and wire cutters, they can raid the studio's supply closet to borrow such items as cookie cutters for making Christmas ornaments, molds for shaping hand-built bowls, and corn husks and lace doilies for adding textures and patterns. Ear syringes can drizzle glaze onto pieces to create unique designs.

"Look at the size of that rolling pin!" says volunteer studio monitor Wanda Waterman, spying a two-foot-long wooden tool tucked in the back of a shelf crammed with rolling pins of various sizes. Nearby, a pegboard holds small bowls of assorted hues, representing the appearances of different glazes after pieces are fired. Adjacent white utility buckets contain 13 different glazes into which craftspeople dip their greenware, clay pieces already fired once and ready for finishing.

"It's always like Christmas! You wait to see: Will it come out beautiful, or will it have a fatal flaw that must be dealt with?" says Sharon Williams of the surprising nature of completed pieces. The Annandale grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of two is working at a wheel, cutting a footed bottom on what will be a cereal bowl for an 8-year-old grandson.

Many open studios become particularly busy this time of year, when participants focus on creating holiday gifts.

"Last year we had several people in here making calendars," says Megan Cheek, program director at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, which offers an open darkroom six days a week. A professional dog walker, she took pictures of the pets she handled and used the lab to make prints, which she presented as holiday gifts to her clients.

"I think most of the people really like to make gifts to give away," says Elisabeth Graney, a Fairfax County Park Authority recreational specialist assistant who oversees the open pottery and photography studios at Audrey Moore RECenter. "The majority of people here make bowls and mugs. They work very hard to make something that's very beautiful."

Graney says she sees a lot of personalized pieces, such as food dishes bearing pets' names. Wide-bottomed mugs, designed to keep beverages warm, also prove popular for gift-giving, as do Nativity scenes and all kinds of Christmas ornaments.

"I took about 200 or 300 of them out of the kiln already!" she says.

During a Monday open studio, Ann Szwarckop, a home builder from McLean who visits Audrey Moore for "fun, relaxation . . . [and] a good social time," makes items for her nine school-age grandchildren to give to teachers. Last year, she crafted more than 50 pitchers of different shapes and sizes; this year's theme is still up in the air.

Barbara Harris of Burke, one of Audrey Moore's volunteer lab monitors, is working on holiday items such as star-shaped, lace-embossed ornaments and candleholders decorated with holly leaf- and berry-shaped cutouts. A handmade bowl, another work in progress, consists of overlapping leaves modeled from the genuine autumn counterparts. She once created, as family gifts, bowls imprinted with the pattern of a hand-crocheted doily made by her 91-year-old mother-in-law.

Open workshops draw a variety of people, Bartholow-Whysall says, including students who use the time to supplement their classroom instruction.

"A lot of potters come in for the social aspect of it as well, and jewelers, too," she says.

"The more you do it, the better you get," says Lucy Lapidus of Fairfax, an Audrey Moore RECenter pottery student who recently started using the wheel after two years of hand building. If a student starts a project in a class, she can finish it at the studio.

Open-studio visitors who lack experience or have become rusty in their chosen hobbies have easy access to artists and craftspeople, who often use or supervise the spaces or work on-site and don't mind answering questions or offering assistance.

"Open studio is a great chance to get back into something," Askin says. "Just being able to be around other artists -- that's what's great about a place like this."

While most open-studio visitors have at least a basic working knowledge of their areas of interest, sometimes folks with little or no experience show up, expecting to quickly churn out a project.

"When you're doing wheel work, people think it's going to be like the movie 'Ghost,' "Askin says, referring to the scene featuring actress Demi Moore effortlessly shaping a piece on her potter's wheel.

Beginners may need to adjust their expectations, Graney says, but even if they don't leave with the anticipated stack of perfectly glazed and fired plates, "always, you end up with something. . . . I think that's so rewarding.

"It makes people feel really good: 'Wow, I made that myself!' "

Mary Jane Solomon is a freelance writer based in Annandale. Her last story for Weekend was about the Red Hat Society.

Joy Sparks-Gaviria works with clay at Annandale's Audrey Moore RECenter, where pottery and photography enthusiasts can work on their projects in monitored studios.