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A Quick Survey of Basic Pottery Tools

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Working with clay can take two main directions: building pieces out of clay by hand; and throwing pieces on the potter's wheel. Many of the basic pottery tools are used in both disciplines. Let's take a look at a basic pottery tool kit.

Towels

Absorbent cotton toweling is always an excellent item to have. Toweling is ideal for rough-cleaning hands whenever working with clay, and a large towel across the knees is almost always a good idea when throwing.

Chamois

Chamois scraps are useful pottery tools.
Beth E Peterson

Pieces of chamois skin (about 2 inches x 4 inches) are excellent for compressing and smoothing the upper edges of thrown ware. Chamois can also be used to smooth ware that is leather-hard.

Potter's Needles

The potter's needle, a very useful tool when working clay.
Beth E Peterson

These long heavy needles set into wooden, metal, or plastic handles are one of the most versatile tools in pottery. Just a few of their uses are trimming the top edges of ware while on the wheel and for scoring slabs and coils when hand building.

Cut-Off Wires

An example of a cutting wire tool used in pottery and ceramics.
Beth E Peterson

Probably the most common ones have two hardwood handles at either end. Fishing line and uncoiled springs can also be used as cut-off wires.

These tools are useful in cutting large lumps of clay and also in removing thrown ware from the potter's wheel. When throwing off the mound, fishing line or other very flexible cut-off lines are preferred.

Fettling Knives

Fettling knives are used in pottery to clean ridges left by casting and other trimming chores.
Beth E Peterson

These thin-bladed knives come in either a hard temper or soft. The hard ones are inflexible, while the soft fettling knives are flexible and can be bent into desired angles and curves. They were first developed to remove the fettle (the ridge of material left where pieces of the mold join when a piece has been cast). They are also very useful for trimming slabs and thrown pots.

If you have both kinds of fettling knives, it is useful to add a band of paint or indelible marker on one of them so you can easily tell them apart.

Ribs and Scrappers

Pottery tools called ribs, used for smoothing and shaping while throwing.
Beth E Peterson

Used in throwing, these tools can help shape and smooth pots as they are being formed on the wheel. They are also used in the Rib and Hand method of working with coiled pots.

Ribs come in a many different shapes and usually are made from hardwood or rubber.

Scrappers look a lot like ribs, but are lighter and used to smooth wet and soft leather-hard greenware. They come in a myriad of shapes and can be made of steel, rubber, or wood. Some potters use scrappers and ribs interchangeably for tasks.

Loop, Wire and Ribbon Tools

Loop, ribbon and wire tools are helpful to potters.
Beth E Peterson

Just generally useful, these tools are handy for trimming greenware and for use in handbuilding. Wire and ribbon varieties are not recommended for use during throwing; they are too fragile.

Wooden Modeling Tools

An example of a very useful wooden modeling tool used for pottery.
Beth E Peterson

Wooden modeling tools come in an astounding variety of shapes, useful in all sorts of handbuilding. Although called modeling tools, the triangular-headed varieties are also excellent trimming tools while throwing on the wheel.

Sponges

Two examples of sponges suitable for pottery, one natural and one synthetic.
Beth E Peterson

Largish natural or special synthetic sponges are used to absorb or distribute water during throwing. Many potters also use elephant ear sponges (a specific type of natural sponge) during the throwing process. For more information, check out

Brushes

Sumi brushes are excellent for working with clay.
Beth E Peterson

Brushes are used to carry water and slip to specific areas when you are working the clay, as well as used to paint and design with slips, underglazes, and overglazes. The best brushes for ceramics and pottery are sumi, or bamboo, brushes. They can be loaded with a tremendous amount of fluid and still come to a nicely pointed end. Here's more about what brushes can do in pottery:

Calipers (Potter's Calipers)

Metal calipers used in pottery to measure lidded jar openings and galleries during throwing.
Photo © 2009 Beth E Peterson

Potters use this type of caliper to measure the inner and outer dimensions of pots where they will meet with other parts of a working set. For example, they are especially useful when measuring lids for jars, measuring the base of a cup to match with the depression in the center of a saucer, or to measure the base of a pitcher that is matched with a the interior floor of a basin.

Calipers can be made of metal, wood, or plastic. Lid Master calipers do not have to be reversed and adjusted the way regular potter's calipers do.

The Box

Two different storage ideas for pottery tools.
Beth E Peterson

Many of the potter's tools are fairly small and easy to misplace. Most potters I know use some form of box to keep their tools in for organization and accessibility. Heavy-duty plastic artist or tackle boxes tend to be the best if you are transporting tools. Otherwise, solutions can range from a utensil tray to any waterproof box. Cardboard boxes shouldn't be used, since the water and wet clay break them down too rapidly.

You can have more than one box, of course. As you can see, I have two main boxes: a cloth-covered plastic box with handles that stays by my wheel, and a utensil tray for my hand building tools.

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