PPP: Ergonomic Rib Tools

Using tools that reduce fatigue and injury translates into increased productivity and profit for production potters

The three planes of the right angle curved rib can create a straight edge or curved surface.
Professional potters benefit from ergonomic tool designs because they are exposed to intense production activity over many years. Making pottery is a labor-intensive activity involving many steps that require repetitive motion, and it is not unusual for potters to complain of work-related injuries. Wedging and rolling out slabs of clay, throwing forms on the potter's wheel, and trimming pots are procedures that have the potential to lead to hand or back injury.

The repetitive use of tools, or any motion by the hand, can result in muscle strain or ligament damage. When this action is prolonged or strenuous, it can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, an inflammation of the median nerve that runs through the carpal tunnel bones and ligaments in the wrist. Symptoms include pain and pressure with a tingling sensation in the wrists or forearms.

The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) sponsored a national survey of potters in 2000. One of the four highest rated health issues reported at every level of experience was hand injury.1 For professional potters, any steps taken to reduce fatigue and injury translate into increased productivity and profit.

Rectangular ribs are designed for flat surfaces.

Tool of the Trade

Pottery tools were developed when the first potter gathered moist clay and tried to fashion it into a form. The need for implements to shape, smooth, cut or bend the clay necessitated finding or making tools. One example, the rib tool, is an extension of the potter's hand. While various items-rocks, twigs or reeds-have been used in the past, the rib tool is still used today. Many rib tools removed from archeological sites resemble those currently in use by potters.

The potter's rib tool serves multiple functions when brought into contact with pliable clay. It can impart straight or curved profiles, altering the clay's surface, or it can be used to burnish or smooth those surfaces. Today, wood, plastic, rubber and metal ribs of diverse profiles and sizes are readily available and can be purchased at ceramic supply stores. It is amazing that such a relatively simple "primitive" tool has survived in its current form.

The small size of the half oval rib allows for placement in recessed areas.

Safer Design

Ergonomic design employed in pottery tools and equipment is the best preventive step in the elimination of fatigue and possible injury. Ribs are used on a daily basis by potters, and it is critical that they are comfortable and efficient in their function. Wood is often chosen as the material for ribs because it is softer on the hand than metal and can float in the water bucket used in the clay forming process.

With an ergonomic grip, close-grained hardwood ribs focus the working edge, bringing maximum pressure to the ceramic form. Importantly, this design allows the hand to hold a comfortable tool that is less stressful when manipulating the clay surface. Precisely designed, three-dimensional ribs provide potters increased flexibility and control during repetitive forming operations. Additionally, the significant weight and balance of the tools enables easy manipulation of clay surfaces during hand-building or wheel-throwing procedures. The many uses for ribs are determined by the potter's imagination; types of ribs include:

  • right angle curved rib, features three planes that can impart a straight edge or curved surface to clay
  • rectangular rib, designed for flat areas, with an easy grip indented interior section
  • half oval rib, imparts a curved or flat surface to clay; its small size allows for placement in recessed areas
  • long stick rib, can be used to form interior curves inside narrow-necked shapes; each end of the rib has a different curved surface
  • half moon rib, used to impart curved surfaces while offering a comfortable grip
  • flat stick rib, features a grooved surface that can be used to impress parallel concave lines in most clay

Half moon ribs are used to create curved surfaces.

Studio Layout

The ergonomic design of tools and studio equipment also means designing wedging tables of an appropriate height so the potter can use upper-body weight and leverage when mixing moist clay. In addition, moving moist clay is labor intensive and can cause back pain, so locating clay storage areas adjacent to the potter's wheel or hand building operations will save time and labor. Shelves can also be set to a height where the potter does not have to bend down or stretch upward excessively when storing pots or supplies. Often times, simple steps in redesigning an existing studio space can translate into a safer, more productive working environment.

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