POTTERY PRODUCTION PRACTICES: Inventive Tools

March 1, 2008
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Potters and sculptors rely heavily on their hands as tools, but sometimes great gadgets can provide enhancements. Many times, an implement that was never intended to be a potter’s tool happens to work great for a certain function, and some of the best tools and gadgets for the studio are made by ceramic artists themselves.

As Plato said in The Republic, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Artists throughout the ages have identified a need and come up with the perfect solution. The following are examples of those solutions, but don’t limit yourself to the described uses-take a cue from the inventors and look for new and creative uses.

The thrust bearing allows the Trimming Disc-and therefore your pot-to rotate freely, despite the pressure from your finger.

Piebenburg Trimming Disc

Robert Piepenburg is a well-known artist, author and star of a series of pottery how-to videos, but his latest endeavor comes straight from his own toolbox. For years, artists have used a jar lid or bottle cap placed at the center of the pot bottom to act as a pivot point, allowing pressure from a finger or two to secure the pot instead of wads of clay.

Piepenburg designed a small-scale lazy Susan with ribs on the bottom and a divot on the top for your finger. The thrust bearing allows the Trimming Disc-and therefore your pot-to rotate freely, despite the pressure from your finger.

Piepenburg includes a 10-minute instructional DVD on trimming with the disc. On the DVD, he talks about the importance of trimming when he says, “If nothing else, this should really help you realize that the trimming process is just as important to the spirit of making pottery as the shaping of the clay itself originally. This follow-up process really brings resolution to the form.”

Robin Hopper, full-time potter and apparent part-time comic, has been overheard saying his life of crime is over, thanks to Piepenburg. Since he started using the Piepenburg Trimming Disc, Hooper’s fingerprints are finally returning after years of being worn down from using a bottle cap.

Produced by Pebble Press, available from your local supplier or e-mail piebenburg@gmail.com.

The design of the Steve Tool includes five separate disks.

The Steve Tool

Steve Graber loves to make highly textured pots. He’s accumulated a cornucopia of gears and textured spinning objects that can easily be found in garages, kitchens, sewing rooms and junkyards. He has definitely reinvented the wheel with his Steve Tool. The design includes five separate disks that allow you to configure the spacing and pattern exactly how you want it, as often as you desire.

Texture made with the Steve Tool can look unique when finished in different ways.

Come up with a signature pattern for yourself or vary the pattern from pot to pot. Leave the texture exactly as you created it, or continue to alter it by stretching the clay, smoothing spots or adding a contrasting color of clay. The same texture can even look unique when finished in different ways-with a translucent or opaque glaze, matte or shiny glaze, non-moving underglaze or flowing ash glazes, or even no glaze at all.

Produced by Graber’s Pottery Inc., available from your local supplier or online www.graberspottery.com.

The angle of the Groovy Tools blade is created specifically to hold a fine edge during use.

Groovy Tools

Susan Burge noticed that it was getting increasingly difficult to find high-quality trimming tools that kept a good edge despite the use and abuse a potter’s tools see each day. When she talked about her tool problems to her engineer husband, Dave, they put their minds together and a new line of tools (and a company) was born.

Groovy Tools are constructed from high-quality tool steel that has been heat-treated and tempered, then re-treated cryogenically to produce a molecularly superior steel. The angle of the blade is created specifically to hold a fine edge during use. The blade is completely secured to the acetate handle, which is light and strong while eliminating the care and maintenance needs you’d have with a wooden handle. The brightly colored cushion over the handle not only makes the tool ergonomic and comfortable in your hand, but it’s also a lot easier to find in your studio or at the wheel. And-dare I say it?- it looks groovy!

Produced by Groovy Tools, available from your local supplier or online at www.groovy-tools.com.

SlapStix’ plastic resists sticking when slapped against clay and doesn’t absorb moisture like wood can.

SlapStix

High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a tough plastic used in a variety of everyday items like milk jugs, Tupperware®, vehicle fuel tanks, water pipe, and even the modern hula hoop. Walt Gillispie was working on a project with HDPE when a friend, John Pence, suggested using a computer-driven router to finish the project more efficiently and uniformly. After finishing the project, Gillispie tested some designs in scrap HDPE he had left over.

Though John is not an artist, he could see the transmogrification in Gillispie’s art toward heavily textured, stretched clay forms. As a studio tech for the ceramics program at William Jewell College (Liberty, Mo.), Gillispie shared his new texturing tools with Rex Walkenhorst, who encouraged him to continue the process and perhaps sell the tools to others.

Gillispie and Pence worked together to develop eight highly textured paddles with a contrasting red HDPE overlay to highlight the different designs on each side. The plastic resists sticking when slapped against clay and doesn’t absorb moisture like wood can. Now any potter can Slap their clay into shape!

Produced by Custom Design Manufacturing, available from your local supplier.

Dragging the Bevel-o-Matic across the edge of a slab creates a 45° angle that makes accurate construction and assembly of joined slabs easier.

Bevel-o-Matic

Todd Scholtz was previously highlighted in Pottery Production Practices for his custom-engraved brass clay stamps (“Good Impressions,” June 2005), so it should come as no surprise that he’s back with another innovative product. Scholtz teaches at his local art center, the KC Clay Guild in Kansas City, Mo. During one of his classes, a student showed off a piece of sheet metal that her HVAC guy had bent into a shape to help her bevel the edges of slabs for easier joining.

Scholtz manipulated the design to make it more functional and started selling the Bevel-o-Matic to other potters. Dragging it across the edge of a slab creates a 45° angle that makes accurate construction and assembly of joined slabs easier. The beveled edge of the clay looks so nice that you might want a second Bevel-o-Matic to bend the cutting angle a little more (or less) to cleanly and uniformly finish a slab edge, as you might do for tiles.

When asked about the name of his tool, Scholtz bashfully reminisced about the early Saturday Night Live days with the Bass-O-Matic. “From that point on, I had been wanting to come up with a ‘Something-o-Matic,’ and the Bevel-o-Matic allowed me to make my dream come true,” he says.

Produced by Clay Stamps, available from your local supplier or online at www.claystamps.com.

SlabMat

Pam Herring is a potter as well as a fiber artist. She put her two loves together when she found a non-woven fabric that provides a smooth alternative to canvas or other materials that potters generally use when rolling out slabs. Using a SlabMat eliminates the need for scraping the canvas texture off the clay when you really need a smooth surface.

The SlabMat can be used with any brand of slab roller, a rolling pin, or alone as a smooth work surface for your next project. The material absorbs a little moisture, but it works best with clay that’s not extremely wet. Herring suggests using two different SlabMats if you work with red and white clay or stoneware and porcelain to prevent cross-contamination.

Although a lot of her own work features distinctive texture, Herring finds it easiest to start the construction process with no texture at all. The “blank slate” helps her creativity and inspiration flow in unpredictable directions.

Produced by Herring Designs, available from your local supplier or online at www.herringdesigns.com.

For more information regarding potters’ tools, contact Bracker’s Good Earth Clays, Inc., 1831 E. 1450 Rd., Lawrence, KS 66044; (888) 822-1982; fax (785) 841-8142; e-mail mail@brackers.com; or visit www.brackers.com.

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