Ceramic Industry

PPP: Tools of the Trade

March 1, 2005
New pottery tools provide a significant amount of flexibility in shaping any ceramic form, but many of the same simple but effective tools used centuries ago are also still employed with great success.

A cup shape is formed on a potter's wheel.


This tool kit contains (from right to left) a trim tool, cut-off wire, a steel rib, a small trim tool, a wooden tool, a needle tool, a sponge and a wooden rib.
Clay is the perfect impressionable medium for any manipulation by hand or tool. Many of the earliest pottery tools were simple but effective, and could be used to form, incise, cut, stamp and produce many different kinds of decorative effects on the ceramic form. For example, smooth rocks were used as burnishing surfaces on the soft clay; sharp sticks or twigs were employed to score and mark the clay object; and wooden paddles were ideal instruments to form and smooth pliable clay surfaces. In rare instances, archeologists have matched the actual tool used in production with an ancient pot. Occasionally, an old stoneware jug will bear the fingerprint of the potter where the handle was attached by hand.

Today, new tools are available for forming and decorating both functional pots and ceramic sculpture, and potters can easily purchase multiple hand-held tools in a single package from many ceramic suppliers. In many cases, these advanced tools and prepackaged kits provide a significant amount of flexibility in shaping any ceramic form. However, many of the same simple but effective tools used centuries ago are also still employed with great success, and a number of potters still make their own tools from raw materials or found objects. In fact, there are almost as many tools used in forming pottery as there are different types of pots. Tools can vary from simple to complex, and their design is only limited by the potter's imagination. This article covers only a few of the current tools and decorative techniques used on ceramic forms.

A scale is uwed to weigh out uniform balls of clay, which are then thrown on the potter's wheel to form cups.

Clay Processing and Forming Machinery

Over the past few years, many new and improved pieces of machinery have been developed to produce ceramic objects. In many cases, the same clay processing equipment found in industrial plants has been scaled down and made economically viable for pottery producers. Whether such machinery can be considered a "tool" is debatable, but it nevertheless influences the creative efforts and abilities of potters.

Clay mixers, which allow potters to formulate and mix their own clay bodies, are now used in many studios, and pugmills are often employed to de-air and extrude the moist clay. Another piece of equipment found in many of today's studios is a slab roller, which forms the moist clay into sheets that are used in the construction of ceramic projects. These and other types of labor-saving production machinery have enabled production potters to spend more time and energy addressing the aesthetic concerns of their work.

Wooden ribs often come in special shapes, such as the ergonomically designed set of four ZAM TOOLS.

Pottery Tool Kits

The most common array of tools found in studios, craft centers, production potteries and ceramic art departments are contained in the popular pottery tool kit, which is offered by many ceramic supply companies. Remarkably, a small number of tools can be used to make many different pottery forms. The standard kit usually contains a trim tool, a wire cut-off tool, metal and/or wooden ribs, one or more needle tools and a sponge. The trim tool is a thin, flat metal band anchored to a wooden stick that can be used to remove strips of leather-hard or bone-dry clay from the ceramic form. The wire cut-off tool is passed through moist clay to cut smaller portions for use. Metal and wooden ribs can shape and form curves in the pliable clay, while needle tools score or rough up moist clay to facilitate the addition of pieces such as handles or spouts. Sponges apply water for lubrication in the forming process. Although each tool has a specific function, potters frequently adapt individual tools to their own needs.

Often the simplest tools are used to form many types of functional and sculptural ceramic pieces. In fact, potters can typically assemble their own practical "tool kit" simply by visiting a local kitchen or hardware store.

The Potter's Wheel

Today, as in the past, the potter's wheel allows a lump of soft malleable clay to be turned into a variety of functional objects, such as cups, bowls, cylinders and pitchers. More complex forms can be produced by combining different thrown elements, such as teapot spouts and knobs for lids. Although the basic pottery wheel has remained largely unchanged, recent advances have included models with sturdier construction, adjustable-height mechanisms, enhanced portability features, variable speed control and reversible rotation capabilities. New accessories have also been introduced to facilitate holding and trimming of wheel-thrown forms.

An extruder. The handle is attached to a plunger within the tube, causing the moist clay to pass through a shaped die.

The Extruder

The extruder has come into frequent use by studio potters in the last few years. The moist clay is placed in a tube, and a plunger extrudes the clay through a shaped die. Recent advances include models with rust-resistant construction, removable components for easy cleaning, quick-release dies and interchangeable accessories. Many different ceramic forms can be constructed from the pliable clay extrusion.

Clay is rolled into uniform sheets between wooden thickness strips.

Texturizing Tools

Texture can be applied to clay in many ways. For example, textured rolling pins can be purchased at ceramic supply stores, and stamps can be made from any absorbent material, such as wood, and applied in various patterns to pliable, leather-hard clay.

Leather-hard clay is also an excellent surface for carving with a metal trim tool blade. To create a raised surface and/or different-colored clay designs, liquid slips or engobes composed of clays and ceramic materials can be applied to a leather-hard or bisque form.

Another common texturizing technique, known as sgraffito (an Italian term for scratching a clay surface), uses a serrated-edge tool to create marks in the clay. This method can also be used with a colored slip to create a unique decorative surface.

A tombo stick measures the width and depth of a bowl.

The Tombo Stick

One of the oldest and simplest pottery tools is the tombo stick, which originated in Japan and has been used in pottery production for hundreds of years. Constructed from two thin sticks bound together to form a cross, the tombo stick measures the width and depth of concave forms thrown on the potter's wheel, such as bowls and cups, to help ensure less variation between forms. Aluminum calipers are frequently used as a modern equivalent; however, the tombo stick is easier to use and requires just one measurement, while two calipers have to be employed for the same measurements.

A metal trim tool carving into leather-hard clay.

Same Tools, Different Potters

While some new pottery tools have come on the market in recent years, many of the traditional tools and techniques are still used in working with clay. In many cases, these tools and techniques have been passed down from one generation of potters to the next. But there is also another, more fundamental element involved-such tools are often very simple and inexpensive, yet they work extremely well.

I have taught numerous ceramics classes, and I have always been interested to hear a student say, "I just made this tool from a piece of wood, and it's great for trimming my pots." Not surprisingly, many of these "newly invented" tools have been similar to those found at archeological sites. Many of the underlying requirements when working with clay span civilizations and time.

About the Author

Jeff Zamek received bachelor's and master's of fine arts degrees in ceramics from Alfred University, College of Ceramics, Alfred, N.Y. He taught ceramics at Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass., and Keane College in Elizabeth, N.J. In 1980 he started his own ceramics consulting firm and has contributed articles to Ceramics Monthly, Pottery Making Illustrated, Clay Times, Studio Potter and Craft Horizons, in addition to Pottery Production Practices. His books, What Every Potter Should Know ($31.45) and Safety in the Ceramics Studio ($25.45) are available from Jeff Zamek/Ceramics Consulting Services, 6 Glendale Woods Dr., Southampton, MA 01073. These books can also be ordered online at http://www.ceramicindustry.com , through Ceramic Industry's online bookstore.

For more information about prepackaged pottery tool kits and tombo sticks, contact Ceramic Supply, 7 Route 46 West, Lodi, NJ 07644; (973) 340-3005.

For more information about ZAM TOOLS, contact Jeff Zamek/Ceramics Consulting Services, 6 Glendale Woods Dr., Southampton, MA 01073; (413) 527-7337; http://www.fixpots.com .