Yes, it's absolutely true that the most important tools a potter has is their hands. BUT, take it from this tool junkie, there is a plethora of wonderful tools out there that help make the work your hands do more refined, more fun, more enjoyable, and well... just more!
When my students asked for some recommendations for my favorite handbuilding tools, I realized I needed to put some thought into it to narrow down the playing field, and to help them get the most bang for their buck when heading to the local ceramic distributor.
Speaking of your local ceramics distributor, I highly recommend The Ceramic Shop in Norristown, PA. They have a fabulous selection of essential, not-so-essential, and just plain overkill tools to satisfy, no matter where you are on the tool junkie spectrum. Their website is great, too, and they ship!
Without digressing into tools you can make yourself, because I think that requires yet another blog post, here is my list of the Top 10 Essential Tools for a Beginning Potter working on the wheel. Note that in instances where I couldn't pick one favorite in a given category, I may have listed several. Also, in order to stay as true as possible to 10 Essential Tools, I may also have consolidated like items together. :-)
#1 - Needle Tool - For hand builders, the basic needle tool is fine for this job.
#2 - Ribs - Ribs are essential to hand building and wheel throwing alike, but are used in different ways. In hand building, ribs are used to compress slabs, compress joins in coiled pots, scrape clay forms, and more. This is an area where tools designed by potters for potters really shine. You'll need a basic metal rib, of course. Do yourself a favor and don't buy the cheapest one you can find. Many of the cheaper metal ribs have super sharp edges that can give you the nastiest type of paper cut you've ever had. (I speak from experience, here!) Spend a buck or two more on a quality metal rib, and buy one that has some flexibility to curve around your pieces.
A rubber rib is essential for smoothing as well. My favorite rubber rib, by MUD Tools, were designed by potter Michael Sherrill, and are indispensable. They come in a variety of shapes, but the kidney is my go-to. I find the red ones (the most flexible) and the yellow ones (slighlty stiffer than red) are best for my work, with the red being my favorite. Consider the size of the rib in relation to the size of the work you intend to make when purchasing.
If you're thinking of hand-forming bowls, I really like the MudTools bowl ribs. For bowls, I like either the yellow or the green, which is more stiff than the yellow. Again, think about the size of the bowls you hope to make when purchasing a bowl rib. The outer edge of the rib will be the interior curvature of your bowl.
#3 - Wire Tool - Wire tools are used to cut your clay off your block. You can also use them to facet pots and cut off wobbly rims. Here, a cheaper, heavier duty wire tool should be purchased for cutting clay off your block.
#4 - Wire Knife - A wire knife, like this one by Bill van Gilder, is an essential handbuilding tool. This you can be used to facet pots and trim up top edges, but you'll find it indispensable when trimming excess clay off of slab-formed pieces.
#5 - Sponges
Until I embarked on this journey / obsession called pottery, I didn't realize how many different types of sponges exist! For hand builders who will use their sponge more for refining pieces than forming them, I highly recommend the Xiem and MudTools finishing sponges, along with a general purpose clean-up sponge. The bigger the mess you intend to make, the bigger the sponge you should have for cleaning it up!
#6 - Knives - A knife (or two or three) in your toolbox are essential. My all-time favorite knife is by Dolan. It's sharp, pointy and a great multi-purpose tool. Keep it clean and dry it after cleaning, and it will serve you well for many years. Hand builders will also want a fettling knife like this one by Kemper. A wooden knife with a blunt edge is also useful to compress joins and smooth the joins on the inside of handbuilt cylindrical forms.
#7 - Apron & Towel- OK, this is two items, but you probably have both at home already so you won't need to actually purchase either. And, let's face it, making pottery is messy! Hand builders don't get as messy as wheel throwers (generally), so you can get away with an old dress shirt instead of an apron. But if you want an apron, I love this little apron from Amaco! Because it's made from a super light fabric, it does the job without weighing you down. Perhaps the best thing is that it cleans up easily and dries quickly. I just dunk my dirty apron in water a few times at the end of the day, hang it up, and it's dry and ready to wear the following day. Why wash it every day? To keep down on dust in the studio, of course! (But that's a post for another day...)
And any old towel will do. The pottery studio is the place to use those old bath or beach towels with stains or ratty edges. Old hand towels come in handy, too (no pun intended!). Keep your towels clean so you're not kicking up dust every time you move it around. I stash my used towels in a hamper in my studio, and when I have a bunch (or run out, at which point I have a small mountain), I lay them out on my patio on a rainy day and let Mother Nature do the initial cleaning. Then I dip and wring them in three separate buckets to get as much clay out of them as possible manually before running them through my washer. Don't want any clay clogging my drain or my washer!
#8 - Work Surface - If you'll be working with pinch pots only, you may find you can get away with just using an old piece of canvas or similar type of material. Even old flannel-backed vinyl tablecloth pieces will do the trick. The studio where you make work will probably have canvas for the slab roller, but if you're not working in a community studio and need a surface to roll out slabs, you'll want canvass, printer's vinyl or both. I like to start rolling my slabs on canvas, and then as it gets thinner I transfer it to my printer's vinyl sheet because it's smoother than canvass and saves me the extra step of removing canvas marks. It's also a bit sturdier than canvas, which can be helpful in minimizing distortion of slabs (although placing a slab on a ware board when moving it is preferred). Speaking of ware boards, you can make your own out of pieces of dry wall or hardibacker board. Just be sure to tape the edges (I use Duct Tape) so any of the plaster or cement inside doesn't fall out and mingle with your clay. They don't play nicely together
Also, if you'll be building with coils or forming larger pinch pots, or working with cylindrical forms made from slabs, you're probably going to need some form of turntable. In pottery speak, that is called a banding wheel. There are several options here, ranging from relatively inexpensive to Shimpo (aka, best of the best and pretty costly). If you're going for inexpensive, I recommend these wooden turntables available made by The Ceramic Shop. They'll do most jobs nicely, and they come in both 6" and 10" sizes. There are a few intermediate options, but if you're serious about this hobby / obsession, this is an area where you can justifiably splurge if your wallet allows. If that's the case, I recommend Shimpo banding wheels, available in pedestal or tabletop sizes and a variety of sizes. You can find an array of choices on The Ceramic Shop's website. You'll want to consider the size of the pieces you expect to make when making your selection.
#9 - Forming Tools - This is a pretty broad category, and includes everything from modelling tools, paddles, rolling pins, pony rollers, hole cutters, tile makers, handle makers and more. Of these, the pony roller is essential. For slab work, a rolling pin and wooden guides ranging from 1/4" to 1/2" or more are also essential if you won't have access to a slab roller. The remainder of tools in this category are really ambiguous; the type of work you make will inform which tools work best for you. However, I do recommend one tool as an overarching necessity no matter what type of work you do: polymer clay detail tools. These tools are two-sided; one end has a firm rubber nib that can be used to smooth joins, add texture lines, and more. The balled ends come in three sizes in this pack; I use the smallest to sign all my work, and the other two can be great for adding texture, and do double duty by providing visual interest while also compressing joins where I add handles and lugs.
#10 - Brushes - A good glazing brush is essential. I like these Hake brushes and a fan brush for glazing. Brushes are available in various sizes and with different sorts of fibers, so consider the type of work you plan to make and the type of mark you intend to make on your work when selecting your brushes. A detail brush can be useful as well, and you may also want to grab a big old paintbrush from your local craft store to make your own sponge on a stick so you can soak up any water you get into your forms. Don't use your good brushes for wax resist; most studios have wax brushes specifically for that purpose. If not, cheapo foam brushes generally work fine.
Not included in this list are Texture Tool(s) an area where you can get into some serious trouble as a handbuilder! Texture can be addictive, so take some time to determine what sorts of texture you like on your pieces, and how you want to incorporate them into your forms before splurging. Plus, there are so many textures to be had for FREE! Think about those mesh nets on meat products (like a ham), or the vinyl netting on top of a crate of clementines, or your grandmom's lace doilies, or an old fork, or toothpicks, or plants (leaves and flowers), or the bark of a tree, or seashells ... the dangerous thing with clay is that the possibilities are endless! You can create your own texture tools by carving clay stamps or rollettes and bisque firing them. You can also carve or cut craft foam, or impress old buttons or clear rubber stamps into clay to make sprig molds. A fellow student in a recent class I took used a walnut shell to make the most interesting bark texture on her work. When I say the possibilities are endless, it's entirely possible that I am not exaggerating!
My advice is to think outside the box before you purchase something for texture. Believe me when I tell you that I have purchased a lot of textures, and while I use them, the most interesting and unique ones I have are ones from found objects or ones that I've made on my own. (Oh, no! I feel another blog post coming on, and it involves toothpicks, springs, cheese slicers, sticks, and more). Subscribe to my website so you'll see the post when I get to it! Or, you could also just ask me in person or via email! :-)
Until then, remember to relax and enjoy your journey in clay. Always remember that it's only mud. It will take you where you want to go, even if you don't know you want to go there yet. And, if you don't like what you make today, it can always be a pot another day!