A Beginning Wheel Thrower's Toolbox

Updated: Jan 15

I confess ... I'm a tool junkie. But the right tool for any job is essential, or at least that's what I tell myself when I leave my local ceramic distributor showroom with a new bag of goodies and a great big smile on my face! :-)


Recently, my students asked for some recommendations for my favorite tools, and so I put together this list of items I think are essential beginner tools for beginning wheel students. As I wrote it, I realized that I'll need to do a series of posts on various tools for both wheel throwing and hand building, as well as on MYO tools for texture and altering.


But, I digress. Here is my list of the Top 10 Essential Tools for a Beginning Potter working on the wheel.


(A confession in advance -- sometimes I couldn't pick one favorite in a given category, so I've listed several.)


#1 - Needle Tool - While a basic needle tool is fine for this job, I highly recommend the Mud Shark Needle Tool by MudTools. Designed by a potter for potters, this tool really has it all. The needle folds into the handle, so no more reaching into your tool box and poking yourself with your needle tool. The opposite end of the tool can be used in place of a wooden knife to trim excess clay off the base of your pot, and the long edge can be used as a throwing stick/rib to compress the walls of your pot. If you have the funds to splurge, buy this needle tool rather than the basic one.



#2 - Ribs - Ribs are almost as essential to wheel-throwing as clay, and it's another 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 it as you'll be using it to remove excess slip from your wheel-thrown forms.


Other essential ribs are wooden and rubber.


For a wooden rib, your first choice should be a triangular rib in a hard wood if possible (for durability). A triangle rib like this one gives you three separate surfaces - short and straight, long and straight, and rounded. Or, you might choose one like this with a straight and two rounded surfaces. Either will serve you well as you explore forms on the wheel. My favorite wooden ribs are made by fellow potter Troy Bungart. When you're ready to spoil yourself, buy a rib made by him and you'll never be sorry!


A rubber rib is another essential tool in your toolbox. 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 making 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 creations off the wheel head or off your plastic bats, but you can also use them to facet pots and cut off wobbly rims. I really like this 7" Dirty Girls wire tool. I like that it's short and the wire itself is really thin, making it useful for so many jobs. A cheaper, heavier duty wire tool should be purchased for cutting clay off your block (or for cutting larger pieces off the wheel), as the thin wire on the Dirty Girls tool may not be up to the task of cutting through a big block of heavily grogged clay.



#4 - Sponges

Until I embarked on this journey / obsession called pottery, I didn't realize how many different types of sponges exist! Natural silk sponges are great, but a simple round synthetic yellow sponge and a big yellow clean-up sponge will probably serve you well for now. I also love these great triangle sponges designed by fellow potter Bill van Gilder.


If you can splurge, I highly recommend specialty sponges like the Xiem and MudTools finishing sponges in addition to a basic throwing and clean-up sponge. (As I write this, I realize that I could do an entire blog post just on sponges!)



#5 - Bats - Bats may be considered optional by some, by I consider them to be essential. I throw most of my work on plastic bats, wire them off, but then transfer the bat to a shelf to firm up before pulling my pot off. I make large bowls, large vessels, and flat pieces on plaster bats.


The Ceramic Shop makes their own Hydrobats which absorb moisture from the clay and help these flat or larger forms dry without cracking. It can take several days for some pieces to release from their plaster bats, so consider the time you spend in your local studio and your availability to check your pots over several days before investing in hydrobats. If you choose to purchase them, you can sometimes find seconds in-store that are slightly imperfect. A little knick or surface imperfection can be easily trimmed away, but you'll just want to be sure they're not wobbly.


For plastic bats, I prefer square bats. Their space-saving design means you can fit more on a shelf (or in a cubby). There are several types available, but I like these for both size and price.


There are a number of bat "systems" available and can be really helpful for production potters. As a beginner, I recommend that you save your money and purchase a system down the road if you feel it is appropriate for your work.


Note that many art centers do not leave bat pins in their wheels, so if you'll be using bats, consider purchasing a pair of bat pins.



#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.


You'll also need a wooden knife to cut excess clay from the bottom of your pots on the wheel (this will save beginners, especially, a ton of time at the trimming stage). I like this one by Kemper. It's big enough to get a good grip, and has a knife edge as well as a rounded edge that is useful for adding visual interest to your pots. Just hold that rounded edge against your pot at the bottom (while the wheel is spinning slowly) and drag it up the outside to get a nice spiral on your pot.


I also suggest a longer fettling knife like this one by Kemper.



#7 - Apron - Let's face it, making pottery is messy! 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...)



#8 - Towel - Here, 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!



#9 - Trimming Tool(s) - A good trimming tool is as essential as the act of trimming a pot - really! There are so many trimming tools available, and many have their place in the studio depending on what type of work you're making, so I think another blog post discussing my experience with many of them is in order. I'll shelf that idea for another day and just make a recommendation that a beginning potter choose a pear-shaped tool that has a loop on one side to trim away larger quantities of clay and a more pointy side on the other to do some decorative trimming. I love Dolan trimming tools, but Kemper makes a fine basic trimming tool as well and is a little bit cheaper. This Xiem trimming tool has a nice, anti-fatigue handle which I find appealing, as I tend to trim in batches.



#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. Don't use your brushes for wax resist; most studios have wax brushes specifically for that purpose.



I'm already eyeing up more tools in my studio for another post, and thinking about a post for my favorite MYO Tools for general use in forming, texturizing and altering your wheel-thrown pots (scoring tools, sponge on a stick, bisque eggs, dowels, cheese slicers, wiggle wires, etc.). Subscribe to my website so you'll see the post when I get to it!


Until then, remember to relax and enjoy your journey in clay. Always remember that it's only mud, and if you don't like what you make it can be a pot another day!

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