What Pottery Supplies and Tools do Potters use?

Potters use quite a variety of handmade and purchased Pottery Supplies and Tools. Of course the Potter's primary tools are their hands. However during the long History of Pottery making, a variety of tools have been developed. The arsenal of Tools includes:

Various Clay Types Pottery Wheel
Shaping Tools Rolling Tools
Cutting and Piercing Tools Finishing Tools
Pottery Glazes Pottery Kiln

After the initial outlay for the big ticket items such as a wheel, kiln, and some tools; the ongoing pottery supplies needed revolve mostly around the clay and glaze components.

Clay refers to a group of minerals that when mixed with water, basically demonstrate the characteristic of plasticity (ability to change shape when a force is applied).

Clay primarily is composed of alumina and silica.

Clay Bodies are combinations of clays mixed with other minerals such as feldspar, grog (fired and ground clay added in to stabilize the firing), quartz, flint, spodumene, wollastonite, and more. These mixtures or clay bodies can be formulated to fire at a wide range of temperatures depending on the affect the Potter is trying to achieve.

Clays that appear darker typically contain iron and other metal oxide components. Porcelain and white stoneware generally contain much less impurities.

One of our resident Pottery Experts, Dennis Maza of New Jersey, maintains a book of custom clay formulas that he likes. Dennis explains the importance of curing the clay bodies after mixing up the proper proportions of for example, Pine Lake Fire Clay - Double X sagger, Gold Art, Red Art, Feldspar, Fine Grog. After mixing these pottery supplies all together, you usually give it at least 2 months to sit and cure. This is known as "Curing the Body". This allows the water molecules to surround each particle of the clay components. Without this curing period you will end up with inconsistent results.

Different types of clay, when used with different minerals and firing conditions, are used to produce earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain.

Clay Types

Kaolin or Kaolinite is a layered silicate mineral. Rocks that are rich in kaolin are known as china clay, white clay, or kaolin. The name kaolin comes from Kao-Ling or High Hill in the Jiangxi province of China. It is a very common mineral and is mined as kaolin in Brazil, France, UK, Germany, India, China, Czech Republic, and the U.S. Kaolin is a soft usually white mineral produced through weathering of minerals such as feldspar.

Ball Clay is a sedimentary clay that commonly consists of:

  • Kaolinite (20%-80%)
  • Mica (10%-25%)
  • Quartz (6%-65%)

Due to the nature of the sedimentary layer from which Ball Clay comes, the composition varies. However, Ball Clay is typically characterized by its fine grain and plasticity. Ball Clay is relatively scarce. It is mined in the Eastern United States, as well as several places in Western England. Ball Clay is a pottery supply used to provide plasticity and to avoid unintended deformation during the shaping process.

Pottery Wheel

When it comes to big ticket pottery supplies, high on the list is often the Pottery Wheel. The pottery wheel is used in the process of "throwing" where a ball of clay is placed in the center of a turntable, called the wheel-head. The wheel-head is rotated by either foot power, using a a kick wheel (or treadle wheel) or with a variable speed electric motor.

Often a disk of plastic, wood, or plaster is first placed on the wheel-head. This disk is called a "bat". The ball of clay is then placed on top of the bat so that after the forming of the clay is complete, the finished piece can be removed intact with its bat, without distorting the piece.

Electric wheels are great for producing pieces relatively quickly. They are usually lighter than kick wheels, and can be transported easier e.g. to other Studios, or an Arts Festival. Some of the biggest name brands in electric Pottery Wheels are: Amaco - Brent pottery wheel, Shimpo, and Pacifica. Typical costs for pottery wheels range $800-$1400.

Kick wheels are very low maintenance and will usually last for many decades. Often they are used for trimming and decorating. Common brands for kick wheels are: Thomas Stuart and Brent. Prices for Kick wheels range $500-$1500.

Here we have one of our favorite pottery artists, Deborah Slahta, working her magic on the pottery wheel.

pottery wheel - Deb Slahta

She turns out beautiful Raku fired vases such as this one.

Pottery Wheel Deb Slahta

Check out some of Deborah Slahta's other work here.

Find out more about the Pottery Wheel and see a video of Deborah in action on our Pottery Wheel page.

Among the smaller and lower cost pottery supplies and tools are the...

Shaping Tools

Pottery supplies commonly used for shaping include:
  • Wooden Paddle - is a tool for Potter's to shape and texture clay forms. The paddle is used in both hand-building clay and pottery wheel work. The paddle is commonly used along with the Anvil to widen and shape clay vessels on the wheel. It is also used to join clay pieces on the potter's wheel. Often one side of the paddle will be a smooth surface while the other side may have a textured design cut into it.
  • Pottery Tools -  Anvil

  • Anvil - Often used along with the Paddle on the potter's wheel to expand and shape the clay vessel form. The basic technique is to hold the Anvil against the clay wall on the inside of the vessel and the paddle opposite it on the outside of the vessel. Very gradually, you stretch and shape the vessel while gently compressing the wall.

    Pottery Tools - Rib

  • Rib - characteristically have multiple concave and/or convex curves in multiple sizes as well as a variety of corners for smoothing, shaping and finishing wheel thrown pottery. They are also used in handbuilt sculpting.

Pottery Tools - Roulette

Rolling Tools

Pottery supplies commonly used for Rolling include:
  • Roulettes - are tools for making continuous bands of repeated texture and patterns. Often called a stamping tool, Potters have made and purchased quite a variety of these type tools. Steve Graber engineered a really cool and flexible roulette tool. Check it out on his website...
    Pottery Tools - Slab Roller
  • Slab Rollers - are used to roll out flat slabs of clay that maintain even thickness throughout the slab. Slabs can be used for making wrap around vases, platters, bowls, and sculptures. Here is a Bailey Slab Roller that can be found at www.BaileyPottery.com.
  • Rolling Pins - similar to rolling pins used in the kitchen, in pottery, they are used to roll out slabs of clay. Rolling pins come in a variety of sizes depending on the required slab size.

Cutting or Piercing Tools

Pottery supplies commonly used for Cutting or Piercing include:
  • Knife - Used for a variety of tasks including cutting, scoring, texturing, and scraping the clay form.
  • Pottery Tools - Piercing Cutting Tools

  • Cut-off Wire - the wire is used to used to cut through blocks of clay and to cut off pots from the wheel head. Some potters prefer to use the wire tool to cut off damaged or uneven rims instead of the pin tool.

  • Pottery Tools - Fluting Tool Pottery Tools - Fluting Tool

  • Fluting tools - are used to carve flutes or scallops into pottery before bisque but when the clay form is of the consistency of leather. Proper flutes have a consistent depth, are evenly placed, and are parallel.
  • Above we see the Heydt Fluting Tool from www.mudinmind.com.

Finishing Tools

Pottery supplies commonly used for Finishing include:
  • Burnishing Tools - are usually wood, steel or stone used to rub the pottery surface to produce a polished finish that survives firing. It's possible to produce very highly polished pottery when fine clays are used, or when the polishing is carried out on pottery that has been partially dried however, pottery in this condition is typically very fragile and the risk of breakage is high.
  • Rasps - metal tool with a rough surface that is used for shaping and shaving away excess clay.
  • Chamois - used to compress and smooth usually the upper edges of pottery on the wheel. They can also be used to smooth forms that have dried to leather consistency.

Pottery Glazes

When it comes to pottery supplies used to coat, color, preserve, or otherwise leave the Artist's signature finish, the all important Glaze enters the picture.

In short, Pottery Glazes are made up of 5 basic components:
  • Silica - when heated above 3100 degrees F (by itself), it melts and forms glass. Flint is often used in glazes for the Silica component.
  • Alumina - this component allows the glaze to stick to the clay and not run off when the glaze is heated.
  • Flux - helps the melting process of the glass (Flint) component. Bone Ash is an example of a flux used in glazes. There are a variety of other fluxes (iron, zinc, sodium, and others) that are used depending on the temperature range firing will take place.
  • Colorants - Most colorants are metallic oxides e.g. iron oxide, chromium oxide. Talc is often used as a whitening agent.
  • Modifiers - are used to effect the glaze's surface affects such as opacity (transparency). Some examples of modifiers are:
    • Opalescence - reflecting an iridescent light (Think of how an Opal stone looks). Often titanium dioxide or bone ash are used as modifiers for this affect.
    • Bentonite - helps to hold the components into suspension
    • Opacifiers - because glazes end up generally transparent, opacifiers are added to give a white or opaque background. Common opacifiers used include: zirconium silicate, tin oxide, and bone ash.
    • Suspenders - are used to keep the heavier components of the glaze from settling out. Bentonite is commonly used as a glaze suspender.
    • Gums - are used to toughen the glaze and help to protect it's finish before going into the kiln for firing. Gum arabic and sodium carboxy methyl cellulose (CMC) are commonly used for this task.

Glazes come in a very large range of colors. Common pottery supplies used as colorants are: copper oxide, copper carbonate, chromium oxide, cobalt oxide, and iron oxide. The end color result on the pottery is also determined by factors such as the amount of oxygen in the kiln at the time of firing. Also affecting the end color result are the base color of the clay as well as any previously applied layers of glaze (underglaze), as these multi layerings will mix and create differing colors.

We'll talk more about Glazes and some of our favorite recipes on our Glaze page (coming soon to a browser near you).

Pottery Kiln (pronounced "kill")

Essentially insulated furnaces with temperature controls, Kilns represent the largest pottery supply and tool investment for the Potter. They are intermittent heaters in that they gradually increase in temperature, then after a period of time, they go through a cooling period. Kilns generally come with several options:

  • Front Loaded or Top Loaded Kilns -
    • Front loading kilns are considered easier to operate. However they come with a higher price tag. I see prices in the range of $4000 - $8000.
    • Top loading kilns are very popular. I've seen their prices in the range of $3000 - $6000.
  • Updraft or Downdraft Kilns -
    • Updraft kilns have a heat source on the bottom and exhaust is released through a damper on the top.
    • Downdraft kilns have a heat source on the bottom and the exhaust is also on the bottom. Heat circulates up through the kiln, and down the sides, then exhausts through the bottom. Downdraft kilns are much more energy efficient that Updraft kilns.
  • Electric, Natural or Propane Gas, Microwave assisted, or Wood
    • Electric - small to medium sized kilns used for pottery firing are increasingly powered by electricity. Electric kilns are relatively inexpensive. The downside to electric kilns is that they can only fire in a neutral or oxidation atmosphere and not a reduction atmosphere.
    • Natural or Propane Gas - kilns are used in many pottery studios because of their controllability as well as ability to fire in both an oxidation and reduction atmosphere.
    • Microwave assisted - technology has now brought the speed and convenience of microwaves together with traditional sources of heat using gas or electricity. The microwaves speed up the firing process and in turn reduce the overall costs of firing.
    • Wood - used for firing pottery has been around for several thousands of years. The downside for wood use is the added attention required during the firing process.

      Wood firing can take over 4 times as long as firing with a gas or electric source. On the upside, wood fired pottery often has very interesting characteristics as the ash from the wood fuel will produce its own special affects as it coats the pottery during firing.

    So as you can see, the Pottery Artist has quite an arsenal of Pottery Supplies and Tools at their disposal.

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