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Sometimes the best pottery tools aren’t the ones you buy in a shop, but the ones you stumble across at home. I remember needing to cut a quick hole that was a certain size. I thought I should probably shop for some hole cutters of various sizes, but noticed my drink bottle was about the size I needed. So, I finished my drink and was surprised at how cleanly the hole was cut. Then compress the bottle to pop out the clay. Free, quick and clean!
Now I’ll share my list of 14 tools typically found at home and how to use them.
Tool #1: Skewers
Simple bamboo skewers can be used as decorating and measuring tools
Tool #2: Measuring Cups
I use a plastic two cup measuring cup for pouring glazes
Tool #3: Scouring Pads
For sanding typical household scouring pads work great for sanding.
Tool #4: Pizza Plates
I use a metal pizza plate as a template for cutting out slab rolled plate blanks
Tool #5: Wooden Clothespins
A wooden clothespin can be taken apart sanded and shaped into a variety of tools
Tool #6: Bakery scrapers
Baker scrapers are excellent for cutting clay and scraping the sides of glaze buckets
Tool #7: Putty Knife
Putty knives are great for scraping clay, but can also be used to scrape glaze buckets, clean bats, and even cut clay when you need more than a simple knife. My favorite is a two inch blade. I use mostly the metal one, but a plastic one is good for cleaning without scratching.
Tool #8: Plastic Cup
Cups and tumblers can be used for cutting hold, rolling out small slabs, mixing or pouring glazes.
Tool #6: Cookie Cutters
You can make a lot of interesting pottery shapes with cookie cutters. Even the simple round ones can make great test tiles, appliques, etc.
Tool #9: Fondant Cutters
Fondant Cutters include a spring loaded back that pushes the clay out of the cutter. This is particularly helpful to keep edges clean.
Tool #10: Rubber Mallet
Used to carefully unstick a lid from the body. A leather maker's mallet works great, or even a metal hammer wrapped in a rag will work.
Tool #11: Angle Rulers
I use a medium and a large angle ruler for cutting slabs. They help make perfect corners and straight sides.
Tool #12: Box Cutter
I always have one handy for opening shipments, cutting tape, making cardboard templates.
Tool #13: Soda bottle
I will often use an empty soda bottle as a hole cutter. It’s easy to cut a clean hole, then compress the bottle to pop out the clay.
Tool #14: Tooth Flosser
A simple tooth flosser works great as a mini wire cutting tool. Easy to hold and make quick clean cuts on coils and other small work.
Want more free pottery resources? Check out How I Pack and Ship my Pottery
Here are the things you can do to make the shipping process easier and more time and cost efficient. I’m going to let my wife Jo explain the process.
Hi! It’s Jo! I’m excited to share our shipping process with you today because I know it will help you. But before I do this, let me share some of the problems that you need to consider when shipping pottery.”
3 Problems With Shipping Pottery
Once in a while things are broken because of the shipper. Some packages have arrived with holes and dents looking like they’ve been used in a soccer match. But more often than not, it’s been our own fault in packaging.
#2 Keeping enough boxes in enough sizes
It’s also a challenge keeping enough of the right sized boxes. Big enough to fit, but small enough to keep the costs down.
#2 Taking things to the post office
Then, loading and delivering to the post office or to UPS can be time consuming..
What went wrong
We learned a couple of key things. You can pack things too tightly. The boxes need to be able to absorb bumping and dropping, without the packing being so tight that it puts pressure on rims and other key places. Not much room, because you don’t want the movement itself to jar and break the pieces - just enough so that it can endure a little bump.
Don’t include something heavy with something lighter. I once put a little piece inside a larger bowl. The little piece acted like a hammer and smashed the larger piece.
Our Pottery Shipping Process
We wrap plates differently than other things. First we wrap them in paper (to keep the tape residue off the plates), then tape them to foam pieces so that there is a one inch foam border on all sides. Then put them in a short plate box. Then we add foam peanuts in a larger box and put the plate boxes on edge with peanuts on the bottom, sides, and top. So 5 layers: Paper, foam, box, peanuts, box
Step 1: Wrap
We wrap most of our work in paper or bubble wrap.
Step 2: Double Box
We double box everything. Usually with peanuts in between.
Step 3: Click and Ship
Often we will use the USPS priority click and ship option. It saves us a time consuming trip to the post office. And it isn’t any more expensive than taking it in.
However, in a larger production mode, there are a number of services that will let you purchase postage at a reduced cost. If everything is labeled and paid for, the post office trip is only a drop off trip.
I always add “fragile handle with care” stickers. I generally feel that postal carriers are not intending to damage the post, and if they know it’s fragile, it will receive a little extra care. For the most part.
Step 5: Free boxes from USPS
USPS also provides free boxes in a variety of sizes. They will also deliver them for free. These can also be used inside other boxes, to fill space, etc.
When shipping very fragile and high cost pieces, I use Instapak foam envelopes. They are expensive but very effective. I will take one envelope, put it in the bottom of the box,get it foaming up, and press my piece into it. Then take another envelope for the top and do the same thing. The piece is completely surrounded by protective foam.
Air filled bags: A wonderful invention and a great way to take up extra space. We save and reuse all of these that we get. If you are doing a lot of shipping, it may be worth it to purchase the tools and supplies to make your own.
We have started thinking about the sizing of our products and how it relates to shipping. For example, a standard piece after packing might be 13 inches. But, a barely smaller size will fit in a 12 inches boxe saving a considerable amount over time.
Want to learn more about my process? Check out 11 Things I Wish I Knew When I First Became a Potter
It’s exciting to have someone purchase your pottery! Your work is valued and appreciated. Then you get the sick feeling inside realizing that you now have to pack and ship it. But there are ways to make it easier and less stressful.
I once sent a set of 12 plates to a customer only to have 3 or them arrive broken. Then the replacements broke as well. I thought, “ok it’s time to rethink our shipping and packaging.
I got a tip once, that has saved me so much time. I thought, “If I’d have known that earlier, I could have saved myself a lot of grief!” So here are a few things that I’ll share that I wish I’d have known early on.
#1 Avoid big mistakes - test carefully
Pots will break, glazes will run, and many other things during the process of creating pottery will go wrong. Little things going wrong are just a part of the process. The key is to avoid big things going wrong. For example, I lost an entire bisque load just before a show because I put in something that was too wet and it exploded. So if you feel like you might be rushing, don’t! It’s not worth it. Avoid ruining your kiln and shelves by testing new glazes and new clays carefully. I typically put them in a test bowl just so they won’t ruin shelves and kiln if they run.
#2 Store kiln furniture on it’s edge
I bought some new kiln shelves from a local supplier. Laid them in the trunk of my car. When I got home, one was cracked in half. If I’d have set them on their edges, I would have not lost that shelf.
#3 Some tools save a lot of time and effort
Grinding the bottom of pots has always been a pain for me. First I got a diamond disk and put it on my wheel, but it didn’t work all that well. Finally I realized that a table grinder was very inexpensive. For very little money I bought one and have used it for so many things since. It takes up very little space. Don’t forget to wear safety goggles every time, even if it’s just a tiny bit. I was grinding a bottom, hardly anything and I debated putting on my goggles. Sure enough a bit about the size of a pea flew up and hit my glasses right where my eye would have been.
#4 Have a consistent way to keep glaze tests
I’ve tested lots of glazes over the years. Then, in an effort to keep things clean and organized, I would toss the ones that I thought I’d never use. Several times, I’ve had to rebuy and retest glazes again. Just because you aren’t going to use it now, doesn’t mean you might not use it later. I have found that a simple circle disk about inches in diameter with a pattern stamped on the bottom half works best for testing. I also cut a hole in the top to hand them. I usually dip them once and then when dry dip them half in again. This give me the whole picture of what the glaze will do. These are easy to store. I write what the glaze was on the back. The only thing missing is how will the glaze run on a vertical surface. For this I usually throw a test cup and fire it on a test plate or scrap shelf.
#5 Keep a small journal to store key information
There are times when knowing exactly what you did comes in handy. How much clay do I use to throw this specific size bowl? How much plaster do I use to make these bats? What are my favorite suppliers, etc. I think about how many times I’ve had to start from scratch, and it just makes sense to write this stuff down.
#6 Buy better tools
I had some tools that I have kept and used frequently for 30 years. I have other tools that last a few months. While we don’t have to spend a fortune on tools, there are times when a nicer tool will last significantly longer than other tools made of softer wood. Hardwood ribs and tools last a long time, and cost just a little more.
#7 Use a weigh scale
About the only way to throw a set of items is to weigh the clay. You start with the exact same amount of clay, you throw it to the same height and width, and they will come out close. Otherwise, it’s hit and miss. You also need a scale for shipping, even if you don’t too much, it’s way easier to weigh it yourself. You will also need it if you are mixing your own glazes, making plaster bats and molds, etc.
#8 Temperature can changes things
I bought a bunch of new glazes and tested them. Once I determined that I was going to use them a lot, I bought them in large quantities. Then, the weather got cold and I noticed crystals and other things in my glazes. Turns out, freezing ruins the glazes. Also, the gallon of wax resist turned into a lump. So, if you don’t have a studio with temperature control, bring stuff into the house during freezing temperatures. Freezing can affect some clays, but I find it doesn’t really do much with my clay. However, one time, I was trimming some bowls and found hard specks in them. I thought it was a rock or plaster. Turns out it was ice! So, thrown stuff will freeze and ruin too.
#9 Cats are not good pottery buddies
I like cats and dogs both. And I like when they keep me company in the studio. However, one day I had thrown a very large platter and it was drying for trimming. I turned around and the cat had walked across it spoiling the lip and leaving little kitty racks. Darn cat! Also I found they like sharpening their claws on my kiln lid. They really ruined it within a few days. I had to cover it with something to keep them from doing it. Now they don’t get on it at all. I suppose they still make good pottery buddies.
#10 Don’t take too long to center
Centering adds water and softens the clay. This makes it harder to work with as you pull it. How many years did I struggle pulling and not able to get my shapes. I thought it was all the fault of my skill or inherent in the clay body. Turns out, if I center fast, completely, but fast, then miraculously the clay handles better. By fast, I mean cone up two or three times. The key is that you do have to center completely.
#11 Do what you love
I have sometimes felt like I would just like to make pottery and give it away. Not a very practical business model. But still, I think it’s important to do what you love. Sometimes I give a cup to a young person and it makes them so happy. Other times, someone is sharing a challenge they are facing and I give them encouragement. I love being a good friend. Making a lot of money isn’t as important as other things to me. Don’t get me wrong, I still charge for my pottery. But I also recognize that it gives me a lot of satisfaction when I can share something that is impactful to their lives. Sometimes, it’s a set of bowls that they use all the time, sometimes, a simple act of replacing a broken mug at no charge. We’re all in this together!
Want more great tips for beginners? Check out How to Soften Clay to Make it Easier to Throw
How hard is too hard. Sometimes, potters like clay that is a little stiffer because it is easier to throw thin. However, it’s harder to center. Having clay this is the right balance is important particularly if you are doing production, or if you simply want things to come out the same. First let’s talk about how clay becomes hard in the first place. Then, fortunately, it’s fairly easy to fix!
3 Reasons Why Your Clay is Hard
Reason #1: It came from the manufacturer too hard
Sometimes, it just comes hard. You can buy pallet loads of clay and all of it is the perfect moisture and softness. Other times, it’s a little too hard, or a little too soft. Either way, if it’s not perfect, it’s going to need to be adjusted.
Reason #2: You left the bag open, or it wasn’t used for a long time.
Time will dry clay out eventually. Students may leave a bag partially open, or a myriad of other things happen to dry out the clay. Whatever the case, luckily, it’s easy to fix.
Reason #3: Scraps from production
There are inevitable failures when producing pottery. Something gets bumped, it warps, falls over, etc. As long as it hasn’t been fired, and isn’t dirty, it can be recycled. There are also plenty of trimmings from production, testing, etc. All create scraps that can easily be recycled.
5 Steps to Soften Clay
Step #1: Recycle process
If you are fortunate to own a mixing and de-airing pugmill, then your problems are solved. Dump everything in, adjust the moisture and your good to go. For the rest of us, it’s a little more work. In a nutshell here’s my recycling steps
Collect trimmings and scraps in a 5 gallon bucket. Let them completely dry
Storing only dry helps keep the clay from molding. If I leave it wet for a couple of weeks, it darkens and starts to smell.
When full, add water and let sit at least 24 hours.
Pour the standing water off the top
Sandwich two inch layers of clay on wide, 2 inch thick plaster bats - make stacks, but not too tall. Leave for 12 hours.
Remove the clay and stack the bats where they can dry completely
Wedge the clay and put into bags. Let sit at least 24 hours or more before using
Wedge again before using.
I like the clay to be pulled off the bats while it’s still quite soft. It’s easy to let the clay dry a little, but more difficult to get it soft again. Don’t ever scrape the bats. You shouldn’t need to, and it will inevitably get small scraps of plaster in the clay which ruins it.
Step #2: Mix with soft clay
Sometimes, I will take some of my extra soft recycled clay and mix it with harder clay. This is a quick way to soften some clay. It takes a little work, and requires good wedging so that you don’t get hard and soft spots.
Get the clay into relatively square shapes
Slice about an inch of the dry clay, and then the wet. Alternately stack them up
Turn the stack of wet and dry clay on its side. Cut and alternate again.
Wedge and put into a bag
Step #3: Bag in a bucket
I’ve not ever tried this, but lots of potters say it works fine. Take a bag of hard clay. Open it and add 1 cup or more of water. Seal the bag up tight. Then put the bag of clay into a 5 gallon bucket of water so that it is submerged. Apparently the pressure of the water pushes the water inside the bag through the clay.
Want more free pottery education? Check out My Philosophy on Seconds
During the pottery making process, there are always failures. Pottery can fail during throwing, trimming, drying, glazing and firing. Then, everything can go perfectly and a little fleck of something can land on the pot and cause its imperfection.
Sometimes the failures are big, a crack in the bottom, a lid falls during firing, or the colors didn’t work at all. Then, there are failures that are small: a slight blemish on the foot, a minor warping of a bowl, or an imperfect line of glaze.
Some pots are clearly meant for the garbage, but what to do with the ones with small flaws, the seconds?
You can do it any way you choose
Some potters throw the seconds away. Some sell them for a reduced price. The joy of being a potter is that you can do it any way you like! It’s fine either way. It all depends on how you feel about it.
“I still like it!”
To many people, small flaws just show that it is handmade, and do not decrease how much they enjoy the piece. Many feel like the imperfections increase it’s authenticity and make it even more valuable. Additionally, there are those who may not be able to afford the full price for your work and will completely adore a second at a price they can afford.
I choose to not sell seconds
For me, I feel like each piece lasts so long that I don’t want flawed pieces out in the world. I may give pottery to a friend, who leaves it to their child. Years from now, that child will look at the piece and see the flaw, perhaps they won’t mind, but perhaps they don’t like it because it is flawed.
So I choose not to sell seconds. Most of them go into the trash, but some of them end up in my seconds tree. A couple of apple trees in my front yard hold dozens of pots. During the summer, you can barely see them because of the leaves, but in winter, they all show up and are really interesting to see.
Again, this is just how I choose to handle it. There isn’t a right or wrong way. We do have a few pieces on our shelves that aren’t perfect, because my wife loves them. Enjoy the process and remember that we are usually much more critical of our own work than anyone else.
Later, after all of the above, I’m having a one time only seconds sale to clear stuff out!
Want more free pottery resources? Check out How to Choose the Right Clay
In school we used whichever clay the teacher had available or told us to purchase. As I started to consider my own work there were a couple of things I considered. I want it to look good with the glazes I wanted to use. I also wanted to be able to throw easily and have a smooth finish. So how does one start picking from all of the various options? I’ll give you my suggestions and a couple of tips to help
So I started testing. I ended up with Aardvark B-mix Cone 5. It’s a smooth clay that fires to a cream color. I also use Laguna Calico Red, a very dark red and gritty clay.
What I Look For in a Good Throwing Clay
If you are fortunate, you will have a local supplier that provides multiple clays from multiple vendors. Sometimes, they will have a supply of more local clays that will fit your need. Ideally, you can get your clay in quantities that match your needs, without having to pay a lot of shipping. However, if you are planning on a lot of production, you may find that purchasing large quantities a few times a year will be more cost effective.
You will need to look at the glazes and the firing technique that you are going to use. You will need clay that is fully vitrified at the temperature you want. Also, different cones, will have different glaze options. I chose a cone six white glaze because of all of the glaze color options.
Basically you want a color that looks great and makes your glazes look great. Lighter clays make brighter colors. By the way, Red clays stain your skin and clothes more that white clays. You can do both, but you have to be meticulous about cleaning and tools so that you don’t contaminate your white clay with darker clays.
You want clay that throws well. Porcelain is harder to throw but does have wonderful traits. Some clays are harder to throw than others. Some clays are better suited for hand-building. So think about what you want to do as you select your clay.
My Favorite Clays
1. Aardvark B-Mix cone 5/6
Carried by my local supplier, creamy color, very smooth. Glazes look bright and clean.
Cons: Difficult to throw large and thin. Attached handles have a tendency to crack unless you score well and let dry slowly
2. Laguna Calico Red cone 5/6
Basically the clay that was the most red I could find. Throws lovely. Smooth, but contains grit. Easier to throw large. Glazes are darker, and toastier - and tend to burn from the high iron content - I love that burn!
Cons: Not locally available, but can order from someone who delivers. I have to polish the feet more because of the grit. Stains clothes, plaster, etc. I really have to use separate tools, buckets, bats, etc. Typically I will do a few months with this clay and then clean and go back to the white.
Choosing the Right Clay for You
Now that I’ve talked to you about my favorite clays, I want to help you find the clay that will be right for you. Here are my best tips for choosing a clay to throw. And if you’re a beginner check out The Best Clay for Beginners.
Tip #1 - Sample sets
Most manufacturers have a sample set of different clays that you can order. This will allow you to see the general characteristics and create tests for your glazes. Then you can narrow it down and order a bag of each to test how it throws.
Tip #2 - Select a popular clay
For starting out, I would select a popular lighter clay that can be used for multiple functions, handbuilding, sculpting and throwing. If it’s a popular one, there are good reasons. Many manufacturers have guides including these characteristics that you can review.
Tip #3 - Document
Get an underglaze pencil that will let you write on your tests. It will make it so much easier to keep track of the clays and glazes you are working with. Number your test tiles initially by writing on the back of the clay and writing the details down on paper. Then after bisque fire, write on the back of the tile with the clay and glaze.
Want more free pottery resources? Check out 14 Free and Creative Pottery Tools