What kind of clay tools do you need to make pots? The great thing about creating pottery is that you really don’t need any tools at all. You can simply use your hands to form clay into pots or anything else you can imagine.
Another great thing about making pottery is that there are hundreds of tools to increase efficiency and make pots that are more interesting. Below you will find a comprehensive guide to popular pottery tools that are available and how they can be used.
What Are Clay Tools?
A clay tool is anything that can be held in the hand and used to do a specific task while making pottery from clay. This could include forming the clay, glazing, firing or any other part of the process. (Ceramic equipment such as pottery wheels and kilns will be covered on a different page.) You can also read a great guide to pottery supplies. Let’s look at the different kinds of clay tools that are used to make pottery.
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A Basic Pottery Tool Kit
To get started, you can find relatively inexpensive sets of basic clay tools. These sets usually include a sponge, a needle tool, a fettling knife, a wooden trim knife, a rib, and perhaps a trimming tool.
Some sets offer a few additional tools. Each tool will be explained in further detail below but these are the most basic tools that are perfect for your first pottery class or starting to work with clay at home.
Clay can be shaped in many different ways. There are many different kinds of clay tools to push, pull, squish, flatten, press, or extrude clay.
Ribs are flat tools that usually have at least one curved edge. They can be made out of metal, wood, rubber, plastic or even fired clay. They come in all shapes and sizes. Many potters that make pots on a pottery wheel use ribs to shape or smooth their pots. They can also be used to apply slip or add marks.
Ribs are made from different materials, each with it’s own advantages. Rubber, plastic or silicone ribs can be made in varying amounts of flexibility. They can be bent in the hand to get just the curve needed. Wooden ribs vary in price depending on the kind of wood and quality. They do not flex at all which can be useful for compressing clay or making specific marks on the clay.
A basic metal rib can be very cheap. They are usually made of stainless steel and offer a good amount of flex. They also have the advantage of coming with a variety of serrated or wavy edges and can be used to add texture to the surface of a pot.
Profile ribs are also available or can be made. These ribs are designed to give your pots more consistency. This could include a certain curve to make the inside of a bowl or outside of a mug. There are also foot and rim profile ribs to make the parts of multiple pots the same.
Rolling tools such as a kitchen rolling pin or a section of PVC pipe can be used to flatten clay. The clay must be soft enough to flatten but not too moist or else it will stick to the roller. The clay can be placed between sheets of canvas or other fabric to keep it from sticking.
Some rollers also have textured patterns or images that transfer to the clay. These can be used after the clay is already flattened to make an interesting surface. Find some on Amazon (affiliate link).
You can also flatten out clay with a slab roller, which will be added to the ceramic equipment page.
Modeling, Sculpting, Clean Up Tools
There are more tools for modeling or sculpting clay than you can imagine. These clay tools can be made from a variety of materials including wood, metal and plastic. They are often long and slender like a pencil with certain shapes at one or both ends. In fact, you can use the end of a paintbrush or pencil as well.
Some have sharp pointy ends made of metal. These can even include saw blades or drill bits. Other clay tools have soft rubber tips. The wooden tools are often reasonably priced and can have just about any shape imaginable at the end.
You may also consider making your own tools or finding tools that weren’t made specifically for working with clay but will make interesting marks in the clay.
There are many types of molds that can be used to shape pottery. Molds are often made from wood or plaster. Plaster molds can be used to shape liquid clay (slip) into intricate objects or forms. Slump or hump molds are often made of wood which slabs of clay are laid into or over. Some available on Amazon (affiliate link).
You can even use bisqued clay as a mold. Clay can be pressed into small molds to form sprigs which are small forms added to the surface of a pot.
A paddle is usually made from a slab of wood with a thinner handle at one end. Paddles are used to… paddle one side of clay to thin or shape it. Paddles can also have texture on the surface which transfers to the clay when slapped against it.
There are large extruders that can hang on a wall but you can also find small handheld extruders as well. These extruders push clay through a pipe. At the end of the pipe you can attach end pieces with holes of different shape and size. This will allow you to create any length coils of clay.
There are many tools that can be used to cut clay in various ways.
Cut Off Wire / Wire Tool
The cut off wire, also known as a wire tool, is a very simple tool used to cut clay. It usually consists of some kind of wire with a pair of wooden or plastic handles at either end. The wire part of the tool can be made of metal wire, fishing line, or even string.
Wire tools are perfect for separating a thrown pot from the pottery wheel when it is finished. They are also often used to cut a big amount of clay into smaller pieces. Most wire tools have straight wire but you can also get them with wavy wires which leave an interesting texture where the clay is cut.
There are also tools that have a wire stretched between two arms like a cake cutter or cheese slicer. Some clay tools that have wire stretched at certain angles for creating precise bevels.
Knives and Needles
A fettling knife is one of the basic clay tools that comes with almost any beginner set. It can be used to cut shapes from a slab of clay, smooth out an area, carve into the clay, and even apply slip. It is simple but multifunctional.
An X-acto knife or utility knife is much sharper than a fettling knife. These types of knives can be used to make more precise cuts. For example, cutting holes into leather hard clay. Replacement blades are often cost effective which is nice because cutting through certain clays can dull blades quickly.
A needle tool is another standard clay tool that comes with almost any kind of pottery tool set. Needle tools can be used to cut through soft clay, poke small holes, and do some quick carving or scoring.
Cutting Holes and Shapes
There are few ways to create holes in clay. You can just stab your finger or something similar through the clay. This will give a more expressive hole.
For clean, round holes you can use hole cutting tools made specially for this task. You can also use drill bits which work best with leather hard clay. You can make very precise holes this way.
Cookie cutters are fun to use with clay. They can be used to cut interesting shapes from slabs of clay. They could also be used to cut out specially shaped holes. The great thing about cookie cutters is that they come in almost any shape and size you could want.
You can even make or order custom cookie cutters!
Scoring clay means roughing up the surface of the clay, often used when attaching two pieces of clay together. You can use a variety of tools to score the surface of clay.
Some tools are designed specifically for scoring clay such as serrated ribs, wire brushes and scoring tools. But there are plenty of other tools that can get the job done, including combs, forks, and needle tools.
Trimming or turning is the process of removing extra clay, often from the bottom of a pot as it spins on a pottery wheel. There are a variety of simple tools that can be used.
Ribbon or loop tools come in many shapes and sizes. They usually consist of a wooden handle with a loop or ribbon of sharpened metal at one or both ends. They can be used for trimming extra clay from pots or carving designs in the surface of the clay.
Bent metal tools are also used by many potters to trim excess clay away. These tools are made from flat metal that has been bent 90 degrees at the end. The very end is cut to certain shapes and then sharpened. Some potters even make their own from hacksaw blades. These tools can be used to trim away clay or perform the chattering technique which adds texture to the surface of a pot.
A similar tool with a couple unique enhancements is the Sherrill Do All tool. It combines a squarish 90 degree end with a flat metal handle in the middle and sharpened coil of metal at the other. It is great for carving and trimming a variety of angles and shapes.
There are some special clay tools that can be used to decorate the surface of pots.
There are many kinds of tools that can be used to carve into the surface of the clay. Many have already been mentioned. You can also buy specialized tools that are created for carving clay. These tools usually have a long handle so you can hold them like a pencil and sharp ends of various shapes and sizes.
You can create texture using all kinds of different clay tools. But if you keep an eye out you may be able to find everyday things that will make interesting textures like combs, gears, nets, fabrics, rope, brushes, tree bark, or about a thousand other things.
The Steve Tool is a texture tool specially designed to work with clay. It has plastic gears attached to a metal rod which makes it easy to apply texture to a pot that is spinning on the wheel.
There are also dozens of different texture rollers and mats. They can be made from wood, rubber, or plastic and can come in different sizes. You could even make a texture mat from bisque fired clay.
Similar to texture tools, stamps offer a great variety of shapes and designs. They can be pressed into clay to create images, words, and textures. Stamps can be created from rubber, resin, plastic, wood, or metal.
The great thing about stamps is that they can be used for many things other than clay. This means they can be found in places that are not related to pottery and are often relatively cheap. You can also order custom stamps with your own unique design from many places.
You can make your own stamps with a 3D printer, stampmaking kit, carving blocks, plaster, and of course clay! Make a stamp out of clay and then bisque fire it so it can be used over and over again.
Slip trailing is a technique where lines of slip are applied to leather hard clay to create designs and texture. You can get special slip trailing bottles with metal tips in different sizes. You can also used rubber ball shaped tool that has a nozzle.
Rasps, Shredders, Sandpaper, Sponges
Some tools were designed to take away thin layers of clay. Rasps and clay shredders work well to shave off layers of clay that is leather hard. Clay that is too moist will get stuck in the tool. A cheese slicer is good to use with soft clay.
Sponges can be used to smooth clay. You can find sponges in different shapes, sizes and materials.
Some potters take off clay or smooth the surface of their work after it is bone dry. This can be done with sandpaper, scouring pads, or steel wool but be sure to wear an adequate mask and do any sanding outside. Breathing clay dust will damage your lungs!
Sometimes making pottery can require some careful measuring. There are a variety of clay tools that can make measuring easy. You can even make your own! A ruler was added to this wooden trim knife.
Rulers or similar measuring devices are the most basic measuring tools. You have probably been using these since grade school. You can find rulers made from wood, plastic, and metal. Plastic has the benefit of not being damaged by water and some plastic rulers are also flexible.
There are even special shrinkage rulers which will show you the dimension of your pot after it has been fired and shrunk by a predetermined amount.
You can also buy soft tape measures that are made of plastic, rubber, or vinyl. These rulers are made to be flexible and are perfect for measuring around the circumference of a pot or any other curved surface. Sewing tape measures are one example of these flexible rulers that work well for pottery.
The Lid Master and other similar calipers can be very helpful to compare the size of two different pieces of clay. For example, if you are making a pot with a lid, you can measure the opening with your calipers or Lid Master and then use that measurement to make a lid that fits into the opening.
On certain occasions you may need to measure or create a specific angle. A protractor is the tool for this. You can also get a dividing web or decorating disc which will help you break a circle into equal parts. This can help lay out your designs around a round pot.
Wheel Throwing Tools
Many of the tools mentioned above have multiple uses and can also be used while throwing pots on the pottery wheel. But there are some tools which are specifically designed to make wheel thrown pots.
Throwing sticks are long and slender and often have thicker, rounded end. These clay tools are used to make pots with narrow necks or openings. They can fit through the small opening and take the place of your hand to provide pressure on the clay walls from the inside.
A sponge on a stick can be used to soak up water inside a pot that is too narrow to fit your hand into. You can get telescoping metal versions or cheaper wooden sticks with a regular yellow sponges. You can even make your own by tying a sponge to the end of a dowel rod.
Pot lifters come as a pair and can be purchased in different sizes. They are made from sheets of metal that is bent and cut to allow the rounded edges to slide part way under a pot that has just been cut free of the pottery wheel. Then you can lift the pot off to place on a shelf or drying board without touching the outside of the pot.
Cow tongues, also known as bull tongues or gybera, are long, flat wooden ribs with a scoop shape at one end. They can be used to create large platters with the long straight edge or bowls with the curved end.
A piece of chamois cloth can be used to smooth and compress the rim of a pot.
Glazing and Decorating Tools
Glaze is usually applied to bisque fired pottery to add color, design, and better functionality. There are a few tools that make this easier and allow more advanced techniques.
Dipping tongs are made of metal and can hold pots as they are dipped into glaze. The pointed ends that hold the pot leave very small marks in the glaze which can be filled in easily.
Before using a glaze it will need to be mixed or stirred. Things you could use for this include a large spoon or mixing stick, drill attachment, or a hand blender. If you are creating your own glaze from dry powder you will need a sieve.
You may need to measure out a certain amount of water if you are mixing a fresh batch of glaze or magic water. Or you may need to measure your glaze to check the specific gravity. There are many different liquid measuring cups and graduated cylinders available.
There are many shapes and sizes of brushes that can be used to glaze pottery. The handles are usually wood or plastic but the bristles can be a variety of things from synthetic fibers to almost any kind of animal fur.
Smaller brushes are good for creating thin lines or small shapes with glaze or underglaze. Larger brushes can be used for covering an entire surface with glaze.
Glaze can be poured or sprayed onto the surface of a pot. To pour glaze you can use a cup with a spout or pitcher. You can also buy a special cup that lets you blow into a tube to spray the glaze onto your pot.
For finer droplets and a more even coating (and to avoid getting light headed) you can use a spray gun powered by an air compressor.
Pottery Tools for Firing Clay
Pottery is fired in a kiln to complete the process. Firing pots may require certain tools. For example, raku tongs are used to grab pots out of a hot raku kiln. You may need a tape measure to see if a certain pot will fit in a space in a larger kiln. A good brush or roller can be used to apply kiln wash to shelves.
Depending on the type of kiln you have, you may need certain tools to repair or maintain it including screwdrivers, hammers, chisels, wire cutters, wire crimpers, and pliers. An angle grinder or grinding brick can be used to clean kiln shelves. A handheld multimeter is good to have if you are troubleshooting or repairing an electric kiln.
There are also plenty of other tools that are convenient to have on hand while making pottery. A heat gun or handheld torch can help you dry clay quickly. Angle grinders, diamond pads, or Dremel tools can help you smooth the rough parts of your pots. Banding wheels allow you to rotate your pots by hand as you work on them. Drills or immersion blenders can make mixing glazes easier.
Spray bottles can help keep clay moist or aid in cleanup. Sponges and scrapers are great for cleaning surfaces and smoothing clay. Handle tools are similar to ribbon tools but let you cut strips of clay in handle shapes. The old fashioned paper and pencil are good for sketching ideas, recording notes, or making calculations.
Where to Buy Clay Tools
There are many places to buy clay tools. Especially since nearly anything can be used as a tool to make pots. As a small business owner, I recommend supporting artists and craftspeople that make clay tools by hand. You can find many people on Etsy that make and sell clay tools such as DAT Pottery, Troy Bungart, and Outpost Pottery.
You may be lucky enough to live near a physical store that sells pottery or art supplies. Many places that carry art supplies have at least a small selection of tools that can be used with clay. This could include stores like Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, and Dick Blick.
For a better selection of clay tools, try to find a ceramic supply shop. Here are a few that offer online shopping:
- The Ceramic Shop: Philadelphia, PA
- Bailey Pottery: Kingston, NY
- Seattle Pottery Supply: Seattle, WA
- Clay King: Spartanburg, SC
- Sheffield Pottery: Sheffield, MA
- Ceramic Superstore: Baton Rouge, LA
You can also visit the websites for individual companies that make clay tools. A few examples include:
And yes, you can buy most clay tools mentioned above on Amazon. Here is a small sample of what is available (affiliate links):
Pottery Tools are for Making Awesome Pots!
Now that you know about so many clay tools that can be used to make pottery, go make something great! You can learn more about the whole making pottery process, see what pottery supplies you can use to make pots, or read some pottery tips for inspiration. Have fun!