Published Oct 6, 2023
Almost anything can be used to make marks on clay – from found objects or repurposed kitchen utensils to handmade tools made specifically for working with clay. But certain jobs in the pottery studio, like trimming and carving, can be made much easier with the right tool.
For carving intricate details (such as those on the Elaine Coleman pot above), sharp durable tools are a must. And clay working tools made of materials that maintain their sharpness or can easily be sharpened can make trimming pots a joy (seriously). Today, the late Robin Hopper draws from his many years of experience to give advice on the best pottery trimming and carving tools out there. –Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor
An infinite variety of graphic marks can be made in soft clay through the use of a wide assortment of knives, forks, scalpels, welding rods, wire-ended or wooden modeling tools, sticks, bones, awls, needles, saws, wires, kitchen utensils and just about anything that can be creatively employed to produce an image, mark or sign. The nature of working with tools is such that artists usually develop favorites that seem to become extensions of their hands. Most potters and ceramic artists I know seem to have boxes of tools selected or made for specific processes of surface enrichment. They invariably are seeking the one tool that will out-perform all others, feel better in the hand or just be more pleasurable in use.
Tools either can be purchased or found objects. In sensitive hands, sometimes the most unlikely looking implements give the greatest results. Almost any tool takes time to give out its secrets for best use, so continued play or exploration of potential is a given if you want to use tools to their optimum level. Slight variations of pressure, twist or movement can produce or reveal the most amazing complexity of marks from even the simplest of tools.
Tools and Methods for Carving Clay
The tools that seem to perform best with either soft or leather-hard clay - the states where most slashing, scratching, carving and cutting is done - primarily are tools with sharp points or edges. Clays generally are abrasive, finely granular materials that quickly will take the edge off of softer metal tools. Most cutting tools perform best when kept sharp. The types of material used for ceramic tool making varies from fairly soft alloy metals to knife-quality steel and beyond, into tungsten carbide, a fine, very hard crystalline material.
The price of the tool often will indicate the quality. The better the quality, the more efficiently it will do the jobs required of it. Inexperienced clay workers often blame themselves for problems caused by tools that are inadequate for the job. Potters' tools that are packaged as beginner sets often make an already difficult process more so with unsatisfactory tools that quickly become dull from abrasion, causing unwanted "chattering," or bouncing, of the tool on the clay because it is too dull to cut properly.
The best tools usually are individually handmade by small companies that understand exactly what the potter needs from personal experience and discussion with the people who use them. Tools made from high-quality knife steel, such as those made by Dolan Tools, will outperform soft metal tools and keep an edge against the abrasive qualities of clay for a long time. Knife steel easily can be sharpened with a file to maintain a sharp cutting edge.
The best and most long-lasting edge on pottery cutting tools is provided by tungsten carbide, a material considerably harder than steel. Even though it is very hard, crystalline tungsten carbide is extremely brittle, and tools made from it should be used carefully. Avoid dropping these tools on hard surfaces, as they may break. Tungsten carbide tools usually are individually handmade by small companies, such as Bison Tools.
Although more expensive than metal tools, the cutting quality of tungsten carbide tools is much better. They even are capable of trimming and cutting through bisque ware! Should they require sharpening, they can be returned to the company. For the serious potter, tungsten carbide tools are probably the most satisfactory tools, turning what was often mundane work into sheer pleasure. Buy the best tools you can afford, or make your own using the best materials you can afford.
The late Robin Hopper and his wife Judi Dyelle owned and operated Chosin Pottery in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Visit www.chosinpottery.ca to see images of their work and learn more about the great Chosin Pottery.
This post is excerpted from the late Robin Hopper's ever-popular Making Marks: Discovering the Ceramic Surface, available in the Ceramic Arts Network Shop.