How to Make and Use Bamboo Tools

Most potters are drawn to their craft because of the inherent simplicity of taking a piece of nondescript, unformed clay and making from it any one of infinite possibilities of shape and function. There’s something pleasing in that those possibilities never go away, never lessen in spite of the passing of the years, or the intricacies of glaze recipes, firing schedules, kiln repairs and tax forms. Simply put,it’s good to work with basic things with basic talent to make basic things.This is increasingly true in our modern age as more and more become hands-off—at a distance, remote and too often machine-made and machine-controlled. There is a nostalgia in handmade things that causes you to want to reach back into the past for the simpler tools and the simpler ways of getting things done. It was this feeling that drew me to handmade bamboo tools.


I’ve always been attracted to the Japanese traditions, in pottery, philosophy and martial arts. In my studies, I often encountered the Japanese high regard and universal appeal of humble bamboo as a tool. It’s used for everything from chopsticks to fans to scaffolding rivaling skyscrapers in lashed-together height. In many books and ?lms on Japanese potters, I often saw bamboo tools being put to use so I thought that it was time for me to give bamboo a try myself.

There’s an inherent danger in reaching back into the past for traditional ways and tools. Often, these old items, while warmly nostalgic to use, are simply not up to the standards of modern materials. In other words, there’s often a very good reason for change and that reason is usually improvement or greater ease of doing things. Beethoven, you can be sure, would have used a synthesizer if he had had one. And how about Shakespeare? I am sure that he would have loved to use my computer. Still, I liked the idea of using bamboo, and gave it a try. I’ll never use anything else. So far, all my basic tools have far exceeded my hopes and expectations.

Bamboo is actually a grass and, as a result has a long, running “grain” that makes for an incredibly durable and ?exible material. With a sharp knife, bamboo can be readily shaped and will hold an edge that stands up to heavy usage far beyond most woods. It’s also far superior to wood in terms of its water-resistant features. I’ve often left these tools standing in my water bucket for weeks at a time, and they never become soft, waterlogged, cracked or warped.

One final point: Bamboo isn’t as readily available as most woods. There are, however, a couple of sources you can try. For smaller tools, at least, check at a local greenhouse or crafts store. You should be able to find thin bamboo in lengths of 5 to 6 feet and with a diameter of ½ inch or so. A search online will also net many sources.

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