How to Make Custom Hardwood Throwing Ribs for Your Pottery

It is surprisingly easy to make your own custom ribs!

throwing ribs

Have you ever been using a store-bought throwing rib and thought, “if only this rib was shaped like this…or…like that?” Most of us make do with the standard shapes of ribs in our throwing because the more specialized fancy ribs can get expensive or it just seems daunting to make our own. But, it is surprisingly easy to make your own custom ribs if you have some basic woodworking tools. And it can be pretty darn cheap if you have access to a wood worker’s scrap pile!

Making your own customized ribs is not only a way to help facilitate your personal aesthetic touches, but, as Robert Balaban puts it, it “permits creativity to extend from the clay to the tools.” In today’s post, Robert shares his system for creating custom hardwood throwing ribs.  – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

I’ve always looked for ways to improve the quality of my art by fashioning customized hand tools to facilitate the shaping my vessels. In these efforts, I’ve developed a simple system of constructing hardwood ribs for a variety of throwing purposes. This permits creativity to extend from the clay to the tools. Many studio visitors and students have enjoyed using or creating these tools and often leave the shop with a couple of customized ribs that make a lasting impression on their craft. Custom hardwood ribs are easy to create, and can be constructed in under one hour using skills that any potter can master.

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Choosing the Best Wood

I’ve experimented with several types of wood, from the most exotic (mpingo, purple heart, bocote, and cocobolo), to mahogany and cherry, coming my way from a wood worker’s scrap pile or from my own backyard. Maple, osage orange, black locust, and even mountain laurel also work well. Red or white oak and poplar are hard to use because they swell when wet and typically have large growth rings that make a consistent edge difficult to achieve. Usually any dense hardwood with resistance to water damage is appropriate. The best, cheapest, and locally available wood (not from the fragile rainforest) is American black cherry. The 5/16-inch thick stock is a good starting material. Slightly thicker or thinner material can be used depending on taste or task. If you buy wood, a couple of dollars of5/16-inch wood can generate 10 to 20 ribs.

Generating and Transferring Designs

throwing ribs

Fig.1 Trim and attach the paper using double-sided tape. Cut out the rib leaving the tracing in place.

Creating different ribs for novel shapes or tasks can be done using paper,  pencil, and a French curve or other guide or pattern to help generate that perfect curve or angle. You can also use computer drawing programs, draw free hand or simply copy more familiar rib designs and modify them to your needs or hands. I use a versatile French curve-style rib for working on the inside of vases and other forms. The first step in making this type of rib is to trace the template onto paper and secure it to the piece of wood.

Making the Rib

The next step is to cut the wood, using a hand coping saw, scroll saw or bandsaw (figure 1) and leaving the traced line on the rib to permit fine tuning later.

Caution: When working with power tools, read and follow all manufacturer safety materials before use. Dust from some woods can be toxic or contain allergens, therefore always work in a clean ventilated area with a respirator or dust mask for the cutting and sanding stages.

throwing ribs

Fig.2 Fine tune the finger groove at the small end and customize the overall shape using a spindle sander.

With the completed rough cut shape, the next steps are to finish the outline, taper the edge that will guide the clay, and generate a true sharp edge to create a smooth finish on the clay. The best tool to quickly accomplish all of these tasks is an oscillating spindle sander. It’s a rotating cylinder of sandpaper that moves up and down with interchangeable spindles of different diameters that can be used to refine the various curves of your rib (figure 2).Alternatively, different size dowels with sandpaper wrapped around them also work, they’re just slower.

Next, true the shape of the rib blank by sanding the rough edges using an 80-grit sandpaper. If you make a rib with an arc that’s smaller than the smallest spindle available, or have a square or triangle in the rib, these will need to be hand filed. For the French curve rib, make a groove using a 5/8-inch spindle to fit your index finger at the small end (see figure 2) and to allow for leverage on the clay when pushing the larger belly end to the inside of a pot. This customizes the rib to your throwing style as well as your specific grip.

Now create a tapered edge to guide the clay using the largest diameter spindle or a sanding block. This is done by approaching the spindle at an angle with the rib blank and then sanding it down to a 45° angle. Taper all outside edges of the French curve to accommodate all your throwing needs. The small circle on the end of the rib is also a very useful part, taper all edges here as well. Finish the taper on the larger structures, then make more severe tapers around any sharp features to help guide the clay through tight areas. Then round the all of the remaining edges for a better feel (figures 3 and 4).

Fig.3 Sandpaper used alone, on a sanding block, or wrapped around a dowel for tight curves also works well.

Fig.4 Taper the edge of the rib by angling the piece as it is brought to the sander and move with long strokes.

To customize the rib even further, add finger holes to improve grip and leverage. Hold the rib as you would while throwing and mark the area around your fingers. (Clamp the rib flat to a backing board to drill the finger holes). The back up board ensures that the drill bit will not split out the back side of the rib (figure 5). Mark an outline of your finger’s grasp with a pencil then taper the hole for a customized fit. Return to the spindle sander and insert the 1/2-inch sanding spindle into the hole. Sand the inside of the hole and then angle the rib while it is on the spindle to generate an oblong tapered hole that matches the angle of your fingers (figure 6).

Finally, sand the rib by hand using 200 then 400 grit sandpaper—only a couple of minutes with each grit is necessary. A good trick is to then wet the wood and dry it. This causes any wood grain that might rise with water to do so and then you can sand this off for a very smooth and resilient surface.

Fig.5 Drill 5/8-inch finger holes where your fingers naturally grasp.

Fig.6 Smooth each hole then tilt the rib to mimic the marks made by your fingers.

Finishing Work

throwing ribs

A finished rib with customized curves and finger holes.

The finish you use can vary. Using bare, untreated ribs is fine if they are made with a strongly water resistant wood like teak. Alternately, different oils and several different waterproof varnishes can be used to seal the surface. I have found that the oil-based Minwax Clear Shield finish or marine varnish is very strong and the clay slips nicely along this surface. Follow the oil manufacturer’s directions on application and appropriate drying times. Finishes will still wear off and need to be reapplied.

Using these techniques, you can make a rib, try it out on the wheel the same day, make adjustments, finish/dry it overnight, and have it ready for the next day.

Robert Balaban is a functional potter and teaches classes in his studio. He not only creates ribs from dead trees found in the woods, but he also specializes in creating safe glazes from the natural products in his gold producing backyard in Maryland.

**First published in 2010.
  • Janet T.

    Terriffic !!! All kinds of junk, what a precious source for material ! Years ago my husband Bernie made me one out of a lampshade, and credit cards are good, too. Junk, junk, OH MARVELOUS JUNK !!!!

  • Trinity- Thank you for that tip- I have always wanted to know that too. Learn something new every day!

  • Catherine: If you choose ‘Print Preview’ you can see which pages you want to print out, and then just print the ones you want. For instance, print pages 1-10 and you will just get the article and no comments or links.

  • Scott M.

    I have found plexiglass to be the perfect material for making ribs. It’s available from my hardware store.

  • Stuart A.

    During my apprenticeship in Japanese ceramics, one of the first things that we did was to make for me a duplicate of my mentor’s wooden throwing rib, which he used to make teacups, bowls, platters, sushi servers, teapots…everything.

    The curve of this rib is hard to describe. Imagine an oval that is asymmetric both from right to left and from top to bottom. The sides are tapered, but not to a sharp edge.

    Now, years later, I still use this rib every day that I throw pots.

  • Thomas W.

    This was a good article…especially for those who haven’t thought about it before. I’ve been making my own ribs and wooden tools for the past 45 years and some are still with me! I even make wooden tools to create patterns on the back sides of pulled handles. I also agree that non-wooden materials work very well…I have a couple of finish ribs that I made years ago from old yellow Prestone jugs…the were easy to cut and just don’t seem to go away! Let your creative minds run and find as many different materials as you can for this…you may surprise yourself and all of us with new applications!

  • Natalie L.

    I’d like to echo Sumana: I’d LOVE to see examples of the forms created by particular shapes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen videos of potters using elaborately shaped ribs. Now I’ll be wasting an hour on Youtube instead of going to bed. thanks. :p

  • Cynthia M.

    ~MantaWave – I want to see a picture of your porcelain ribs!!!!! That sounds awesome!

  • Greg B.

    Those ribs are beautiful!!!

    I use porcelain (or any other med/high fire grog-free clay). Just roll out a compact, thin slab and cut with a fettling knife. (use a pre-drawn template if you like). The edges of the “rib” can be “sharpened” when it is leather-hard by “eroding” the clay edge with a soft, semi-wet sponge. (lay piece flat on drywall, etc..) The ribs do not have to be glazed, but you can glaze one side, if you like (for an extra awesome rib) Of course, they are breakable, but with care they will last indefinitely as they do not get dull) Keep in mind that the porcelain has to be fired to its maturing temp. …and it will help to know the quirks of making think slabs 🙂

    (oh yeah. I use …. i believe it’s called pressboard to roll out slabs. It’s cheap, porous yet durable (unless you absolutely drench it) and smooth (has no texture). If your clay sticks to it, you know your clay is too wet.


  • Darryl W.

    Best rib I have ever used is simply cut to shape from a piece of formica. I drew shape with permanent marker, cut with knife & cope saw, and filed/sanded edges smooth. Basically a 6″l x 2.5″w rectangle with two diagonal corners made into curves. I made it in 1975 and still use it almost every time I turn clay. Doesn’t absorb water, doesn’t rot, and has very little wear. It isn’t a pretty art piece you want to hang on a wall and not use. It is functional, pure and simple.

  • Lilac trimmings are the best we’ve tried–dries well, becomes quite hard, polishes to a glassy surface.

  • Charles A P.

    I don’t know the capabilities of all of your printers but I find that on mine if you highlight the area you want to print and then choose “print selection” in your print dialog box the printer only prints the highlighted selections leaving the superfluous stuff behind! 🙂

  • Nancy’s tip is good. I save articles in separate docs. to edit as needed so that not only do I save paper and ink, I also have a copy on my laptop for adding my own notes and ideas. Added benefit is saving to disk when I get enough, in case I ever lose the printed sheet or get it too dirty…not that I ever do that, of course.

  • Pete G.

    I have made custom ribs from sheet metal (stainless steel, brass, titanium, thin beryllium copper), mahogany, maple, walnut, Plexiglas, Lexan, phenolic laminates (also known as Micarta), UHMW polyethylene, Delrin, Nylon as well as throwing sticks from strips of oak or giant bamboo. I have a method of impregnating the wooden items with a beeswax/carnauba mixture, so my tools hold up to soaking in water without degradation. I am writing this not to promote my products, but to encourage others to think outside the clay-bag, so to speak. Look around! Play around.

    “I like foolishness…it wakes up the brain cells”_____Dr. Seuss

  • Nancy S.


    I’ve found that copy/pasting into a separate document is one way to get around it.

  • Catherine W.

    Another tip worthy of printing out for my notebook. A request, however: Could CAD arrange these so that I’m not wasting paper and ink on the stuff you run on the sides and back? I don’t want or need the list of links, etc., on these print-outs. Many thanks to you if that can be done!

  • This is a good project for advanced high school students. I have been doing this for years with my level 2 and up kids. It is one of our first projects. Although I do the cutting on the band saw. We sand and shape by hand with files and sand paper. We have also stuck 12″ sanding disks to our bats and used the wheels to do some of the power shaping. We use all types of wood, cedar and fir 1/4″ thick stakes work well even. Although I do provide the kids with many different types of hardwood scraps I get for free at cabinet shops. Wax resist even works as a sealer so you can do this without needing all of the specialized wood materials.

    All of the technical equipment is not necessary.

  • Cynthia M.

    Nice! I am glad to see that I am not the only one making her own differently shaped wood ribs! I like to use cherry or maple and I seal my finished ribs with petroleum jelly.

  • Sumana R.

    Beautiful ribs. I would also love to see examples of the forms created by particular shapes.

  • Anna V.

    For those of us who do not have the materials to work with woud.
    Plastic, cut to your liking with an exacto knife,also gives good ribs.
    Look for plastic boxes,lids, etc. When you are alert to all plastic items that pass your way, you will find the plastic with the right strengt and thickness soon.
    Plastic is less rigid than woud, wich i often find nicer to work with.

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