7 Useful Tips, Tools, and Techniques for the Ceramic Studio

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, potters and ceramic artists are some of the most resourceful people around. I am continually impressed by the myriad tools and studio shortcuts that members of our community come up with to make their lives more efficient. It’s been a while since I have shared some of those handy little tidbits sent in from readers, so today, I think it’s about time. Today, I am presenting a compilation of tips, tools, and techniques published recently in Ceramics Monthly.
If you have a cool tip that would be helpful to others in our community, be sure to let us know! Send your tip and photos to editorial@ceramicsmonthly.org. You might even win a free one-year subscription to CM! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

Throw a flat lid shape with a knob approximately 6 inches in diameter and punch three holes at equal intervals around the rim. Fire this to vitrification (glazing is optional).

Clip the bottom section out of three plastic-coated wire coat hangers, keeping the curves at each “shoulder” of the hangers. One curve is used to loop through the holes in the handle piece described above, and the other is used to hook under the rim of an inverted vessel so it can be dipped in glaze evenly. Use the same sized hangers to begin with to ensure that the length of the wires are the same.

Place the bowl (or other vessel) upside down on a chuck or other support that will lift the rim off of your work table. This will aid in hooking the hangers on the rim.

Hold the knob on the handle with one hand and steady the vessel with your other hand and dip the rim into the glaze. Set the piece back on the chuck after glazing to dry.

Thank you to Doris Wadell of San Mateo, California.


Some of our glazes can be very runny and we need to have something to put under them to protect our kiln shelves. We keep thin, dry paper-clay sheets on hand to cut for placing under the pieces. A quick brushing of kiln wash makes them slightly pliable and lay flat.

The sheets and pots are placed in the kiln and the excess sheet is cut away between the pieces. For some of our pots, we also use a wadding made of equal parts sand and ball clay. It is crumbly enough to grind away easily. Between the two, we don’t have much trouble with glaze on our kiln shelves.

The paper-clay sheets can be trimmed directly on the kiln shelf to avoid breakage.

Thank you to Samantha Henneke and Bruce Gholson of Seagrove, North Carolina.

As you in the clay world well know, clay needs to be handled when it is ready to be handled, not when you are ready to handle it.

After a recent day of throwing, I left some the jars under plastic but the bottoms set up more than I would have liked. I wanted to add a European foot to the jars but the clay was almost bone dry. I didn’t have a chuck big enough in the studio so, necessity being the mother of invention, I put a large coil around a 5-gallon plastic bucket to both cushion and contain the pieces then simply trimmed the jars in that. Because the plastic bucket is light weight and the jars much heavier, I often fill it half full to give a bit of weight to it in case someone has a heavy foot.

Since I put the lid in rather wet, I don’t want it getting stuck in the flange or messing up the trim job. I use a single layer of plastic wrap so that I can seat the lid in the somewhat altered gallery, allowing it to dry within the form.

Thank you to Tony Clennell of Beamsville, Ontario.

 

 

In the past I would throw my trimmings into a plastic container and let them sit for a week or so to dry before reclaiming. We all know reclaiming works best when the clay is bone dry.

Here is a simple technique I use to speed the drying process. I purchased a pen/pencil container from an office supply store. It is made out of expanded metal so it contains many holes. The container was sprayed with black paint, so it does not rust.

When you trim or carve your pieces, throw the scraps in this container to air dry. It will take half the time to dry and you can swish the empty container in a bucket of water to easily clean it out.

Thank you to Craig Seath of Hudson, Wisconsin.


 

While it’s not cast iron with ball bearings, this homemade turntable is easy to make, inexpensive, and works nearly as well.

PVC plumbing flanges can be purchased at any hardware store or home center and both flanges can be purchased for about $10. Just match the inner diameter of one to the outer diameter of the other. Cut two pieces of scrap wood; the bottom piece, which will become the base, should be approximately 2 inches larger than the PVC flange and the top piece, which will become the work surface, should be cut to whatever size is appropriate for you working needs. The top piece should not be unreasonably large and not more that a few inches larger than the base. Each board should be about 1 inch thick and sealed to handle wet clay. Center and screw each flange onto the wood pieces. Add a little WD-40 for lubrication and you are in business.

Thank you to Dennis Allen of Lebanon, Ohio.

 

 


For years I have been using a multi-purpose glue to apply wadding and shells to my pieces for wood and salt firings. These glues are very frustrating to use because of the long drying time and the sticky mess. Recently, all of the glue bottles were missing, so I plugged in a hot glue gun and started gluing the wadding to my pots. It worked like a dream! It was quick and if the wadding came off before the work was stacked, we simply had a glue gun near the kiln to replace it. The clean up was a whole lot easier as well. This truly is a no brainer.

Thank you to Jason Doblin of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.


This ingenious wire tool and throwing wheel adaptation is for anybody who is tired of searching through a pool of muck or untangling a twisted, wiry mess.

Attach a wire tool to one side of the throwing wheel at the same height as the bat or the wheel head. Screw an eye bolt into a thin wood block and attach the block to the splash pan using a C-clamp or similar device. Tie the tire tool to the eye bolt allowing enough room for the wire to stretch across the diameter of the wheel head. The small wooden dowel used to make most wire tools can also be easily clamped for a quick use and remove system. This simple set-up allows for easy one-handed use and a clean cut giving a smoother bottom for trimming!

Thank you to John Powell of Castroville, California.

 

 


 

Comments
  • Handbuilding requires a lot of scoring, in putting my pieces together. My favourite tool is made with toothpicks and masking tape. For the smaller one I use 4 toothpicks, put together with a small piece of tape is the center. You can make them any size you wish. They last for a long time and makes scoring fast and easy.
    Cathy Roberts.
    Dorchester, Ontario

  • I see how the 5-gallon bucket makes a good huge chuck, but I don’t understand how it helps with the trimming of an overly dry foot – and I could use advice on that. I must be missing something!

  • A neat trick when you want to transfer a design onto clay. Draw design with a black watercolor marker. Place the newly drawn design, marker side down, onto moist clay, gently go over paper with a rolling pin and the transfer will appear on the clay.

  • Wow… some great ideas, some I’d already heard, but several I hadn’t. Thank you for both reminding me and the wonderful new information.

  • It sounds like it could be a sheet of newsprint painted with slip?

  • Instead of a “paperclay sheet” we use “cookies”. We are a community studio and have a bucket of “cookies” for pieces that look like they might run on to the shelves. Better the piece is stuck to the cookie than they shelf. For those of you who don’t know, cookies are just circles of clay that have been fired and can be used over and over. Works for us…..

  • I have had luck re-hydrating a piece that is too dry by misting a rag or paper towels until damp (not wet) wrap your piece in this damp cloth and stuff one inside it. then in plastic and put it aside. Check it in an hour or two. The dry clay should have absorbed the moisture in the cloths, bringing it back to a more workable state. If not, dampen the cloths again and give it more time. Just remember not to make the cloths too wet or you can soften the clay too much and you have to wait for it to dry out again, or worse, it will absorb the moisture unevenly and crack.

  • Dennis, you rascal. Good Work. I like the turn-table idea.

  • I think they’re refering to paper-clay which is a combination of clay and paper fiber. I think Laguna Clay sells this product, or there are ways to make your own. It’s usually used in large sculptures, and is supposed to have a lower rate of shrinkage and still be quite strong.
    It appears that they’re using a thinly rolled out sheet of this paper-clay product to make a ‘cookie’ as described in Jenny’s comment.
    Good ideas!!
    Love the PVC and wood banding wheel… I will make a couple of those!
    Thanks for all the ideas.

  • The paper is also good for throwing. My only problem with it is when it’s time to trim. I haven’t found the right moment yet. I know it’s not a little after leather hard 🙂

    P.S
    High fire paper clay.

  • What is a European foot ? Being European myself, I am curious… Never heard of it!
    Also, like Kirsty, I don’t understand why the use of the bucket as a chuck (obvious for big size pots) can help with the trimming of an overdried foot.

    Thanks for the good ideas, although I dont quite understand some of the explanations, for instance the one for the cutting wire installed on the wheel. Why is there a photo with an eye hook and another one with a C clamp only ?

  • Try a terra cotta plant saucer with a soggy sponge under it to sit your dry footing on. This will usually rehydrate your pot from the bottom up. We always use water soaked plaster bats to dry out our work so that the bottom does not dry too fast.

  • great new idea, the cut-odd wire attatched to the side of the wheel..Now no more searching for that little rascal!

  • I don’t understand the hanger idea. Every thing else was a very good idea. Some I had already thought of & was/were using. The hanger–I just don’t get it.

  • ok, I just had to reread the hanger idea–understand it now but still don’t really like it.

  • Great ideas especially the cookies ideas.

    For a banding wheel I use a plastic lazy susan I got at the dollar store. I hand build and am usually sitting when I am working so the flat height works great. I sometimes need a taller banding wheel and have put books under the banding wheel to raise it up, but I will make one like Dennis suggested, nice to have one ready made instead of searching for wide books to put underneath and possibly getting them dirty with slip or clay. Thanks.

  • Love these tips particularly the wadding and the glue glun, are these “wads” prefired i wonder. And does anyone have any tips for a way to hold cones at the correct angle for firing without a special holder? cheers

  • @Genevieve-It looks like the pictures are for two different ways to use the wheel mounted wire idea. The C-clamp is for a complete wire with two handles, the eye hook is for a wire with one handle.

    Another tip – I use stainless steel deep sea fishing hook leaders for cut off wires; these work very well and come in a variety of lengths, and while in the fishing department, I pick up plastic fishing bobbers for handles for the leaders.

  • Dani,
    I put my cones in a small wad of clay, enough to squeeze in the palm of my hand into a rough “log”. Press your cones in one behind the other and set it in front of your peep hole. I always candle my bisque load, so the wad dries out before the kiln really ramps up. Do the same for your glaze cones and run them with the bisque load. This will bisque the wad of clay, but the kiln doesn’t get hot enough to melt the cones. Then you can use it in the glaze load. If you use raw clay in the glaze load it will explode. (voice of experience).

  • @ Cheryl and Dani
    Here in the UK we’ve always used a small wad of clay for cones.
    There’s no need to bisque fire the wads if you use a heavy grogged clay such as magma crank. If you use the technique Cheryl suggested (rolling into a rough log shape) with this clay it will not explode, even in a glaze firing!

  • Genevieve, I believe Tony is referring to a flared foot that will gather glaze that moves a bit. He fires with wood and glazes with ash that tend to run some, and his “European” foot is meant to function in the same way a lot of feet on European salt-glazed ware were designed for this same purpose.
    Sherman

  • Thanks for posting these tips and also to each potter who’s shared invention, info and insights. I’ve enjoyed reading the posts & comments from this site and love it when you get into the nitty-gritty-creative technique side of clayworks. As a potter I simply love the sort of dialogue this topic generates.

  • Cheryl, I have always understood that, once cones have been fired to 1000 degrees F or above, they cannot be reused since they will not be accurate due to cumulative firing effects. If this is the case, it might not be adviseable to fire them in a bisque firing before using them in a glaze firing. We bisque to 1800 degrees F, so that would supposedly make our high temp cones less accurate for the second firing. But, what do I know? If this has worked for you, why not go for it?

  • Have never had a cone pad blow up on me ( been firing many number of years now, and still use cones to make sure my digital controller is doing it’s job right!) 🙂 but I DO make the logs or pads fairly slender. If you were not able to do this there would be no single firings going on out there.

  • tried making my own extruder out of a corking gun and lid. However, cannot locate lids that fit the end piece at either Home depot or anyplace else. I saw this made on one of the magazines videos. Can some recommend someplace to locate the caps?

    Thanks

  • @neal-I found the test plugs at Lowe’s. These are a plumbing items used to cap the end of PVC pipe for testing and may be available at a “real” plumbing supply house if you don’t have a Lowe’s. They are a flat piece of hard plastic matched to the inside diameter of PVC pipe and have a shoulder to keep them from going completely into the pipe. Sort of –|________|– shape. You could probably make something that would work similarly if you can’t find them, but they were so inexpensive I bought a dozen so I could play with shapes. I also used them in a larger size with making weights for the corners of my show tent. Cut a length of pipe; glue in a plug; fill with sand, glue in another cap, and you have a weight.

  • The hanging device for glazing looks like a clever construction, but why is this better than just lowering a pot with your fingers – because it leaves a smaller mark on the rim? or is it more reliably level?

  • Great tips! Kathy gave me the idea to share how i make my own scoring tool. My favorite way to make a scoring tool is with a piece of river cane for a handle and a “Plug” of wires from a heavy duty wire brush, which would usually be used for welding or heavy paint scraping. Now i will explain the “plug” part. If you will notice the next time you pick up a heavy duty wire brush in your paint department, or welding section, notice that the brush is not made from individual wires, but from a lot of small bundles of wire stuck into holes about 1/8″ in diameter. If you use a pair of pliers to pull a plug of these wires out, you will find that they are continuous wires stapled into the bottom of the hole. Now you just take this convenient little package of wires, some 2 part epoxy, the piece of river cane a hole in the cut end just a bit bigger than your wire bundle, and glue em’ in there. The cane will not deteriorate like wood when left to soak for ages in your water bucket. And the epoxy is all but bomb proof.

  • Thanks for the tip on the turn table I have been searching for the proper thing and cannot find one, I can’t wait to make my own. An idea for a scoring tool – if you have a child that surfs they use a waxing tool for removing and scoring wax on their surfboards and it makes an excellent scoring tool for clay.

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