How to Make Super Sharp DIY Sgraffito Tools

Clay is rough on tools. Fortunately, some of the most used tools in the box are quick and easy to assemble right in your own studio.

In today’s post, an excerpt from the April 2013 issue of Ceramics Monthly, Nancy Gallagher explains how you can make your own sgraffito tools with cheap and easy-to-find materials! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

Like many ceramic artists, I enjoy trying new tools. I do, however, get weary of buying replacements. Not long ago, a classmate asked me to pick up some clay carving tools for her while I was at the store, as hers had become dull. As I was not familiar with the type of tool, I took one with me as an example. “Hmm,” I thought, as I rolled it over in my hand, “not much to it but a blunt stick and a bit of wire.” After finding them at my local clay store, and seeing the price, I set out to make my own. Start by gathering dowels, pencils, or brushes that can be used for tool handles and taper the ends with a pencil sharpener just a bit so the edges don’t cut into your clay surface while you’re working. Drill a 1⁄16th-inch hole into the tapered end. 

Smaller Carving Tools

Both utility staples as well as office staples make excellent carving loops. A straightened utility staple makes a great traditional needle-type stylus for sgraffito, which creates nicely tapered lines when the chiseled edge is held at an angle. An office staple is easy to bend into a small carving loop. Using a pair of needle-nose pliers, bend the staples to shapes that will work best for your sgraffito work.   

Put a small dab of Gorilla Glue in each drilled hole, then insert the wire shape into the hole. Note that Gorilla Glue expands while it dries. Dry the tool in an upright position for 12 hours. I use a small block of clay to support my tools while they dry.

Larger Carving Tools

For creating thicker lines or carving away larger areas of clay, I like to use loop tools made with spring steel from a measuring tape. Cheap measuring tapes from a dollar store work fine for this process and one tape will make hundreds of tools!

Unscrew the back of the tape with a Phillips-head screwdriver. Remove the inside tape—remove it slowly as it is under pressure and the steel edges are sharp. The tape is easily cut into thin 1-inch strips at varying widths with a household scissors.

Cut a ¼-inch-deep slit into the end of your dowel. Loop your strip of steel tape so the ends meet, dip the ends in Gorilla Glue, and place them into the slotted end of your dowel. Let the tool dry upright for 12 hours. For my needs, both the smaller and larger tools work best with leather-hard clay.

To learn more about Nancy Gallagher or see more images of her work, please visit





  • Trimming tools are best just when they are about to wear out…nice and thin. I am so excited by this post because now I can make my own worn-out tools from ordinary staples!
    In my ceramics class tomorrow, I am introducing sgraffito, using white slip on Laguna’s Redstone cone 5 clay body.

  • Great article – thanks!

    I wrap bits of various grades of steel wool around similar home made tools for continuous tone renderings such as representational portraits – best to use relatively dry (airbrushed or hand brushed) clay for this technique.

  • Though I know most folks don’t have access to harpist’s old strings (I have a harp-playing friend), they can be used to make great clay carving/scratching tools. The steel music wire at the center of the wrapped string comes in various diameters/sizes and using basically the same techniques described in the article above I have fabricated a wide variety of tools. The very fine thin wires are perfect for refining very delicate sculptural details (I am a sculptor) especially if the protruding part of the wire tool is made slightly longer to provide a bit more ‘spring’ to the scraping stroke. They don’t last too long if one lets students use them, but with a little bit of control they are heavenly to achieve delicately-modeled surfaces. Give the shorter ones to the students to learn with — they will last longer if used to cut more deeply with less refinement. For a variation, makes some of the tools by leaving the outer copper wrapping wire on the tool. This wrapping provides a very visually interesting texture as well as allowing a degree of ‘raking’ action to refine surfaces to a more uniform regularity.
    I also use the long thin flat stainless steel stiffeners in (old/worn-out) windshield wiper blades to make the flat cutting tools. Recycling and no rusting! And they can easily be sharpened with the judicious use of a rotary grinding tool (i.e., like a Dremel tool).

  • Great tips! I can hardly wait for my windshield wiper blades to wear out now! And using staples, I will totally try that. I’m always fixing my cheap sumi brushes with 2-part epoxy and you can bind together split wooden ends with string glued up (embedded) in 2-part epoxy. It lasts a really, really long time.

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