Clay Tool Talk: Robin Hopper’s Advice on the Best Tools for Carving, Cutting, Scratching, and Slashing Clay


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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, 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.


Top Pottery Tools for Carving and Trimming Clay

by Robin Hopper

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.

“Wheel,” wood-fired stoneware, by Mark Leuthold.

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

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.

Ceramic pitcher, carved at leather hard, by Silvie Granatelli.

Ceramic pitcher, carved at leather hard, by Silvie Granatelli.

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.

"Open Light Dancer," wheel-thrown and carved at leather hard, by Sandra Byers.

“Open Light Dancer,” wheel-thrown and carved at leather hard, by Sandra Byers.


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.

Robin Hopper and his wife Judi Dyelle own and operate Chosin Pottery in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Visit www.chosinpottery.ca to see images of their work and learn more about Chosin Pottery.

This post is excerpted from Robin Hopper’s ever-popular Making Marks: Discovering the Ceramic Surface, available in the Ceramic Arts Shop.

**First published in 2009
Comments
  • Tammy S.

    This is a wonderful article, great information! I’m motivated to go sharpen or throw away some tools.

    When I first decided to learn about pottery making, Robin’s video was my first exposure…so in a sense I consider him my first teacher 🙂 The work he and his wife Judi create is just beautiful! If you haven’t visited their website (which I just did again since it’s been a while), you’ll see how they have taken their artistic talents to their gardens. Wow, someday I’ll get to Canada and go for a visit…lovely!

  • Tammy S.

    This is a wonderful article, great information! I’m motivated to go sharpen or throw away some tools.

    When I first decided to learn about pottery making, Robin’s video was my first exposure…so in a sense I consider him my first teacher 🙂 The work he and his wife Judi create is just beautiful! If you haven’t visited their website (which I just did again since it’s been a while), you’ll see how they have taken their artistic talents to their gardens. Wow, someday I’ll get to Canada and go for a visit…lovely!

  • Lucille O.

    The information was good. I always appreciate information from Robbin Hopper, but why didn’t you show some of the tools?

  • Lucille O.

    The information was good. I always appreciate information from Robbin Hopper, but why didn’t you show some of the tools?

  • I have always wondered why a fettling knife is made of a metal that rusts almost instantly. Does anyone know why it isn’t made of stainless steel?

  • I have always wondered why a fettling knife is made of a metal that rusts almost instantly. Does anyone know why it isn’t made of stainless steel?

  • Jan, I thought the fetling knife situation was unique to me and that I wasn’t taking good enough care of my tools! Thanks for taking me off the hook. Sue

  • Jan, I thought the fetling knife situation was unique to me and that I wasn’t taking good enough care of my tools! Thanks for taking me off the hook. Sue

  • There are fettling knife made of stainless steel for the ones who doesn’t want a rust tool. The rust helps the tool not to stick to the clay while working.

    The tools are shown on the book. Like all the Hopper’s books is wonderful.

  • There are fettling knife made of stainless steel for the ones who doesn’t want a rust tool. The rust helps the tool not to stick to the clay while working.

    The tools are shown on the book. Like all the Hopper’s books is wonderful.

  • Lori K.

    I will say I have a Japanese made fettling knife, and it doesn’t rust. Not sure of it’s metal content, but it’s the BEST! Very straight, not too long, doesn’t bend and feels GREAT in the hand. It’s a bit more money but worth it. It’s the one you’ll pick from the pile!

  • Lori K.

    I will say I have a Japanese made fettling knife, and it doesn’t rust. Not sure of it’s metal content, but it’s the BEST! Very straight, not too long, doesn’t bend and feels GREAT in the hand. It’s a bit more money but worth it. It’s the one you’ll pick from the pile!

  • Jennifer H.

    For those interested in the tools mentioned, follow the links above, or check out our Buyers Guide (download it from our free gifts page: /free-gifts/) for a supplier near you.

  • Jennifer H.

    For those interested in the tools mentioned, follow the links above, or check out our Buyers Guide (download it from our free gifts page: /free-gifts/) for a supplier near you.

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