Selecting your tools is an important part of making. Every tool creates a different mark, and it is up to the artist to choose what marks they want to make. While in grad school, I was asked about the types of tools I use and why I chose them. I realized that I have a very small, select set of tools that I use on every pot: a wooden fettling knife that I’ve had since undergrad; a metal rib I cut to a specific curve; a wire tool; and a serrated metal rib. That’s about all I use aside from my hands.
Doug Casebeer’s tools are so important to him, he travels with a spare set and leaves the originals safe at home. In today’s post, an excerpt from the January 2016 issue of Ceramics Monthly, Victoria Woodard Harvey highlights some of the irreplaceable tools in Doug Casebeer’s toolkit. –Ash Neukamm, guest editor.
P.S. Read Victoria Woodard Harvey’s entire article on Doug Casebeer, in the January 2016 issue of Ceramics Monthly, to see additional images and to learn more about how Casebeer uses and talks about his tools while teaching.
Casebeer throws at least three times a week, maintaining his muscle memory with the process. He empties his plastic bucket onto the work table and lays out what he calls his “vocabulary of tools.” He gets right to work at the wheel, pulling up a mound of high-fire clay.
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And if Casebeer’s tools could talk, these are some of the stories about him they would tell:
Natural Oak Throwing Stick (A): Although Casebeer rarely makes tools for other ceramic artists, he fashioned one similar to this from an oak twig found in his yard as a gift to his mentor, Japanese National Treasure Takashi Nakazato. The natural element honors the Japanese tradition that has long influenced Casebeer’s work.
Wooden Throwing Stick (B): This standard-looking tool is modeled after Casebeer’s right thumb, an exact replication of its unique curve. “Tools, after all, are just extensions of our hands,” he says.
Wooden Trimming Tool (C): This tool carves the bottom of his cups and bowls in a traditional Japanese method. He believes if someone used his personal set of tools, they would inevitably make pieces unlike his originals.
Wooden Ribs (D): It is not uncommon for such a simple shape to evolve over time, tweaked gradually into the curve that defines a signature style. “Arriving at these curves took a lot of thought and exploration.” Because each of his tools is unique, Casebeer travels with a spare set, leaving the originals safe at home.
Throwing Ribs (E): One of the more unique tools in Casebeer’s bucket is this small rib, notched from a Formica sample chip he found at the hardware store. The result is a rounded trim detail that looks like a coiled addition on his bowl, cup, or teapot, but is actually a subtractive method done on the wheel. He keeps a supply of uncut Formica chips at the ready for whenever a new shape or pattern suggests itself.
Wooden Cup Mold (F): Ken Price was a mentor and good friend of Casebeer. “When he came to the Ranch we made these molds in the wood shop from his Happy’s Curios series.” Casebeer walks to a corner of his studio and pulls out a sealed box of tools, a gift from Happy Price, Ken’s widow. “I’m just a steward for these,” he says, “keeping them for… his kids.”
Bronze Metal Ribs (G): “Peter [Voulkos] gave that to me years ago.” The tempered bronze material is as stiff as traditional stainless steel, but more flexible. Naturally, Casebeer altered the original by first photocopying the shape, increasing its size, and adding another pointed tip. When asked if he still uses it, he says “I use it all the time.”
Throwing Tool/Stick with Golf Ball (H): The impeccable craftsmanship of this oddity is no surprise. With a close look, one may recognize the long metal piece from a coffee press that Casebeer took apart, apparently to the dismay of his wife, Susan. The ball at the end of the rod is shaped after his fingertip. It needed a handle, and the golf ball was a perfect-sized grip.