As potters, our greatest tool and asset in the studio is our own body. After three years of heavy studio production pottery, I was forced to recognize the way I was taught to make pots, in the seated position for multiple hours on end, was in fact causing the discs in my lower back to bulge; resulting in debilitating lower back pain. At the time, my remedies for the pain were anti-inflammatory pills, chiropractic visits with traction, localized steroid injections, and talk of surgery.
I had observed mentors and other aging artists with similar back issues as their careers progressed and I quickly realized that I needed to change not only what I was making, but also how I was making it if I were to have career longevity. Inspired by an article published by long-time potter John Glick, I decided to try throwing from the standing position.
1 Center a 5-pound ball of clay. Rather than bracing your forearms on your legs, brace them on the edge of splash pan.
2 Open the centered ball of clay. The wheel head should be positioned at belly-button height.
3 Standing and pulling; there should be no excessive bending over or loading of the lower back in this position.
By repurposing used lumber and a piece of recycled countertop, I built a workstation that when completed, placed the wheel head exactly at Glick’s recommended belly-button height. I won’t lie, this new throwing position took time to get accustomed to. I no longer had my legs on which to brace my elbows and my visual-spatial muscle memory was thrown off as I was looking at my work from a different angle. The working height in relation to my arms and hands also changed.
Practice Pays Off
However, with consistent practice and effort, I found myself being able to prop my arms on my splash pan for support. I was able to put more of my body weight into the centering process, and found that I was soon able to make pots with the same (or better) consistency as before in about a month’s time. Was that month trying, confusing, and frustrating? Absolutely. Would I ever go back to the seated method of throwing? NEVER. That was five years ago and the discs in my back have settled back in place. I haven’t once been back to the chiropractor or doctor, haven’t required any further injections, and haven’t thought about surgery again. On average, I now spend five to six hours behind my wheel at a time with no associated back pain. At the end of the day, I feel good, not incapacitated. All of this is now possible because I focused on body ergonomics and changed the way I work.
4 Work the vessel’s wall while standing in a straight, upright position. This position also allows the artist to step back with ease at any time to observe the vessel’s profile.
5 Detail work can easily be executed by raising your wheel head, placing the work close to eye level and reducing the amount of bending and hunching over.
6 Trim the foot of the piece; notice the wheel head height has been raised and the fine detail work can be accomplished in a comfortable upright position.
Be Proactive Now
If you suffer from back pain that you associate with throwing from the seated position, don’t wait, make the change. Your wheel can be modified into an upright wheel simply by elevating it upon cinder block and bricks. You can build a platform, or simply add leg extensions (available from Brent and Shimpo). You can also use the system I have subsequently developed for potters; the SwitchLift.
Whichever throwing method you ultimately choose to try, know that you are doing yourself a favor. By making this simple, yet dramatic change to how you work, you will hopefully experience the same benefits that I have experienced. Throwing will no longer be a love that comes with a heavy price, but can be enjoyed painlessly for many years to come. Pottery is hard work and requires us to be mindful of our bodies, our materials, and the way in which we work.
Tim Carlburg is a potter and artpreneur living and working in Columbia Falls, Montana. He practices what he preaches while giving demos and workshops and wants to see the pottery world revolutionized for the better. To see his work check out, www.handmadegrowlers.com. He is also the owner and inventor of the Switchlift, an ergonomic potter’s workstation visit www.switchlift.com.