A bad workman always blames his tools – but good work is impossible without the right tools. As you continue in your work, you become attached to certain things, and some, I have found, make possible a huge leap forward. Here are ten.
Sod’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, but there’s also Sod’s Second Law: before you can do anything you have to do something else. Preparation is essential, and without well-prepared clay it’s hard to make anything well – and the clay has to be mixed and kneaded. Doing it by hand is pretty back-breaking, and my most useful tool is a Rohde pug mill. It’s German and designed from first principles, unlike the Staffordshire pug mills, which have remained unchanged for God knows how long and are grossly inferior.
Made of brass or aluminium, these will check the shape and smooth the side of pots on the wheel. The traditional profile was used to check the inside of a vessel by throwers of Stoke on Trent, after which the turner would place it on a horizontal lathe for trimming. You can still see this method of working in the Wedgwood factory in Barlaston, Staffs. I have made several, but I particularly like one made by Kevin Millward, which is very versatile.
3. TURNING TOOL
Flat, shallow vessels have to have their bases trimmed by running a sharp tool over them. There are several shapes and sizes, but this one does just about everything, with its sharp point to shape up the most uneven parts, its flat side for dealing with larger areas and its round back. It needs to be kept sharp, so I’m grateful for my…
4. GRINDING WHEEL
Amazingly cheap and effective, it puts a good edge on tools, cleans up the knackered blades of old screwdrivers, will sharpen a pencil when I can’t find a knife.
6. TEST KILN
For testing glazes and colours between firings in the big kiln. I bought it from a school, which, typically, had stopped teaching pottery. It takes as long to heat up as the big kiln but it cools in twelve hours instead of thirty-six because the walls are thinner. Occasionally a customer wants just one mug in a pattern I don’t have in stock – good for that too.
These little ones, bought for a fiver, hold rigid, are accurate and good for checking the width of foot rings when turning. Unfortunately made of mild steel, so they rust.
8. GAUGE POST
A rigid gauge-post is essential for throwing regular shapes. The pointer is set at the top level of your pot; you can have more if you want to measure different diameters elsewhere. I bought one with heavy base and a rubber pointer, both absolutely useless because they move, which defeats the object, so I’ve completely re-engineered it. I got rid of the base and replaced the steel rod with a brass one, which is bolted firmly to the back of my wheel, and I replaced the flexible pointer with a wooden one.
9. POWER DRIVER
Things are always being assembled and disassembled in my studio, and for speed of working a power driver can’t be matched.
10. PLASTIC SHEETING
What did we do before plastic sheeting? Used wet sacking. I’m old enough to remember it – it was horrible. To prevent assembled pots from cracking (because different parts are drying at different rates) they’re wrapped until “equalised” (i.e., the parts have a similar amount of moisture in them and are all drying at the same rate). If you ever wondered if plastic sheeting really is biodegradable, I can tell you it is. After about ten years, my biodegradable black bin liners are beginning to fall apart.
You may have noticed that I didn’t include a wheel or my big kiln. Although I use one, a wheel isn’t necessary for ceramics, there are several other ways of making. Big kiln, yes; but it’s little things like the grinding wheel and the power driver that give me the most pleasure.