A Quick Guide to Basic Pottery Tools

Tools Every Potter Needs to Hand-Build or Throw Clay on a Wheel

Working with clay can take two main directions: building pieces out of clay by hand and throwing pieces on a potter's wheel. Many basic pottery tools are used in both disciplines. With that in mind, here's a basic tool kit that every potter needs to get started.

  • 01 of 12

    Towels and Apron

    A towel will always come in handy for rough cleaning your hands as you go
    A towel will always come in handy for rough cleaning your hands as you go. Terry Vine/The Image Bank/Getty Images

    Pottery can be messy business and having an absorbent cotton towel is an excellent idea. Toweling is ideal for rough-cleaning hands whenever you're working with clay, and a large towel across the knees is almost always a good idea when you're throwing. You may also want to wear a simple, utilitarian bib apron to protect your clothes, like the ladies in the picture.

  • 02 of 12

    Chamois

    Chamois scraps are useful pottery tools.
    Chamois scraps are useful pottery tools. Beth E Peterson

    Pieces of chamois or leather (about 2 inches by 4 inches) are excellent for compressing and smoothing the upper edges of thrown ware. A chamois can also be used to smooth leather-hard pieces. Dampen the chamois slightly before use, and make sure you wash it properly after every session so the clay on it doesn't harden in place.

  • 03 of 12

    Potter's Needles

    The potter's needle is one of the most versatile pottery tools.
    The potter's needle is one of the most versatile pottery tools. Beth E Peterson

    These long heavy needles set into wooden, metal, or plastic handles are one of the most versatile tools in pottery. Use them, among other things, for neatly trimming the top edges of pieces while they're on the wheel and for scoring slabs and coils when you're hand-building pieces.

  • 04 of 12

    Cut-Off Wires

    An example of a cutting wire tool used in pottery and ceramics
    An example of a cutting wire tool used in pottery and ceramics. Beth E Peterson

    Probably the most common ones have two hardwood handles at either end. Fishing line and uncoiled springs can also be used as cut-off wires. They look a little like a wire cheese cutter. 

    These tools are useful in cutting large lumps of clay and also in removing thrown ware from the potter's wheel. When throwing off the mound, fishing line or other very flexible cut-off lines work best.

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  • 05 of 12

    Fettling Knives

    Fettling knives are used to clean ridges left by casting
    Fettling knives are used to clean ridges left by casting. Beth E Peterson

    These thin-bladed knives come in either a hard temper or soft. The hard ones are inflexible, while the soft fettling knives are flexible and can be bent into desired angles and curves. They were first developed to remove the fettle (the ridge left where pieces of the mold are joined when a piece has been cast). They are also very useful for trimming slabs and thrown pots or cutting across areas of hand-built pots. 

    If you have both kinds of fettling knives, it is wise to add a band of paint or...MORE indelible marker on one of them so you can easily tell them apart.

  • 06 of 12

    Ribs and Scrapers

    Ribs (shown) and scrapers are used to smooth and shape while throwing
    Ribs (shown) and scrapers are used to smooth and shape while throwing. Beth E Peterson

    Used in throwing, these tools can help shape and smooth pots as they are being formed on the wheel. They are also used during the "rib and hand" method of working with coiled pots.

    Ribs come in a many different shapes and are usually made of hardwood or rubber.

    Scrapers look a lot like ribs, but they're lighter and used to smooth wet and soft leather-hard greenware. They come in a myriad of shapes and can be made of steel, rubber, or wood. Some potters use scrapers and ribs...MORE interchangeably for tasks. Rubber ribs and scrapers usually give the smoothest finish. 

  • 07 of 12

    Loop, Wire, and Ribbon Tools

    Loop, ribbon, and wire tools are handy for trimming
    Loop, ribbon, and wire tools are handy for trimming. Beth E Peterson

    Just generally useful, these tools are handy for trimming greenware and for use in hand-building. Wire and ribbon varieties are not recommended for use during throwing because they are too fragile. They can, however, be used for carefully hollowing out handmade pieces. You could even make your own pottery wire. 

  • 08 of 12

    Wooden Modeling Tools

    These wooden tools are useful for modeling in hand-building and trimming while throwing on a wheel
    These wooden tools are useful for modeling in hand-building and trimming while throwing on a wheel. Beth E Peterson

    Wooden modeling tools come in an astounding variety of shapes, and they are useful in all sorts of hand-building. Although called modeling tools, the triangular-headed varieties are also excellent trimming tools while throwing on the wheel.

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  • 09 of 12

    Sponges

    Examples of natural (front) and synthetic sponges suitable for pottery
    Examples of natural (front) and synthetic sponges suitable for pottery. Beth E Peterson

    Sponges are one of the most useful tools you will ever have in your pottery kit. Medium to large natural or special synthetic sponges help potters absorb or distribute water during throwing. Many potters also use elephant ear sponges (a specific type of natural sponge) during the throwing process. If you are getting into potting, you'll want to know more about the various types of pottery sponges.

  • 10 of 12

    Brushes

    Sumi brushes are excellent for working with clay.
    Sumi brushes are excellent for working with clay. Beth E Peterson

    Brushes are used to carry water and slip to specific areas when you are working the clay, as well as to paint and design with slips, underglazes, and overglazes. The best brushes for ceramics and pottery are sumi, or bamboo, brushes. They can be loaded with a tremendous amount of fluid and still come to a nicely pointed end. 

  • 11 of 12

    Calipers (Potter's Calipers)

    Metal calipers measure parts of pots that need to match other parts
    Metal calipers measure parts of pots that need to match other parts. Photo © 2009 Beth E Peterson

    Potters use this type of caliper to measure the inner and outer dimensions of pots where they will meet with other parts of a set. For example, they are especially useful when measuring lids for jars, measuring the base of a cup to match the depression in the center of a saucer, and measuring the base of a pitcher to match the interior floor of a basin.

    Calipers can be made of metal, wood, or plastic. Lid Master calipers do not have to be reversed and adjusted the way regular potter's...MORE calipers do.

  • 12 of 12

    The Box

    Potters need at least one heavy-duty box (shown) to store easily misplaced tools
    Potters need at least one heavy-duty box (shown) to store easily misplaced tools. Beth E Peterson

    Many potter's tools are fairly small and easy to misplace. Most potters use some form of box where they keep their tools for the sake of organization and accessibility. Heavy-duty plastic artist or tackle boxes tend to be the best, especially if you plan on transporting your tools. Otherwise, solutions can range from a utensil tray to any waterproof box. Cardboard boxes should never be used, since the water and wet clay break them down almost immediately.

    You can have more than one box, of...MORE course. In the picture, you see two types: a cloth-covered plastic box with handles and a utensil tray for hand-building tools.