[Clayart] the human body

Bonnie Staffel bstaffel at chartermi.net
Tue Nov 1 14:54:36 EDT 2016

Hi all, In my over 65 years if potting, I have had to create a number of
tools for my work. One of the most innovative one, IMO, was one for
measuring the inside space for a honey dipper to use instead of a separate
object. This was attached to the lid, closed to prevent insects from getting
into the honey and also to be functional as a honey dipper. I used a pin
tool, a small lid, glued together with the pin to be upright. The small lid
fit into the container to hold the honey and the pin would go into the lid
up into the handle. the small lid was about 1/4" thick so that gave me
clearance for the bottom of the dipper not to cling to the glaze in the
bottom of the container after firing. Worked like a dream and I went into
production of making the popular honey pots.


Another tool my husband created was to make a form so I could fill a square
2" to 6" long object which was used as a soap holder, or a round candle.
These things were popular back in the 70s. I sprayed WD40 into the square,
used the inner stamp made from a 2x2 piece of wood with a design attached in
the bottom. Hammered it in and Voila! the object slid out easily. I had my
apprentices make these by the dozen. 


The best dipping tool I found long ago were tongs welded to a pair of
pliers. The grip was strong, the points placed just right for holding the
pot to be dipped. I still prefer it to the one provided by the ceramic
supplier which is too wide for some objects or too tight fitting to pick up
some pots. 


When I was teaching my apprentices how to throw production, I made a tool
from an old bamboo brush handle, stuck a substantial wire up into the
handle, made a double bend in the wire with a protrusion to stick into the
bottom of the pot to show a 1/4" thickness. Too thick and the horizontal
part of the double bend showed in the clay, just touching was perfect.
Pretty soon the apprentices got the feeling from practice throwing to go
without the tool. 


To time the apprentices, I used a darkroom timer to make time studies on
their and my work progress. I cut down on wasted movements, always putting
the tools in the same place so one didn't have to fish or look for that cut
off string, etc. Time was money then, and as I paid my apprentices to learn,
had to devise pots or objects of my own design that I could sell. One of
these was making napkin rings from the practice of pulling handles. That was
a good one. Then a friend suggested I purchase an extruding pug mill which
cut down the kneading time immensely. I used a certain number of inches of
the extrusion for each piece of pottery to be made, eliminated weighing the
clay needed. I am still using that old Bluebird purchased in the 70s. 


The three objects of equipment that I took with me wherever I moved were the
pug mill, the wheel and the slab roller.  


Other tools mostly from the hardware store came along to suit the project to
make production cutting costs part of the expense of operating a studio.
Time was money spent so had to work efficiently and in a timely fashion to
make the business profitable. 


Pottery making is moving into a lot of different types now, so many of my
tools would not be needed. Still for the classic era they were great and we
made a comfortable living. 


thanks for listening,




> A lot of my students want know 'how to do' _____(fill in the blank) 

> shape or idea, which tool to use and what exact steps to follow.

> Maybe because a lot of them are graphic design majors, and spend a lot 

> of time learning software. Or not.


> I tell them that if what they want to accomplish is something with a 

> long tradition of similar forms and methods, like a lot of classic 

> functional foodware, then the tools that came in their 'pottery tools'

> kit will serve pretty well, for as long as they are making things that 

> suit the assumptions of the tool company. The tool people are only 

> guessing what things you want to make, and how you are likely to want 

> to make it. If you only use those tools, in the way the maker expected 

> you to, you will likely end up with something pretty much as expected. 

> That's not always a bad thing. No need to re-invent the wheel with 

> every new idea. There are giants in our past; by all means, go stand 

> on their shoulders! But don't stop thinking for yourself. It's easy to 

> let your tools tell you what to make (and how) without even realizing 

> it. We steer away from shapes and techniques that our tools don't 

> facilitate, often quite unconsciously, instead of thinking of which 

> tools might serve instead.  Different tools lend themselves to 

> different work. Different work calls for different tools.


> When we make art we are making things that have never been made 

> before, ever, by anyone. Similar to other things, to be sure, but 

> never exactly the same. Assuming that the same tools will get you 

> where you want to go just because other people use them, and in a 

> certain way, is missing an important facet of what it takes to create new

> Don't let your tools be the boss of your work. Ideally, they become a 

> partner in the process, but letting your work be dictated by the tools 

> you've never questioned is just sad.


> For the last few years, I've had an assignment: Make a Tool, Find a 

> Tool, Modify a Tool. Students have to come up with three new tools: a

> tool (a bisque stamp, for instance, or something else from scratch), a 

> 'found' tool (any object they come across: a pen cap, a rock, a 

> sneaker sole, a cheese grater, whatever) and a modified tool (a notch 

> cut in an old plastic card, a pointy handbag clasp cut from its flap, 

> a button glued to a stick, etc.). A tool is whatever helps get the 

> work made. Just because some company made a tool and stuck it in a 

> package marked 'ceramics tools' doesn't make it better. The tool that 

> serves your goals is always the better tool.


> Some students are reluctant to change, especially at the wheel. Then 

> one day someone will say, "Wow, this really hurts my back!' or some 

> such. They're afraid to try another stool, or mess with the allotted 

> setup. They feel conspicuous if they speak up (especially here in the 

> Midwest, land of 'just go along, then get passive-aggressive later').

> Once I give a wheel some 'custom mods', though, it's cool, and the 

> next thing, people are putting bricks underneath, swapping chairs from 

> the other room, putting a cushion on the stool, and letting others try 

> it too.


> I sometimes think I perceive an increasing willingness to just take 

> the physical world as it is. Fewer people growing up with tool use and 

> making do by building or fixing things themselves. Try that with a 

> fancy expensive piece of electronics, you risk messing it up and 

> voiding the warranty, and new cars seem designed to actively prevent 

> user servicing. Granted, my current car is far more reliable than any 

> I ever had before and hasn't needed much work, but this seems to 

> cultivate a mindset of 'leave it alone' that poisons people's whole 

> sense of agency over physical things. So, I'm just gonna say, "Get out 

> there with that opposable thumb of yours and don't let tools be the 

> boss of you!"


> -Snail





DVD  Throwing with Coils and Slabs

DVD  Introduction to Wheel Work

Charter Member Potters Council


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