If you’ve watched my video of carving a piece from start to finish you may have noticed that there’s only a couple of tools that I favour during that particular carving. This comes down to the type of design that’s been worked on, as well as personal preference. I’m very familiar with my tools and how far they can be pushed to do what I want to do with them, but each tool does have a purpose, even if it’s only used infrequently.
Excluding knives, which I’ve talked about at length already in this previous article, there are four tools that I would consider absolutely essential as a bare minimum for this sort of work. They are:
The shovel tool,
The square-ended ribbon loop tool,
The oval wire loop tool,
A soft-bristle brush
Many of my other tools are variants of those, either larger or smaller, which can help to save time but aren’t vital to be able to carve. Others are specialised tools that can perform particular tasks, such as a holer for easily punching holes through the clay, but can be substituted by a sharp knife and steady hand. These are the tools I’d put in the ‘convenient’ category; ones that I’d recommend, but only once you’re established with your carving and are looking to increase efficiency.
Conveniently, this tool comes equipped with both the Shovel Tool and a Soft-Bristle Brush
The Shovel Tool: By far the most useful, following a sharp, thin-tipped knife. This is the tool that you’ll predominately use whenever you need to remove excess clay in delicate or hard-to-reach areas. The shape of its tip is perfect for scooping away dry or wet clay right up against those 90 degree corners and the sharp edges are great for smoothing surfaces that you wouldn’t be able to fit the edge of a knife down into. The sides curve slightly which also makes it easier to use than a knife for rounding edges on dry clay. Coupled with a brush on the other end, you can’t go too far wrong having this tool in your inventory.
The Soft-Bristle Brush: As part of working with dry clay you’ll be dealing with a lot of clay dust – it’ll pile up around where you’re carving and obscure your view. The easiest way to shift it is simply sweeping it away with a brush. There’s two reasons I’m specifying that it should be a soft-bristle brush here. For one, a stiff-bristle is going to flick the clay dust faster and further than you’d like, spreading it all over and causing more to become airborne (which you really don’t want to be breathing in too deeply around). Secondly, firm bristles can actually leave scratch marks on the dry clay, which is a textured effect best done without. As mentioned above, I’ve found the brush on the end of the shovel tool to be ideal.
Of these two, I find the smaller 'squared off' tool to be the most useful
The Square-Ended Ribbon Loop Tool: The two main features to look out for here is a completely flat top (preferably completely square, not tapering in like the larger of the two in the photo) and a sharp edge. The more you use it the sharper it will become, but the defining feature of a ribbon loop tool as opposed to a wire loop tool is its cutting ability. Ideally you want the sharp edge to be closest to the clay as you’re using it, rather than having the little bump around the outside of the ribbon that so many do, but it can be hard to find ones like this. This is the best tool for smoothing off flat surfaces such as the background and the layers before they have detail carved into them. I’d recommend having a range of sizes but at the very least I’ve found a width of around 4mm is great for those narrow areas, whereas another around 15mm is the best for evening out large areas without leaving streaky lines.
Of these, the middle is the most broadly useful, although the others have specialised uses
The Wire Loop Tool: As the name would suggest this tool is a loop of firm wire of varying shapes and sizes. The wire is rounded so there’s less chance of cutting into a delicate edge of the clay when you’re smoothing off the sharp sides in comparison to using a ribbon loop tool. These tools are also very good at widening incised lines, once a guiding channel has been etched with a knife, although you may want to progressively increase the size rather than jumping straight to a large one, to minimise the chance of chipping the clay around the edge. They come with varying flexibility but I find that rigid ones are the most useful when dealing with dry clay.
Various Wire and Ribbon Loop Tools: As mentioned above, having a variety of loop tools is definitely a bonus, if not essential. You’ll find you get favourites that you use more than the others, but you’ll also find that some fill niche requirements and can do things the others can’t. It may be that the angle of one of the wire loop tools is perfect for rounding off the incised lines you carve, or the width of one of the ribbon tools is just right for fitting between letters and smoothing the background out. So even if you think you’ll only need one of a type of tool, it can often be best to experiment with a couple of different types or sizes because you’ll likely find that some work better than others for different tasks.
Ball-Tipped Stylus Tool: Useful for transferring a printed design onto the wet clay (see the video link at the top for a practical demonstration), this ball-tipped stylus tool is your best friend when it comes to avoiding annoying paper tears. Used lightly, it will imprint a decent impression of the traced image while leaving the paper intact and in one piece for easy removal.
Needlepoint and Spade Edge: There will be times you just want to poke a hole in something, or need to scrape out a space that other tools don’t reach. Its main contribution is that the needlepoint is completely inflexible, which may suit certain jobs where the flexibility of a thin knife tip is detrimental. It’s of limited value in comparison to the essential tools, but it’s one that you’re glad you have when circumstances do arise.
Wooden Thin Point: This tool’s of very little use when the clay’s dried out, but for wet clay I’ve found it to be handy to keep around. Wood has different properties to metal and doesn’t tend to stick as much, so I’ve found the tip of this tool to be good at smoothing over torn or damaged areas, particularly those that have just come out of a mould. In my experience it works better if you wet the tip first.
Holer: Depending on what you’re intending to make, this tool may either be of great use or little importance. If you can think of any reason you’d like to whack a perfectly round hole through anything with the minimum fuss, make sure you have one of these in your arsenal. If not, there’s not much other use for it.
Handheld Vacuum Cleaner: Brushes will only get you so far in cleaning up the clay dust, it’s time to arm yourself with technology. If you like to keep a clean workstation this is one of the quickest ways to tidy up. Although make sure you get one with a good filter or else it’s just going to pick up all that dust and propel it into the air, spreading the dusty love.
Sponges: Care should be taken with wetting up any dried section of clay, as the resultant expansion and contraction can cause cracks. However, swiping a damp (not dripping) sponge over the clay can be a very quick and effective way to soften an edge or finish off a smooth background. Just be careful about reintroducing too much moisture after it’s dried, and use it sparingly around detail or it will soften it to the point of obscurity.
Cookie Cutters: News flash – cookie cutters work as well on clay as they do on cookie dough! Amazing, isn’t it? Sometimes the simple solutions are the best. However, this, like the holer, is another situation-dependant tool. If you have a use for making uniform shapes, these should be on your shopping list. If not, leave them in the kitchen.
Slicing Line: Usually either flexible wire or thick fishing line with loops or handles to either end, it is disturbingly similar to a garrotte, but thankfully is only ever used to slice up large blocks of clay. You can buy these for a couple of pounds at pottery stores but realistically they can be easily made at home, either by looping some thin wire as I’ve done or attaching a couple of pieces of wood to the ends of some heavy duty fishing line. My mother made her handles from fired clay that was perfectly fitted to her grip, but that’s a level of luxury I haven’t yet reached.
These are the tools that I’ve found work with this subtractive style of ceramics, carving away the excess when the clay’s dry. If you work with wet clay your tool requirements are going to be very different from mine. Even so, the principles are the same: work with a range of tools like the ones I’ve suggested above and get to know them and what they can do. A good carving is a combination of experience and suitable tools, and only by working with the tools will you learn how to get the most out of them.