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One of the best ways to make a piece of clay work as your own is to literally put your mark on it. In Ceramic Carving Tool Techniques: Bringing the Ceramic Surface to Life, you will learn to go further, bringing the form and surface of your work together into a signature style using a variety of clay carving tools in combination with carving techniques like sgraffito, etching, wire-cutting, relief carving, and more.
Here’s an excerpt:
Advice on the Best Tools for Carving, Cutting, Scratching, and Slashing Clay
by Robin Hopper
An infinite variety of graphic marks can be made in soft clay through the use of a wide assortment of knives, forks, scalpels, welding rods, wire-ended or wooden modeling tools, sticks, bones, awls, needles, saws, wires, kitchen utensils and just about anything that can be creatively employed to produce an image, mark or sign. The nature of working with tools is such that artists usually develop favorites that seem to become extensions of their hands. Most potters and ceramic artists I know seem to have boxes of tools selected or made for specific processes of surface enrichment. They invariably are seeking the one tool that will out-perform all others, feel better in the hand or just be more pleasurable in use.
Tools either can be purchased or found objects. In sensitive hands, sometimes the most unlikely looking implements give the greatest results. Almost any tool takes time to give out its secrets for best use, so continued play or exploration of potential is a given if you want to use tools to their optimum level. Slight variations of pressure, twist or movement can produce or reveal the most amazing complexity of marks from even the simplest of tools.
Tools and Methods
The tools that seem to perform best with either soft or leather-hard clay – the states where most slashing, scratching, carving and cutting is done – primarily are tools with sharp points or edges. Clays generally are abrasive, finely granular materials that quickly will take the edge off of softer metal tools. Most cutting tools perform best when kept sharp. The types of material used for ceramic tool making varies from fairly soft alloy metals to knife-quality steel and beyond, into tungsten carbide, a fine, very hard crystalline material.
The price of the tool often will indicate the quality. The better the quality, the more efficiently it will do the jobs required of it. Inexperienced clay workers often blame themselves for problems caused by tools that are inadequate for the job. Potters’ tools that are packaged as beginner sets often make an already difficult process more so with unsatisfactory tools that quickly become dull from abrasion, causing unwanted “chattering,” or bouncing, of the tool on the clay because it is too dull to cut properly.
The best tools usually are individually handmade by small companies that understand exactly what the potter needs from personal experience and discussion with the people who use them. Tools made from high-quality knife steel, such as those made by Dolan Tools, will outperform soft metal tools and keep an edge against the abrasive qualities of clay for a long time. Knife steel easily can be sharpened with a file to maintain a sharp cutting edge.
The best and most long-lasting edge on pottery cutting tools is provided by tungsten carbide, a material considerably harder than steel. Even though it is very hard, crystalline tungsten carbide is extremely brittle, and tools made from it should be used carefully. Avoid dropping these tools on hard surfaces, as they may break. Tungsten carbide tools usually are individually handmade by small companies, such as Bison Tools.
Although more expensive than metal tools, the cutting quality of tungsten carbide tools is much better. They even are capable of trimming and cutting through bisque ware! Should they require sharpening, they can be returned to the company.
For the serious potter, tungsten carbide tools are probably the most satisfactory tools, turning what was often mundane work into sheer pleasure. Buy the best tools you can afford, or make your own using the best materials you can afford.
The way clay cuts depends on both the state of the material and the cutting tool. As a general rule when using knives and scalpels, the stiffer the clay, the more easily controlled the cut, and the softer the clay, the more resistance there will be to the cutting tool. Clay tends to cause the knife blade to drag by sticking to its surface.
The potter’s wire is much more than a tool for separating a thrown pot from the wheelhead or throwing bat. It can be simply a flexible wire with a handle at each end, or it can be fitted into a handle similar to a small woodworker’s bow saw and tightened to form a rigid cutting edge. Such a tool can have numerous interchangeable plain or twisted cutting wires to give a wide variation of possible cuts.
The twist wire shows multiple cuts that pick up on the features of the glaze, emphasizing the thick and thin qualities. Twisted wires with a much greater textural emphasis can be made from sprung wire curtain rod, which is often used for stringing kitchen curtains and is usually covered with a plastic coating. This can be found in old-fashioned hardware stores. After removing the plastic coating, the wire can be gripped with needle-nosed pliers and stretched to create a variety of wavelike patterns of grooves. Pulling this type of wire through soft clay and moving it from side to side will give a surface evocative of sandy beaches after the tide has receded. Using the process of slab making by throwing a block of clay on a hard surface, wire cutting it into slabs and pulling and stretching the sheets of soft textured clay on a hard surface allows for a great variety of expanded patterns.
Surface carving is usually done best with a variety of tools—from knives and gouges to wire-ended modeling tools—when the clay is leather-hard. The thickness of the objects to be carved should be considered carefully early in the process.
Creating linear images in soft slabs of clay or in soft thrown clay cylindrical forms and then pushing from beneath or inside the thrown form allows expansion of the image and textural development at the same time. Spraying or brushing the surface with a solution of sodium silicate and quick drying it with a blowtorch or heat gun while leaving the underside or inside of the form quite soft will produce remarkable surface textures when the clay expands from beneath or inside. Often resembling aged, tooled leather, these textured surfaces react well with thinly sprayed colorants or glazes or when fired in wood, salt or soda firing kilns.
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Ceramic Carving Tool Techniques: Bringing the Ceramic Surface to Life also includes:
Whether you work with sgraffito, relief carving, incized line decoration, or some other clay carving technique, there are a few tricks to successfully glazing ware with carved surfaces.
Carving into a clay surface can be very gratifying, but when you’re making pieces for use, you need to be mindful that the carving accentuates the function, rather than hindering it. Being attentive to a few basic design considerations will help you keep your clay carving appropriate to the form.
About Ceramic Arts Daily:
Ceramic Arts Daily is a free online website and newsletter written and produced for the benefit of potters and ceramic artists worldwide. The newsletter features both renowned and emerging artists, their work, techniques and artistic perspectives. Regular features include tips and techniques designed to help every artist expand their skill set and widen their artistic horizons. Ceramic Arts Daily also delivers video tips, in which potters and ceramic artists demonstrate various projects and processes. Think of them as e-workshops!
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