The Potter’s Tools | Hand Building Collection #ToolsofCA

One of the most common questions I’m asked is “What tool are you using?”. This is often immediately followed by “Okay… A mushroom. What on earth is a pottery mushroom for??”.

This post of my rag-tag bunch of pottery tools was apparently rather helpful for many of you, so I’ve decided to share a bit more about them. I’ll be posting a new ceramic tool once a week on Instagram for the next while – tagged with #ToolsofCA so they’re easy to find. The expanded edition of each post will be logged here.

Come have a chat! I’ll be there to respond to any questions in the IG comments.

Once I get through this Hand Building Collection (coil, pinchpot and slab-work tools) I’ll start on the Carving Tools Collection (kurinuki tools). Sound good?

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The Potter's Tools. Hand-building collection. #ToolsOfCA. The humble mud, a ceramics blog by Carragh Amos. thehumblemud.com carraghamos.com

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  1. Clay Paddle
  2. Anvil / Mushroom
  3. Kidney / Rib / Scraper
  4. Strainer Punch
  5. Brushes
  6. Hakeme Brushes / Fibre Tools (coming 23 May)

These are some of the pieces that I use when hand-building pots. Pin or bookmark this page for reference.

1. Clay Paddle

A clay paddle in a hand. The pottery tool is rectangular, wooden and about 30cm.

What is it for / what does it do?

I use this pottery paddle to reshape or compress coil pots (and sometimes slabs). Some artists use them to fit clay to slump moulds.

How do you use it?

Hold a mushroom/anvil tool inside the pot and gently tap the exterior with the paddle. This technique compresses the wall between the tools (strengthening) and allows you to change the form with repeated movements. It also helps to even out the wall thickness.

Work around your pot in a circular upward direction for balanced shaping. It’s quite rhythmic and takes a while to get the hang of – a bit like a dance. I’ve never been much of a dancer so I’m still working on moving with ease! There are some great videos on youtube if you need them.

Two pottery paddles in a hand. The tools are rectangular, wooden and about 30cm. One is smooth, the other a texture paddle.

Does this particular one have a story?

This is an antique from the old dragon kiln site in Ipoh, Malaysia. I bought two from the elderly master there. The well-used piece has been handmade – it was cut from a solid block of wood in a hurry (as you can see from the corner cut lines not matching).

The downside of such an old piece is that is sometimes leaves an imprint of that chipped edge. Regardless, I still prefer it to a new item. Old tools carry the memory of past makers. They’ve had so much life lived through them, you can almost feel it when you use it.

Close up of a ceramic pottery mushroom or anvil and two wooden pottery paddles.

Fun facts?

A paddle doesn’t just have to be a forming tool – it’s also useful for decoration. They come in a range of different finishes. These are sometimes called ‘texture paddles’. The piece I use most often has a smooth wooden surface, but I have another with a bubble pattern on it.

I’ve seen patterned paddles with lines, grids and triangles. As you hit the pot the shapes are embossed into the surface.

If you like to make work with decorative effects you might want to try carving a plain block with your own designs. Use raw wood, as seals and polishes might make it stick to the walls or leach chemicals into the clay. This short paddle construction article may be of use.

Another fun fact , some people call them “spankers”. I’d recommend having safe-search on if you’re googling that one!

Any hints or tips?

  • Choose a wooden paddle or cover a block with canvas to prevent sticking.
  • I personally find a heavy and sturdy paddle easier to use, I can lever the weight of the wood to do most of the work.
  • Allow your pot to dry a bit before you use the tool – too wet and it quickly stretches out of shape.
  • Start out with very light taps so as not to accidentally deform your pot (I learned that the hard way).
  • If the paddle is sticking to the clay and you prefer not to wrap it in canvas, let your pot harden up a bit more before reattempting. You can also use a heat gun to dry the surface a little (be careful to dry it evenly).
  • If you start working really large, scale your paddle for the pot.
  • The size and angle of the partnered mushroom greatly affects the shaping of the vessel wall.
A ceramic pottery mushroom or anvil and two wooden pottery paddle tools.

Where can I get one?

I’m sure there are plenty more stockists but the following list should get you started. Stuck at home with no postal delivery right now? Instead try the technique with a wooden spoon or narrow block of untreated wood.

Some stockists of plain or smooth paddles:

For patterned paddles (some also have a smooth back – 2 for 1!!):

2. Anvil / Mushroom


What is it for / what does it do?

I use this tool for building large coil pots. It compresses and strengthens the walls, and helps to curve or stretch the pot form from the inside. You can also use them with foam, as a sort of reverse press mould.

How do you use it?

Hold an anvil inside the pot and tap the exterior with a paddle. (see above, ‘paddle – how do you use it’). With your vessel on a banding wheel, slowly work your way around the pot. Try and move upward a little too, in effect spiraling gradually up to the top edge.

The wall will curve to match the surface shape of the anvil.

Some artists use supersized anvils to make bowls – by pushing them down into slabs laid on soft foam. The clay is sandwiched between the tool and foam, forming to the rounded surface of the anvil. Garrity tools make epic sized anvils and have some great videos of this technique in their Instagram highlights.

Does this particular one have a story?

The first one I owned was bought from old master Fattko. It’s a very old and bashed up antique from their Malaysian kiln site – a place where in the past, stacks of soy sauce fermenting jars were produced and fired in dragon kilns. It’s a handmade tool that tells the story of the place.

This green anvil is also a handmade pottery mushroom. Last year I saw it being thrown by the master kiln builder, Henko. The form was glazed and fired in the Double Dragon aquagama.


I assumed the masters were making it for their own use, but when I was about to leave Malaysia to return to Singapore they gifted it to me. I had been building some large coil pots at the kiln site and they must have seen I would appreciate the tool. It was such a lovely gesture!

Both of these pieces have a lot of sentimental value for me.

Fun facts?

The paddle and anvil method is a very old technique (we’re talkin’ B.C.) seen across the world. In mainland Southeast Asia many still use the method to pull up and compress earthenware pots, their tools “a set consisting of a wooden paddle and an anvil made of river pebbles or fired clay.” src.

Historically anvils have been crafted from a range of materials such as stone, clay, pebbles and wood.

Any hints or tips?

  • Wood or unglazed surfaces are going to work best, as smoother textures will stick to the clay and deform your pot.
  • Scale your tool. A small anvil has a different angle than a large anvil. Since we are compressing the clay wall between our paddle and mushroom, this surface shape is going to affect the way the vessel wall forms. Big pot = big mushy.
  • If your tool is too large for the pot you’re working on, the walls will stretch too much and grow out of shape.
  • If the tool is too small it will be difficult to grow the pot, as the edge will be turning back on itself. It will also take longer than necessary to compress your pot, because of the smaller than necessary surface area.

Where can I get one?

  • Garrity Tools (USA, many international stockists, and ships internationally) .
    Some other international stockists of Garrity for your convenience:
    • Scarva – Garrity Tools stockist (UK, ships internationally).
    • Ceramix – Garrity Tools stockist (Australia).
  • The Ceramic Shop (USA, ships internationally).
  • Sam Mui Kuang. FREMA brand. (Singapore).

Or, if you’re proficient in wheel throwing you can throw your own ceramic anvils like these two.

3. Kidney / Rib / Scraper

Three pottery clay scraper tools. Stainless steel pottery rib, handmade ceramic pottery rib, silicone rubber pottery rib.

What is it for / what does it do?

Ahh, the simple kidney. A basic and affordable tool seen in every potter’s toolbox. They’re commonly used when throwing on the wheel, but as I’m covering hand-building here I won’t address wheel uses (this article might be of interest to throwers).


I mostly use these kidneys to smooth and refine forms. In particular, the interior of bowls. They can be quite effective at scraping out the weight of a form, or refining a bumpy surface. I also occasionally use them as sculpting tools or to smooth out the lines left on the exterior of coilbuilt pots (coilbuilding often leaves subtle ridges from where the coils were layered).

How do you use it?

One of their names is scraper for a reason! It’s simply drawn across the surface. Apply moderate pressure, and support the wall from behind if possible to avoid distortion. This will also help it to work as a compression tool, improving the strength of the clay wall. The silicone/rubber kidneys are great for compressing and finishing rims.


Hold it firmly and pay attention to the angle of the ridges. As you can see, the grey and beige ribs have bevelled/angled sides. I find the flat side works well if i’m using it to take weight out of a form. To smooth, use the curved side to minimise that thin edge cutting lines into the clay.


Another use for firm ribs is to define the inner curve of a bowl. I turn my work to check and refine the corner angle, so that there is a consistent curve at the base of the wall.


Sometimes I use the metal rib as a knife to trim bowl edges, pinchpot feet, or to carve the outsides of vessels. They have a surprisingly sharp edge. Anchor your hand and work cautiously to avoid slipping and slicing through your wall (it happens).

Three pottery kidney tools. Stainless steel pottery rib, handmade ceramic pottery rib, silicone rubber pottery rib.

Does this particular one have a story?

The metal rib looks a bit worse for wear because it’s from my first ever packet of pottery tools. It was in one of those cheap multi sets that cost about $8 NZD (~ $5 USD). At the time I was learning to throw and used it alot on the wheel.

The ceramic tool is another handmade tool from Malaysia. The old master said it’s over 70 years old. Think of the pots it’s seen! From what I can tell it looks like it was cut from a rolled slab.

Fun facts?

The tools are often called ribs, which comes from the history of the craft. Alongside pottery sherds, stones and pieces of gourds potters used to use actual animal ribs for this purpose.

You can purchase or make your own texture scrapers for decorative effects. For example, wave, serrated, or notched surfaces work well in thick slip. If you want something swanky, both Bamboo Tools and Garrity Tools have a good range of these.

Three pottery rib tools. Stainless steel pottery rib, handmade ceramic pottery rib, silicone rubber pottery rib.

Any hints or tips?

  • Vary your rib material for the task. The fine edge can leave annoying gashes in the body so use as soft a rib as is still effective for your needs. It’s a good idea to have a few different options when it comes to ribs.
  • Silicone / rubber kidneys come in a range of flexibility, so you might want to select one of these personally (in store).

Where can I get one?

Pretty much anywhere! Wooden kidneys are found in pottery starter kits, all general ceramics suppliers, art and craft stores, possibly even your local dollar store or haberdashery. My silicone rib is a Seven Skill from Northcote Pottery Supplies in Melbourne.

Decorative ribs might be harder to find, so for a good range check out:


The handmade ceramic example I’ve shown is actually pretty great for forming and sculpting. Like the anvils, you could choose to make your own ribs in a similar shape from sturdy reclaim or waste clay (don’t glaze it though – the glazed surface will stick to the clay).

4. Strainer Punch

What is it for / what does it do?

I use this to cut holes in the base of the teapot spout, at the part we call the ‘tea filter’ or ‘tea strainer’. It’s the part of the teapot that works like a sieve. Aside from strainer punch I guess you could call it a strainer pottery tool, filter tool or tea filter cutter. If anyone has any clue what these teapot tools might officially be called, please let me know in the comments!

It’s particularly good for the Japanese-style convex strainers that extend into the body of the teapot (like half a bubble but with holes). Apparently this dome form helps to spread the force of the tea and prevent leaves blocking the holes like they might on a flat walled filter.

I also use it to cut holes in my test tiles, in case I want to hang them on a wire or pegboard in the future. I imagine a tiny hole cutter has a stack of different uses in pottery. A fine colander, berry bowls, a handle punch, lanterns…

How do you use it?

The steel cone is used to punch holes in leather-hard clay. It is pressed through the clay wall and twisted to dislodge the section cleanly.

The angled shape means than unlike a cookie cutter, you don’t need to stop to clear the punch before cutting a second hole. As you work the pieces build up inside the cone and can be easily shaken out from the wide end afterwards. The punched lumps stick to each other – shaking out as a long thin column of clay.

Cluttered shopfront with ceramic artists and metalworker drawing designs for pottery tools.

Does this particular one have a story?

These two were handmade by a metalworker in Malaysia. In Ipoh (Perak) there are still old-fashioned metal shops where makers craft wares to particular specifications. Pots, mechanical components, bolts and whatever else you might need. The goods are made and sold from cluttered hole-in-the-wall shopfronts.

My woodfiring teacher Abraham asked the craftsmen to create these steel cones to his particular specifications, as inspired by a traditional Japanese strainer tool.

Fun facts?

I can’t find any examples of these on the web so unfortunately general ‘fun facts’ are out. I will say they are almost as satisfying to use as a paper hole-punch. If I had a child around I’d set them up with a sheet of clay and one of these to keep them entertained for a while.

Any hints or tips?

  • Let your clay dry toward leatherhard before using.
  • Too wet and the tool won’t leave a clean circular cut.
  • Too dry, and you’ll get stress cracks in the spaces between the holes.
  • It helps to have support behind the surface you are cutting into.

Where can I get one?

As mine was custom made at a metal shop to my teacher’s requirements, I’m not exactly sure. It’s a very simple cone form. I suspect if you contact a metalworker / mechanic / jewellery-making aunt and show them these images they’d be able to craft one to fit your needs.

Another option is to use a very fine teapot spouter, or look at adaptable tools from patisserie such as these icing cones or these pastry horn molds.

5. Brushes

Four pottery brush tools. Brushes from left to right pastry brush, hogs hair paint brushes, hake brush for glazing.
Pastry brush, short stiff brush, hogs hair brush, hake brush

What is it for / what does it do?

Brushes have endless uses. Personally I use them for slip and glaze application.

How do you use it?

Glaze

  • Hake brush: The very soft brush here (above, far right) is a Japanese style hake brush (not to be confused with hakeme), often used in lacquer-ware, watercolour and ink painting. I find it works especially well for applying glaze.

    If you’ve been wondering how to prevent brush marks in glaze, these are your guys. While some artists seek the distinctive marks left by a brush, I generally choose clay slip for brush effects, and instead use a smooth glaze application layered over this. The extra-fine and soft bristles result in an even surface even when using thick brush-on glazes – which would typically leave distinct brush marks.

    You can read a bit more about hake history and see how they’re made under ‘Fun facts’ (below).

Slip

  • Short stiff brush: This is a sturdy tool I often use to apply slip to my scored surfaces before attaching parts when slab-building. Similarly, I use it to apply slip between scored coils when coil-building vessels.

    The stiff and dense bristles seem to soak up less slip than some of my other brushes, meaning less clay is wasted when I come to clean it later. The sturdy brush also helps to keep my coil building tidy as it doesn’t ‘spread’ its bristles over the sides of the coil as I drag it over the surface.
  • Pastry brush: My go to for slip inside tumblers or cups. The brush is narrower than others in my collection and has soft, long bristles. Because of this I find it the best suited to creating a natural looking, even brushstroke inside these difficult to reach areas.

    I usually hold the brush in my right hand and the cup in my left, and simultaneously turn my wrists in alternate directions to twist the slip around the interior (like the motion of wringing a towel). I also occasionally spin the pot on a banding wheel while holding the brush steady – don’t forget to lock your elbow!
  • Hogs hair brush: A favourite for engobe, and thick decorative slip effects on the outside of cups, bowls and sculptures. The width of this brush works well for my desired slip distribution, and fits well with the medium scale I often work at in coil vessels (around 30 cm).
  • All of these brushes offer good opportunity for various decorative effects on the surface of pots. Brushed pottery designs have an innate balance of chance and restraint, and in my opinion thicker brushes especially give a beautiful sense of movement. They’re a great tool to capture and enhance the spontaneity of working in clay.
Four pottery brush tools. Brushes from left to right pastry brush, hogs hair paint brushes, hake brush for glazing.
Img 1: Pastry brush, short stiff brush, hogs hair brush, hake brush. Img 2: Pastry brush

Does this particular one have a story?

Most of my brushes are picked up at art shops or ceramic supply stores. That said, this brush (above right, Img 2) is actually designed as a pastry brush. I found it for about $1.50 SGD at a basic cooking supply store.

The hairs are well attached and quite soft, which makes it a favourite of mine for brushing slip around the inside of tumblers.

Four pottery brush tools in hands. Brushes from left to right hogs hair paint brushes, pastry brush with wooden handle, hake brush for glazing.

Fun facts?

The construction of traditional Japanese Hake is an art in itself. In fact, the Tokyo government has designated each of the seven main variations of this brush as traditional crafts worthy of being protected. The handles are made from various woods including bamboo and cypress. Bristles are sourced from much varied materials including hair (in the past this was sometimes human), wool, and palm or other plant fibres.

These brushes have a really interesting history. The earliest documentation from 923 AD describes hake brushes (these ones made of millet) being used to paint lacquer on bowls bow and arrows. There are also distinct brushes that were designed for applying theatre makeup, paper paste, paint on woodblocks, powder on dolls, and in fabric production / dyeing.

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If you’re interested in handmade and traditional craft, this is a fascinating video from Edo Hake showing a master craftsman making the brushes. It’s about 3 minutes long and beautifully filmed.

Any hints or tips?

  • Keep a range on hand. Different brushes will suit different purposes.
  • Materials make a big difference. I’ll take hogs hair as an example. Each single strand is quite thick, so even with a soft brush the lines are very distinct and visible.
  • Consider density and firmness. Soft brushes leave less obvious lines, whereas firmer tools might make the lines a feature by cutting into leather hard clay below. This makes these firm brushes a good options for hakeme – a technique of applying slip to leather hard clay. The brushstrokes not only sit on the surface of the pot but also etch slightly into the layer below.
  • Firm brushes hold their form and liquid is dispersed less evenly. Soft brushes (such as goat-hair hake) spread the liquid smoothly to create an even finish.
  • Scale brush width for the effect. The smaller the brush, the more complex and delicate the brushwork will look.

There is no good or bad when it comes to these choices. It all just depends on what you want to achieve. The best way to figure that out is to simply try a few different options and learn from experience.

Four pottery brush tools. Brushes from left to right pastry brush, hogs hair paint brushes, hake brush for glazing.


Where can I get one?

You ain’t no fools, so I’m not going to go into much detail on finding basic brushes. Pretty much any craft or art shop will have what you need.

Hake brushes are a little more unusual, but are available at most art and ceramic supply stores. If you are isolated or in Covid-19 lockdown and looking to purchase some online you can find them at all good online pottery stores, or find a large range via Amazon.

My hake was purchased from Northcote Pottery Supplies in Melbourne, Australia.

Don’t forget I’m going to be updating this page as I work through my tool collection, so remember to check back next week.

Next week’s tool: Hakeme Brushes / Fibre Tools.

I also can’t wait to share some kurinuki tools with you in the near future! If you’d like to know when a new blog post goes up, sign up for email notifications using the sidebar widget. You’ll get an email when the Carving Tools Collection is live.

Otherwise, follow me on Instagram or Facebook and I’ll let you know when it’s up.

Stay safe out there during these wild times.

Carragh Amos

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