A Beginners Guide to Buying Ceramic Tools

Pip Harris Pip Harris

Making pottery and other sculptures out of clay is an art that in many ways is unchanged from that perfected by ancient people millennia ago. Today, many hobbyists enjoy using these techniques to mimic ceramics from many cultures or to create their own unique works of art.

A major part of making pottery or other ceramics involves the use of ceramic tools. These tools come in many shapes and sizes, but allow for highly detailed work in clay.

When buying ceramic tools, whether it be in a hobby shop or online via eBay, it is important to understand just what types of tools are available, what they are used for, and what makes one tool of set of tools stand apart from other options. Using this information, a potential buyer can find themselves better informed about the art of ceramics and find that they are better able to make an informed purchase that can save time and money, allowing for greater focus on the hobby.

Types of Ceramic Tools

There are many different kinds of ceramic tools available. In fact, in many ways, any object can theoretically become a ceramic tool as long as it can be used to alter or manipulate the clay in some way. Over the centuries, ceramic artisans have developed a number of tools that have been generally standardised around the world and offer a number of different ways to use them. For the most part, these tools are used when throwing clay or making Pottery on a potter's wheel, although they can be used when making any kind of clay sculpture.

Cutting Wire

A cutting wire is likely to be the first tool used by ceramic artisans. The reason for this is that a cutting wire is often used to separate smaller pieces from a larger block of clay in clean, smooth cuts. This is particularly helpful when a specific amount of clay is needed when making a number of sculpture or pots that are all the same size and shape. Cutting wires are also used when throwing clay to create an even and flat top to a piece of pottery or to remove a newly thrown pot from the wheel. A cutting wire consists of a piece of flexible wire connected to wooden handles on either end. In some cases, the wire is made of metal, and in others, it is made of thin nylon strands, such as fishing line. Cutting wire is fairly inexpensive, and some ceramic artisans have multiple cutting wires in case one becomes tangled or bent.

Pot Gauge

A pot gauge is an ancient tool, used to determine the height of a thrown pot. This is particularly useful when one is making more than one pot and the desire is for them to be a similar shape and size. A pot gauge consists of a thin wooden or metal rod with holes in it at specific lengths. The rod is inserted into a thrown pot, and another, smaller rod is run through one of the holes. This can help the potter determine if all edges are the same height and make it easier for the potter to make a level rim for their pot.

Ribbon Tools

Ribbon tools are used by ceramic artisans when they are engaged in fine detail work. For the most part, ribbon tools are small devices with wooden or metal handles. These handles are attached to small wire hoops in various shapes. Ribbon tools are usually sold in a set of six or more tools, each with a distinctive wire shape. In some cases, a set of six may contain only three shapes, but each shape may come in two different sizes. When purchasing ribbon tools, it is helpful to look for handles that can allow for a firm grip, even when the user has wet hands. Handles that are too smooth may come loose and mar an otherwise fine piece of pottery.

Sculpting Tools

Sculpting tools are similar to ribbon tools in shape and function, but they are usually made of one piece of material like wood or plastic. They do not have the hoop made of wire that sets ribbon tools apart. For the most part, sculpting tools are less expensive, but may not offer the same versatility as ribbon tools.

Potter's Needles

A potter's needle is a simple device, basically consisting of a long, slender needle with a pointed end that can be used to create designs in a piece of ceramic art or to trim the edge of a thrown pot. In some cases, potter's needles have wooden handles like ribbon tools.


In many cases, potters who are throwing clay simply use their hands to guide and direct the pot as it is taking shape on the wheel. However, some potters prefer another option: a device known as a rib. Generally, ribs are specially shaped pieces of wood that allow the potter to hold one and use the more uniform shape of the rib edge to shape the pottery. Some ribs have holes in them to allow air to pass through. In some cases, ribs are sold as a set, and come in a number of shapes and sizes.

Fettling Knives

Fettling knives are very thin knives that are designed to be bent if needed, and for this reason are usually sold in a set. The primary purpose of a fettling knife is to remove the small ridge formed when clay has been placed in a mould, although they can be used for many different tasks. Many potters use them to trim or shape pottery that is thrown on a wheel.


Sponges might seem like a fairly straightforward ceramic tool, but professional ceramic artisans are aware of how sponges can be used effectively and what kinds of sponges are available. For the most part, sponges are used to either add water to clay that is drying out or to remove water from clay that is too wet. This means that the sponge needs to be durable enough that small pieces of it might not be torn off by a rapidly spinning pot. Sponges that do not fit this qualification are generally only used for clean up.

Type of Sponge



Cellulose Sponge (Kitchen Sponge)

Hold a large amount of water; inexpensive

Clean up

Poly Sponge

Synthetic; good at cleaning grease and chemicals

Clean up

PVA Sponge

Synthetic; highly absorbent; tough, durable, and versatile

Working directly with clay

Natural Sea Sponge

Environmentally friendly; tough, durable and versatile; highly absorbent

Working directly with clay

Elephant Ear Sponge

Natural; triangular shape; fine structure

Removing dust from pottery; working directly with clay

In some cases, sponges are used not only for their absorbing qualities, but for their ability to add texture to a piece of pottery. Sponges have actually been used in this way since ancient times.

Buying Ceramic Tools on eBay

Beginners can find a number of helpful ceramic tools on eBay, and in many cases these tools are inexpensive enough that a beginner can test out some options in order to find out what he or she likes best. In some cases, this is because the tools are used but serviceable, and in some cases, they are new but sold at a discount.

A good way to see everything that is available is to simply enter a general keyword search term such as 'ceramic tools' into the search bar found on any eBay page. This can allow a beginner to get a better sense of options and prices before making a purchase. If, however, a potential buyer wants a specific item, the search term can be easily modified or adapted. When buying any item on eBay, it is helpful to carefully read the product description as it can provide a wealth of information about an item's history and inform a potential buyer of any flaws or damage.


Ceramics is a hobby that many beginners find daunting due to the many different kinds of tools available. It should be noted, however, that the most important tool for sculpting clay or throwing a pot is a creative mind. With a desire to create something out of clay, whether as an artistic statement or for a practical purpose, a beginner can use anything as a tool.

There are a number of specialised tools available that have been developed over the centuries, like ribbon tools, ribs, and fettling knives, that make ceramics easier and allow for solid, uniform shapes and designs. Some of these tools are designed to allow ceramic artisans make unique patterns and textures in in their clay. Sponges are a unique tool in that they allow for the making of unique textures while also service a practical purpose in helping regulate the amount of water in clay. Understanding all of the differences between the various tools used for ceramics can help a beginner make a wise initial purchase and embark on a rewarding and fulfilling hobby.