Monday, January 5, 2009
The tools we use to make things
I am convinced that a large part of the reason we potters do what we do is that we love to create with our hands. There are few processes as elemental as making pots from clay. If we leave aside the mechanical wheel (which, after all, post-dates humankind's discovery of pot-making) our first tools splay out at the ends of our arms, ready to work. We can use our hands alone to make the raw clay pot. Many pots, in fact. And big ones, too. And quite elegant, if we know what we're doing. That sets us apart from woodworkers, sewers of fabric, printmakers, painters, carpenters.
After basic handwork, we begin to use tools - the wheel, ribs, trimming blades, hole-cutters, fettling knives, decorative stamps - to refine our work or make the creative process more efficient.
I started thinking about this Saturday, when I found an apple-corer at a giant antiques store in New Bedford, not far from Cape Cod. Someone perhaps 70 or 80 years ago took great care to roll, join and solder sheet steel into a perfectly lovely, efficient and functional tool to core apples. It's a brilliant thing, handsomely proportioned and simple. And there it was, selling for five dollars, who knows how far in miles and time from its original maker. It appears to be a one-off, with no brand name engraved anywhere. I'm guessing that a wife told her husband, "We need a new corer," and he went out to the metal shop and made one. Or he went to his friend and that friend made one.
I bought it because I loved the shape and because I thought it would make a great hole-punch if I should need such a thing on a teapot or ... something else.
I photographed it for the blog and then I thought I'd photograph my grandmother's boning knife, which I rescued from the ruins of her old kitchen not long after her oldest son - my uncle - died. Like the corer, this knife is marked with no brand. But it is comfortable, elegant in its simplicity, and its steel sharpens well, unlike today's stainless steel blades. It does the job and I use it in our own kitchen every day, perhaps 60 years after my grandmother first bought it.
The other tool here is an idea stolen from Welsh potter Phil Rogers. At a workshop many years ago, he showed us this ingenious tool he uses to decorate his pots. It's one of the two barrel-shaped blades found in a common mechanical pencil sharpener. Mounted on a handle made of stiff coathanger wire, it leaves a pattern of lines on leather-hard clay. The lines adapt well to ash and other glazes. I don't know if this tool was Phil's idea or if he stole the idea from someone else. Doesn't matter. It's a good tool, like the others.