Saturday, August 30

Presumptuous tool review

Well the kiln is loaded and programmed to begin to fire at 12:30 a.m. I adjusted the firing program to coincide with what I've worked out in my test kiln these last couple of months. We'll see what happens.

(a little warning, this next passage may be long, so I promise to embellish and use poetic license as much as possible to keep you from nodding off)

So I'm sitting here having a little lunch-some risotto and fish stew of some kind that Adam brought home from work last night-and flipping through my CM mag. I came across a tool that I don't like very much, and since I have never used one or seen the mechanics of it in person, I thought I was perfect to review it. The tool is on page 31 of the Sept. 2008 issue. It is called the Quickcenter, and is made by Brent with a hefty price tag of 274$ (no disrespect to Brent, they have some good equipment). The idea of the tool is that you take this cylinder with a plunger at one end and press it into a chunk of clay, then line the tool up with a bat that has a hole in the center and after pushing the plunger, presto, a "centered" piece of clay. There are several things I find disturbing about this tool and I have no problem sharing them. I will try and address the arguments for this tool towards the end as I know there is more than one way to look at this-although I don't really embrace the other way.

Lets start with the obvious. The clay is not really centered. Putting something in the middle of the wheel barely addresses part of the process and purpose of centering the clay. The photo shows the tool being pressed into what looks like a block of clay directly from the bag. Right away, this tool encourages bypassing of a critical part of clay preparation, and that is wedging. Wedging isn't the most fun thing to do. It can be exhausting-but it can also be meditative if you get your mind right about it. Although I am stating the obvious, wedging also compacts the clay, lines up clay particles, and homogenizes the clay. I'll tell you my opinion right now and that is that if you currently just open a bag of clay and bang it into a ball to put on your wheel, you're skipping part of the process that will noticeably make your pots easier to throw. Sure, by centering your clay on the wheel you do gain some compression and particle alignment, but centering will not be as easy and the center of the clay piece that you are working on, will not receive that benefit.

Once you eject this tube of clay onto your wheel it will need additional work to truly get it centered. I can't imagine-at least I hope-that no one would think that this tool has removed all aspect of centering from throwing. Really all it has done is placed a pug of clay in the middle. Nothing more really than what I do when I sit down and bang a properly wedged piece into the center and pat it to pre-center. Now if your idea of this step is to try and 3-point shoot if onto the wheel from the other side of the room, you will definitely have better results using this tool.

Here's where I have my biggest problem with this tool. It tries to make part of the job easier that is almost the first thing you need to learn and accomplish before making a pot on the wheel. What is the saying? Anything worth learning is difficult? Something like that. Maybe that's not true, but part of learning anything using involves pushing through a wall where there is a part of you that wants to give up and you decide that instead you will go forward. Many walk away. I think why this tool really rubs me wrong, is that it is dumbing people down, or allowing them to dumb themselves down. Don't get me wrong-I LOVE TOOLS-I'm almost a tool and gadget-aholic, although I restrain myself greatly because I am also a poor-aholic. I just can't seem to stop being poor.

I have:

A Talisman Sieve (one of the greatest tools ever invented; albeit a pain to clean) a slab roller, a Giffin Grip (bought with my first pottery sale money in college-after I learned how to center a pot for trimming), an immersion blender (good for pre-mixing glazes that contain the dreaded, clumping Bentonite, before sieving) two digital scales (because one just isn't enough), multiple wire tools, needle tools, ribs, sponges, brushes, etc., a ware cart (because I don't like to walk back and forth when I don't have to), an extruder (makes rapid fire compressed coils-love it). What I don't have yet, sniffle-sniffle, is a pug/mixer mill (to help with recycling clay and de-airing freshly made clay) and a treadle wheel (because they're so purrrty). But that's due to my pooraholism.

I imagine that some might see a conflict between what I am preaching and what I am practicing as involves my using a Giffin Grip. I don't see it as the same thing. I suppose you could say that tap centering, or needle centering the pot and then taking clay coils to hold the pot to the wheel, is a crucial part of making the pot. I don't think so. If it's part of the process for you and you are kind of Zen about it, then that's great. I wasn't zen, it seemed like a lot of time spent doing something that wasn't that important to making a pot. The clay has already been wedged, centered, thrown, partially dried, and now I just need to hold it on the wheel so I can trim some excess clay off which which this tool does a great job of doing (usually).

I just think that part of mastering a craft is learning and using the process. By attempting to remove centering, this tool allows us to think that we either can't or shouldn't bother getting the clay (and our hearts and minds-"we are the world, we are the children . . .") to center, and makes the beginning part of making a pot into a paint by number enterprise (no offense to paint by number fans). So I think some of the arguments against my thinking is that this tool will be good for:

a. beginning learners
b. children
c. people with weak wrists, arms, bellybuttons, whatever
d. clay classes for the hobbyist

As far as beginning learners go, I think I've already addressed this. Learning to center is part of learning to make a pot. It's not about skipping the hard stuff to get to the fun stuff (which is still hard, and probably will be harder since you have not gotten a true feel for the clay yet). As far as kids go, I know that everyone might think I am an evil ogre, but I don't believe in dumbing kids down, and that they shouldn't learn struggle and failure . That doesn't mean they should never be helped. Of course not. But I don't think this tool will really help them much, as it will take about 10 seconds for them to get the clay off center again. I'm just not a fan of this "there are no losers, every ones a winner" culture that we try and create for our kids. It does NOT prepare them for the real world. The weak wristed-you still have to get the clay to full center and turn it into a pot-things still requiring strength, which is largely built by wedging and centering. The hobbyist in a clay class? Is there a different argument for them?

While I'm at it, there is an ad for what I think is a FANTASTIC tool on page 69 in the same mag. It is called The Bump, and made by Mudtools (Michael Sherrill). This is a throwing stick, made with a flexible neck, what looks like an easy to grip handle and a firm-centered sponge end . I have never used or seen one in person but I'm telling you it's ingenious and I gotta have one. Sometimes, you just know.

Oh, if you read this far-thanks.


Brian said...

I haven't seen that tool (either one actually... The Bump sounds cool!)

I have to say I agree. Even disregarding the Zen aspect and the real, practicalities of the wedging/centering process, there was a huge sense of accomplishment from learning how to center for me. When I learned how to center reliably, reasonably quickly, and repeatedly, I remember feeling I was at least on my way to being a 'real' potter.

And you're right, centering doesn't end once the clay is on the bat. If you don't want to learn to center, get a jigger/jolley, because it won't be long before that perfect plug is wonky.

Linda Starr said...

I read your tool critique all the way through, but I am too "green" myself on the wheel to make an intelligent comment so I'll leave that to others. But I will say if the clay would center itself for me that would be just ducky.

Deborah Woods said...

Thanks for reading Ben and Linda! You're better people than I am cause I think I would have run screaming when I saw the length of it! I do mean what I said, however I also know that I am holding a strong view on this and that there is more than one way to do things. And sometimes I just feel like being bad.

Linda-I'm sure whatever comment you might want to make wouldn't be any less intelligent than my review about a tool I have never seen or used!

I agree Ben. I think learning to center is probably one of the most accomplished moments of becoming a potter. Once learned it could be said, why not find an easier and quicker way to do it? I think they actually have a sort of jiggering centering tool, which I think might be more effective than this one will be. said...

a personal choice really..i prefer to ride without training wheels! a bit more work in the beginning, but worth it;) mud tools rock, love the ribs, and my surform(sp?)..

Judy Shreve said...

Hey Deborah - I'm "tagging" you and hope it doesn't result in major dislike! I really dreaded it when I was tagged, but it ended up being kind of fun. Hope you play along!

Read about it at:

Also -- I really want 'the bump' -- most of the tools I use now are Michael Sherrill's tools. I saw the ad in Ceramics Monthly too & wanted one right away!
There's been a big discussion on clayart about the centering tool - not sure how I feel about it.

Okay -- hope you'll play the tagged game. It's annoying but fun too.

Deborah Woods said...

I can't believe anyone's reading this through. Thanks. When I saw how long it was after I posted it I was like yikes!

You're right Jeff-it is a personal choice-and I would not get in someone's face if they used a tool like this and criticize them for it. I think I'm more critical of the philosophy behind it (if there can be philosophy of a tool).

I just read about this tagging thing on Patricia Griffins blog. I'll play along-sure. It doesn't sound too bad.

cynthia said...

I have been saving the new Sept. issue of CM so that I can savor it cover to cover some evening this next week, but I did flip through to those pages you mentioned.

I just saw that center tool in another magazine recently and thought it was the dumbest thing ever! I wouldn't disparage anyone using it, but.... Maybe it would be helpful to someone with long term wrist issues - but why not use a jigger system instead? Nothing replaces learning how to do it as a beginner. I suppose we do need little successes in the beginning or we would give up.

It took me forever to learn how to center when I first started on the wheel, but it's like riding a bike. Once you learn, you never forget.

I want a Giffin Grip, but have been using chucks in the meantime to trim bottles and other similar forms which can be a pain when they get knocked off center. I should just treat myself.

Deborah Woods said...

Judy Shreeve said that there has been some discussion of it on Clayart but I don't know what the general opinion is. I imagine different views. I don't use chucks but for some forms I know I should sometimes. It's pure laziness on my part not to throw one. I was thinking that I could throw a few and keep them under plastic and use them when needed.

Pam McFadyen said...

Wow, That tool just seems pointless. None of my bats are properly centered on my wheel to begin with. So, I would just be making off centered mounds of clay. Weird.

Deborah Woods said...

Hi Pam. I had never found your blog before and so I'm glad you left a comment so I can check it out. I went to your etsy shop to look-I like your work. That tool comes with a bat that has a hole in it where you are supposed to put the clay. Not sure if you are supposed to remove the bat or throw the piece with it in place.

brandon phillips said...

yeah, i think that thing is kinda lame. although...have you seen michael klines's opening tool? kind of along the same lines, but to each their own. i have never had a bag of clay that was homogeneous moisture-wise so i would have to wedge it before i were to use that anyways, lame.

i'll tell ya though, i hate the giffin grip(no disrespect!), just a personal choice because i trim so soft. i think someday we should have a video contest between bloggers to see who can center and attach their to-be-trimmed pieces the fastest(gg vs. non-gg?), that might be kinda fun.

i also hate electric wheels...but i throw on one, hmmmmm......

Deborah Woods said...

I have not seen Michael Klines tool-I'm curious now, and I promise not to diss it in a no-experience review. If you like to trim soft then the GF will often leave impressions. With the old hands that was a bigger problem, with the new hands not so much at all. The old were concave and rigid, and the new are convex and flexible. Of course I saw them and was like-gotta have them! I can center and attach a pot onto the Grip in about less than 2 seconds-it might be hard to beat in a contest!