Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A potter’s tools

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Potter's workshop

A telling anecdote about the craftsman’s mind and the evolution of tools of the trade has been related by George Sturt in his memoir of the nineteenth-century English farmer and potter William Smith. Although the objects that craftsmen sit on while working might not commonly be thought of as tools, their design can affect the efficiency and smoothness of working as surely as do knives and hammers. Stuart found it “odd” that some of Smith’s potting furniture had been given names, and so his attention was drawn to them in the course of describing the use of some stools: “One stool was called ‘Broad-ass.’ Sometimes the potter himself, not finding this stool in the workshop, would sing out, ‘Bring me Broad-ass.’ Another stool went by the name of ‘Old Cockety.’ But perhaps the most useful of the three, and not the least quaintly named, was a one-legged stool known as ‘Nobody’…”

The specialized stools seem to have been affectionately named in recognition of their individuality and preference by the workers, much as some people today are known to name their automobiles. Furthermore, by giving the stools names, the workers could easily demand of a shop boy a particular one.

Sturt goes on to distinguish tools from furniture and apparatus, like stools and the squibber (which was nothing more than a tub of water that gradually filled up with clay), and notes that the potter’s tools “were very few.” The potters were, however, possessive of what tools they did have. One tool, called a “ribber,” was used to groove pots. Ribbers helped make a more uniform groove than could be achieved by the fingers alone, and the implements were frequently fashioned by the potter himself. He so prized them that if he moved to another shop “he did not leave them behind for any successor, but was jealous to take them with him.”

Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2015 at 7:54 am

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