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How to Make One of My Favourite Tools

pottery tools, metal ribs, sticking out of a clay sculpted skull

One tool that I find indispensable for my my process is this custom toothed rib. I use the tool during the initial rough in primarily, to define my larger forms and anatomy. I have made several variations but my most used has an elongated teardrop shape and shallow teeth cut into it.

I make them from steel banding used to bundle lumber and other heavy things for shipping. I scored a lifetime supply when my friends had a garage built, but you could likely get some from a hardware store, lumber yard, construction site, or farm supply if you asked nicely.

To make your own the only tools you really need are a good pair of tin snips or metal shears, and a file. A bench vice, some clamps, Dremel tool with cut off wheels, and sandpaper are handy but you don’t need any of those. To make the tool in this blog I just used the snips, and file shown, and my bench vise off camera.

To start I cut a section of steel banding to length. I tend to like about 5 inches long its about the width of my hand. The ruler in the photo is just there to show scale, I didn’t measure anything just chopped of what seemed like a comfortable length.

Next I sketched out roughly what shape I wanted to make the tool. I put tape on the steel so I could photograph this step, but you don’t need to do that. This time I put most of the curved surface on one side to leave a nice long flat section.

It’s like a really skinny version of one of the more popular shaped potters ribs. Then I just cut it out with the tin snips. Careful observers may note I didn’t do a very good job cutting this one out and the pointy end got a little more pointy than I really wanted. It’s always a good idea to cut just outside your lines and file or sand down to them. but I wasn’t too concerned about the exact shape here anyway so I didn’t do that.

shape refined and deburred

Next I cleaned up the curves and refined my shape with the file. When you do this it will create a burr on the metal. This burr can be very sharp and give you nasty cuts or splinters. Hold your file almost flat against the steel and file just a little bit to remove these sharp edges.

Carefully feel around the edges of your tool to be certain you have removed all of the burr, I would even recommend sanding all the edges a little just to be sure. Steel banding is springy but the steel is quite soft so when you file it leaves a pronounced burr, be extra careful.

Once your tool is shaped and de-burred just use the corner of your file to cut teeth into the edges of your tool. Spacing the teeth evenly and close together makes the rib look nicer, but its not critical at all. You can use different things to make different size and shape teeth in your rib.

I use a Dremel with a cut off wheel to make smaller notches along the edge of some of my ribs. But needle files, hack saws, or even a beat up chisel can make teeth of different sizes and shapes. After you cut your teeth lay your file flat on the rib, or use sand paper to remove any roughness or burrs that happened during tooth making.

Thats it, tool done.

This one took me less than half an hour to make even with taking time to do photos. Super easy to do, and this is probably the tool I would pick if I could only have one.

Still not convinced? Don’t have tin snips? Intimidated by cutting steel? Fine I guess I will suggest some alternatives.

Alternative tools and materials

You can buy toothed steel ribs, this one is by xiem and its almost the right shape. Very shiny and I want to like it, buts it feels clumsy and is a little too flexible for my taste. You can cut one out of an old video rental card, or credit card etc. These can be cut with just scissors, though nail clippers make it easier to sort of nibble out the teeth. These don’t work too bad, but they don’t last get worn down quickly and the cards are a little short. I like to save my cards for scraping excess clay in plaster push molds where the weak material protects my molds. Hack saw blades. These have pretty nice teeth, but they only come in really the one shape. You can usually just break them off to a comfortable length. Popsicle sticks, not pictured, also make a decent sort of sculpting rib. I wouldn’t tooth them because the teeth tend to break off and leave chunks in your sculpture, but they sort of do a similar job in a pinch.

4 metal ribbed tools for sculpting