How to Purchase a Pottery Wheel
Pottery artists usually know what they like about a particular wheel, but they may not know everything they should know when the time comes to buy their first wheel or replace an existing one. We asked some of the most recognized and respected names in the industry to help us take the mystery out of buying a pottery wheel. Here's what they had to say.
Electric or Kick Wheel?
A kick wheel is a traditional approach that carries a more affordable price tag than its electric counterpart. The second-most obvious advantage of a kick wheel is that it doesn't require an electric source to operate. Depending upon where you live, work or attend school, a kick wheel may be a good primary or backup wheel if your electric power is unreliable. Kick wheels are also rugged, simple and extremely quiet, and harken back to simpler times when "personal power" meant person-powered, which adds to their charm. Most kick wheels feature a built-in seat, and some models offer a motor as an option, which might be a welcome addition when some of the charm wears off!
In many cases, an electric wheel is the preferred choice for comfort, convenience, precision, and ease of making production quantities. Current models of electric wheels have greatly reduced or nearly eliminated the noise issue of earlier electric models.
Things to consider when shopping for an electric wheel include motor size and type, wheel head size, foot pedal/controller preference, and splash pan options, to name just a few. Another important consideration is the physical environment in which you'll be working, including room size and the amount of work space you prefer. An electric wheel has a more compact design than a kick wheel, and because it doesn't have a built-in seat, potters have a wider range of seating options â€” an important consideration when throwing for extended periods of time.
Most pottery wheels feature a belt-driven motor that has a mechanically controlled commutator (or rotor) system based on brushes. The latest innovation in pottery wheel motors is the DC (direct-current) direct-drive motor, which is brushless, beltless, electronically controlled and extremely quiet. When the motor is turned off, the wheel head will spin freely, much like a banding or decorating wheel.
Wheels with belt-driven motors have served the pottery community dependably for many years, and recent innovations have eliminated some of the noise they produce. On the other hand, the newer beltless, brushless motors have been proven to require less maintenance, thus extending the life of the wheel.
The decision to purchase a wheel that features beltless, brushless technology is a personal one that depends upon a variety of factors, including your budget, how much and how long you intend to use your wheel, and how important the quietness factor is to you.
Generally speaking, the higher the horsepower (HP), the larger the amount of power â€” or torque â€” your wheel will have. The most important thing is to choose the size that meets your needs, with power to spare as your skill level increases or as you begin throwing larger or more complex pieces. If your wheel's motor is too small, it will be subject to stress if you place too much clay on it, causing the wheel to slow down to an unacceptable speed while you're working. The motor can also overheat, limiting your wheel's useful life.
The difference between "peak-duty" and "continual-duty" horsepower ratings is an important distinction. Continual-duty motors are designed to run fully loaded 24 hours a day without overheating, while peak-rated motors will provide power for a shorter period of time. Look for this information on the motor's nameplate.
Temperature is the greatest enemy of variable speed motors. The slower the motor turns, the more heat builds up, resulting in brush degradation and commutator wear. Larger motors have more insulation and windings that allow for a greater dissipation of heat. Some manufacturers also incorporate a fan that allows the motor to run cooler and last longer.
Unfortunately, not all wheels are rated equally. For example, a 1/3HP continuous-duty motor may have more torque than a 1HP peak-duty motor. This is why manufacturers will also include in the product specifications how much clay can be continuously thrown on their wheels.
A wheel's throwing capacity can range from 25 lbs. (the weight of a bag of moist clay) up to 300 lbs. and even more. Keep in mind â€” the average mug weighs approximately 1 lb., so be realistic about the amount of power you need.
A good rule of thumb is that a 1/3HP motor is adequate for most hobbyists and beginning and intermediate students throwing vessels smaller than 50 lbs., while 1/2â€“1HP motors are best suited for advanced students and professional potters who may be throwing larger pieces.
Most pottery wheels come with a 12", 13" or 14" wheel head that is made of cast aluminum and marked with concentric circles. The size of the wheel head you choose depends on how large the pieces are that you'll be throwing. Most wheel heads are drilled with at least two holes to accommodate attaching a bat with bat pins.
A bat is a disc that attaches to the wheel head before throwing, allowing completed pieces to be moved from the wheel without damaging or deforming them. Another advantage to using a bat is that the potter can remove a finished piece and begin working on a new piece while the previous one is drying.
Made of plaster, plastic, pressboard, wood, wood fiber (also known as Medex), MasoniteÂ® (also known as Duron), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), or a bio-composite material, each type of bat offers distinct advantages. Many manufacturers will include a bat and bat pins with the purchase of a wheel. Bats can also be purchased separately. Six to 12 bats for each pottery wheel is a good rule of thumb for classrooms.
Potters who work in the Eastern (or Asian) tradition usually prefer wheels that turn in a clockwise direction, while potters in the Western tradition prefer throwing in a counterclockwise direction. Left-handed potters also seem to find the clockwise direction more comfortable while throwing.
A reversing switch allows easy switching from one direction to the other, as well as providing a neutral position for smooth transitions when changing directions. In teaching environments, a reversing switch allows for both left-handed and right-handed potters to use the same wheel interchangeably. While in the neutral position, the wheel head will spin freely in both directions, to allow banding or decorating.
A reversing switch is generally an optional feature, depending on the manufacturer.
How portable your wheel is depends upon the size of your room or studio and how much space you can dedicate to it.
Some pottery wheels are more or less stationary because of their weight or configuration, while some have removable legs or "booties" that allow them to be used on a tabletop or floor and stored out of the way when not in use. Some wheels incorporate work surfaces, seats and splash pans into their design, which adds to their overall size.
For potters who ascribe to the "simpler is better" school, a small tabletop wheel might be best. For those who want their tools, clay and water containers close at hand, a larger wheel with an attached work surface for these items might be the best choice.
The goal is to find the wheel that is most comfortable for you while throwing, in a configuration that suits your working style and your space.
Many manufacturers have developed pottery wheels for artists who have limited mobility or handicapping conditions. These wheels are often wheelchair-accessible, with hand controls to adjust the speed and height of the wheel head so it can be used while standing or sitting, and casters so the wheel can be moved easily.
There are several pottery wheels designed specifically for children to introduce them to the joys of pottery-making at a reasonable cost. These models normally feature a smaller wheel head and motor, a centering tool, and are constructed of safe, child-friendly materials.
Splash pans are designed to keep water from splashing on the user and the area surrounding the wheel during throwing. They are also useful for collecting clay during the trimming process. Some wheels feature a built-in splash pan, others feature one-piece or two-piece removable pans, and yet others offer a splash pan as an optional feature. The benefits of each are described below:
- Built-in splash pans are permanently affixed below the wheel shaft. Durable and stable, they normally contain a drain plug and water reservoir, and can be cleaned easily.
- One-piece removable splash pans can be removed for transporting to a cleaning or recycling area by removing the wheel head.
- Two-piece interlocking splash pans snap around the wheel shaft and can be removed easily for cleaning without removing the wheel head.
Foot Pedals and Controllers
Foot pedals will vary in responsiveness and smoothness, as will speed controllers. The best way to choose your favorite is to try a variety of pottery wheels and select the pedal and controller that matches your throwing style. Some brands offer controller upgrades that improve the performance of the wheel at all speeds, which can range anywhere from 0â€“240 rpm.
If your wheel will be used in a classroom by younger students, look for one that has steel legs with a powder-coated finish to prevent scratches and corrosion. Other frame options include welded steel pipe, which may be enameled or not.
If an attached work surface is important to you, look for a wheel that incorporates one in its design. These surfaces are made from a variety of materials, including laminated wood or high-density particle board, aluminum, steel or a bio-composite material, all of which are resistant to water, scratches and corrosion in varying degrees.
Warranties range from one year to 10 years. Read the warranty carefully to see what is covered. Also ask if the wheel can be repaired locally, or if you'll be required to ship it somewhere for repair.
Pottery wheel prices vary widely depending on the factors mentioned above. Much like a favorite wine, the wheel that carries the highest price is not necessarily the best wheel for your purposes. When purchasing a pottery wheel, attend pottery shows or visit local studios to try out different models, make an informed decision and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you've done your homework. Happy potting!