THE WHEEL – The potter’s wheel has been in use for thousands of years in one from or another. Before it -  and even today -  clay vessels were made using either the slab or coil method.  Then some bright person found that if they sat the clay vessel they were making on something like a large leaf or maybe a flat piece of wood or stone, the piece could then be rotated – turned – which was much easier and more productive than either picking the piece up and turning or walking around the piece to add more clay.  They could sit in one place and work on all sides.  Now, that was a major improvement in the world of pottery manufacturing. Over the years, this has evolved into the modern day powered potter’s wheel which comes in various styles to allow the same result – to “turn” the piece one is working on to then be able to uniformly perform a function. At first, this “wheel” was slowly turned a little at a time as one worked around the piece but over time it was found that if one turned the wheel faster – much faster – a totally new way to make a clay vessel evolved and the production of vessels increased markedly. Some of the earliest of these “wheels” were shaped much like a child’s  top which had been cut in half in the middle, leaving the bottom the typical cone shape and the top a flat area – the “head” of the wheel – on which the vessel would be made.  These wheels were usually made of a dense wood to, first, add weight so it would continue spinning after it had been put into motion and, second, would resist the decay that came with the damp clay and water that was used in the turning process. A hole was made in the ground – clay soil preferred as it would be slick and offer less resistance as the wheel turned – and the wheel fitted into this hole until it made a perfect match to the shape of the wheel bottom.  Keeping this hole and wheel bottom well lubricated with water to lessen the friction was a must.  The wheel could then be spun, usually by hand but later with a stick that could be inserted into holes around the top of the wheel.  The weight of the wheel and the clay from which the vessel was to be made created a centrifugal force which would keep the wheel spinning for some period of time – the longer the better.  Even though this method was a marked improvement to the slab or coil method it was still very labor intensive and slow compared to today’s modern wheels.  (Note – I have seen this method in use in both Colombo, Sri Lanke, and Addia Ababa, Ethiopia.) Later incarnations of this wheel evolved into what we call the “kick” wheel – where the wheel head was connected to a shaft which then connected to a large counter-weight.  The heavier the counter-weight the better as once started the wheel would continue to spin for a longer period of time and, therefore, less energy would be needed to keep it spinning.  One of the disadvantages of this type wheel is that the greater the diameter of the counter-weight the slower the wheel would spin – this due to the fact that there was a direct connection via the shaft to the wheel head so that one revolution of the counter-weight equaled one revolution of the wheel head.  (As one knows – you do know, don’t you? –  the faster the wheel head spins the faster a piece can be made – up until you throw the piece off the wheel, of course.)  As the counter-weight grows wider the more “kicks” it takes to make one revolution so making the counter-weight thicker but with a less diameter seemed the optimum solution.  The Lockerbie kick wheel with a 28” diameter seems the perfect tradeoff. As the person that actually turned the piece had to be very skilled and, therefore, whose time and energy was much more important to the process, it was not uncommon to have someone else supply the manpower to keep the wheel spinning. An improvement to the wheel was the treadle kick wheel.  With an understanding of a few basic principles, if one made an offset area on the shaft between the counter weight and the wheel head, one could come up with a wheel that one person could fairly easily keep spinning and at the same time turn the piece.  In modern times – like just a hundred years or so ago - a part of an auto engine crank shaft was perfect for this “offset”. As the pictures show, my family used this type wheel for many years, up until 1940 when the “new” shop was built.  My Great Grandfather’s wheel was at the shop and actually had a wooden head on it.  I use to play on it as a child, pretending I was a potter like the grownups. Later, powered wheels came into being – one of the ones at the “new” Arden shop (built in 1939 – 40) ran off a jackshaft – a long shaft which ran about 40 feet or so from an electric motor at the back of the shop and powered several pieces of equipment – two jigger machines, the rollers on which the ball jars were placed to grind the glazing and a potters wheel.  Grandpa’s wheel had its own electric motor so one did not have to run the whole line when he it was the only one in use.  The wheels in Grandpa’s shop were variable speed, as are today’s modern wheels, but many of the old potters worked on single speed wheels.  This speed had to be made in a range so that a ball could be centred and the piece brought up and finished as soon as possible but without throwing it off the wheel.  A variable speed wheel gives one the ability to use a high speed to center and start the piece but to slow it down as one finishes.   Today, virtually no one uses a kick wheel anymore although having use a Lockerbie in the past, I found it very useful to use for finishing pieces and using foot power to slowly turn them.  It also offered a place to sit things as one worked.  This was, however, in a basic “studio” setting and not in a pottery as I had been raised. The wheel that an oldtime potter used was much different that what one finds in a studio today.  Remember, they were producing usable items, not pieces of art, so speed and ease of use was an important consideration. As for my family running a production pottery, most of them stood up to work.  If one is producing only a few pieces a day or had someone waiting on them - making the balls, bring them shop boards to place the finished pieces on and moving those boards when they were full - as had been the norm in the European countries where most of old pottery families had come from, maybe sitting down would work but most of the old potters did not have someone to wait on them.  So sitting down to make a piece, getting up to move when finished, sitting down, making a piece, getting up . . . you get the picture.  All this getting up and down was just not practical.   Now that we are standing up and ready to start work let’s take a look at the wheel they used. This is the the treadle kick wheel Grandpa uses for many years - up until after the “new” shop was built in 1939-40.  As you can see, he is standing up. The wheel has a crib around it - a box, if you will.  This crib held the water, slip and clay that came off the pots being turned and allowing several days of turning before one had to clean up  You will notice that the wheel head is below waistline, thus allowing one to bend over slightly and put more body weight on the ball when one is centering and starting to bring a piece up. Also, notice the ball opener and gage on the wheel - shown better in the photo below. The gage was used to set the heigth and width of the top of the piece being turned thus allowing - with a little practice - every piece to be just like the one before.  Note that there was no gage for the bottom and no “rings” on the wheel head as is normal these days - judging the bottom width of the piece being made just became natural after a while so all pieces would be the same. In this photo, notice a better look at the ball opener. A ball opener was used when working with larger balls.  The ball would be centered and open slightly and then the ball opener would be used to widen the ball to the desired inside width of the piece being made - thus allowing the operation to be done much faster than doing so by hand. The ball opener also allowed for a uniform thickness of the bottom. Also notice the shelf on the left side of the wheel - in the foreground of this photo - as a part of the wheel itself.  This gave a place to sit individual pieces or a shop board so the finished pieces could be cut from the wheel head and sat without the turner having to move from the position at the wheel. Notice also the wrist board on the far side of the wheel and the boards on the front - both used to brace the arms when centering and turning.  The boards in the front could be removed if Grandpa was making a piece that was wider than the wheel head. So, what do you think - a little more to a potters wheel than one sees at first glance, huh?  
Davis Brown turning BROWN’S POTTERY - from the inside