As you may know our boss, Anne W. Bracker, is celebrating her 70th birthday this month. While she was a full time studio potter, wheel throwing was her passion. In honor of her birthday, this month’s Tech Tip Tuesday is about how to best take care of your potter’s wheel.
First off, let me say that there are a LOT of different kinds of wheels out there. Each one will have its own specific quirks and ways to best maintain them, so you should read the manual for your wheel (if it has one), and visit the manufacturer’s website for the most up-to-date information. That said, a wheel does EXACTLY one thing…it spins around and around. It may be powered by a stick, a kicking motion, a geared lever, an electric motor, wind/water, or any number of other methods. For those who throw pots, however, a potter’s wheel is one of the most important tools for their art. Luckily, there isn’t a lot to maintaining these tools; but it is crucial to take care of them. A quality wheel will last a lifetime with just a little effort on your part, and a few replacement parts when necessary. As a point of reference, Anne’s wheel is as old as I am (42), and we’ve only had to replace two parts on it. Bill Bracker’s wheel is only a year older, and we’ve only had to replace 3 parts on it; and it has seen use as a production wheel, and a student-use wheel at 2 different colleges. I’m going to break these general care guidelines down by wheel type:
Kickwheel (without motor)
These wheels are the most commonly found, manual potter’s wheels in the US. Their hallmark is a weighted flywheel made from steel, concrete, or some other HEAVY material that the user kicks with their foot. The flywheel is attached directly to the wheel head, and centrifugal force keeps the wheel turning during work. Generally speaking, heavier flywheels will spin longer, and the more of that weight that is in the outer edge of the flywheel, the greater the torque that is transferred to the wheel head.
- The bearings will need to be lubricated once or twice a year. Most kick wheels have two bearings, one directly under the wheel head, and the other directly below the flywheel. A standard grease gun will do the trick, just look for the Zerk fittings on the bearings, and grease as directed by your manual or manufacturer.
- Check the level of the wheel head. The easiest way to do this is to squat so your eyes are even with the edge of the wheel head. Look at the top-most edge, and spin the wheel. The wheel head should not move up and down. If it does there may be a bent head, shaft, or it may be bottomed-out in the lower bearing. Feel free to give me a call or email at Bracker’s, and I will walk you through the next steps.
- Any moving or adjustable parts (other than the bearing) may need to be lubricated. A quick spray with WD-40 will do the job. Lube the seat adjustment, and especially the wheel head mounting screws
- Look at the flywheel. It should have no cracks (if concrete or metal), and should spin freely, without any shuddering.
These are kickwheels that have a motor attached to them to aid in centering. The motors are supposed to be used for centering ONLY, and regular kicking resumed when actually throwing the pot.
- All 3 above for the manual kick wheel apply to the motorized kick wheel as well.
- The motor should not make any strange grinding or chirping noises. If it does, it likely needs to be serviced by a wheel technician or a small motor mechanic.
- Look at the drive ring. This is the little rubber-like wheel on the motor that contacts the flywheel. These will eventually wear down and need to be replaced. The contact edge should be flat, not rounded or beveled. It should also not be cracked or pitted badly. If you see this, it needs to be replaced. If the wheel is still being manufactured, then the part will be available. If it is an older wheel, often Graingers will have what you need.
Most of you wheel throwers out there will have this kind of wheel. They generally come in 4 types: belt-driven, gear-box driven, cone driven and, most recently, Induction motor- direct drive. If you don’t know whether some of the maintenance tips below apply to you, please contact me here at Bracker’s with your wheel’s model and serial number, and I can help you determine what to do.
General Routine Maintenance (all types)
- Clean your wheel. Every so often, you need to clean the clay off of your wheel. If you don’t, the moisture from the clay can form rust on metal parts. Also, clay that has been around for a LONG time can cause screws to seize up, or even hide screwheads, or Zerk points. Remember to unplug you wheel before you clean it, and DO NOT spray down your wheel with a hose. Getting water inside a motor or on a circuit board is the fastest way to destroy it. Use a sponge, and just be careful when you do it. Wear a mask if the clay is dry to avoid inhaling clay dust.
- Remove the bat pins and wheel head (if it is removable) frequently. Not all wheels have a removable wheel head, and not every potter uses bat pins. If either (or both) of these apply to your wheel, take the time to remove them from time to time. That way, the parts don’t seize up. As far as the wheel head is concerned, a small dab of Anti-Sieze paste rubbed on the shaft AND the inside of the wheel head will keep it protected and lubricated for the future.
- Check all belts and drive rings. They should not be cracked, pitted, slipping, or fraying. In the case of drive rings, they should contact the drive cone evenly, without gapping. If there is a large amount of residue on the drive cone, and you notice a distinct lack of power when centering, then the drive ring likely needs replacement. NOTE – other than the clear poly-belts used on some older Pacifica wheels, Drive rings and Belts should NOT be lubricated, or cleaned.
- Do NOT clean the power or foot pedal cords with Armor All…unless you can keep up with it. Armor All is a penetrating lubricant that will eventually dry out. If you don’t keep up with re-lubricating the cords, they will eventually crack. I simply don’t use it.
- Turn you wheel on and LISTEN to it…both at low speed AND high speed. Is it making any strange noises? LOUD humming, chirping, scraping, or grinding noises aren’t always normal. When in doubt, give me a call, and have your cell phone near your wheel. I can often listen to it over the phone and let you know if it is a normal noise.
- Some wheels have adjustable foot pedals. Read your manual and know how to adjust your foot pedal speed, or you can email me as well for instructions.
- Check the wheel head (as above in kick wheels) to make sure it is level.
- Oddly, most electric wheels on the market do NOT need to have their bearings lubricated. You should look at yours, however, to be sure. If you see a Zerk point, then it needs to be greased occasionally. Check your manual, or with your manufacturer for specifics.
- Lastly, take a look at all the cords, plugs, and bits. Are there cracks? Is something broken, corroded, snapped, hanging, or otherwise not right? Its odd that we use these tools as often as we do without actually looking at them. You may be surprised at what you find.