OH MY ACHING BODY!
Ceramics is a wonderful hobby and business, however, it has the potential to be hard on the body! From the 50 pound boxes of clay you have to shuffle around the studio, to hours hunched over a wheel or a table painting on minute details to your artwork. But it is all worth it!
In my pre-pottery life I worked with several artists to help alleviate pain. Working with proper body mechanics can go a long way in saving your body. Your doctor, physical therapist, occupational therapist, or other qualified therapist can be a wonderful resource for correcting body mechanics and providing therapy if you are already in pain.
Some general recommendations for the studio include warming up your muscles before starting to work, taking regular breaks, stretching, and changing up your patterns. The key is to not force your muscles to stay in the same position for a long time.
Aside from hiring the strapping young man next door to help with all the heavy lifting, some potters use small moving dollies to stack clay boxes on to move around the studio. Keep in mind proper lifting technique using your legs rather than just your back to lift. Your thigh and buttock muscles are much stronger than your back muscles.
To save from always bending to the same side, some potters will throw with the wheel turning one direction, and trimming turning the opposite. This stops the sustained contractions for specific muscles of the back and neck, allowing the artist to bend to one side throwing and bend to the other side for trimming. Be forewarned, it takes practice!
When wedging clay, there are different philosophies regarding this, however, all methods take into consideration using one's own body weight to move the clay rather than just pushing with the shoulders and hands. The wedging surface must be at a height to allow the artist to use their weight. If you find yourself using your shoulders too much, try lowering the surface. Besides easing the neck, back, and shoulders, it will take the pressure off the wrists as well.
In addition to proper body mechanics, there are several items available that can improve longevity or make it easier to be a potter: BigCeramicStore.com has many of these available.
Leg extensions are available for many of our wheels. These are designed to raise the level of the wheel. Particularly tall people may find it more comfortable to throw at a higher level, allowing them to bend over the wheel less. This can also be helpful for individuals whose back, neck or arms are already compromised. For some individuals it may be advantageous to raise the wheel to standing height. This can allow a person to use his weight to his advantage, improving body mechanics and making throwing more comfortable.
Tray systems or work tables that attach to the wheel like the Brent Work table will cut down on over-reaching to place your piece on a table or counter after throwing. These can be height adjustable as well.
Another very important factor for longevity at the wheel is having a good comfortable seat. Several of our seats and stools are adjustable and offer a variety of support for the back as well. One must also consider if he likes to roll or be stationary when throwing too. If you have the opportunity to try the stools out, do so.
What one person finds comfortable, another may not. Some wheel manufacturers also make seats that attach to the wheel as well.
A Pug mill is a wonderful addition to a studio or school where there is a lot of production. Many of us try to salvage our clay by slacking in a bucket, mixing, and drying it for re-use. A pug mill is an amazing piece of equipment for recycling, as well as mixing your own clay . Keep in mind, if you are recycling, consider limiting the size of waste containers such as multiple 5 gallon buckets rather that a large waste barrel to save your back when recycling clay.
Using wall-mounted extruders can be easier on the body than hand-held models if your usage and budget allow for it. Keep in mind, mounting the extruder at a height to use body weight to extrude rather than all shoulder can be beneficial. If using a clay gun, be sure to soft clay to enable it to pass through the die with less force.
Other suggestions for longevity as a potter include:
Banding wheels save you from bending around your work or sustained holding of work while decorating.
Use glaze mixers instead of mixing glazes by hand.
And finally, if you have come to a point in your ceramic career or have physical limitations that prevent bending over to load a kiln, consider placing the bottom kiln shelf up on posts, decreasing the bending required to load the kiln. Investigate replacing top-loading kilns with front-loading kilns may also be an option. It can be a big expense, but could really pay off in the long run.
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