All fired up

This is another thing I’ve been up to lately.

Raku bowls

This is raku.

Raku bowls

Recently, while I had my light tent set up taking the jewelry a couple of posts back, I took these too.

Raku bowls

The shiny-but-dark is tricky to photograph, especially with the cell phone.

Raku bowls

I’m totally in love with this style of pottery. There are lots of styles of pottery and glaze techniques. Raku originates in Japan. Part of the glazes on mine contain a lot of copper, creating a very distinctive look, although there are other completely different glazes as well.

Raku bowls

The main hallmarks are that raku is typically fired at lower temperatures (1800 degrees) usually in a gas kiln (not electric) for a much shorter time. While it is glowing hot, it is pulled from the kiln and dropped into an awaiting metal container filled with combustible material. The heat of the piece immediately bursts it into flames. A lid is slapped on, the flame continues to burn inside, using up the oxygen, creating an oxygen reduction atmosphere. Sometimes after the flames are gone and it’s cooled slightly, but still very hot, it might be plunged into water.

All the temperature changes and thermal shocks, on purpose, produce a crazing in the glaze. The burning material will turn any cracks or unglazed areas black.

Diz and buttons

Sometimes the combination of all the factors can result in brilliant colors.

The oxygen reduction atmosphere and other factors react with the glazes, like with the copper-containing ones, it will create utterly unique and unpredictable results.

Diz and buttons

Raku is typically considered decorative rather than food-safe. One, there may be components in the glazes that wouldn’t be food-safe. Since it’s only fired to 1800 or so, the clay body doesn’t reach a state of vitrification (tiny little glass crystals form throughout), which is what makes clay hard and non-porous. Also, because of the thermal shocks and lack of vitrification, the pieces can be a little more fragile.

Raku process 1

At the beginning of the process, we use paint brushes to apply the glaze, usually several coats. Like most ceramic glazes, the color of the glaze can look nothing like the finished results. The bucket with the black goop is the one that made all the pretty copper colors.

Raku process 1

Here, we’re waiting for the glazes to dry thoroughly. Trying to help it along with a hair-dryer. In the picture, the spiky thing that looks like a denuded tree has high-temperature wire poking out of it and is what I have my buttons hanging on. Glaze can’t be on the bottom of things or when it melts it will glue itself to the kiln shelf. Not good. Things like beads can be suspended on high-temp wire to get around that issue.

Raku process 1

Once the glaze is dry, pieces are placed into the kiln to start firing. While waiting for the glaze to get hot enough and start to change, we prepare the cans the hot pieces will go into. We pick metal cans and tins a little larger than the piece, then line those with shredded newspaper and some sawdust. Anything combustible, but these are common. Pine needles can be used, whatever. That can be an art unto itself. We also prepare a lid, ultimately wrapped in wet newspaper. It has to be wet so that it won’t catch fire because you want it to make a tight seal when the oxygen starts burning away.

Raku process 1

Here, after a peek, the glazes look ready, so it’s time to start pulling the pieces. It’s a three person job. In the picture, on the left, is my instructor Barrie. If you’ll notice, she’s got on long gloves (we all do), and is using long iron tongs to reach into the kiln to pick up a piece and bring it out. It’s very hot, even with all the protection. These pictures are from when I did it last, but after handling the raku firing some people did today (we do once a month or so), she looked like she had a sunburn.

Another person is working the sliding kiln door so that it’s not open too long and loses a minimum of heat. It’s possible with only two people, but it’s easier to work more quickly with someone working the door. The idea is to not lose too much heat from the kiln while the door is open, or let the piece cool too much before it is put in the combustibles. Although some let it cool a bit…that whole thermal shock thing, more crazing in the glaze.

Standing ready, one of the students has the lid wrapped in layers of wet newspaper ready to cover the cannister once the piece is in.

Raku process 1

In this picture you can see the very good reason for gloves.

Raku process 2

Once the lid is on, holding it all tightly together, the cannister is moved away from the work area so it’s not in the way and we don’t inhale the clouds of smoke it creates. A brick is put on top as a weight to keep a good seal. The smoke eventually dies down, but I always smell like I’ve been around a campfire. Not unpleasant unless I accidentally get in a cloud of it.

Raku process 2

We wait for the cannisters to cool and once we can handle the pottery bare-handed, we get to open things up and see what happened. That is totally the best part! It’s so neat, like unwrapping a gift to see what you got.

Here’s some of my little bowls, buttons and the diz laid out. Awesome! Love some of the effects I got. I keep notes on what I did, but by its nature, raku is hard to reproduce. But that is what makes it special.

It’s a “Thing!” not a….thing…

I’m getting my long neglected blog going again, so this is a sort of test-post from my cell phone.  We’ll see how this goes…

So check out my little clay pot I made.  Cute, eh?  Made it to hold teabags when drinking hot tea or holding yarn scraps while I’m working on a project.


This little beauty is my first finished piece I’ve brought home from my pottery class I’m taking on Saturday mornings.  This is the second of two pieces I threw on the pottery wheel my first day.  (First piece still in progress, more elaborate.)

Huge for me because the is the third time I’ve tried to take a pottery class, but the first time I ever made friends with the wheel.  Not as easy as it looks.  I tend to pick up artsy stuff pretty easily, and pottery is something I’ve always felt like I’d really like and could become good at with practice…but never got the hang of the wheel at all.  There’s a lot of subtlety and nuance to it, and is very tactile, which is a common thread in most of the things I like to do.  Just never got past an initial critical step before (centering).  Thwarted until now.

Cool stuff can be done with handbuilding but last time I took pottery (7 years ago maybe) I was in a different creative mental space and lacked inspiration.  Now I’ve got oodles of ideas and plans for both wheel-thrown and hand-built projects.

The other interesting thing I’ve noticed is over the last several years I’m in a creative phase where my ideas for one medium are really cross-pollinating with a completely different medium.

The last couple of years, instead of having separate sketchbooks for different medium ideas, I just keep one central sketchbook that I brain-dump every idea or image that bubbles to the surface with no particular thought of how I’ll execute it until much later. This has turned out to be enormously helpful with things blending and melding. I deliberately don’t put a lot of notes with the sketches and unless I’m refining the lines of something to use, I often draw only vaguely and later it’ll spark an idea.

Sometimes I’ll get in a creative groove where a certain look or motif keeps reappearing.  For the last couple of years I’ve been in this curvilinear phase, clean lines but organic shapes. Also swirly viney stuff.  And I really like the Tree of Life motif (amazing how many culture’s artwork if appears in).  I also really am drawn to representations of hands…I think they represent potential to me.  Especially craggy gnarled calloused ones…there’s history there and they have their story.

I have several fall projects in the works (clay, weaving, stained glass), and even though they’re not all wire jewelry (my main weekday activity and work), it seems like all the different creative efforts, ideas, and mediums are creating this neat synergy that’s boosting each one.

Very interesting.  Like today I had an idea to use some of the Edwardian-style jewelry images I’ve been researching for a wire jewelry project to decorate a clay project…there’s some beatiful bold but delicate lines with the antique Edwardian jewelry I found online that will lend gorgeous curves and sweeps.  It’s the period before Art Deco (sweeping, but more delicate), so you have an idea how it looks.

Anyway, back to my little pot pictured above.  So that first day of class when I finally made friends with the wheel (and yes, totally in love with pottery now), I made two pots that actually came out nice and didn’t look like a third-grader made them.  Tickled to death.  I came home after class and told David, “I made a Thing!  Not a…thing.”  Coolness.

So it might not look like much, but this little pot represents success after many intermittent years of poor frustrating attempts.  And a punctuation mark for this current very interesting period of creativity.