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blueandwhiteslip

A long time ago I learnt to throw pots on a wheel.  More recently I have learnt again.  I even have my own wheel now, in a shed in our garden, and a kiln that I am too frightened to use yet.  My wheel was made by a local eccentric (I think he would approve the term) who lives in a converted barn surrounded by old boats, disused cars and kilns of every size and description.  The wheel is made using a small electric motor from a washing machine or similar, and scraps of drift wood and offcuts from a local furniture factory.  It is a special size for a small woman, small enough for my daughters to use if they were so inclined.  The standard wheel has a longer distance from the edge of the clay tray under the wheel to the centre of the wheel itself.  Since you have to lean on the edge of the clay tray to throw the clay properly, a standard wheel is very uncomfortable for me. 

I had some lessons from a local potter who runs summer schools where you can spend ten or twelve hours a day trying to master the clay.  Her lunches are legend, and accompanied by water poured from tall grey jugs.  These jugs have been thrown by her from unadulterated clay dug out of our local river.  For most of us, our clay comes in plastic bags: I love the idea of digging your own clay out of the river mud and making something of it.

On the Thursday evening of each course, all the would-be potters adjourn to the garden where her husband has constructed an open air kiln, fired by (more) wooden offcuts.  This is used to fire Raku pots we have made earlier in the week and covered in glaze.  Once the pots have become red hot and cooked sufficiently, they are taken out of the kiln while still hot and immediately doused in sawdust so that the pot is deprived of oxygen.  The metals in the glaze combine in the reduced atmosphere with carbon produced by the burning sawdust to produce metallic lustres and intense colours in haphazard patterns.  There is a huge amount of smoke from the burning, and then clouds of steam as the still hot pots are dunked in cold water to cool and to crackle the glaze. 

Temperature changes with raku ware are much more extreme than with other methods of firing where the pots are allowed to cool down slowly in the kiln.  As a result the construction has to be robust and the clay, usually stoneware, has to have a high percentage of grog in it.  Grog is a grit, sand or pre-fired clay.  Its inclusion in the clay makes throwing raku ware like holding your hand against fast moving sandpaper.  Raku pots are rarely thrown but more usually formed out of simple thumb pots, balls of clay being gently eased out – using one thumb inside supported by the other hand outside – into the traditional tea bowl shape. 

Raku results are very unpredictable but the spectacle of the molten glazes glowing make up for any disappointment if pots emerge broken or hopelessly blackened.

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