How to Raku

rakuFiringSmoke wafted from behind room 310 last week. If you have been at HT either as a student or faculty member for more than a year, you would know that it’s that time of year again, and Mrs. Rodby is doing another raku firing with her Ceramics I students. Rumors for those not in my classes start flying because students think I am roasting “raccoons”!

The firing process that we know of as Raku was developed somewhere between the late 1300’s and the 1500’s (depending on whose history books you are reading) by Zen Buddhist Masters as part of their tea ceremony.  This way of firing their pottery suited the Zen Masters because it exhibited the belief that all creation is beautiful – even the rough surfaces and glaze cracks that occur in the Raku firing process.  The name Raku means enjoyment, contentment and pleasure.

Raku pots created by Sunny Lu and Nina Ma.
Raku pots created by Sunny Lu and Nina Ma.

Raku came to America through Bernard Leach, a famous British potter who studied pottery in Japan.  Leach brought back his techniques and adapted them to Western firing processes. In the traditional firing process, pottery is brought quickly to a temperature of 1600 degrees or more. Once the pottery reaches temperature, it is removed from the kiln with very long tongs (and special gloves!) and put into a metal garbage can filled with paper, leaves, or any combustible materials. The combustion causes smoke which seeps into the clay surface not covered by glaze and turns the surface black.  Some students use that to their advantage and create a pattern with the glaze and black surface.  After the pottery has reduced for 10 to 20 minutes, we use the tongs again to remove the pot and put it into a bucket of water.  A variation of this process was introduced sometime since the 1970’s where horse hair is draped across the pot to burn a funky line onto the surface.   Many students love the look of the horse hair technique and thanks to those students who have horses; we are blessed to have a regular supply!

Tyler Espling – Small Raku vase
Tyler Espling – Small Raku vase

Ceramics I students enjoy this part of their studies, however upper level students also enjoy the process. One of my students, Tyler Espling managed to create a good portion of his AP portfolio with Raku pieces. He enjoys the process so much that he created his own gas-fired kiln at home!

By the way – no raccoons were harmed in the creation of our pottery.

— Cathy Rodby
Fine Arts Dept. Chair
High School Drawing & Painting, Ceramics
Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy

Now we would like to hear your thoughts! Have you ever made your own pottery? Have you ever used a gas-fired kiln or do you prefer a different process? Tell us all about it!

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