I believe in raku, too!

Though I confess to a love/love-less relationship with raku.

In case you are unfamiliar with raku ware and the raku-firing technique, it is a low-firing process inspired by a Japanese technique of making teaware. The Western method consists of firing greenware made from special clay (and usually glazed with special glazes) to a red-hot temperature and then placing the pieces in a container (usually a metal trash can) of combustible materials.

That’s right, we use the pots to set something like straw on fire in a trash can. Then we slam the trash can lid on to put out the fire.

And if that isn’t insane enough, once the fire has died down, we take the charred pieces out of the trash can and plunge them into a bucket of water — unless they are a closed (or mostly closed) form and likely to shatter from the ensuing steam. In which case we spray water over them.

In New York, this often done in the summer with 90%+ humidity and temperatures in 90’s (Fahrenheit, 30+ Celsius). You go home smelling like you’ve been fighting fires in old bars whose walls are embedded with 100+ years of cigarette smoke.

Raku firing is a great deal of fun — and a little risky. (I have only done two firings without minor burns.) But the problem with raku is that you can’t make functional pottery with it. I know, I know. “But, Carolyn, you said it was based on Japanese teaware,” you protest. It is, and for short periods of time, it can hold liquids. Short periods of time.

Never put water in a raku piece and set it on your grandmother’s antique wooden table. (Or anything else you value highly.)

The Unique (Downside) Properties of Raku

Like most (all?) low-fire ceramics, raku does not fully vitrify (i.e., become glass-like), so over time (like a few minutes), any liquids begin to leak out — slowly. So you can’t make vases or serious Kitchenware out of raku.  Raku is simply ornamental. Most people like raku because of the shiny, often iridescent glazes mixed with the blackened clay body.

Solving the problem of coming up with a rational reason to use the unique properties of raku firing is how I first developed the idea of the raku sheep: blackface sheep with woolen bodies implied by the unique raku crackle glaze. This proved to be a big success (barring the loss of an occasional sheep’s ear).

After I was cajoled into agreeing to participate in a raku firing while preparing for Bubonicon 50, I got the idea of using the raku properties for creating gargoyles and trolls. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to develop good gargoyles and trolls, so  I opted for making a pair of handbuilt lanterns and turning the gargoyle bodies into tea light lanterns that could also be turned into windchimes. Necessity, the mother of invention and all that.

Small raku ceramic shapes.

The original plan was to make raku creatures but I quickly realized I didn’t have enough time so the thrown, closed-form creature bodies were quickly turned into tea light lanterns or wind chimes (after you add the chimes).

I’d still like to work on the gargoyles and trolls someday.

FYI, Clayscapes Pottery holds a Raku Day the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year where you can come and participate even if you don’t have your own piece of greenware. Most people bring their own pieces, but those who are new to ceramics there are some pieces of raku greenware ready to be glazed (glaze provided) and fired. There’s also snacks and treats! 



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