Students Fired Up about Raku Pottery (With Video!)
November 16, 2021
Chris Schmidt, TA’s Design Technology teacher, found a new passion for pottery this summer. After taking the class “Alternative Firing Techniques” at the Blackberry Hill Art Center in Orford, NH, Chris was especially interested the the art and science of Raku, an ancient Japanese method of firing pottery that results in surprising colors, glassy and metallic effects, and a unique outcome on every piece.
The Raku process involves firing pottery at relatively low temperatures and then moving the hot pieces to a closed container with combustible materials (such as paper or sawdust) that ignite and cause a reaction creating colors and patterns in the pottery’s surface. It also requires a special kiln, usually gas fired – which, to Chris, seemed like a great project for his Design Technology students at TA.
Chris shared the process with his Design Technology classes and began designing the kiln. At the same time, he was sharing and discussing his work from the summer workshop with TA’s Visual Arts and Ceramics teacher, Karyn Neubauer. An Arts department collaboration was cooking; Karyn and Chris began to plan a Raku workshop for the first semester Ceramics class.
It took some logistics to complete the kiln, obtain the proper clay, and find some nice weather so late in the fall, but last week it all came together. The class of 14 students each made 2 or 3 pots and, after a bisque firing, glazed them with special Raku glazes with names like “Lustrous Copper,” “Blue Galaxy,” “White Crackle,” and “Peacock Matte.”
On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Chris loaded the first pots and fired up the kiln, aiming for a temperature of 1850 degrees Fahrenheit. The first round of students came to “pull the pots” glowing red hot out of the kiln, setting them in small metal cans with paper and wood shavings from the shop. After the combustibles ignited into flame, they placed the cover firmly on the can to starve the fire of oxygen, resulting in a reduction environment, essential to the Raku effects on the glazes.
Twenty minutes later, the cans were cool enough to open them up and discover the results. Students were excited to see each piece as it came out of the ashes. Most had metallic shines with either coppery or blue-black colors. Some were more green, while others used white crackle. No pots cracked or broke, which can happen in the rapid thermal shock of heating and cooling so rapidly. With a little cleaning off, the pots were ready to take home.
During the second firing, several pieces were pulled early, at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. These had no glaze on them, and so were bone white. Students wrapped horsehair around the hot pots, creating squiggly line patterns and smoke colorations on the surface. This style is often referred to as naked Raku, or horsehair Raku. In a “fortunate mistake,” one piece with white glaze was pulled early and horsehair applied, resulting in one of the most interesting pieces.
In all, Chris completed four firings for the class, resulting in 35 unique pots, including a few for himself and for Karyn. While this year was a trial run, Chris and Karyn hope to collaborate again next year to bring the Raku process to life. With winter weather upon us, the kiln is put away in the shop closet. But we’re sure Chris will be firing it up again come springtime.