Tag Archives: Mike Martino


Madara (mottled) Karatsu teabowl, late 1500’s.

When I decided to learn and make Karatsu ware, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew it was several hundred years old, and the first glazed ware in Japan, but I mostly just saw some beautiful pots and thought I could reproduce. Boy, was I wrong.

I’ve been working at it for more than 10 years now, and the clay, glazes, and firings are still mostly a mystery. Trying to capture the look of the traditional ware is a continual challenge, forcing me to forget or ignore modern technology in favor of archaic, and examine 400+ year old shards, searching for clues about what the old potters and craftsmen used, and how they approached their art, which they didn’t necessarily consider to be art.


The closest I’ve come yet to a surface like the pot at the beginning of this post.

One thing I’ve learned in this time making pots is that despite the primitive technology, ancient potters had knowledge about their materials and handling of those materials that far exceeds the knowledge of most modern potters. This is what makes tradition such an important repository for us. It is the best of what has come before, proven over time and distilled for us to use. We just need to pay attention.


Chosen Karatsu teabowl, late 1500’s


Chosen Karatsu guinomi by author

Cheers,

Karatsupots

Mike @ Karatsupots
Making attractive, cool, useful stuff out of dirt since 2006.

Processing Clay

I was lucky enough to find some easily accessible clay the other day on a morning bike ride. I’ve been spending some time processing it and thought I’d share. Here’s the hill and the pictures of the bagged clay:

 

After bringing it home, I transferred it to large jars and added water, then mixed violently with a drill mixer to break it all up.  After skimming off the junk that floats up, I mix it up a few times a day for about 3 days. Once it is mostly made into a slurry I start sieving it into another container. Whatever doesn’t pass the sieve goes back in the jar to get mixed again, and it eventually (mostly) all breaks down.

Since I have no space for a large clay drying platform, I’ve decided to try these pantlegs tied off, filled, and left to hang. Seems to be working so far, and I’m hoping to get a nice uniform sausage of clay with no dry edges. I tried a few methods to close the bottom. First, I tried sandwiching the pantleg between two pieces of wood and using screws to tighten them together. This worked, but left sharp screw ends, and when I dropped one full leg, the wood snapped and it opened up, spilling the clay.  Plywood might prevent this. Being too lazy to get out the saw and cut more wood, I decided to split what I had into thinner pieces and wire them together to bind the folded over leg end. I tied them with wire and it seems to be working just dandy. Later, when I have time, I’ll try  finding some sort of non rusting clamp device that can be applied and removed easily and quickly.

Once the legs were filled, tying them off was tricky because a leg full of clay slurry is FRICKIN HEAVY!!! First I tried rolling it down over the rope and tying, which works fine but is kind of tricky and if you don’t do it tightly, it unwinds and makes a mess. I found the best way was to twist the end and bend it over a stick, then bind it with rope. This way, you can use the stick as a handle to carry the leg which is very nice, and the stick can be used to hand the bag. The rope used to bind the end can also serve as a hanger. I hung up 12 of these yesterday, and am now waiting for them to firm up. I’m curious to see how long it will take.

Scoring Goodies

I made a trip out to the mountains in Minamihata yesterday with my mentor to collect materials for pots and glazes, and we stopped by an old kiln site as well.

We were able to collect a good amount of feldspathic sandstone, weathered feldspar, and the ever popular grey stuff (don’t know what its real name is).

First, here is what we collected that will become pots and glazes this year:

The lot of it
Grey stuff. This is softer than rock and can be stamp milled or pot milled easily into a fine slurry. It has a lot of iron, and I use it as a glaze ingredient, as a slip, or as a pigment for decoration.
Sandstone. This has more iron than I’d normally like, but beggars can’t be choosers. It takes the place of both feldspar additions to clay bodies as well as grog. I like it because it helps the body vitrify, but gives it texture as well.
More sandstone.
Glaze stone from near Okawachiyama. I’m not sure but I believe this is the glaze stone used in Nabeshima celadon. I look forward to testing this.
Closeup. You can see the feldspathic translucent pieces in the matrix, surrounded by the white powdery matrix. I think the white powdery part is high in silica, but again, need to test.
Found this in the same place as the Nabeshima glaze stone. This looks to be more pure feldspar. Very curious to see how it fires!

On the way to one of the collecting sites, we passed two old Karatsu kilns, Fujinokawachi and Kayanotani.  I was surprised because they are separated by no more than 70 meters or so. These were big kilns. Kayanotani was a 22 chamber climbing kiln 52 meters long! Between them, there were probably hundreds of potters working. We couldn’t really access Fujinokawachi, but we were able to walk around on the hill where Kayanotani once stood.

Access to Kayanotani. You can see the faint grassy steps up the hill, just to the left and down a bit from the tree.
Sign board standing at the entrance to the kiln site. The shard pile extends up and down the hill to the left of the sign.
The outside surfaces of some coil and paddle flasks. Fujinokawachi and Kayanotani are both known for their fine coil and paddle work.
Interiors of the same. Note the different clays used and the different patterns created from the paddling tools.
Hillside littered with shards and chunks of kiln wall and kiln furniture.
The feet of some ash glazed bowls. The clay is quite light in color, and really vitrified.
Detail of some flask lips. On the one, you can see some bubbling in the glaze because the clay body started to bloat. The coil and paddle clay bodies were quite varied, but much of it seemed to contain high amounts of organic matter
More bowls. One in a light clay body, the other much darker. Again, vitrified and hard. All of the trimmed pieces I found were trimmed with an economy of movement. There is no wasted time in the trimming here.
Detail of another foot. Gorgeous clay, and lively trimming.
Interior detail of bowl directly above. Note the beautifully folded over and compress lip of the piece stuck to the inside here, and the glaze window.
Paddled Chosen Karatsu flask. I wish I could get those blues!
Detail of flask neck.
Detail, lip.

Firing for anyone

In Japan, people often visit pottery studios for a short pottery experience, either painting something or making something small to be glazed and fired later by the studio owner or a craftsman. This has always seemed so limited to me, and the inevitable comment, “Oh, you are so lucky, I wish I could do this every day!” always prompts my response: “Yes, me too!”. Most people just don’t have any idea what goes into a finished pot. Turning it on the wheel is maybe 10% of the overall process, much less if you gather materials yourself and/or wood fire  your work. And customers rarely see the failures, or all the polishing that goes into a piece and assume the potter just opens  the kiln door to a batch of warm, super looking, ready to sell pots.

Finding a way for people to experience more of pottery making is a challenge, because of the time it takes drying, bisqueing, firing, and waiting to cool down. Raku firing abbreviates this a lot, but still requires a lot of specialized equipment in most cases. Shichirin fired pottery, for me, is a good way for anyone to have a firing experience, including the excitement of the fire, the engagement with the work, the post fire polishing and critiquing, and even the failures and serendipitous successes.

Lately I’ve been working on a firing method that is accessible to everyone, with items available at most home centers. I got this idea years ago when a Japanese potter named Yoshida (don’t remember his first name) made a splash by introducing “Shichirin Togei”, which used a  small Japanese BBQ, called a shichirin, to fire small objects. This developed into a book called Minigama, which I never read, but outlines the construction of small handbuilt kilns from fireclay and fired with wood, charcoal, and forced air. I think the book is out of print now.

I liked the idea of shichirin togei, but thought the open shichirin was maybe not so efficient at getting up to temp, so I added another one on top, like a clamshell, with both shichirin wadded together with a coil of clay. The bottom damper is the air port, and the top damper is the chimney opening and stoke hole.

You start by packing some charcoal into the bottom of the chamber, around a stilt on which the pot will sit. Then place the pot on the stilt and continue covering with charcoal. Then place a coil of soft clay around the mouth of the shichirin, and overturn the second shichirin over it.

Now that that is done, time for the fun to start! Use a hand torch to light charcoal, then use a hair dryer to get things burning hot.

Now just wait for things to heat up, it will take a few minutes, after which flames will start to emerge from the top damper hole.

This flame should continue to grow and get jumpy, making noise as unburnt gases from inside the chamber exit and combust when they meet more oxygen.  Keep slowly adding pieces of charcoal from the top stoke hole (damper), keep that flame extended. As it gets nice and hot, you’ll be able to tell how the kiln breathes every time you put in a piece of charcoal, and you’ll get a sense of when to stoke.

The first firing might take about 45 minutes, because of the time to heat everything up. From the second firing, 30 minutes seems to be enough to fire the clay. If you have time, you can go longer, and ash from the charcoal will leave more green ‘glaze’ on the surface of the pot.

Shinot Noir

Warning: some Shino enthusiasts may find content in this post offensive and/or snarky. 

When I was in Korea this last  October, the subject of Shino came up. Shino, like Raku, Chawan, and Geisha, tends to have a different set of meanings and expectations, depending on who you are talking to (usually Japanese vs non-Japanese).

Most Shino enthusiasts in Japan get their pantaloons in a twist when they see this smooth orange, white, or carbon trapping glaze that most Americans call Shino. “Sore wa Shino janai” is a  common thing to hear when showing off your American Shino to a Japanese Shino lover.

In Japan, Shino is a combination of clay, glaze, and firing method. The definition is somewhat cramped , and leaves little wiggle room. Same with Raku, Chawan, and Geisha. There is all this history and tradition hanging on at the end of the label, foiling our attempts to  add new dimensions to the term.

Here’s the problem: The Shino purists are vastly outnumbered. Actually, I’m one of them (to a degree) but acknowledge that on the worldwide level, Shino means more  to a whole lot of world potters and enthusiasts. I really wish the word had not been co-opted by English, but it has, so oh well…

Embracing this trend, I have decided to widen the definition of Shino even further. Here are some examples:

Satin black Shino
Flowing matte white Shino
Soft blue Shino
Clear Shino
Bizen Shino
High silica Shino

Unglazed low fire Shino
Petroleum Flex Shino
 
Note:

(I do make a ‘Shino’ glaze, but do not call it Shino for fear of reprisal.)

Slab plates

This is one way I make slab plates. I posted the pictures to FB but am reposting here with descriptions of each step. You can adjust the steps if your clay is more or less forgiving than mine. 

First cut slabs and let them rest overnight to stiffen up some. These slabs are 10mm thick. 


Trim the slab with an undercut bevel, and save the trimmed edges. 


Sprinkle something on your form to prevent the clay from sticking. I use corn starch. 

Place the trimmed slab bevel side down on your form and paddle it THOROUGHLY, from center to edge, then once more evenly all over.  You can use whatever you want as a paddle, here I used a sandbag, but I usually use a wooden paddle. 


Place the trimmed edges you saved back on the paddled slab, followed by a paper towel or other cloth, and your board. Turn over the form to release the slab onto the board. 


Press the center of the slab down gently and let the edge pieces support the edge of the plate. While supporting the edge with one hand, use the other to define a concavity in the bevel with a convex tool. Anything convex and with a curve you like will work. I used a little ball here. Sometimes I use a rib, sometimes a roller, sometimes a clamshell. I like rollers and balls because they compress the edge well. 


Finish and further compress the edge with a damp (not wet) chamois or sponge. Done!