Thursday 27 September 2007

A Taste of Autumn

Summer is gone. The mornings are cooler now, the leaves are turning colour and the chestnuts are ripe and falling from the trees. For thousands of years before the "Yamato" oriental race entered Japan the indigenous Jomon people grew chestnuts as their staple diet. Chestnut trees, both wild and cultivated, are spread throughout Japan, and we are blessed with both varieties in our garden.

It is also the time of the rice harvest, and Mikas' parents grow organic rice on the family property in Gunma. Each year they bring us the new rice fresh from the harvest. Mikas' sister also gave us some "Kuro Mai" wild rice, so today we will feast on the seasons gifts.

"KURI GOHAN" (Chestnut Rice)

450 grams of white rice

50 grams of "KuroMai"

200 grams of peeled chestnuts

600mls of japanese stock

3 spare teaspoons of salt

Wash the rice and let it stand for an hour. Put all ingredients into your rice cooker, press the button and viola! If you dont have a rice cooker, put all the ingredients into a lidded non stick saucepan, bring to the boil on a high flame, reduce the flame to very low for twenty minutes, then let it stand for five minutes before stirring gently so as not to mash the chestnuts.

One of the neighbours also brought us some home grown "Sato Imo" (Taro Potatoes). One of our favourite Japanese country meals is "Niku Jaga" (meat and potatoes) which is usually made with beef and ordinary potatoes. This is my original recipe!


600 grams of Taro potatoes

350 grams of sliced lamb

200 grams of sliced onion

3 tablespoons of honey

6 tablespoons of "Mirin" cooking sake

6 tablespoons of soy sauce

200 grams of "Shirataki" yam noodles

750 mls of water

Put all ingredients into a pressure cooker, seal and cook on a high flame till the valve starts to hiss. Reduce to a low flame for ten minutes. Allow to cool naturally till the valve drops, then serve immediately with a garnish of "Sansho"(Japanese Native Pepper).

Sansho grows wild in the woods here, so I took a stroll up the hill and picked a few fronds. It is best to hold the fronds in your cupped hand and clap once as hard as you can. This bursts the fragrance cells without damaging the leaves, making the aroma fill the air! It was the perfect meal for a Mashiko wood firing in autumn.

Wednesday 26 September 2007

Packing them in

The way a kiln is packed affects the finished outcome of the pots. The height of the shelves and the space between pots can be adjusted to control flame flow.

In this firing the shelves are close together towards the bottom and spaced wider at the top in order to force flame flow up the fire face rather than let it flow through the kiln lower down.
The pots are arranged also in alternating rows to make the flame travel diagonally through the stack. I have done this because I want to have stronger ash and flame effects on the pots at the back of the kiln which are mainly unglazed, and by so doing reduce the amount of ash that carries through to the front of the kiln where I have placed black glazed dinner plates.

The wine goblets have "Igusa" straw tied around the stems, any excess from which will fall into the "Kumidashi" tea cups which fit into the space between their stems.

Too much ash on the black glaze waters it down and turns it a honey colour. I try to keep the straw off the black glaze for the same reason, but want to have markings on the rim.

Pyrometric cones are placed top and bottom to measure the heat work inside the kiln. Made from the same materials as glazes, they will melt at set temperatures. I always put in cones for 1260, 1280 and 1300 degrees celsius.

The last thing to do is close the kiln door, which entails stacking about 200 bricks into the kiln mouth. To prevent grains of sand or dust from falling into the pots at the front of the kiln and spoiling the glaze, I dip the bricks into a tub of water as I stack the door. This also reduces the major health risk of dust in the air.

Once the door is stacked I seal the top with fire clay and it's ready to fire tomorrow.

Monday 24 September 2007

Waxing Lyrical

After a day of rest I am back in the studio. I need to get a firing of my own work through this week before we stack and fire the new kiln. The week before the workshop was wet and stormy, but the last week has been perfect weather and the pots are bone dry and ready to wax and glaze.

I don't bisque fire for a number of reasons; firstly it saves the labour of stacking, firing and unstacking one kiln load of pots; secondly it saves the cost of one firing; thirdly it is better for the environment to fire once instead of twice, thus reducing exhaust gases and use of natural recources; fourthly if I bisque fired in my wood kiln I would have to wipe off all the ash deposits before I glazed, when ash is what I ultimately want on the pots anyway (It seems such a waste!); and finally because it is unnecessary for the style of work I do.

Of course this means raw waxing and raw glazing. I wait until the pots are bone dry and then apply the hot wax with a brush. The wax resists the glaze, acting as a mask so that the glaze only sticks to the bare clay.

I melt the wax in glass jars in a large pot of water over a charcoal brazier. The wax is a mixture of paraffin and kerosene, so ventilation is essential. I would prefer to use beeswax and eucalyptus oil, but the first is too expensive for me at the moment and the second is unnavailable in Japan.

I have three jars, two of them just wax and kerosene (one for use, one for back up) and the other has alumina mixed in with the wax.

The alumina wax is used for the feet of pots or the faces where lids and bodies meet. When the wax burns off in the firing the alumina remains as a thin layer on the surface and prevents sticking.

The non alumina wax is just a resist and vanishes completely. It enables me to glaze specific areas of the pots, like the centre of dinner plates, and leave other areas bare for the wood fired effects.

Saturday 22 September 2007


Hooray! The kilns are finished.

This morning it was all still looking like a construction site, forklift and pallettes of bricks scattered willy nilly.

By lunch time the arch was up, and by afternoon tea the chimney frame and the last brickwork was completed.
We finished it off with a rendering of fire clay.
Kusakabe sans kiln needed the door and the chimney to be finished.
The last job of the day was stabilizing his 6 metre chimney.

Kusakabe and I are exhausted, but it's been a very fulfilling week.

Our thanks go out to everyone who supported the Kiln building workshop, and look forward to firing with you at "Fantastic Fire".

Arch Fiend

We finished the walls, cut the skew bricks and set them in place at the point from which the arch springs, built the metal frame and attached it. The chimney is going through the roof as promised. We built the arch former and put it in place BUT........

The size and shape of the arch is crucial, and even if you've got the sums right, if you use a thick pencil or cut on the wrong side if the pencil line, or don't allow for the thickness of the veneer, the arch former can be the wrong size. The best part of the afternoon was spent fixing the problem and we had to pull stumps because of light. SO.... we will finish on Saturday.

The sasukenei kiln is almost finished too, so stay tuned for final finish photos!

Thursday 20 September 2007

Another brick in the wall

The walls are done! This morning we were still only beginning the walls, but by the evening we were about to start the final layer on which the arch rests.
The outer layer is of hard fire brick with an inner layer of insulating fire brick

The chimney is above the arch level now.

Sasase san is working on the arch former and Yoneyama san has brick laying down to fine art.

Tomorrow the arch should go up, the frame will go on, and the chimney will go through the roof!

Kusakabe sans team worked on into the night and finished the arch and fire box. Just the chimney and frame left to go. Lets hope its all finished by tomorrow arvo!

Wednesday 19 September 2007


We made progress today, finishing off the fire boxes and the floor.

The damper is in the chimney and the walls are half way up.

Everyone is working really hard.

Sasase san has mastered the art of cutting bricks with a bolster now and is in charge of the chimney construction today.

There is mutual trust and a strong sense of team work, with the participants taking more and more responsibility as they become familiar with the process. By the end of the week they will have a wealth of skills and experience, reading to build their own kilns.

Laying bricks

Day two...The new slab is dry and flat!

We get to set out the kiln base and lay the first layer.

Kusakabe sans kiln is taking shape, the walls are rising.

By the end of the day we were both up to the grates in the fire box, but I had lost light to photograph it. Watch this space!

Monday 17 September 2007


Today we started the Mashiko kiln building workshop at the Mashiko Tougei club.

Kusakabe Masakazu, co author of the book "Japanese wood fired ceramics", and I are teaching a group of Japanese potters the skills for building our wood kilns.

Over the next five days we will build the two kilns side by side, and they will then be used as rental kilns for potters visiting Mashiko.

Next month we will be doing a four man wood firing workshop with Steve Mills from UK and Wali Hawes from India via spain and Tokoname. There are still some spaces available if you hurry!

We started with the most important step of levelling the foundations today.

Reinforced concrete foundations had been prepared, but they were not flat and level, so we demonstrated two solutions for the problem.

For my kiln, we set up a new frame around the concrete slab and levelled the edges.

We then shovel mixed a mortar mix of 4 of sand 1 of cement and levelled it across the new frame.

Tomorrow we can start laying bricks on it without worrying about having to fudge a level.

Kusakabe sans solution was to chip or grind off the really lumpy bit of the slab, then use firm fire clay and mortar to bring the bottom layer of brick up to a "lowest common denominator".

All hands were busy tapping brick into place and fitting the jigsaw together.

The easiest thing to do of course is to pour a level slab right from the beginning, but the participants of this workshop will have that extra skill of being able to get a good foundation.