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An Australian Potter in Japan – Part 2

Posted on Mar 24, 2013 by in Articles | 0 comments


Not only did the wheel rotate in the opposite direction, but the method of throwing a pot on the wheel was also very different. In the West, the usual practice, in throwing a number of similar pieces, is to carefully weigh the clay out for each piece required and throw each individually on a seperate throwing batt attached to the wheelhead. In contrast, the japanese centre a large piece of clay directly on the wheelhead and throw each piece from the top of this clay one after the other, cutting each piece off when the shape is formed. This method known as throwing off the hump, (or mizubiki) in Japanese, relies on the potter’s skill to determine the correct amount of clay for each piece. It is a much more intuitive approach in which the potter, after throwing one or two pieces, begins to get a feel for how much clay is needed for a particular item.

Because this method of throwing involves cutting each piece from the hump, it is necessary to turn the foot (base) of each piece. In contrast to traditional Western techniques, great attention is paid to the base and most pieces are highly tooled (except in certain areas, such as Bizen, where they use very little tooling to clean a pot up). This is because what is unseen (and in the case, of pots, felt by the fingers) is very important to Japanese potters. As Alistair points out, “Japanese beauty is much more about inner beauty than outer beauty.” Therefore, great attention is given to the inner surface of a pot, even in those vessels, such as bottles and jars, in which this surface will never be seen.

This idea of inner beauty is highlighted by the fact that, in contrast to the Westem technique, Japanese potters throw to the inner surface of the pot and therefore the inside shape becomes far more important than the outside in forming the piece. Generally, more tools are used in making Japanese ceramics, than in the West, and this is particularly the case in making porcelain, where, after throwing, the outside shape is tumed to mirror the inside.

Perhaps the most widely used tools in the Japanese potter’s workshop are the trimming tools, the kezuri no dogu of which the kanna (literally “planes”, flat strips of metal usually bent at both end but in opposite directions) are the most important. Store-bought metal knives, often reworked by the potter to a desired shape and hera (bamboo knives) are also used for trimming, carving or shaping. Among the tools used in throwing, is the dango or rib, a knuckle-shaped piece of wood with which pressure is applied form the inside while shaping the pot. A potter will also have at least one kote for shaping bowls and tools and an egote for making tall and large shapes. When a number of identical pieces are required for a production run or for a set of cups or mugs, the diameter and depths are checked with a tonbo or “dragonfly”, a simple gauge made of bamboo.41

It is often necessary to make new tools for each new shape. It is therefore important to first think carefully about the desired piece, design the shape and allow for shrinkage in the making of the tools. Because Alistair continued to throw in the opposite direction to the traditional Japanese way, the tools he required to work effectively were the reverse of those available. It was therefore necessary for him to learn to make all his own tools, an experience which continued to stand him in good stead on his return to Australia where Japanese tools are generally not available.

(Excerpt from Australian Potter In Japan – Wendy Watson)