search  current discussion  categories  kilns & firing - shelves & furniture 

saggers why, salt and copper wire (longish)

updated fri 28 feb 97


Hiro Matsusaki on wed 12 feb 97

We have two cultures here. One is what people practice. The other is
historical significance or relevance of that practice to some current
events. It's strange, but I agree with both points of view. I am no
historian, but I present my views.

Come to think of it, a kiln is like a large saggar. You can reduce, salt, or
otherwise control the atmosphere anyway you like, if you know how. Wisely or
stupidly. We don't always achieve the results we seek. And kiln firings are
basically a communal affair. Till about two hundred years ago, in Japan many
kiln masters had his rounds yearly, visiting from one local community to
another, and firing their pots for them. Until very recently a brew meister
did the same for sake (an alcoholic beverage made from rice). I know this
for sure. In Sung Dynasty days in China, a typical royal kiln had
multi-chambers, while each was large enough to house a typical American
bungalow. I saw the pictures. Many times. The size I may exaggerate a bit,
but the larger the kiln, the more efficient use of the fuel. Japanese
Noborigama (a climbing chamber kiln, wood fired) was really huge. The
largest in North America really dwarfs. One I saw was literally huge, but it
was copied from the older design, and much smaller. Only studio potters can
afford smaller kilns. The larger the kiln, the more efficient the fuel
usage, and they knew the this advantage from long experience. The dynasty
had the money and the power to command the resources needed. The Japanese
empire dwarfs in comparison. So are the size of their kilns.

The saggers were used to produce a variety of wares in that type of firings,
I guess. Potters knew better than the royal bureaucrats. I mean it's hardly
unlikely that the experienced potters in those days produced just one kind of
pottery in all those chambers. They could experiment. And they could cheat,
defying royal decrees. They knew what it was to change atmosphere locally.

On the other hand, if you talk about the current practice, the most beautiful
pots sagger fired that I remember encountering accidentally were burnished
pots. Made by an amateur potter blossoming into a serious one. Burnishing
is very time consuming. Probably it could be done by machines, but the piece
was hand polished a long time before it was placed in the sagger and then
into a communal kiln. To protect such a piece from other elements, both
human and mechanical, a sagger is a must. In this scenario, individual
firing requirements are fulfilled in an otherwise common attempt at firing a
large number of pieces. No ashes should interfere with it. In Japan,
saggers were used routinely to protect the wares from wood firing flames.
Some wood with bark on can be incredibly dirty for certain type of firing.
I know, because some kiln masters even tried to strip the bark to minimize
the ash effect. Pine, on the other hand, produces hot heat, very hot,
quickly, and up to C6, it's prettty clean. For porcelain, I don't know what
they did. They never reached the sophistication of the Sung dynasty days.,
but they did grind stones to make porcelain clay under direct central
government protection. Those huge kilns were used to fire porcelains in
Sung China. (The same went for Aizu porcelain under and after Tolugawa
Japan.) That was the apex of the Chinese pottery in many respects. (Aizu
porcelain is little known in North America. But I saw a living potter of
Aizu who showed me the crystalline glazed pot accidentally produced in a
noborigama before the Pacific Conflict days.) Since then, the quality of
pottery in China declined. The Ming pieces are all right, but to me they are
too artificial, too much decoration, no originalities, etc.

Here I serve as a moderator. The point is: We all try to make beautiful
things. The clay techniques are but a means to that end. They are, however,
universal. Or, they do not discriminate when applied. Limitation on fuel
resoruces is a factor toward the communal nature of pot firings. But, in
art, individual originality is what counts. We have to go beyond the
pervasive power of the method (read technical miracles) to achieve the end we
seek. This limitation literally forces everyone to conform, for best
results, technically. To achieve the goal we seek, however, we have to go
beyond mere convention. An all pervasive restriction of conventional
techniques which imposes restriction on individual expressions should be
reckoned with by true artists. Power to conform is just too strong. We
have to lift that yoke. Saggar firing let us do that experimentation, I
imagine. Just a food for thought.

Hiro Matsusaki
FAX: 1.403.963.7954 PHONE: 1.403.963.3809