by Pat Flachbart
Raku firing was developed by Chojiro in Japan around 1580 AD. The ruler, Hideyoshi, was so impressed with this unusual pottery that he presented a gold seal to Chojior, inscribed with an ideograph for the work “RAKU”, which is loosely interpreted as “enjoyment”. From that time “Raku” became Chojiro’s family title.
What is practiced today in the United States is a Western variation of the Raku process, developed by Paul Soldner and others in the 1960’s. Today the Western Raku process consists of glaze firing a pot in a kiln that can be readily opened. It is normally a gas-fired kiln, although the process can be carried out in an electric kiln, in a less efficient way. The pot is carefully watched through peepholes in the kiln and when the glaze has melted to the point of a glossy appearance, the kiln is opened. The “red-hot” pot is quickly picked up with long tongs and plunged into a container containing organic, combustible materials – usually newspaper, leaves, and/or sawdust. The container is then sealed for a determined amount of time. Lots of smoke and fire stimulate the excitement surrounding this process. In the sealed container, the metal oxides in the glaze and the clay are fully, or partially reduced and the beautiful colors and patterns result. Upon opening the sealed container, the pot, which is still extremely hot, is removed and allowed to cool under a variety of conditions. At this point I often take the Raku process a step further, using a variety of oxides in a “fuming” process to enhance or create yet another dimension of colors and patterns.
Western Raku pottery is always quite porous and the glaze is usually purposely cracked and/or pitted. These pots are therefore used mainly for decorative purposes and are not generally recommended for food or drink. In Japan, the Raku process is specifically used to make special teacups for the “Tea Ceremony”. These pieces are processed in a way that is suitable for this use.