I'm always happy to see new books on alternative firing methods and low-temperature firing techniques! Sumi von Dassow takes a focused approach with her latest book, using burnishing as the constant for all the processes covered. Her experiences as a writer, artist, and educator shine in how the information flows from a history of burnishing to its many techniques, then followed by the firing and finishing options.
She begins by addressing historical burnished pottery from China, the Mediterranean, Africa and North and South America, something that's very nice to see. With the focus of her book revolving around this kind of work, providing a diverse and rich history of its use and development sets the stage well for the content to follow. I believe the more informed you are about the history and use of a technique, the better off you are in trying to incorporate and adapt it to your own work.
Von Dassow covers burnishing information to prepare the clay surface for all the low-firing techniques covered later. She gives advice for burnishing high-fire/stoneware clay, high-talc earthenware and leather-hard clay along with what tools and materials are most efficient. A wonderful 2-page compatibility chart matches burnishing approaches and low-firing techniques with different clay bodies. She then moves on to making, applying, and burnishing terra sigillata, and supplies recipes along with troubleshooting tips to assure good results.
Different firing techniques get the most out of a burnished surface and three chapters are dedicated to this. Each chapter includes full-color images of work that range from contemporary to indigenous pots. Assorted combustibles, colorants, materials, tools and firing chambers are well covered for each firing technique giving the reader plenty of options to choose from. Von Dassow also does a wonderful job offering several variations of each firing technique. I'm a big fan of exploring different variables within a given technique to achieve a more nuanced look.
In a chapter dedicated to smoke firing and black firing, Michael Wisner demonstrates a unique black firing method using a metal rack, manure, and a steel drum inside a gas kiln. Traditional indigenous techniques of the Mata Ortiz potters and Pueblo Native Americans for polychrome and black fired pottery are also demonstrated. A variety of pit firing methods in another chapter start from the basic small hole in the ground to firing in a large, deep pit. A Native American approach to firing out in the open on the ground is also featured.
A chapter on using clay and foil saggars in electric, gas and raku kilns includes different stacking methods and combustible/colorant combinations to yield a wide variety of results. Raku techniques for horsehair firing as well as naked raku are covered in their typical steps. The final chapter explains how to treat a surface after it's fired, with paste wax, floor wax, tile sealer, varnishes, acrylic spray glaze, paint and gold leaf all shown as options.
Although low-firing is used in the title, it's essentially an alternative firing book with burnishing as the theme to build most of the information around. Having this focus, though, is the book's strength and what makes it different from other fast-fire and alternative firing books.
Overall the book is thorough in covering the techniques in an approach that is easy to follow and apply, with lots of useful recipes, material suggestions and firing variants. Anyone interested in expanding their alternative firing repertoire will find this a valuable resource to add to their bookshelf. I know I'll be adding it to mine. --Paul Wandless, Pottery Making Illustrated
Because low-firing is the most basic of all ceramic techniques, it really treats all your senses. Using just about the lowest possible technical setting, you submit your work to flames and smoke giving you a sense of what the ancients felt when they used fire to create their primitive works. Both ancient cultures and contemporary potters have used low-firing to great effect, adding slips and burnishing pieces to create finishes not possible with any other firing method. Whether using an old garbage can, a pit in the ground, or a bonfire, low-firing is accessible to anyone with an outdoor space. Low-firing and Burnishing provides step-by-step practical information focusing on various approaches to low firing and methods for creating natural finishes.
Potters who burnish are often asked what glaze is that? by curious admirers of their work. Non-potters naturally assume that all pottery is glazed, and the glossy surface of a burnished pot seems like a different and intriguing sort of glaze. Though glazed pottery can be brighter and more colorful, a burnished pot has a glow from within and a warmth that glazed pottery doesn't have. The difference that non-potters sense without knowing it and which fascinates potters is that the surface of a burnished pot doesn't wear a coat hiding the clay itself from view. Glaze is glossy and reflective, but the reflecting surface consists of a millimeter or so of glass covering the clay. Underneath this layer of glaze the rough stony clay is always perceptible, even if not always visible.
A burnished pot can have a surface just as glossy and reflective as any glaze, but behind this glorious surface there is no hidden roughness. Even the feel of a burnished pot is seductive. While a glazed pot feels hard and cold, a burnished pot seems warm and almost soft to touch. Potters who burnish get used to seeing people handle the pots, turning them in their hands and stroking the surface. This is a common and unconscious response to the sensuousness of burnished pottery.
Burnished Pottery in History
The archaeological remains of many civilizations bear a resemblance - ancient pottery from China or the Mediterranean region almost seems more closely related in form and decoration to native African or Native American pottery, than to modern pottery from those regions. Now that modern pottery has come full circle to rediscover the beauty of burnished pottery, the history of unglazed pottery around the world is of interest to the modern ceramic artist. You'll find the history of low-fired work from China, the Mediterranean, Africa and North and South America both informative and inspirational.
There are two methods of burnishing a pot: rubbing the clay with a polished stone or other smooth object, and coating the pot with terra sigillata and rubbing it with a soft material such as a chamois leather. While using a stone is more time consuming and takes a lot of practice, it can produce a high degree of sheen. Discover how this technique is done by the traditional style of the potters of the American Southwest and also at burnishing stoneware/high-fire clay, burnishing a high-talc earthenware clay, burnishing leather-hard or black-hard clay, burnishing on the wheel, burnishing tools, types of clay to use.
Burnishing with Terra Sigillata
Terra sigillata means sealed earth and comes from the name of a type of Roman pottery mass-produced around the first century AD. But the Romans copied the Greek technique used in their famous black and red pottery for hundreds of years before that. Here is a complete guide to making and applying terra sigillata, recipes, and troubleshooting.
Also included are smoke-firing and black-firing, pit, saggar and raku firing techniques and finishing touches.