Shiny new raku kiln

18 years ago I returned to potting, and myself and my Non Potting Partner built a raku kiln from an old oil drum. I thought it would do whilst I worked out what I wanted to make and how I wanted to fire.

imageCastro kiln has finally been retired and put out to graze, there he is, out in the sunshine.

And here is shiny new raku kiln. Fired today for the first time. It’s built with high temperature insulation brick (rather than ceramic fibre) so it uses more gas but holds temperature better. It’s bigger so I’m hoping fire bigger pots too. The top comes off the base like a top hat or I can just take the lid off. And it’s all done with an electric hoist (thank you NPP, happy anniversary darling).

Built by Northern Kilns, with a lot of interference from me, thank you Adrian, Sarah, Dylan and all the kiln midwives you are stars.

Its very shiny

firing again – quick recap

Enough of Japan (for now) back to wood firing and the new kiln, built last year. I meant to start writing this with the laying of the first course of bricks but I put it on Facebook instead. I found it hard to picture the whole build so drip feeding into FB was easier.

First wood kiln, Phoenix type design and so easy to fire

The project planning started over a year ago. Before that there was a brilliant, temporary kiln built in a day, fired 28 times and now in the process of demolishing itself.

Trying to decide upon the best kiln for this exposed site on the Isle of Skye took a long time.

Found at last, the ideal kiln design


A couple of years ago at Potfest in the Park I met David Wright, wood firer from Leicestershire, . His kiln sounded just the thing. Same basic design as the temporary one but larger and more substantial. Decision made, at last and what a relief to be thinking of real bricks and not fantasy ones.

Creative Scotland and Hi-arts awarded me a grant towards some of the costs of the new kiln. Trying to write the budget was the first hurdle. I underestimated the cost by loads (threaded bar, angle grinder disks, wrong sized arch bricks, hack saw blades, tarpaulins etc). And no matter how often I counted the bricks, layer by layer, the total was different every time. And as for ordering the arch bricks – my brain simply would not cooperate. Walter (patience personified) Brayford of Acme Batt Company in Staffordshire was brilliant, talking me through my options, trying to save me from unnecessary expense. He suggested cutting shapes out of cardboard to work out the size of the arch bricks needed for the size of firebox arch I was building. Simple idea, worked perfectly, I wish I had done it before ordering the bricks.

We have big issues on the island with mainland delivery companies over charging (despite the free bridge, dual track roads and absence of flocks of marauding, kilted sheep) so when the crates of bricks were ready I asked a local carrier, Skye Express, to collect them and they were here 3 days later. Almost as satisfying as getting the laundry washed and dried on the same day.


Salvageable bricks from the previous kiln had been stacked under the lovely new kiln shelter (thank you Non Potting Partner) The pile of old bricks from an old Edinburgh kiln were moved down to the site, the house bricks to make the base layer were disappearing under accumulated compost in a corner. Nothing left but to start building.

Pots and Noise

I don’t like music in the workshop, I prefer silence. Music manipulates my mood too much, interfering with the process of making. If the job in hand is tedious or repetitive I have BBC radio 4 playing, but over the course of a day the constant replay of news is depressing so I like to turn that off too. It does get lonely with only the canines to talk to when the sea dog is away. If I haven’t been down to the village for a day or so the company of the radio is comforting but quickly becomes a habit. Music is effective at blocking out difficult thoughts and feelings which need to be thought and felt, looked at and questioned as part of the making process.

Of course there is no complete silence: The wind in the old trees to the north of the studio, the rain and hail clattering against the windows roof, seagulls and rooks. On those rare, blessedly still days there is birdsong, sheep bleating, the distant sound of waves and the hum of the transformer on the pole (so not quite paradise but near enough, unless I am wood firing and then the crackle of the flames transforms the inferno into my kind of heaven).

Oribe landscape, Isle of Skye

Oribe landscape, Isle of Skye

Now for the Japanese bit, we are in the Kyoto gallery of Robert Yellin. Gallery does not do it justice. It’s more of a front room, the kind kept for Sunday best and visitors, but a little more comfortable and chaotic than Grandma would have kept it. It feels uncommercial like the private collection of a friend. Relaxed, despite Mr Yellin’s intimate knowledge of Japanese ceramics which could be intimidating in anyone less welcoming. His enthusiasm and love for the subject pervades the space entirely.

I am looking at a group of sake cups made by various potters. One catches my eye, a dark green oribe glaze bisected by a thick white shino, tinges of pink where the two glazes meet. The clay has been wire cut into rough facets allowing the glaze to pool thickly in the crevasses. Lovely but not the colour I am looking for. I pick up another, wander off to a different display. Someone pulls open a drawer to reveal more of the sake cups. Another oribe or two, they don’t interest me. I pick up the the first again, holding it whilst trying to ignore it, absent mindedly looking at other pieces. It’s not what I want, I think, but I daren’t put it down, someone else might notice it. And then at some unrecognised moment I know that I am not leaving without it.

 sake cup by Kouchi Hidetoshi

The transaction is made. During the process we admire the piece and learn the potter’s

Foot (kodai) of sake cup by Kouchi Hidetoshi

Foot (kodai) of sake cup by Kouchi Hidetoshi

name, Kouchi Hidetoshi and some details about him, he hasn’t been well but is working again now. There is more chat which moves on to music. Mr. Yellin is a bit of an old rocker, something unobtrusive is playing in the background. Now I am aware of the soundtrack I can clearly remember that it collided with the feel of the pot in my hand and in my vision to produce a moment of memory which didn’t reach my consciousness at the time. Fleeting and exquisite, it was the instant the pot became mine. Not an act of material acquisition, but a proof of the connectedness of people. A potter makes a piece which sparks a memory in someone from from the other side of the world, and the pot then becomes a part of it, renewing the memory with each use.

Nothing is –
Look, and it is.

Not seeing at all,
We cannot see all there is around us.

Everything is but an expression of the self.


I buy something –
I have bought myself.

From ‘The Windows of Life’ …. Some thoughts by Kanjiro Kawai

Waterfall from above, Isle of Skye

Waterfall from above, Isle of Skye

(The music was ‘The Pearl’ by Brian Eno and Harold Budd, the specific track ‘A stream with bright fish’. I’m listening to it a lot in my studio now)

Buying pots, continued

We fell out of the gallery Toko with our purchases, like drunkards looking for the another bar, which happened to be on the other side of the road in the form of Moegi, another gallery. A modern building on three floors with a central atrium surrounding a maple tree, just beginning to turn in colour.

Porcelain dish, by Misa, w 11cm

Two small pieces came home with me from here. The first, a porcelain dish from a group of 4 in pastel colours, not my usual taste but I like the rim and its contrast with the fine drawn design. And after so many craggy pots, I suppose it was a rest for the senses.

Potter unknown 13 x 9 cm

The second piece is the oribe colour I was looking for, a more translucent yellow green than usual with no chun effect. I love the use of this glaze over rough grogged clay. It pools in the textures giving a glassy depth like water.

And that was more than enough for one day. We took a taxi back to the hotel in time for half an hour in the hot baths to sooth weary legs before another marathon ahead of us – dinner


In my defense of this apparent gluttony, this was over the course of two evenings, all inclusive, the portions were small and we never saw the same pot twice. And it was all delicious, even if we didn’t know what it was, or how to eat it, no wonder they put us in our own little dining room. 





Mashiko part 3, actually buying pots

Pot number 1, a small tenmoku dish from Hamada Museum, for my good friend who drove me to Aberdeen airport at 5am to catch my flight to London to connect with the Narita flight. No photo of this.
ImagePot number 2, a white glazed vase. Half way down the high street at 3pm and despairing of finding anything open which wasn’t a tanuki shop. We were told that the best stuff is always on the upper floors, but with so many shops it seemed too time consuming to try every top floor of every shop. We were looking for 2 galleries recommended to us but of course we couldn’t read the signs and had only vague descriptions of them. Finally I nipped into a small one room place sited back from the pavement. Some nice little pieces and one very attractive Ido style teabowl (I know this because JH had been to the “Ido Tea Bowls: Treasured Possessions of Muromachi Daimyo” exhibition in Tokyo) with accompanying major price tag. Image

At this early stage of my visit there was no question, the bowl remained and the vase came home, fulfilling all the criteria elegantly.

Pots number 3 & 4, pressed tenmoku dish, shino glazed tokkuri.

Finally we found the two galleries recommended by Maggie Zerafa (a Skye potter who apprenticed in Mashiko for two years, Toko and Moegi. What treasure troves. Most of the work on display is functional for Japanese purposes, many different dishes for individual portions, even so most would stand alone proudly on display for their forms and surfaces alone. I have always loved rich dark tenmoku and this is a lovely example. I would be glad if anyone could explain how the aubergine motif in the glaze is achieved.  ImageAfter a long time looking JH drew my attention to a small unglazed sake cup (guinomi) of rough clay, wood fired and set amongst an eclectic grouping of unrelated pots. I hadn’t noticed it but once seen was utterly smitten. Each face was different, like morning, evening and midnight; small fused feldspars shining like stars in a dense black sky, a flush of glowing red and the cool silver grey of a well reduced clay body. We asked who had made it and the answer sealed it’s fate – Matsuzaki Ken. It’s coming home, but with whom? We did a deal for joint custody, at which moment JG joined us and asked if there were any more by Matsuzaki. Two more appeared from the depths of the store. A squared, sake bottle (tokkuri) with tiny winged flanges, thick white crawled shino glaze flushed orange which JG fell for instantly but didn’t appeal so much to me. The third piece, another tokkuri, was rather plain. I was a little disappointed, no wow factor in this pot but it was a lovely organic shape, gently swollen belly, short neck and flaring rim, classic. Image

The slightly pinholed matt shino glaze covers entirely it apart from the three finger marks left from dipping the piece in the glaze bucket. The iron in the body has been drawn through the glaze to colour it a dark pinky brown. It was the feel of the piece which finally sold it to me, soft and warm it comes perfectly to the hand, (and frankly I wasn’t leaving the shop the only one without a Ken pot). It grows on me, it is modest and quiet and most importantly, I now understand, it comes with it’s story of a wonderful day in Mashiko with friends and potters.

ImageNow that this piece is home on Skye I find the colour is that of the native birch trees in winter, the colour in the heart of the deep mounds of moss in those birch woods, the colour of the evening hills on the mainland as the sun sets.

Mashiko part 2, buying pots

Nothing is –
Look, and it is.

Not seeing at all,
We cannot see all there is around us.

Everything is but an expression of the self.


I buy something –
I have bought myself.

From ‘The Windows of Life’ …. Some thoughts by Kanjiro Kawai


The first thing I bought was this scholars stone from a junk shop. Try justifying that when you come from an island famous for is rocks.

No matter how I try to justify it buying for myself always feels like an indulgence (which doesn’t always stop me but I struggle with it). A parsimonious nature and a rather Puritan upbringing are not comfortable with the ‘Sex and the City’ shopping culture. Which, most of the time is a good thing, especially living on an island with few opportunities to shops and mostly sheep to admire the purchases. When I’m at a potters market my desire to buy from others is tempered by the need to return home  with a wad of cash to count especially when the total doesn’t cover costs. At exhibitions I can dissuade myself from buying by the thought of the gallery commission (I know they have to make a living too and they help me me make mine, it’s just a mean logic I use to keep the dosh in my pocket).

Getting to Japan from the UK is not cheap, neither is staying there and getting around for 2 weeks. The fact that it is mostly a cash economy amongst all but the biggest retailers makes it very apparent that the cash is flowing through your fingers like water. But having gone all that way, investing so much, in effort and time too, and all the years of dreaming and hoping for the opportunity to go, I was determined to prevail and return home with pots. So, a few provisos to sooth the troubled feelings – the pots must be small to fit in my cabin luggage, small and of different types so that I can study them professionally, small, different and functional, because ‘useful’ is a very broad concept. A sake pourer definitely, an oribe glaze, a crusty Shigaraki pot.

Potter and large pot

Potter and large pot

We arrived in the early afternoon after a 3 hour 3 train journey from Tokyo. You know you’ve arrived in Mashiko by the presence of an enormous pot standing at the station. Took a taxi to the hotel to drop off the luggage, then into town to be deposited at the feet of a giant tanuki (some sort of racoon whose personal attributes would be at home in Viz magazine) at the top of the high street. Looking around in a junk/antique shop we managed to miss entirely the main Mashiko ceramics collection opposite but it’s a good grounding experience seeing what another culture discards as junk (a lot of pots, quite a few rocks). Up the road to the Hamada museum, (noting on the way, the potter’s supplies).

The path to Hamada's house

The path to Hamada’s house

My first experience of Japan seen through the fug of jet lag, was the 2 hour drive from the airport to a hotel in Shinjuku the contrast with the perfection of this place was exquisite. As we paid our entry (¥1000/£6) they told us we were in time for a tea ceremony if we wanted. Apart from the penetrating cold this was a lovely experience, especially the green tea, hot and bitter and made with leaves rather than powder. This is a school for a type of tea ceremony and the tea master sat in a corner quietly instructing his pupil who served us. On learning that I was from Scotland the pupil told us that he’s learning the bagpipes as well as the way of tea. I can’t think of a more unlikely study combination. Clear skies and frost in the morning and a dip in the onsen (hot spring bath, this one is a fake but just as relaxing) with steam curling through the slatted screens. Pink Camelia flowers studding the bushes.

Anagama fired big pots, 2013

Matsuzaki Ken Anagama fired big pots, 2013

We’d been given an introduction to Matsuzaki Ken and arranged to visit his workshop in the morning. What a gracious and generous potter, rather like his pots. He gave us tea in a room full of the biggest anagama fired jars. Like being in a crowd of silent star gazers. Breathtaking pots. All going to his next exhibition in Japan. Such a privilege to walk amongst them. A tour of his kiln, repaired after the effects of the earthquake in 2012. He explained that, although living in a densely forested region, he has to buy wood from else where. The firing process would produce ash with highly concentrated levels of radiation if local wood was used, fallout from Fukushima. But nowhere could we see any work which was obviously for sale and it felt a little awkward, after taking up over an hour of his time, to leave empty handed. Is this a misunderstanding between cultures? I would be glad if someone could enlighten me. (Happily we were able to fill our empty hands with his pots later in the day, from a gallery).

Next stop Togei Mashiko Messe, the exhibition centre. Firstly to warm up with hot chocolate (choose your cup and saucer) and books, then a look at an exhibition called the Leach School. Work including pots by Doug Fitch, Clive Bowen, Phil Rogers, beautifully sparse and well lit show. Not exactly what we travelled half way around the world to see but an indication of the esteem in which British studio pottery is held. Then into town to the potter’s suppliers, smelled just like Potclays with different stuff – lots of glazing ladles, bamboo tools, little iron fittings for hanging wall vases, sheets of printed decals, at least 6 types glazing tongs.

Suddenly very hungry we found lunch in a cafe. Glacially cold stone floors and walls (Ashinuma stone? Mashiko Yaki? See so the hot noodles and tempura were very welcome. I can’t think of many other cafes which show videos of pot making and kiln firing to entertain the customers. And jazz too.

Veg & prawn tempura

Veg & prawn tempura

Down the high street in search of the galleries which Maggie Zerafa (Skye potter who apprenticed in Mashiko for 2 years had recommended. Quite hard to find amongst the very many shops, showrooms and galleries, a lot of which were shut in this low part of the season and none of which had recognisable (to us) signs. The quantity of ceramics on sale is staggering, I’ve never experienced anywhere comparable. Even without counting the Tanukis it isn’t hard to walk on past a lot of this stuff, and when we eventually found the galleries Moegi and Toko, they were obviously better quality places. Beautiful buildings, even more beautiful pots, displayed simply on low table like shelves or on shelving against the wall.It took real effort, visually, to sift through the work, to search out the work I found interesting and be able to dismiss quantities of good pots which in the UK I would have lingered over. It is just impossible to look at everything with equal attention. Occasionally something unexpected demands a closer look and I enjoyed discovering styles which I didn’t know I liked, especially oribe glazed ware, the range of greens is lovely, and the contrast of glazed and bare areas can be very satisfying. Lots of small dishes of infinite variety of shape and style to suit the Japanese way of serving food. How fabulous for the potters to be able to fill all the little awkward spaces in a kiln with functional and sellable pieces.


Gallery Toko on Mashiko high street.

1 dento5

Gallery Moegi

In 2010 there were 380 pottery studios and 50 pottery stores in Mashiko alone, no one has counted the pots.

From Cumbria to Japan

In May 2013 we fired the anagama at Higham Hall for the last time. During the less stressful of those long and eventful 60 hours we joked about having to go to Japan instead of doing our autumn firing. As the hours passed and we faced a firing which wouldn’t go above 1000 on the wet wood we were feeding it, the prospect of a jolly to Japan became more appealing. Our knight with shining chainsaw, Will, came by to see how the firing was going and promised us a couple of tons of dry wood first thing in the morning if we could only keep the flames going through the dark hours. Stoked up on hope and ever more outlandish plans for a trip to Japan we kept the kiln at 1000 until 8am when Will arrived as promised (actually I think Gavin single handedly kept it going in frustration at knowing he wouldn’t be able to go).
The firing continued to temperature uneventfully. The plans for Japan also continued to grow, once this seed had germinated none of us was going to prune it.
My non potting partner kindly declined the chance to come too (funny how none of our partners wanted to join us) despite the offer of a trip to Toyota (“I’d rather spend the money on buying one”) which made the planning so much easier. Pots would be the main theme, and more pots and some kilns too.



“Yeah guys you all go to Japan without me, have a great time”

New year new blog (new drugs)

There hasn’t been much action in the pottery since I came home from Japan. Too cold, too tired, too sore.
The stiffness in my shoulder and tendons which I felt in October was the beginnings of frozen shoulder syndrome. I managed to ignore it with the aid of strong ibuprofen, determined to make the most of my time in Japan. A long flight and home and dragging luggage around airports encouraged the other shoulder to join the party and I have been pretty well seized up ever since – think of muscle soreness after excessive exercise. It’s been frustrating after such a stimulating time in Japan, not to be able to get into the studio all fired up with ideas and enthusiasm. Everything has been put on hold, making, firing, thinking, planning.

New year, new drugs.

Yesterday was the first day on different anti-inflammatories and already some of the stiffness has eased. Add to that the benefit of not being able to drink on New Year’s Eve ( that’s an achievement in this part of the world) and waking up fresh, I’m feeling positive and ready for 2014 in the pottery. Might even put some of my Japan trip into the blog.
But first a walk on the beach in a rare moment sunshine.
Happy New Year, happy potting.