Traditional Culture of Japan - Portal site of traditional crafts and culture

Shaping Bizen ware


To make good Bizen ware, it is said that the three elements — clay, firing, and the potter’s wheel — must be put in good order. The most important is the clay, followed by the firing. Then, the potter’s wheel, which is used to give shape to a piece, comes last.


Potter’s wheels are used in most instances of creating Bizen ware. The process of giving form to a piece has not changed much since ancient times.


Shaping by ring stacking and wet-grinding
Ring Stacking” is a shaping process that makes the most of the clay’s power for Bizen ware. In the ring stacking process, the base which is to be the bottom of the ware is first placed on the potter’s wheel. On top of that, string-like strands of clay in the form of rings are stacked up layer by layer, getting gradually higher as the shape is adjusted.


The potter’s wheel doesn’t just spin around on its own — it needs to be spun manually as the piece is being made.


When a piece is made using this technique, the layers of the piece will not be of uniform thickness; there will be thick spots and thin areas no matter what. Firing a piece in this state will bring about slight deformations, which produce distinct defining features in the piece and bring about a distinct softness.


Classic Bizen (Bizen ware made in the initial period of its existence) was made using the ring stacking technique, so each piece exudes its own charm. As it so happens, Jōmon ware (Japanese earthenware falling under the classification of world’s oldest, being made from 16,000 to 2,300 years ago), too, was made by ring-stacking.


Then, in the latter part of the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), “wet-grinding shaping” was developed, which gives form to a piece as the potter’s wheel rotates. This took the place of ring stacking and became the mainstream technique.


In modern times, you should think of the process of giving shape to clay using an electric potter’s wheel (a potter’s wheel that rotates automatically by electric power) as wet-grinding shaping. With wet-grinding, the hands are dipped in water and the clay is touched while the potter’s wheel rotates to shape the piece as the potter wishes.


Shaping without a potter’s wheel
There are other methods of making Bizen ware that do not make use of potter's wheels. One of them is "hand kneading", which, as the name implies, is an approach where the clay is kneaded by hand to give it shape. It is the most primitive approach, but nevertheless, it can churn out unique works.


Another technique is “molding”. With molding, a mold is made out of plaster or similar substance and clay is flushed into the mold to give it shape. Molding is used when making decorations or mass-produced works.


Another approach is called “slab building”. Clay cut in the shape of a board is referred to as a slab. Connecting several of these board-shaped slabs together gives form to the work. Taking one of these board-shaped clay pieces and curving it into the form of a ring, making a cylindrical shape, is called “board building”.


As you can see, there are a variety of ways to form Bizen ware. This doesn’t mean that you absolutely need to use only one method when making a piece. You can also combine several shaping techniques to create Bizen ware.


The style of the work also depends on the person. Usually efficiency is given priority, and shaping is done by wet-grinding on an electric potter’s wheel. However, there are still those who prefer to stick to “ring stacking”, since works become more elaborate when kneaded and made on one’s own, and this approach makes the earthy color look better after firing. Ring stacking also makes for more durable pottery.


Still, making a piece by ring stacking naturally takes much more time. Since everyone has their own hang ups and preferences, it is just natural for differences to show up in the style of their ceramics too.

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