The Raku Process

For nearly 25 years, Peter Syak has sought to adopt and refine the process of fellow American artist, Paul Soldner. Pieces are constructed of special clay using a variety of handbuilding and wheel-throwing methods. Mr. Syak uses tools, found objects and even his own ceramic stamps to provide texture and to give each piece its unique character.

After a strength-enhancing bisque firing, Raku glazes are applied to each piece using a collection of special brushes. A small number of glazed pieces are then placed in a kiln and rapidly heated to temperatures exceeding 1700 degrees Fahrenheit. Throughout the firing, Peter opens viewing ports in the sides of the kiln to inspect the progress of the melting glaze. Timing is critical. Only when each piece becomes red hot and its glaze develops the smooth shine of honey, are they ready to be removed from the kiln. At this point, Peter protects himself from the intense heat of the kiln by donning heavy clothing, gloves, a hat and occasionally a face shield. Tongs are used to reach into the kiln and carefully remove each piece that is then immediately placed in a shallow sawdust filled depression. As the sawdust surrounding the piece bursts into flames, an airtight container lined with straw is placed over it. If the vessel remains closed, the oxygen-free environment tends to produce a piece with bright copper luster and richly colored surfaces. If the container is opened periodically, oxygen changes the color of copper containing glazes to green and aqua. Carbon and soot from the smoke stain networks of cracks and blacken any unglazed surface. By controlling the amount of oxygen that reaches each piece, Peter can achieve a variety of interesting surface and glaze effects. Once the piece cools, the soot and tar residue from the fire are scrubbed away to reveal the beautiful hues and textures of Raku. Thanks to the special Raku clay, pieces survive an extraordinary process that typically lasts only an hour.

Sadly, not all pieces survive the rigorous firing process. Cracks, structural failures and even explosions claim work. Even artists with considerable experience expect to lose some of their work.

Raku pieces are decorative in nature. While they contain no lead, some of the glaze materials are still somewhat hazardous. The relatively low firing temperature produces a porous clay body that is not watertight. Therefore care should be taken not to use the pieces to display fresh flowers or hold wet food without the use of a glass of plastic liner

Each piece is born in the heat of the kiln and nurtured by flames and smoke within the reduction container. The elemental forces of nature govern the energy, power and chaos of the firing process that is ultimately frozen upon the surface of each finished piece. While modern Raku may bear little resemblance to its ancient forebears, many of the same principles apply to the creation of visually striking and aesthetically pleasing work. For this reason, handcrafted Raku pieces are as prized and cherished today as they were in Japan over 5 centuries ago.