Low Firing and Burnishing

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By Sumi von Dassow

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.