Learning the art of bonsai pottery

Rory Wilmer > Bonsai > Learning the art of bonsai pottery

Tokoname bonsai pot- Artist; Master Kataoka Katsushi. The documentary from Bonsai Empire showcasing called “The Clay Masters of Tokoname” was my first step in learning how to make my own bonsai pots. I took great inspiration from the masters of Tokoname which taught me to learn to love the clay.

Part 1 – Creations

I want to feel the heat of the kiln and drink Sake with Katsushi Kataoka while we eat Ramen from Tokoname ceramic bowls.

Since I started to get serious about my Bonsai hobby, it became apparent what the next steps would be. When I was in high school, I excelled at pottery. I got excellent grades for art classes, and I went on to study for a bachelor of arts in interaction design and fine art. However, as the world went digital, and I abandoned my love of analogue art for digital. In my midlife, I find myself going back towards the basic methods and techniques of drawing and sketching and finally learning to master the potter’s wheel. As it turns out, my new teachers say I have a natural talent for throwing clay. I finally found a use for these big hands; I can centre an enormous weight of clay on the wheel with ease.

Before I started going to pottery classes, I watched and studied the Japanese masters from Tokoname. Tokoname is a city located in the Aichi Prefecture of Japan. The people of Tokoname have been producing ceramics since at least the Heian period. By the Kamakura period, over 3000 kilns were active. This tradition makes Tokoname the most well-known and respected city for bonsai pottery.

A scene (AZUMA YA: East Wing) of Illustrated scroll of Tale of Genji (written by MURASAKI SHIKIBU (11th cent.). The multi-panel curtain at the center bottom of the image is a kichō. The decorated sliding door panels at the top of the image are fusuma. The scroll was made in about ca. 1130 ACE and is in the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya, Japan. Source: Public domain.

Many masters from Tokoname and Bonsai Empire put together a great series of video interviews and articles showcasing some of the master potters—showcasing all the styles of bonsai pottery craft. From slab building to wheel throwing and moulding.

As I started to gain influence and learn about the history of Japanese and Chinese ceramics, I set about finding a good school in Prague and locating a teacher who would guide me to study throwing clay on a wheel. Luckily I found the right place and the right person, and I have been going to open studio classes once a week for the past few months.As I started to gain influence and learn about the history of Japanese and Chinese ceramics, I set about finding a good school in Prague and locating a teacher who would guide me to study throwing clay on a wheel. Luckily I found the right place and the right person, and I have been going to open studio classes once a week for the past few months.

My first throw

My first ever attempt on the wheel at throwing, and I was so pleasantly surprised. I didn’t start with a Bonsai bowl. I started with a mug. Because let’s face it, before you start doing your Bonsai, you need a good cup of coffee or tea to get the cerebral juices flowing.

My first bonsai pot


On my second attempt, and I threw much more clay on the wheel at almost 1kg of weight. I was able to get more towards the form I desired to plant a Katade-Mochi sized tree. There were some imperfections, and that is fine as for the very first few pots, there is so much learning that takes place. The glazing process, I think, is the most satisfying but also the most mysterious. You never really know what you are going to get, and that joy of revealing the final firing from the kiln is always something extraordinary.

Meet the Clay Masters of Tokoname

A Mini-documentary on Bonsai ceramics!

Tokoname is one of the six famous old kilns of Japan, producing tea pots, sewer pipes and… Bonsai Pots. Though Tokoname was famous for its clay (Tokoname literally means “Always smooth”), much of that has ran out and what remains are highly skilled craftsman, with a reputation for quality Bonsai containers, both glazed and unglazed. Invited by the Tokoname association, we shot this documentary on the true craftsmanship of the potters. Focusing on the process of creating a Bonsai pot, we filmed six artists in their ateliers.

The stars of the film: Tatsuhiro Tanaka (Clay Atelier) Katsushi Kataoka (Reiho, Seizan Toen) Kazuhiro Watanabe (Ikko, Kanesho Seitosho) Kakuyuki Watanabe (Kakuzan toen) Katsuichi Shibata (Shibakatsu en) Hidemi Kataoka (Shuuhou, Yoshimura toen)

And the process of creating Bonsai pots:

Step 1: Preparing the clay At the Atelier of Tokoname clay they import, mix, purify and distribute all the clay for the all potters in Tokoname. For different types of pottery, there are different types of clay and the potters can customize their own mixture for the best characteristics. Once the clay is at the potter, it will be kneaded by both hand and machine to enable the potter to work with it. Normally a potter uses a machine to make the clay more soft and then knead it in the right shape. Next, there are three different ways to shape a pot. We’ll explain the shaping with a mould first and after that describe how the wheel and manual methods work.

Step 2a: Shaping with a mould The slab of clay is created by kneading the clay thoroughly and then creating thin layers by running a thin steel wire across the clay. The slab is then rolled onto a pipe to transport it to the mould. Finally, the slab is then pushed and shaped into the mould using a sand bag. Excess clay on the inside is now removed using a spatula, to make sure the thickness of the clay is uniform. The moulded pot then needs to dry for a day, before the mould can be removed. Usually this is the moment to add the stamp on the bottom of the pot, as well as creating holes for drainage. Finally, with some moulds the rim also needs to be added manually.

Step 2b: Shaping with a wheel Using the wheel is probably the method that we always think of when talking about pottery. The potters show incredible craftsmanship when creating the perfect shape for the bonsai pot. While the feet of the pot are automatically created when using a mould, the potter that uses the wheel as a shaping method, needs to create this separately (usually after one day of drying first). Step 2c: Shaping with clay slabs Not all pots can be made using moulds or wheels. As not all can be similar in shape and not all are round. Some potters rather form the bonsai pots themselves using slabs that they cut out themselves. This enables them to make one of a kind pots that are exactly designed to their customer’s wishes. Usually the body of the pot is designed first and after a few hours drying the rim is added, and again a few hours later the feet can be created.

Step 3: Finishing and drying Water finishing. To smoothen the surface and edges of the pot, the craftsmen use all kinds of cloths and cards that they dip in water. Drying. Drying makes sure that the pots stay in the right shape when being fired later. Drying can take between 1-3 days time depending on the size of the pot. On this photo several glazed pots are drying, almost ready to be fired.

Step 4: Glazing Some pots are glazed, mostly to suit Deciduous or broadleaf evergreen trees. The pot is dipped into a basin of glaze, after which it is left to dry for about a day before being fired. Sometimes a second glazing is added and the pot would be fired again.

Step 5: Finishing and firing Both the surface and the edges are polished and smoothened during the drying process, right before the firing. After one day of drying the potter can add their own brand mark by either scribbling or pressing their name on the bottom of the pot. The kiln is then packed with pots and over the course of about 30 hours heated to 1180 degrees Celsius, and cooled down again.



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