Japanese wheel throwing

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Japan has an exceptionally long and successful history of ceramic production. Earthenwares were created as early as the Jōmon period (10,000-300 BCE), giving Japan one of the oldest ceramic traditions in the world. Japan is further distinguished by the unusual esteem that ceramics holds within its artistic tradition, owing to the enduring popularity of the tea ceremony.



For every potter the concept of good/usable clay differs. The definitive way to choose your clay ultimately is a cultural standpoint. For many western potters the choice in clay is defined by how soft it is to use. But for many Japanese potters the clay choice is based on the finished look, not the mold ability. It is a known fact[citation needed] that several of the clays that are used by Japanese potters are almost impossible to use because of the stiffness/hardness. There is an abundance of all the basic types of clay in Japan. Most porcelain clays are found in Kyushu. Kilns were traditionally built at the sites of clay deposits, and most potters still use local clays, having developed a range of glazes (or no glazes) and decoration techniques especially suited to that clay. The pottery clays found in the Japanese archipelago range from fusible earthenware’s to refractory kaolin’s. From the Jomon period to the Yayoi period, Japanese potters relied on high plastic iron-bearing shale and alluvial clays. Organic materials appear in much of the early Jomon period work, but sand or crushed stone predominates thereafter. Further refinements came about under the Chinese influence in the 8th and 9th centuries AD, when potters of Nara three-color ware and Heian ash glazed wares sought out white, refractory clays and enhanced their fineness through levigation. In Kyoto, where demand makes it both practical and profitable, the clay is crushed, blunged (made into slip), and filtered commercially. To use the clay, you must first break it up into small pieces, pour a small amount of water over it, and bead it with a "kine", a wooden mallet, until you obtain the plasticity and uniformity of texture you want. Then you put it through the "aramomi” or “press-wedge” process, a kneading movement, after which the clay is stored for two or three days or sometimes a week. Just before the potter is ready to throw, the clay must pass through the ‘’nejimomi’’ (“screw-wedge”) process, which produces a bullet-shaped mass from which all air bubbles have been removed and in which the granular structure is so arranged that it radiates from the center of the mass. Then the clay is ready for throwing.


Generally fashioned out of fast-growing bamboo or wood, these tools have a natural feel that is highly appealing. While most are Japanese versions of familiar tools in the West, some are inventions unique to Japanese pottery.

Gyubera – These “cow’s tongues” are long sled-shaped bamboo ribs used to compress the bottoms and shape the sides of straight-sided bowls. They are a traditional tool from Arita, Kyushu.

Marugote – These are round, shallow clam shell-shaped bamboo ribs used to shape the sides of curved bowls. They can also be used to compress the bottoms of thrown forms.

Dango – Similar to wooden ribs, these leaf-shaped bamboo ribs are used to shape and smooth the surfaces of a pot.

Takebera - These bamboo trimming and modeling "knives" are available in several different shapes for carving, cleaning up wet pots, cutting, and for sgraffito.

Tombo – “Dragonflies” are the functional equivalent of Western calipers with an added feature. Suspended from a takebera or balanced on the rim of a pot, these delicate bamboo tools are used for measuring both the diameter and the depth of thrown forms.

‘Yumi – A yumi is a wire and bamboo trimming harp that doubles as a fluting tool. It is used to cut off uneven or torn rims as well as to facet leather-hard forms.

Tsurunokubi – These “crane’s necks” are s-curved Japanese wooden throwing sticks used to shape the interiors of narrow-necked pieces such as bottles and certain vases.

Kanna – Kanna are cutting, carving and incising tools made of iron that are used to trim pieces, for carving, sgraffito and to scrape off excess glaze.

‘’’Tsuchikaki’’’ – A large looped ribbon tool made of iron that can be used for trimming as well as carving.

‘’’Umakaki’’’ – A trimming harp that is used to level flat, wide surfaces such as the bottom of a shallow dish or plate.

‘’’Kushi’’’ – Not strictly a throwing tool, these combs are used to score a minimum of 2 decorative parallel lines on pot surfaces. The largest combs have about 20 teeth.

Take Bon Bon – Not a throwing tool, but a Japanese slip-trailer. A take bon bon is a high-capacity bamboo bottle with a spout from which slip and glaze can be poured out in a steady, controlled stream so the potter can “draw” with it.

Introduction to the Potters Wheel[edit]

Sue wares[edit]

Sue ware was the earliest stoneware (clay ware fired at 1200-1300˚ C) produced in Japan. Its manufacture began in the 5th century AD and continued in outlying areas until the 14th century. Although several regional variations have been identified, Sue was remarkably homogeneous throughout Japan. The function of Sue ware, however changed over time: during the Kofun period (300-710 AD) it was primarily funerary ware; during the Nara period (710-94) and the Heian period (794-1185), it became an elite tableware; and finally it was used as a utilitarian ware and for the ritual vessels for Buddhist altars. The first use of the potter’s wheel in Japan can be seen in Sue ware. While Sue wares combined wheel and coiling techniques, the lead-glazed earthenware made under Chinese influence from the 8th to the 10th centuries include forms made entirely on the potter’s wheel.

Potter’s Wheel[edit]

So far as we know, the original potter’s wheel of the Orient was a circular pad of woven matting that the potter turned by hand- and wheel known in Japan as the ‘’rokuro’’. But with the arrival of the ‘’te-rokuro’’ or “handwheel,” the mechanics of throwing developed into a more subtle art. The wheel head was a large, thick, circular piece of wood with shallow holes on the upper surface around the periphery of the disc. The potter kept the wheel in motion by inserting a wooden handle into one of the holes and revolving the wheel head on its shaft until he got the speed he desired. The handwheel is always turned clockwise, and the weight of the large wheel head induces it, after starting, to rotate for a long period of time. It revolves rapidly. Pieces made on it have a high degree of accuracy and symmetry because there is no movement of the potter’s body while throwing, as there is in the case of the kick wheel. In the early days of porcelain making in Japan, the Kyoto, Seto, and Nagoya areas used only the handwheel; elsewhere, in the Kutani area and in Arita, the kick wheel was employed. The Japanese-style kick wheel or ‘’ke-rokuro’’ was probably invented in China during the early Ming dynasty. The design of the kick wheel is similar in many aspects to that of the handwheel, or has a wooden tip set in the top of and iron pipe, like that of the latter-day wheel. The kick wheel is always turned in a counterclockwise direction, and the inevitable motion of the potter’s body as he kicks the wheel while throwing gives many Japanese pots that casual lack of symmetry which has much appeal to contemporary Western taste. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a student of Dr. Wagener went to Germany to learn how to build the downdraft kiln, and saw many wheels operated by belts on pulleys from a single shaft. On his return he set up a similar system in the Seto area, using one man to turn the flywheel that drove the shaft and the pulley system. From this the two man wheel developed. Today, the majority of potters in Kyoto use electric wheels, though there are many studios that still have a handwheel and a kick wheel. But it is very difficult now to find craftsmen who can make or repair them.

Japanese wheel throwing techniques[edit]

Coil and Throw[edit]

At Koishibara, Onda, and Tamba, large bowls and jars are first roughly coil-built on the wheel, then shaped by throwing. The preliminary steps of the process are the same as for coil building, after which the rough form is lubricated with slip and shaped between the potter’s hands as the wheel revolves. The process dates back 360 years to the old Korean technique brought to Japan following Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea.


  • Simpson, Penny. The Japanese Pottery Handbook. New York and San Francisco: Kodansha International LTD, 1979.
  • Turner, Jane. "Japan:Ceramics." Dictionary of Art: Jansen to Ketel. 1996. 240+.
  • Sanders, Herbert Hong. The World of Japanese Ceramics. Kodansha International LTD, 1967.
  • Yap, Jennifer. "Wheel Throwing Tools: Japanese: Descriptions & Explanations - Traditional Japanese Clay Tools." Pottery @ Suite101.com. 30 Apr. 2007. 1 May 2009
  • Turner, Jane. "Japan:Ceramics." Dictionary of Art: Jansen to Ketel. 1996. 240+.
  • Sanders, Herbert Hong. The World of Japanese Ceramics. Kodansha International LTD, 1967.
  • Sanders, Herbert Hong. The World of Japanese Ceramics. Kodansha International LTD, 1967.
  • "YouTube - Takiguchi Kiheiji , The Oribe master." YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. 1 May 2009 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXQQl5RH6jc>.

See also[edit]