I participated in a raku firing (Western style) when I was an undergrad in one of Matt Long’s classes at Ohio University. It is no wonder raku is such a popular technique among potters and ceramic artists because what’s not to love about playing so directly with fire? But, like many ceramic techniques, it is extremely important to follow strict safety guidelines, not only to protect yourself from the open flame, but also the fumes that can damage your lungs.
In today’s feature, ceramic artist and long-time raku practitioner Michael Lancaster shares some of the things he has learned over his many years of firing raku. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.
I look back to 1977, the first year I ever fired American raku. I think, secretly, “It’s a miracle any of us have survived this long!” We were fuming with petrochemicals, smoking with sawdust, newspaper, pine needles, straw and even unknown combustible garbage. Working with clay can, for a potter or a sculptor, be a romantically “macho” sort of thing, especially when it comes to dancing with fire.
In this age of YouTube and online movies, the ceramist can view many different approaches to firing and safety. I have seen some that are downright scary. For example, wearing paper dust masks for lung protection, wearing nylon jackets, synthetic jogging outfits, shorts, sandals and rarely do I see a fire extinguisher in the background. From experience I have found that clothes can ignite, hair gets burned off, hands burn, and lungs and mucous membranes can be damaged – even permanently! I have come up with a few simple items that can help make raku kilns more safe.
First, to protect eyes, face, mucous membranes and lungs, I recommend Color Code Olive/Magenta P100 Defender respirator cartridges from North or another company using the same codes in a welder’s clear plastic face and respirator shield. The cartridges will arrest the fumes and smoke from welding and will help for most of the smoke from Raku. The plastic lenses generally are not fireproof, however will shield from some flame up and will keep the smoke and fumes from your eyes. At a minimum, care should be taken to be sure all clothes are cotton. We also wear split-hide welders jackets. Some of my colleagues wear full-hide aprons that go all the way to the shins. This can be helpful for extended moments reaching with mits into the kiln.
We also wear different gloves for different tasks. I wear Kevlar gloves for general work and they last about three firings (that’s about five to six firings each time from a 30-cubic-foot kiln). I use a higher-temp Kevlar combination fiber mitt for hand lifting works that are too big for the tongs. Boots with more leather and less plastic are helpful as I have had boots burst into flame.
When fuming, it is an absolute must to wear good lung protection. It is extremely important that anyone within a 30-foot circumference also be protected. Fuming ingredients such as ferric chloride, ammonium chloride, copper sulfate, etc., make caustic gases which can burn sinuses, throat, esophagus and lung tissue and can cause permanent damage. Finally, always keep a fire extinguisher on hand. It could save a life. Raku should be fun, passionate, and, with a calm approach, safe.
**First published in 2014.