I find beauty and solace exploring the natural landscapes in the mountains of Washington and along the coasts of Puget Sound. The forms of the land, the growth of the wild forest, and the movement of water in these spaces consistently provide me rich inspiration that I can take back to the studio along with a steady vision for how I want to enact my work.

A finished kyusu with a found-wood handle.

Inspiration from Culture and Landscape

Vessels specifically designed and crafted for the delicate service of fine and aged tea aligns well with this experience and vision for me as tea and clay come together from the land and as water moves through the pot and the leaves. I think about this juxtaposition when I’m in the wild landscape just as when I’m in the quiet studio, and I work to bring those beautiful spaces together in the form of the wooden-handled kyusu teapot.

Kyusu is simply the Japanese term for a teapot with its handle on the side. It is poured with a turn of the wrist rather than a forward tipping motion, making for a gentle and elegant presentation when serving tea to a guest. Whether it is casual or performed with a traditional formality, serving and enjoying tea invites a heightened care and presence, and creating the vessels especially for those moments is my acknowledgment of the importance of those intentional moments for myself and for my community. 

A kyusu vessel in action. This kyusu handle is embellished with a short length of silver jewelry wire.

I go on hiking missions to look for broken branches, gnarled segments of root, and water-worn driftwood that will make comfortable and graceful handles for my pots, selecting the pieces that fit in my hand comfortably and bringing them back to my studio. I keep a few dozen found pieces on hand so that when I begin forming clay pots, I have prospective handles available to reference for scale and proportion.

The Form, Briefly

A few important considerations come into play for a gracefully functioning teapot: the ergonomics of the handle, the proportions and placement of the spout on the body, the cross-sectional areas for water flow and air displacement, and the fit and dimensions of the lid—each of these could be the subject of another complete article. For me, the lid needs to create an air-tight seal with the top of the pot. I accomplish this by tapering the inside of the lid when I form it in wet clay, so it sits partially into the pot but is just a hair too large. When all else is complete and the pieces are fired, I use an abrasive lapidary paste to grind the lid into place like a machined valve. The air-tight seal—along with all the ideal proportions of pot and spout—contributes to a perfect and unbroken stream of tea when the pot is tipped forward.

Clay Forms for Mixed Media

When I form the vessel, it’s important to predetermine which handle I will use and how it will fit onto the pot so that the point of attachment fits the unique handle precisely and securely (1). I carefully consider the aesthetic combination and the robust integration of the materials from the beginning. I want it to appear that the handle grew off the pot effortlessly and naturally and I want the piece to be durable for the stress of regular use. 

The best way I’ve found to achieve both goals is to build a clay anchor onto the side of the pot that resembles a stud bolt (2, 3). The textured and hollow form of the anchor allows two-part epoxy to fill the space to create a key joint that securely holds the pieces together. This will fit inside the hollowed piece of wood after the pot is fired (4), creating the illusion of natural growth.

1 A bisque-fired tea pot and a piece of found wood ready for handle assembly. 2 To accommodate natural found-object handles, create a ceramic anchor built onto the side of pot. 3 The hollow anchor makes space for epoxy to fill in and create an interlocking key joint, which holds the handle in place. 4 The clay lug above the anchor provides a extra support for the wooden handle, along with an extra touch of style.

Shaping the Wood Piece

I am intentional about manipulating only one end of the piece of wood, carving where the handle must meet the pot and maintaining the genuine structure and form of the wood as it reaches out into space. 

I cut the piece of wood to length with a small pull saw and form that end to an appropriate diameter with a burr bit on a flex-shaft rotary tool. I then bore out a space for the anchor with a drill bit and widen it with the burr (5) until the handle slides into place on the ceramic anchor (6). I sand away any marks from the tool for a clean finish (7, 8). 

Attaching the Handle

When the wood is formed and finished, I mix up a two-part marine epoxy (9), and apply it to the clay anchor and into the end of the handle. I press the handle into place and twist and maneuver it back and forth to ensure that the adhesive works into all the empty spaces inside. Excess epoxy inevitably escapes at the seam as the space inside fills up. I scrape it away first with a dry wooden pallet knife or pointed skewer and then dissolve the rest with denatured alcohol applied with a short-bristled smudge brush (used to apply makeup). Aside from their use with epoxy, these are my favorite brushes for blending wet clay on fine details as well because they are like tiny sponges with a paintbrush handle.

After allowing the adhesive to cure overnight (10), the handle is complete.

5 Bore out the wooden handle with a burr bit on a flex-shaft rotary tool to the appropriate diameter. 6 Check the handle for fit by sliding it over the hollow ceramic anchor. Adjust the handle if needed. 7 The forms fit and stay together naturally before they are glued permanently in place. 8 The structure of the ceramic anchor and the epoxy hides subtly inside the base of the handle.

Sealing the Wood

Once the kyusu and the wooden handle are fully integrated (8), I seal the wood with a food-grade butcher block oil or cutting board oil. I have tried a variety of wood finishes and continue to experiment with them. I want the wood to appear raw and natural, so I stay away from finishes that seal with a hard plastic appearance like polyurethane or shellac. Many natural oils and waxes I’ve tried carry a lingering scent, which may be pleasant but disturbs the experience of smelling the tea when the pot is ready to use. Butcher block and cutting board oils meet both considerations well, though I’m always open to new suggestions if you’d like to contact me about it.

9 Any two-part epoxy that mixes up with a low viscosity to easily fill the space and create the joint will work well for attachment. 10 A batch of newly glued handles on fired Kyusu tea vessels, propped up to cure.

In Use

My teapot forms join a cast of supporting vessels (cups, trays, decanters, and bowls) to present a practice of tea service known as “gongfu cha” that has a refined focus on the delicate balance and presentation of flavors and styles. Puerh tea from China, oolong from Taiwan, and green tea from Japan all find their place in the ritual of it and these continually influence my communities in the Pacific Northwest and California. It has become a beautiful sharing of aesthetic and cultural sensibility through art, craft, and taste.

A freshly finished kyusu with a found-wood handle, ready for its first brew of fine tea.

Jonathan Steele is a craftsman currently based in Redmond, Washington. He earned his MFA in craft from Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland, Oregon, in 2016, and was resident artist at Pleasant Hill Pottery in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, in 2016–17. Having held adjunct teaching jobs the last several years, Jonathan’s current professional focus is on residential carpentry contracts and remodels in the Seattle area, and he is considering opportunities to establish a more independent ceramics studio practice while continually exploring new landscapes. You can learn more at www.jonathansteele.studio.