Pit Firing and Burnishing

Pit firing is an exciting firing process with roots in the earliest forms of pottery making. Burnishing is the technique of polishing clay without the use of glaze. Ancient potters used these techniques to produce their wares before glazes and kilns were developed; modern potters use pit firing and burnishing to create works of great beauty...(Scroll for more.)


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…In this video, Sumi von Dassow shares the methods of pit firing and burnishing that she has developed over the course of thirty years. You’ll learn how to prepare pots for firing, what materials and chemicals to use in the firing, and how to load and fire a pit.

In this 60-minute DVD, Sumi von Dassow shares with you everything she has learned over many years of trial and error with this exciting but often frustrating firing method. She’ll show you how to shortcut the “trial and error” process. You’ll learn how to make and use terra sigillata, burnish with a stone, prepare your pots for firing, what to use for fuel, and which chemicals create color. With each step of the process, Sumi takes great care in leaving no detail out. With the DVD, you’re in the studio with her as she adds each ingredient to make terra sigillata then decants the slip. She discusses what to look out for so your results will be as successful as hers.

Once the terra sig is made, she describes how to apply it by brush or spray and burnish it. For burnishing, Sumi has experimented extensively over the years and has come up with some pretty foolproof methods. You’ll see burnishing with a car polishing cloth as well as the traditional burnishing with a stone. In the stone burnishing demonstration, she teaches in detail about what works and what doesn’t so you don’t have to make the same mistakes she did.

After burnishing, she discusses different things you can do to your pots to get special effects from the fire including attaching scouring pads, metal tape, and more. Then she sets out to gather all the special fuels she uses to achieve her spectacular results. Here you travel to the feed store, a horse barn, a grocery store, a cabinet shop, and the back yard to select materials for the fire and special effects.

If you’ve tried low-firing and burnishing before but had poor results and gave up, then you really need to give it another try. Sumi’s pit is a very practical size and she provides a full description of its construction (basically just a hole in the ground lined with common bricks). Then she describes how to layer the different fuels and pots into the kiln (pit) for the best results. This along with the actual firing of the pit are both critical because the way the fire heats and the smoke and chemicals interact are what creates the beauty of the pit fire.

The last step is the firing and here Sumi is again thorough in her description of the importance of using dry materials, placing them just so in the pit, covering the pit at the proper time and assuring the flow of air into the bottom of the pit to keep the fire going. When she does uncover the pots the next day, the results are truly wonderful. And as she says “There will be a next pit firing . . . you can never do just one.”

Sumi is a potter, writer and pottery teacher. She is the author of Low-Firing and Burnishing, published by The American Ceramic Society and A&C Black books in 2009. She writes for Pottery Making Illustrated Magazine and teaches for the Washington Heights Art Center in Lakewood, Colorado. She has won numerous awards and her work is exhibited in galleries throughout Colorado and in other states.

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