David Walters Franschhoek South Africa designer craftsman

'Pottery’ or ‘Ceramics'? What’s in a name?

Pottery - the art of making things out of clay, is a really ancient activity. The second oldest profession, I would say! People have been making pots for thousands of years, and us modern potters stand proudly on the shoulders of these generations of people who have made pots in every country in the world where there is clay to be found. I am not sure that there is clay in the Antarctic.

Strangely enough the English language has let us down. What would Shakespeare say? The words to describe this amazing activity are sadly lacking. Pottery. It’s rather an ordinary word, usually thought of as the method for making a round clay object on a potters wheel, and it makes us think of rather dull little shops with predictable ‘hairy brown’ jugs and things. It lacks magic, doesn’t it? It does not describe the magnificence of a 16th Century Korean Celadon jar, or the subtlety of a Hennie Meyer jug. It does not do justice to the ‘fit for purpose’ integrity of a Zulu beer pot or the incomparable gravitas of a Walter Keeler tea pot.

So what about Ceramics? This word seems to be used to describe clay objects that are a cut above mere pottery – but here is the thing – ceramics is defined as just about anything that is made from firing clay. So the bricks that your house is made from, the tiles on the kitchen floor and the basin and loo in your bathroom are all ceramics. I guess that it sounds a bit more serious than pottery, so we will stick with it – but if there is anybody out there who can think of a better word, please let us know.

So how important is pottery and ceramics?

These days, working in clay is seen as a craft activity, but we must not forget that because of its durability, fired clay lasts for ever, even if it is broken. It will be around long after books, paintings and other objects have turned to dust. In some respects, the clay objects left behind by past civilizations are the only clues we have as to how they led their lives. Think of ancient Greece and Egypt, Persia and Mesopotamia where clay object production dates back more than eight thousand years. What would we know about the lives of our ancestors without the shards of their everyday clay objects left behind for archeologists to dig up and interpret?

We have an enormous responsibility as potters, to make the best possible use of this legacy, to make really good work, so that generations to come will know that we aspired to high ideals of skill and integrity – pottery or ceramics.

David Walters, Franschhoek.


Porcelain is a high-fired, white, translucent clay body, which no longer is found occuring naturally. Today's porcelains are 'made up' bodies, using fine natural materials from around the world, resulting in durable, exceptionally white, lush translucent and magical ceramic objects.

White stoneware is also a high-firing clay body, useful for its whiteness and durability and only lacking the translucent mystique of porcelain.
David Walters Franschhoek South Africa designer craftsman
David Walters Franschhoek South Africa designer craftsman

To view more porcelain and stoneware pieces by David Walters, click here


Ceramics is the word that tells us that a clay object has been placed in a kiln, and fired. This changes its molecular structure and cannot be reversed. The process must be undertaken with reverence, as the resulting object, even if broken, will last for ever. Shards of pottery are often the only clues that archeologists use to discover how people in long lost civilizations lived. Potters probably represent the second oldest profession!

Various clays, however, dictate the temperature that you need to fire at, and the technique used. For example, smoke, or pit fired pots, and earthen wares are low temperature clays, fired in the region of 100 – 1100 degrees centigrade. Glazed stoneware, porcelain and bone china need a much higher firing temperature – around 1280 - 1300 degrees centigrade – or even higher. Porcelain - mystical, lush, hard, white and semi translucent when correctly fired, is my clay of choice.

Reduction fired stoneware and porcelain is fired in a kiln which is burning fuel, like wood, oil or gas, and generally not in an electric kiln. This means that the potter can control the amount of oxygen entering the kiln at a given point. The result is that the flames, starved of oxygen, seek available oxygen from metal colouring oxides in the glazes – for example Iron Oxide – and ‘reduce’ the oxides in the glaze to the metals, giving the sought after velvety Tenmokus, Celadons and even Copper Reds – ‘Sang de Boeuf’ where copper oxides or carbonates are used.


Smoke penetration of the surface of a clay pot or vessel is an ancient method of coloration and decoration, mostly found in the past on primitive, low fired objects. And while this method has been brought up to date, and is used in a more controlled and contemporary way, it remains a low fired technique, and thus more ornamental or sculptural, and is less ‘useful’ than conventionally glazed ceramics.

When vessels are subjected to the randomness of the open fire, mysterious black shadows and velvety stains emerge, evoking dark secrets, animal skins, cloud shadows.

My ‘smoked’ pieces are mostly wheel thrown, using porcelain mixed with a ‘groggy’ clay to give it ‘tooth’ to withstand the thermal shock of the pit firing. Many of my pieces are assembled into new shapes after throwing, and all are covered with coloured ‘slip’ or Terra Sigillata, a very fine slip, which is burnished before the piece dries. They are then ‘bisque’ fired to a temperature of just under 1000 degrees centigrade.

In order to define the smoked areas of the vessel, I use masking tape, hot wax and ‘groggy’ clay to alternatively mask and expose the surface to the smoke. Masking tape burns on the surface, smoking the area directly under it, while wax gives a ‘half tone’ effect. Indeed, this process needs experimentation and practice to achieve the desired effects.

Once the decorated vessel is ready and completely dry, I expose it to a fairly quick and hot ‘smoking’ in a specially prepared drum, using newspaper as a fuel.

Again, experience teaches one the duration of the firing necessary, and the heat required. Great variation is possible, and areas of individual pieces may be heated more than another to give quite different and magical effects.

The pots emerge from this firing blackened and encrusted with soot, which needs to be carefully scrubbed off so as not to damage the surface beneath. This is a thrilling moment, and the full beauty of the process is finally revealed.

The permanent invasion of smoke and fumes leaves the surface of the piece magically transformed and patterned, evoking primal and satisfying shades of black and many other colours. With time and application, reasonable control can be achieved.

Finally, when dry,the object is polished with a beeswax and turpentine mixture to enhance the textures and colours on the burnished surface. Some of my pieces are decorated with gold, silver and copper leaf.
David Walters Franschhoek South Africa designer craftsman
David Walters Franschhoek South Africa designer craftsman
David Walters Franschhoek South Africa designer craftsman
David Walters Franschhoek South Africa designer craftsman

To view more smoke-fired vessels by David Walters, click here