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How to make a WABI SABI bonsai pot

Updated: Jul 1

This blog post is based on and supplements the earlier publication of the blog post "Wabi Sabi a definition in design and bonsai making " on this website.

Preparing the clay

We cut several large pieces from the large block of clay.

After rolling, the surface must be smoothed with so-called rubber kidneys in order to compensate for any tension that has arisen and to smooth and compact the surface.

These can otherwise create irreparable structural cracks during drying or later firing.

Viewed under a microscope, the clay consists of plate-shaped pieces arranged above and below the other.

Between these plates, depending on the fineness of the clay (also called grog), there is a kind of mud that sticks the components together.

There are different degrees of hardness of these plastic tools, for example from Mudtools .

From soft (red) to blue (hard). First hard to even out unevenness, then soft to smooth the surface and distribute the fine "mud" over the larger particles.

As a reminder: Depending on the type of clay, it is always a mixture of fine and coarse components that ensure increased strength, lower water absorption and thus frost resistance of the finished fired piece.

The pieces are roughly cut out with a knife, preferably a little larger than necessary, because you can always cut them into shape and "adding" prevents a homogeneous structure...!

Adding structure

Depending on the desired expression, you can keep the smooth surface or add a structure.

This should be stamped with structure-giving objects at an early stage, when the clay is still very soft and flexible.

Depending on the aesthetic, either stones, wood or objects are suitable, which transfer their character to the finished piece.

Here is an example of a plastic body from a Starwars Pod Racer !

Only later, after the pieces have dried to a leather-hard state, they are cut to the exact size using a template!

This symbolizes a vehicle from the future that crashed and left its imprint or traces, as a kind of fossil.

A symbol of the end of the future…!

The finished vessel was exhibited at the beginning of 2024 as part of the Bonsai Trophy 2024 in Genk, Belgium and was very well received by the audience…!

More details and pictures here.

Bonsai Pot with robot arm and stone
Exhibition at the Trophy 2024

Preparing the contact surfaces

In this state, i.e. leather-hard, the contact surfaces are cut and should be prepared as precisely as possible.

The closer the contact surfaces fit together, the fewer cracks can occur!!!

Here is a tool to cut different angles or bevels:

These future "seams" are roughened with a knife or special steel sheet with sharp teeth by making cross-shaped scratches.

Time to relax and wait for the prepared pieces to dry!!!

It is important to arrange the parts on a soft base, e.g. foam sheet, after they have been manipulated. Move the parts as little as possible during subsequent assembly, to avoid damaging the structured surfaces and to ensure that they are in the right shape and fit.

Light markings for the ventilation openings should now be made from the inside and larger openings should be punched out, as this will prevent the surfaces from bending on the supporting surface.

Putting the elements together

Once the pieces are leather-hard (after 1-2 days, depending on the outside temperature and humidity), they can be connected or welded and a 3-dimensional bonsai vessel can take on shape and volume from flat pieces!!!

The contact surfaces, roughened and hungry for liquid, are bonded with an emulsion of water and dissolved clay, the so-called "slip".

As with traditional glue, use as little as possible, but as much as necessary.

It`s higher water content can cause this component to contract more during subsequent drying and promote the formation of cracks!

The aim is to produce a mass of wet and solid components that is as homogeneous as possible to create a compact unity.

The prepared plates are lifted vertically, oriented to each other and pushed together.

Move slightly back and forth to achieve an "interlocking" of the roughened contact surfaces.

Using a soft brush and a small, pointed pen, the excess, squeezed-out binding agent is now brushed into the seam and any air pockets are removed.

Once all parts are securely connected, make sure they are aligned straight and use a plate to lightly press all parts together from above.

After adding the "glue" with a higher moisture content, it is necessary to ensure that the water is evenly distributed throughout the vessel in order to balance out and equalize any tensions.

It is best to leave the good piece to rest overnight in a plastic bag...

This timing is the guarantee to avoid problems later due to warping and cracking.

After a hopefully carefree night, the seams are reinforced from the inside with clay.

To do this, a soft "clay sausage" is pressed into the connecting seam and spread out from the middle to the sides.

Attaching the rim and reinforcement

The rim prepared from one piece, marked by placing the wall body

The contact surface to be bonded was marked on the raw rim body and roughened up

After slowly equalizing the humidity throughout the vessel, the wiring holes can now be marked and pierced, and the proud brand stamp can be pressed into the clay on the bottom piece.

Now it's time to relax yourself and your vessel!

Smooth the connecting seam between the rim and the walls to form a compact unit

Smooth and homogenize the base plate depending on the surface condition!

The drying process

Depending on the season and weather, the container should be dried very slowly, over a period of 1-2 weeks, in order to reduce the water content through even ventilation.

The shrinkage of approx. 20% must occur in order to prevent nasty cracking caused by stress!!!

At the beginning, the vessel can be weighted down flat to prevent uneven warping!

When the unexpected happens...

Events that are unplanned require flexibility in thinking...

Happy and cheerful that this pot is now waiting to dry out after about a week of rest, I just wanted to quickly check everything...

One wrong move and a wobbly work lamp would crash onto the almost dry pot...

A brief pause and a cry: Sh...t!!!

The collision had caused a stress crack on one side!

Just smear it with fresh clay? Undo all the work and start over?

No, I remembered dealing with the topic of accepting imperfection and brokenness!

Well, but how can it be, broken is broken...everything should be perfect!

Therefore, after the first successful firing of the bowl, I drilled holes into the broken wall and accentuated the affected areas with oxides to deliberately give it an aging character.

Then after the last firing at 1250 degrees, the drilled holes were connected with copper wire and "sewn together"

The contrast, brown clay and red copper wire, gives the bonsai vessel the character of Wabi Sabi.

Something that is loved and worth repairing even if it is not perfect and perhaps does not correspond to the prevailing ideal of beauty.

The result is certainly impressive and for me an example of accepting supposed mistakes and turning them into an advantage!!!

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