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Terra Sigilatta

Terra Sigilatta is produced using a simple sedimentation process. A clay is slurried in lots of water and allowed to settle. The fine, unsettled portion (or upper part the the sediment) is extracted and concentrated to produce the terra sigilatta slurry. It is applied to the surface of terra cotta ware (and optionally burnished). When fired it produces gloss even though no glaze (or glass development) is present. This low-fire process has a long history among indigenous cultures. Read about it at Wikipedia or search on google.com.

Potters commonly experiment with the raw clays and ball clays at their disposal in search of a desired fired effect that couples with application properties they can tolerate or adapt. Redart, for example, is a common material in North America that has been found to readily sediment into layers of differing particle sizes. Ball clays produce terrasigs of widely varying character even though their plasticities and fired maturity as raw materials can be quite similar. Deflocculants are often employed to help accelerate the sedimentation process. The difficulty in achieving a gloss surface often gives potters renewed respect for ancient and indigenous cultures that perfected the process.

There is an interesting scientific side to the process (pointed out to us by Juan Figueroa Dorrego). Sedimentation of free falling particles in water follows Stokes Law. The law predicts the speed of the particle sedimentation based on size. According to an article by Sonja S. Singer (Industrial Ceramics - London, 1963 - Chapman & Hall Ltd.), in 20 hours a 2 micron particle will settle 20-25 cm. That means that the height of the container is important. If it is too shallow significant amounts of the finer particles could sediment on the bottom.

Terra Sigillata by Monika Smith 2016

Terra Sigillata by Monika Smith 2016

The gloss on this low fire red clay is not the product of a glaze or any kind of glass development. It is from a layer of incredibly fine clay on the surface (a process called Terra Sigillata). It is the product of a lengthy research project by Monika. She investigated many materials, techniques, clay bodies and firing schedules.

Can terra cotta ware resist an open flame? Yes.

Can terra cotta ware resist an open flame? Yes.

This is a road-side stand in Mexico in 2016. Each of these "cazuelas" (casseroles) have a flame under them to keep the food inside warm. The pedestal is unglazed. The ware is thick and heavy. The casseroles are hand decorated with under glaze slip colors and a very thin layer of lead glaze is painted over (producing a terra sigilatta type appearance, but with brush stoke texture). These have been made and used here for hundreds years. How can they not crack over an open flame? The flame is small. The clay is fired as low or lower than potters in Canada or the US would even fired their bisque. It is porous, open and able to absorb the stresses. They know these pieces are not strong, so they treat them with care.

Out Bound Links

In Bound Links

  • (Glossary) Primitive Firing

    Most potters and sculptors fire in electric or gas kilns, these are often computer-controlled. However the use of traditional techniques, some very ancient, is still very popular. It is in this sense we use the term "primitive firing" (not because it does not use technology!). The scope of technique...

By Tony Hansen

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