Ceramic History

A Saggar Makers Bottom Knocker!!

Since going back to college, I have found myself having to re-explore techniques that although I might have used them in the past I either no longer use or have not developed them any further.

Because I have become rather stuck in my decorating ways, one of the modules available to me was surface decoration. I have thoroughly enjoyed playing around with slips, impressing, glaze etc and wanted to play a little with firing various combustible materials along with my pots to re-create the effects from salt and smoke firings. It was at this point that our very accommodating class technician who fires the kilns, shook his head, ‘no, unless you use a saggar’ he said.

Ok, this was not a problem, I knew what one was, I knew that you needed a certain clay, I sort of knew how to make one the traditional way. However I figured that all I really needed was a lidded pot, so I started throwing.

Historically saggars’ were used inside huge bottle kilns. These kilns were fired by ‘dirty burning’, using wood or coal. Inside the kiln, particles of dust and smoke would be held in the atmosphere as the kiln was stoked. These particles would have landed on the pots and damaged the effect that the potters were trying to achieve. Therefore all the ware would be placed inside saggars to protect it. As many as 2000 saggars would be stacked inside the kiln. They would be stacked one on top of the other and these stacks were called ‘bungs’. The men who carried the full saggars, weighing approx 50lbs were called ‘Placers’. The Placers carried the Saggars on their heads and to protect their heads they rolled up stockings and placed them in their caps! The word ‘Saggar’ is thought to come from the words ‘safe guard’

Saggars were made by a highly skilled potter, a ‘Saggar Maker’, an obvious job title! Many potteries employed saggar makers rather than buy saggars’ and it was a well paid job within the industry. There would be a team to make the saggars. Beside the skill of the saggar maker, he would have an apprentice who would be the frame filler and a young boy, generally older than 10 as it was heavy work, to make the bases of the saggars. These bases were made from pounding lumps of clay into a metal frame using a mawl, these boys were called Saggar Makers Bottom Knockers. The wages for the department would be shared out by the Saggar Maker and of course the bottom knocker would be at the bottom of the wage scale too! Up until as late as the 1900 the average life span of a potter was 46. This was due to clay dust, lead poisoning, chocking dust, extreme heat, flint and other chemicals. In 1952 the Clean Air Act forced the traditional bottle kilns to be closed down.

Nowadays cleaner fuels to fire kilns have reduced the need for using saggars. If you do wish to experiment with the effects acquired from this type of dirty firing using a saggar would protect the kiln, especially from salt.

So...I made my Saggar out of ‘grogged’ clay, rough coarse clay, not very comfortable to throw with but it was just one pot with a fitted lid. This pot was high fired first along with some small little ‘test’ pots to go inside.

I filled my Saggar with coarse sawdust, banana skins (contain potassium) and sea salt in layers with the little pots filled with Red, Copper and Cobalt Oxides on the inside. The idea is as the combustible materials burn they will consume the available oxygen within the Saggar creating a reduction effect (hopefully) on the pots, however as this was an initial experiment I have not glazed the pots so I am not expecting any great glazed effect, other than what the salt can produce. But I am hoping that the fumes produced will get absorbed into the porous bodies of the pots.

I’m quite excited by this experiment into using a Saggar, and I am really hoping that the first results will be good and that my enthusiasm will be ever more expanded! My Saggar has a domed lid, but if all goes well, I get the feeling I will be making stackable Saggars before long!!

And as a final thought.......there was also another strangely named worker within the 19th century pottery, a young girl called a one legged dancer!