Obvara Firing Technique in Pottery

And How to Use It

Mary Cargile working her Obvara pots during Raku pottery firing at El Camino Fundamental High School, Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 6, 2014.

 Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

If you’ve tried raku firing, oxidation, and reduction firing techniques, then you might want to have a go at the lesser-known type of firing called Obvara. Its similarity with raku firing is that you take the pot out of the kiln when it's hot, but the difference is that the pot gets dunked into a special Obvara mixture and then into water. The result is that the pot comes out with wonderful patterns that can look almost like animal prints or wood at times. This beautiful folk art has seen something of a revival in recent times.

Where Did It Originate?

Obvara (pronounced ab-vara and is sometimes known as "Baltic raku") originated in Eastern Europe (mainly Belarus, Estonia, and Latvia) in around the 12th century. Master potter Daniil Pavelchuk who works in Minsk has described how recently "Obvara ceramics comes back to us from ancient times, bringing into our homes the ancient secrets of health and longevity." The technique is known as "hardened ceramics" or "blackened pots" in Latvia, "sourdough pottery" or "yeast pottery" in Lithuania, and "scalded ceramics" in Russia.

Janice Chassier who has looked closely into the subject has written about how the technique originally "may have resulted by accident when a hot pot fell into a bucket of fermented kitchen scraps."

Obvara is not purely decorative either; it’s said to have spiritual connotations where potters and locals from the villages would believe that the Obvara pattern of eyes that occurred "protected the food their pots held from evil spirits." Obvara pots also absorb moisture very well, so they are known to be great for cooking in.

How Do You Do It?

Obvara is actually fairly easy to develop on your own and a really exciting technique to try out on your work. The ingredients are very easy to obtain and are probably already in your kitchen cupboards. You’ll need flour, sugar, yeast, and warm water.

As Obvara works in the same way as raku, you must use clay (with grog) that can handle the heat as it’s fired at a very high temperature. The pot is then put into a bisque firing and heated to around 1650 F, then taken out while still burning hot, as with raku. The difference is that the pot is then placed in the Obvara mixture before being dunked in water. The water instantly cools the pot.

The excitement is seeing what the pot looks like once it's cooled, as the effects can be quite magical and different every time. Some of them can look like they’ve been dug up hundreds of years ago. In the same way as with terra sigillata or raku firing, you don’t need to glaze the piece after the first firing process. It’s also smokeless firing, which is a huge plus point. The trickiest part of this process is the fact that you have to remove the pot from the kiln with a pair of tongs before transferring it to the yeast mixture and then into the water; therefore, you have to be really careful to ensure not to drop the piece.

Danill Pavelchuck is known to seal his Obvara clay pieces with beeswax to make them less porous. Some potters have also been reported to add a little milk to their Obvara mixture.

Can You Use It With Any Other Techniques?

Ceramicist Marcia Selsor has discovered that using the ancient technique of terra sigillata on the pot before putting it through an Obvara firing can produce some really interesting crackle effects on the surface. In fact, if the surface is textured in any way, even with the traditional horsehair decoration, it can have some really exciting results.