Salt Glaze - Salt Firing

The origins of salt glazing are quite obscure. Commonly it is presumed that the first salted stoneware pots have been made in the Rhineland (Germany) during the late 13th century, or early 14th century. In his book ‘Salt Glazing’ Phil Rogers imagines how a potter could have found out about salt as a glaze. At that time vitreous stoneware already existed in the region of Cologne. Cologne had been an important harbour. Salt was used as a preservative to keep and transport food, such as pork, herring and vegetables in wooden barrels and boxes. It might have happened that a potter simply ran out of wood during the last part of his firing. In desperation he took the leftovers from rotten barrels to finish his firing. When unpacking the kiln this potter might have noticed the thin glaze on his pots and might have had understood that the salted timber could have been the reason.

Grey or brown salted stoneware pots sometimes decorated with cobalt blue have been the traditional pots and an important trade of the Rhineland until mid 20th century. A vast semi industrial production of salt glazed pots prospered in the region around Cologne (including Aachen and Raeren, Belgium) and in the Southern Rhineland (Westerwald). 

During the 18th and 19th century salt glazed pots were also made in England. According to Phil Rogers there were salt glaze potters in Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Nottingham. With London as a centre of salt glaze production well into the 20th century.

I was born in the Rhineland. It’s possible that my fascination for the lovely shine of salt glazed pots started in the basement at home. When I was a child it was rather common to produce one’s own sauerkraut. Huge grey salt glazed pots were filled with cabbage, salt and juniper berries. Sealed with cotton cloth and heavy stones the jars remained untouched until the delicious sauerkraut was ready to be eaten. I also remember salt glazed milk jugs and flower pots, decorated with dark blue motives.

Gisela Gredig in Celerina (Switzerland) was my first teacher in ceramics. I also worked for several months in a small ceramics factory in South Portugal. Consecutively I started a five year ceramics course at the Academy for Applied Arts in Maastricht (Netherlands). In 1988 I got my ceramics diploma. Already during my study I had met potters who worked with salt glaze. Mainly Ton van der Rotten and Axel Günther offered me their knowledge and experiences in the field. At the time Ton had been developing salt glaze techniques for the ceramic industry and Axel worked as a studiopotter specialized in salt glaze. 

I started my own experiments with salt glaze and built my first salt kilns. From 1995 on I specialized in salt glazed stoneware and porcelain. Wolf Mattes wrote in Salzbrand-Keramik ’86 ‘... apart from the pot’s form it is the colours and the skin created during the salt firing which give the ceramic object its special beauty and unmistakable appearance’. 

I love the touch of salted pots. The thin and serene salt glaze improves my forms and their lucid and sober design. The salt accentuates scratches, brims and edges in the clay. I want to give my pots lightness and strength. 

Phil Rogers, Salt Glazing, A+C Black, London, 2002 

black/white photos : H. Fries, Kurrimurri, Stadt Höhr-Grenzhausen, 1993