Kurinuki Tokkuri: How to carve a sake bottle from clay

Once you’ve mastered some of the more basic vessels that can be made using the Kurinuki technique, a tokkuri, or sake bottle, is a great next step. Although the kurinuki process can produce exciting and striking results, the method also causes challenges, especially when making enclosed forms such as bottles. Therefore, to make a kurinuki tokkuri with an acceptable internal volume we have to remove the neck and spout section and carve it separately from the main body before reattaching.

You’re certainly not going to end up with the lightest piece of pottery ever, especially when compared to wheel-thrown tokkuri, but kurinuki bottles are a great option for those looking to hand build something a little different. That being said, it’s not a simple process, so if you're new to kurinuki it would be wise to try something more suitable for beginners, such as the yunomi, gaiwan, or incense burner covered in previous posts.

Watch the video below and I’ll take you through the steps of making a kurinuki tokkuri, or sake bottle - sorry that the video was filmed in portrait so its best viewed on the YouTube app or website (just click title of the video below and it will take you there). Su’s also made an illustrated instructional guide that you can download at the end of the post.

Preparing and planning the clay for your sake bottle

As always, before you begin, make sure the clay is well wedged so there aren’t any air bubbles in the clay; for this, you can refer to the previous post on reclaiming and preparing clay. When doing kurinuki, it’s always going to be easier if you start carving from a block of clay that is the rough shape of what we’re aiming for (even if you’re going to chop it in half anyway). For that reason, I start with a cylinder-like shape.

When making a kurinuki bottle, I find a good way to plan my cuts is to draw a rough outline of what I’m aiming for on the outside of the block of clay, that way, I can better visualise the final piece. Next, I take a ruler and measure out where the body of the tokkuri will finish and the neck and spout section will begin; that is, the point at which the clay begins to narrow significantly towards the opening of the neck.

Once you’ve marked this point, it’s time to cut. Take a knife and separate these sections as cleanly as you can. Wrap the section you aren’t using in plastic to stop it drying out too much, especially if you’re somewhere with plenty of airflow.

Hollowing out the tokkuri body

Place the lump of clay which will form the body of the bottle on a banding wheel; if you don't have one of these you can just use a piece of cardboard to help you move the clay around. Take a ruler and find the centre of your clay block.

When you’ve found the centre, measure and mark out from this point to plan how large the interior cavity and how thick your walls need to be. Since we’re going to be making quite rough cuts on the outside, I suggest something like 1.5 cm for your walls at this point, we’ll thin them out later. Now is also the time to decide how deep the internal cavity needs to be. If you want to include something like a foot ring (like I do in the video) leave around 2 cm of clay in the base, if you want your kurinuki sake bottle to sit more flush with the table, then you only need around 1cm to work with.

Once you know what you’re doing, it’s time to start your excavation. For this, I like to use a large loop tool which I can use to remove clay quite quickly, as I’m not worrying about aesthetics at this point. Keep your ruler on hand to check you’re not digging too deep and that your walls are staying relatively even. The technique I have found that works well at this point is to dig my tool down vertically, spin it around and then remove a disk of clay. I then go back and scrape up the walls with my tool to even them out (you can see this in the video above).

Once you’re happy with the main body cavity of your tokkuri, use a pallet knife or Pollyfilla tool to remove any excess clay from around the outside walls. Before we begin making the decorative cuts on the outside, we’ll want the clay to try out a bit and any additional wet clay will just slow the process. Therefore remove any clay that’s in excess of the 1.5 cm you marked out for your walls earlier.

Forming the neck and spout of the sake bottle

For the neck and spout section of the kurinuki tokkuri, we’re going to use essentially the same techniques we used on the body, but with a few changes. Take your ruler to find the centre of this smaller cylinder, but this time, make your markings on both the top and the bottom. The ‘bottom’ side is the bit we will reattach to the body, and the ‘top’ is the part from where the sake will pour. On the bottom side of the cylinder, replicate the same measurements you used for the body, so when it’s time, we can easily match the two pieces of the bottle and they will fit together.

Begin to carve the bottom side, making your cuts slope from the walls towards where the neck will be at its narrowest. In my case, this is around 45 degrees, but yours will be more or less, depending on the final shape you’re aiming for. Once you’re happy with the rough shape, flip the clay and begin to carve the spout section. You want the sake to pour nicely out of tokkuri, so think about what shape you’d like to do here. Mine has the same rim all the way around the edge, but you might want to cut more of a traditional spout with a lip on one side.

After you’ve carved the rough shape of this section, it’s time to make a hole in the neck for the sake to flow through. Take some sort of boring tool (I just used my small loop tool) and push it through from the top side to the bottom side to make a hole. Then, simply tidy the edges with your fingers to make it smooth around the neck section so the liquid can flow nicely.

Finally, cut some of the excess clay away from the outside of this section, taking care to not go through the walls (as always). Leave yourself enough clay to make the decorative cuts later, but get rid of anything you don’t need as we did with the body section, to aid drying. Leave the two sections to dry out so the clay is easier to cut without warping the shape at all. Wrap loosely in plastic so that it dries evenly, and leave until a bit harder than leather hard (mine took about a week).

Carving the outside of your tokkuri

One you’re happy with your clay’s consistency, you can go ahead and carve your decorative cuts however you like. I prefer to use a large spatula-type tool which gives me large flat sections contrasting against highly textured tears in the clay. Regardless of how you choose to carve your kurinuki bottle, take your time with both sections, feeling the thickness of the walls as you go so you don’t screw up and tear the side out (it wouldn’t be a very good bottle then, would it). If you do make some small holes, you can try to just patch it up again, but you run the risk of having cracks when you fire your sake bottle.

Don’t forget to carve a foot into the bottom of the body, if you’re having one. Kurinuki, by design, can result in some rather heavy pots if you’re not careful, so take the time to remove as much clay as you can from the bottom.

When you’re happy with how it’s looking, return to the inside and take the time to carefully trim out any other clay that you can get away with without your walls becoming too thin and unstable. Once we reattach the top of the bottle to the body, you’re not going to be able to get inside it again, so make sure you’re happy before you move on.

Reattaching the body and neck sections of the bottle

It’s time to re-join the two pieces of the tokkuri. Take your ruler and remeasure the top section of the body, including the cavity diameter and walls, and compare it to the bottom of the neck and spout section. If anything doesn’t quite match, now’s the time to fix it. Decide on what orientation is best for you to attach the two pieces to make the best fit.

When ready, make a little slip from your clay. I like mine to be a gel-like consistency; plenty of water, but still holding its shape. Score the two sections to be joined together well, I have a spiky rib tool, but a needle or even a fork will work fine. Apply your slip to both sections before reattaching the neck and spout to the body. Apply plenty of pressure, and wait a little for the join to hold. Have a break for 10 minutes while the clay around the seam dries.

Finishing and decorative kurinuki carving

After the join between the two sections has dried, it’s time to add the finishing touches to your kurinuki tokkuri. This will primarily be cutting a little more around the neck section to hide the seam where the two pieces of the bottle are connected. Again, take your time and be careful, if you make a hole at this stage it’s bad news. Once you’ve given the piece a once over and are happy, you’re finished!

I really hope you found this helpful, and would love to hear about your pottery journey - come and find us on Instagram @blankearth. We will be posting more pottery tutorial videos on the YouTube channel BLANK EARTH Ceramics. You can view more work in the gallery, and the shop gets updated with new pots a few times a year so please sign up to the mailing list if you want to get early access and be notified when the next shop opening is.

Download a quick-reference how-to guide on carving a kurinuki tokkuri (sake bottle) by clicking the picture below:

Happy Pottering!

Paul (similar to Supatra but with a beard)