Der Rauchfänger - Tradition der Schwarzbrandkeramik in Portugal

The Smoke Catcher - tradition of smoke fired ceramics in Portugal

In a small village in northern Portugal, master potter Senhor César keeps alive an almost forgotten art: smoke-fired pottery. His passion for this ancient craft is just as contagious as his laughter. On our last trip to Portugal we visited him and were allowed to look over his shoulder at his workshop.


Against forgetting

The communication is a little clumsy. Our Portuguese is improvable and the master potter doesn't speak English. Oh, never mind!, he says, We'll understand each other. And then he starts talking up a storm - about the clay and the potter's wheel, about the tradition and his own story. Our hands and feet save us over many passages, yet we still don't understand everything. But we clearly feel how much this person is passionate about this work.

At the age of 17, Senhor César came into contact with pottery for the first time. He is one of four students who started training with a traditional master potter to learn the craft of smoke-fired ceramics. More than three and a half decades have passed since his apprenticeship and today he is the last representative in the small village fighting against oblivion. This is not surprising, because the work is tedious and lengthy, it requires a lot of patience and skill.


Senhor César

Photo (C) Paulo Castro Photography

Fine and finer

The master obtains the sand colored clay for his work from the immediate vicinity. He shovels them into a bucket with his hands and then empties it into a hollowed-out tree trunk. With the help of a wooden ax he softens the clay. This requires a lot of muscle power, because the earth is still full of stones.



Werkzeug zum Tonschlagen

Photos (C) Paulo Castro Photography

Before the soil can be mixed with water and turned into clay, the many small stones have to be sifted out of the raw material. To do this, Senhor César uses a coarse and a fine-meshed sieve. He shakes patiently and a finely glittering material falls out of the sieve, which is further processed into clay. The moistened mass is now kneaded well to remove all air bubbles.


Sieben des Rohmaterials

Der fertige Ton

Photos (C) Paulo Castro Photography

Operated by hand

Senhor César takes a large lump of clay and roughly shapes it into a ball. His low wheel – the roda baixa – is operated by hand. He places the clay in the middle of the potter's wheel and then spins the wheel around its axis several times. With moistened hands he now begins to center the clay and form a vessel. As soon as the wheel slows down, he sets it in motion again.

Only a few of these wheels exist today. Even in very traditional workshops, pottery is now mostly turned on electrically operated potter's wheels, which allow faster and more ergonomic work. Therefore, hardly anyone still masters this ancient art. Our master potter has been accompanied by his roda baixa for many years. Precisely because it has become so rare, he sticks to tradition so as not to let the craft fall into oblivion.


Ton auf der Töpferscheibe

Die Roda Baixa

Photos (C) Paulo Castro Photography

The vase is quickly shaped on the potter's wheel under the skilled hands of the master. With the help of his tools, the vessel takes on its final shape with every turn. A wet cotton cloth and a wooden spatula, a ruler and metal modeling loops. That's all Senhor César needs to shape the pieces. What seems so simple is, however, the result of decades of experience on the wheel.



Die fertigen Vasen


Photos (C) Paulo Castro Photography

The Soenga

After a few days of drying time, the pieces are leather-hard and ready for their grand appearance at the so-called soenga, the burning process. Senhor César dug a wide pit in the garden for this purpose. In the middle, logs and brushwood are stacked and ignited. The clay pots are first lined up along the edges with some distance to the fire. They first have to get used to the high temperatures slowly in order not to crack.


Die Brenngrube

Vom Rauch geschwärzte Stücke

Photos (C) Paulo Castro Photography

As soon as the fire subsides, the vessels are allowed to slowly move to the center and now come into contact with the glowing ashes for the first time. They are now carefully piled up with firewood and set on fire. The use of brushwood leads to a strong development of smoke.



Keramik und Brennholz


Photos (C) Paulo Castro Photography

The smoke as a painter

The smoke is necessary for the subsequent blackening of the ceramics. Therefore, he must now be caught quickly. To do this, the fireplace is covered with earth. Lots of hands help, because now it has to be quick before the smoke evaporates too much. Under a thick layer of soil, the clay vessels continue to burn for hours.



Zuschütten der Feuerstelle

Zuschütten der Feuerstelle

Photos (C) Paulo Castro Photography

The smoke pervades through the pieces and colors them in dark shades of gray. When they are dug up again, you can see the paths that the smoke has made through the clay. Where the pieces lean against each other, it is less able to penetrate the material. These spots stay lighter.


Geöffnete Feuerstelle

Die fertigen Keramikstücke

Photos (C) Paulo Castro Photography

Whether and how many of the vessels will survive the delicate firing process cannot be predicted. Sometimes the pit reveals more broken than intact pieces. However, the master potter does not take much time for melancholy, the breakage is just part of the work. Finally, the undamaged works of art are much more interesting.

The shades and patterns left by the smoke on the vessels also remain a mystery until the pit is opened. Senhor César has already turned and fired thousands of objects, and yet each of them is unique in its shape and colour. The pride in this special handicraft can be read on the satisfied face of the master, whose efforts are visible in the ceramic vessels.

With his dedicated and patient work, Senhor César saves an ancient art from extinction every day. A successor for his work has not yet been found. Someone who is passing the craft on to a new generation. Someone who sees the beauty in this work.