Desperately Seeking Tungsten

I’m freewheeling in Kyoto for a while. It’s one of my favourite cities to visit. Its small enough to be walkable to most places. A long walk sometimes, admittedly, but then there is an excellent bus and train service that can get you to most places that are a little bit out-of-the-way. It’s quite central to my other interests, as Nara, Osaka and Shigaraki are just short train rides away and good for a day trip. There are more temples and shrines than you can poke a (chop)stick at. I have a few favourites.

But Kiyomizu has to be one of them, as it is easy walking distance from the centre of town or the main station and the roads that lead up to it are a very interesting days entertainment. No matter which way you approach it, there is always something of interest. Because it’s so close to town, it is alway very busy and crowded. A minor drawback.



On this visit to Kyoto, I’m searching for some tungsten carbide tipped pottery turning tools for working with porcelain. They are very specialised tools and a bit hard to find. Actually a lot hard to find! It seems that they are only made in 3 places in the world. Nevada in the US, but the style of those tools are not really what I’m after. Plus his web site isn’t working at the moment and the guy is moving shop currently. Then there is a place somewhere in China, but I haven’t been able to locate just where. Whenever I came across some of these tools during my resent research trip, I was told that the tools were from ‘somewhere else’, then when I got to the  ‘somewhere else’ they told me that it wasn’t there, but where I’d just come from? Now I’m in Kyoto and tipped off by my friend Alistair back in Australia, who trained here some time ago, actually many years ago. I hope to track them down here. Alistair doesn’t know the address, but knows someone, who knows someone, who apparently might know.

I’m onto it, nothing like a false start and a dud lead to peak my interest. I like a challenge. When these tools do turn up in Australia, they are terribly expensive when they do, exceeding $100 each. A lot for a small, simple pottery tool. They shatter easily if you drop them, and chip if you hit them against something hard by accident. But they are unbelievably hard-wearing and long-lasting, as long as you look after them. I only own one of them.

So, I set off on my long march. Firstly, I tried to find the ‘Iwasaki’ pottery supply shop that Alistair’s potter friend mentioned. But nothing came up in google maps for that address.
So I asked the very helpful lady here at the guest house, where I’m renting a room. She rang them and got a detailed description of where it was. I walked there. I found it pretty quickly, but it was only a small supply shop with not much choice and no carbide tipped turning tools at all in stock.
However, I bought 2 small brushes and standard carbon steel turning tool. The guy behind the counter didn’t speak much English, but managed to understand what I was looking for after a while. ‘Tungsten carbide’ isn’t a word that I know in Japanese, it takes a lot of charades to get that one across.
He wrote out the name and address for another place, but only in Japanese ‘Kanji” characters. I was starting to feel like this might be going to be a bit like hard work. This might not even be a place-name or address? I’d have to go back to the Inn and get it translated and the place on the map pointed out to me. If indeed it is one. He can’t read my map of Kyoto, as it is in English. He just waves me down the road. “a long way!”
But just at this time, another guy who apparently works in the shop turns up and he can point out on my map, more or less, the area where I need to go. Unfortunately, it’s off the detailed part of my tourist-guide map and into the grey. There be dragons! Yep. That part of the map. I’ve never been to this part of town, so have no mental guideposts for it, but it can’t be that difficult. Can it?
It’s a long walk and it’s a hot steamy, humid late summers day. I manage to work up quite a sweat by the time that I get to where I think that it ought to be. Only to find that it isn’t there. I can’t find it, after all No one that I ask, seems to know. I think that it ought to be up this hill on this road somewhere. I’m only half way up this hill and I’m already feeling a bit ‘over the hill’. So I ask a passing bloke. He doesn’t understand me at all, and he can’t read my map. This is an isolated part of town with few passers-by. So I sort of give up and begin walking back down to find someone who can help me. This is when I come across a couple taking their groceries into their house from the car. I ask again, show him the name and he seems to know what it is and where it is. This special place that I’m after. He goes into the house and comes back with a ‘Gregorys’ type street map book. Lots of detail. He shows me where it is, and I was very close, about 300 metres away but in the wrong street. It turned out to be down and around a lot of small lanes off the main street. He draws me a map of the local lanes, and off I go into the back lanes, left, right, second left, then right again, just where he said. I take careful note of all the turns and corners so as to be able to find my way back OK.
The people in there, didn’t have much English either, but the lady managed a bit, especially when I showed her the tool that I just bought. It all ‘clicked’ into place and out she came with 3 trays of carbide tipped turning tools. Kan-na.
I bought 5 different shapes from around Y2,500 to 3,800 yen each. That’s somewhere around Au$30 to 50 dollars.
I then had to walk all the way back. Somehow, the return journey is a lot easier. It’s not just because it’s all down hill, and matches my career. No, it’s because I succeeded in doing it, more or less, on my own, even though I had a lot of help. Thanks Alistair, Aki, Yusushi and Kahori San.

My home-made ground bai tunze porcelain stone body is just like throwing with fine sand and water mixture. It is very tough on the fine razor edge of my turning tools. Especially because this kind of ceramic paste ‘clay’ body. and I use the word ‘clay’ here not as a description of anything plastic and workable, but as a generic term to describe what a potter works with on the wheel. My own particular native porcelain stone is a hard igneous rock. I collect it in chunks from a very small hill, or a big mound, where it has pushed up through the ground in some sort of volcanic activity. Too small to be called a hill, and larger than a mound. I decided to call it a knoll. That sounds just about right. Because it is mostly composed of felspar, which melts in the potters kiln at high temperatures to be a tough glass, I decided to call it the glassy knoll.

Now, because it hasn’t been ‘weathered’ or degraded by the elements as yet, it is very dense and hard. It needs to be broken down in two stages in a couple of different rock crushers, first into gravel size, then into small sand sized fragments. It is then ground for hours in a ball mill before it is fine enough to work with. It does not have very much clay mineral in its make-up, so I add a small amount, 1%, of bentonite to my mix. Bentonite is a very fine sticky clay material that I get from Queensland. It is quite a rare material, and one of the few ‘exotic’ minerals that I buy. In the US, they seem to call bentonite ‘V’ gum. I don’t know why, but it’s an interesting name. This ceramic ‘gum’ helps to bind it all together, a bit like a glue, so as to make it a little more responsive on the wheel.

How it all works, such that it makes a native rock, that I can pick up off the ground , into a translucent, hard porcelain, is amazing to me. There is probably a conspiracy theory about it somewhere on the web? So I have decided to explain it by calling it “The single gum theory from the glassy knoll”. That should quash any hint of conspiracy!

fond regards from Steve in Kyoto