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Cu Chi Style

November 9, 2012

 The previous post “clay Fever” outlined a simple clay recycling structure. The image of the “Cu Chi style” professionals sparked up some “clay fever” and I felt it might be time to provide some insight into a fully functioning commercial Vietnamese flower pot factory.

Coo chi style Vietnam 2004

Coo chi style Vietnam 2004

I first visited Vietnam in 2004 while visiting an Australian company that exports from there. The pots in the canteen at Northern Beaches are from Vietnam (glazed in “Juicy Blue”).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Many of the large garden pots that one finds in the nurseries dotted around Australia are from the area of Cu Chi. This is the area renowned for the Tunnels that were utilized during the Vietnam War. The abundance of clay in the area seems to make for good tunnelling country.

Cu Chi Mix?


So how does a Vietnamese pot factory get its clay. Is it delivered on a truck? Well the crudes are: and then each factory will make the crudes into a clay body themselves. One takes the wheel barrow to the crude clay store and collects a load from each of the four different piles. This is pretty sweaty work so one tends to develop the shine you can see on the workers above. The Barrow loads are poured into a pit full of water and allowed to slake over night. Nothing is crushed or processed in any way. I visited several potteries within a 20km radius of Cu Chi who utilized this process. Some factories added sand or grog to provide texture however many used the materials as is. Each factory had their own secret combination of crudes and one clay might be reduced or increased if problems arose.

The “Magic mix” recipes were typically formulated through trial and error methods. The potters adjusted their clays based on intuition and experience rather than analyses of the materials.

After a moody night (most nights are moody in Vietnams 100% humidity) in the cement lined pits the clay is then piled up on the side. If one looks closely at the image you can still see the individual coloured clays in the pile. Once the clay has dewatered at the side of the pits for a day it is picked up and dropped into the diesel powered roller pugmills.

Yes that’s right “diesel powered” the clay is dropped into the rollers on the top (think old washing machine rollers) which both crush and feed the material into the augers which mix the clay within the barrel. This machine showed the mercy of a dog with a barbequed sausage and consumed anything unfortunate enough to be dropped in the top.

These old pug mills are such wonderfully efficient machines and so characterful. They sputtered away between refuelling with barely a cough of protest. The clay is passed through the machine several times. The rollers are adjusted closer together with each pass to reduce the particle size of the stones that are present in many of the crudes.

The Pug mill does not de-air the clay to increase the plasticity like the Venco units we have at college,  many of the Vietnamese clays were so plastic that de-airing is not really all that important. Working with clays straight from the ground can be really rewarding. Every factory had clay bodies of individual character and the greater majority of these clays were lovely to work with. Sadly I didn’t get to make anything however I fancied a few objects scattered between their large flowerpots as fillers. There was plenty of space, the kilns are 70 meters long.

The larger cities of Vietnam such as Saigon and Hanoi are chaotic, life is a seething “humid” frenzy of motorbikes flowing like a river and parting around pedestrians “most of the time”. It’s busy however its addictive. The people are lovely, the food is great and it’s just such a heady mix being immersed into another culture. I recall a journey at dusk on the back of a motorbike in shorts a singlet and quite possibly thongs. The feel of that humid air as we ambled along as a small group of bikes at 40kmh, mist in the air, I can only describe it as a cottony moment.

The countryside of Vietnam is so versatile. One can find ancient CHAM temples or brightly dressed mountain cultures and even areas of desert around Phan rang. Interspersed amongst all that are communities of potters laying local clay into  plaster moulds with staggering dexterity and ease.

Delivery anyone?

Is that the petrol tank just in front of the passenger seat?

 I think it might be.

Next time you stumble across some clay collect a sample and start testing. Working with your own clay can be so rewarding.

To Start

Carry out some simple plasticity tests such as the push pull or coil method. If the plasticity looks promising then start by firing some small samples at a variety of temperatures and ask for some help from there. Come to think of it the college is sitting on some lovely clay!

From → Technical posts

  1. Thanks for sharing that story with us Chris, it was very informative and interesting.

  2. Jo Ford permalink

    Thanks Chris…really enjoyed reading your blog. Fascinating stuff seeing other cultures work with clay. I recently went to a small island north of Bangkok and saw similar things. Watched a guy throwing pots on a wheel with just a piece of stick as his only tool, no kneading or pugged clay…just a lump of clay from a pile laying nearby. We have a lot to be thankful for in our beautiful studio at Brookvale!

    • Thanks Jo, more to come on “Cu Chi Style”
      If you have any photos of the Bangkok potters you mention I would love to post them. Anyone else out there have any great cultural “potters at work” images please send them to me.


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