The Art of Polished Clay Balls

By September 27, 2015 Issue 68, Japan No Comments

by Kyle Holzhueter

The art of polished clay balls, known as hikaru nendo dango or hikaru doro dango in Japanese, first began in Japan in the 1980’s. Shinkichi Enomoto-san, a renowned plasterer in Tokyo famous for his modern Otsu finish (polished earth-lime plaster), is held as the originator of polished clay balls. Due to its simple and beautiful nature, the art of polishing clay balls is becoming popular throughout the world.

Polished clay balls made from colored clays in Thailand

Polished clay balls made from colored clays in Thailand

Polished clay balls can range in size from balls too large to carry to balls as large as one’s thumb, but generally the size of a tennis ball is the easiest to polish.

There are two types of polished clay balls: (1) Genuine polished clay balls and (2) earthen balls with a thin lime-earth plaster veneer. The process of polishing both types of balls is explained below.

The first step in either method is preparing fine clay. In principle, the finer the particles, the easier to polish. Ideally, wild clayey soils should be dried, pulverized and sifted through 1mm or smaller sieve. Alternatively, wild clays can be mixed with water into clay slurry and then strained through a 1mm or smaller sieve to remove gravel and sand. Allow the fine clay to settle for 24 hours, gradually separating from the water. Once the water is clear, remove the water with a shaku ladle, leaving a fine clay cream at the top of the sediment.

Sensei’s collection of colored clays from around Japan

Sensei’s collection of colored clays from around Japan

Polished clay balls can also be made from commercially available clay, such as the bagged clay sold at pottery supply stores, etc.

Genuine Polished Clay Balls

If starting with dry, powdered clay, re-hydrate the clay in water. “Do what you ought’a, add clay to wat’a”, was the advice I received from my first earth building mentor, Gene Leone, in the US. That is, first add a small amount of water to a bucket. Slowly sprinkle in the dry clay, allowing it to soak up the water. Continue slowly adding clay until the soil comes to the surface of the water and only dry clay is visible. Allow the clay to sit for at least 15 minutes before mixing. While soaking, the clay will become entirely saturated through capillary action. Thoroughly mix ensuring even hydration. Slowly mix in more dry powdered clay as needed to obtain a stiff enough consistency to make clay balls with one’s hands. This method generally produces an accurate soil hydration, but the ratio of soil and water will depend on the clay content of the soil. The greater the clay content, the more water needed to rehydrate.

Hydrated clayey soil formed into balls with one’s hands

Hydrated clayey soil formed into balls with one’s hands

Allow the fresh clay balls to slowly dry in the shade. As the balls dry, softly roll them in the palms of one’s hands, attempting to make them as round as possible.

As the balls begin to stiffen, use a round sake cup or similar item to shape the balls into spheres.

Clay balls shaped with a spice jar and sitting on a soft sponge cushion

Clay balls shaped with a spice jar and sitting on a soft sponge cushion

Very expansive clays, like bentonite, will crack as they dry and are generally not suitable for polished clay balls. Most other clayey soils can be used.

As the ball dries more, transition from shaping to compressing. At this stage, one can apply more pressure without the ball losing its shape. Use a sake cup to compress the balls, removing inconsistencies and making the surface smooth. Be careful not to apply too much force or the balls will lose their shape.

Compression

Compression

As the balls dry even more, it is time to begin polishing. If clay sticks to one’s sake cup, it’s still too early for polishing. Once the balls have become hard, but still contain sufficient moisture, more pressure can be applied with the sake cup, polishing the surface. If the balls have dried too much, the sake cup will scratch the surface rather than polish.

From compression (right) to polishing (left) (Photo: Ryan Libre)

From compression (right) to polishing (left) (Photo: Ryan Libre)

If the ball is not perfectly spherical or there are areas not making proper contact, a polishing stone can be used to polish those areas.

Tadelakt stone used to polish balls

Tadelakt stone used to polish balls

When the ball is too dry to polish with the sake cup, one’s hands can be used for the final polishing. As the ball is rubbed in one’s hands a squeaking sound occurs. Soft hands will ensure better results. The clay ball extremists will apply hand lotion the night before and sleep with soft cotton gloves on to soften the skin.

Final polish by hand (Photo: Anna Wolfson Studios, Chicago, IL.)

Final polish by hand (Photo: Anna Wolfson Studios, Chicago, IL.)

Unlike using a lime veneer, the balls do not require any treatment with oil or soap, and should not lose their shine over time.

And if you were ever wondering what happens when you drop a genuine polished clay ball, one of mine found the floor during an earthquake.

Notice the air pockets in the ball, left as water evaporates during drying

Notice the air pockets in the ball, left as water evaporates during drying

Earth-Lime Veneer Polished Balls

The core of the earth-lime veneer balls can be produced similar to the process above. However, rather than a relatively pure clayey soil, a typical brown coat earth plaster mix can be used to create the core. Use a sake cup or PVC pipe ring to shape the balls into spheres.

Completely dry brown coat plaster core

Completely dry brown coat plaster core

Unlike the genuine polished clay balls, the brown coat plaster mix cores can be allowed to dry longer, and stiffen up significantly before final shaping. If the balls have dried too much, simply dip them in water for a second to soften them. The additional sand increases capillary action and allows the balls to be reshaped easily. Once the balls are near perfectly round, allow them to thoroughly dry.

Preparing the lime-earth plaster:

Sift lime and color clay through a 1mm sieve. If color clay is unavailable, alkaline resistant mineral pigments can be used. The proportion of lime to color clay or lime to pigment is flexible. The greater the percentage of lime, the easier to polish but weaker the color. To begin with, try 4:1, lime:color clay.

In this case slaked quick lime cream and red soil from Okinawa were used

In this case slaked quick lime cream and red soil from Okinawa were used

Dry mix the lime and earth and then thoroughly mix with water to obtain a milkshake consistency. This mix can be used as a thin lime-earth veneer, or the thin mix can be further sifted through an 80-mesh screen to decrease particle size and improve polishing.

Japanese Plastering—Kiwado offers HIKARI lime plaster, a very fine dry powdered lime plaster with improved workability for polishing.

http://japaneseplastering.com/japanese-plasters/kiwado-plasters

Apply the lime-clay plaster to the brown coat plaster core with a smooth plastic lid as quickly and evenly as possible. When enough plaster has been applied to ensure sufficient stiffness and moisture for compression, begin light compression with a sake cup or smooth PVC pipe ring. Clean the cup or ring regularly. As the veneer dries, more pressure can be applied. With sufficient moisture present, the ball can be polished. If the veneer is too dry, the cup or PVC pipe ring will scratch the finish.

Polishing lime-earth veneer with cup

Polishing lime-earth veneer with cup

At this stage, a very small amount of olive oil or olive oil soap can be applied to reduce friction and prolong polishing. The application of olive oil or olive oil soap will also help the lime-earth veneer to maintain its shine over time. A finished lime veneer without an oil or soap treatment may react with humidity, bringing free lime to the surface and clouding the shine over time. If kept in a relatively dry place with less humidity variation, an unprotected lime veneer is less likely to lose its shine.

Lastly, buff with a felt cloth.

Buffing with felt

Buffing with felt

In conclusion, I’m often asked:

“What’s the purpose of polished clay balls?”

“What can you use them for?”

“Why do you make them?”

The answer is, “They’re good for nothing… Isn’t this one beautiful?”

Six people from as many countries enjoying the art of polishing clay balls!

Six people from as many countries enjoying the art of polishing clay balls!

Kyle works as a builder, consultant, researcher and educator specializing in natural building materials such as straw bale, light straw clay and natural plasters.  He has a PhD in Bioresource Sciences from Nihon University where he researched the hygrothermal environment of straw bale walls in Japan and building practices to control moisture.   Apart from academia, Kyle has studied natural farming in Japan, permaculture in Australia, and organic and biodynamic farming in the US.   Further details can be found at the following links: http://holzhueter.blogspot.com  http://japaneseplastering.blogspot.com

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