What does “handmade” mean in the world of Yixing? Anyone browsing Yixing Teapot listings will probably read assurances that the teapot in question was “handmade.” Assuming the teapot is in fact handmade, this still doesn’t precisely answer how the teapot was made. All authentic Yixing Teapots made from zisha (Yixing clay) without any other additives will be handmade; But there are two kinds of "handmade" in the Yixing Teapot World, “half handmade” and “full" or "fully handmade.”
Other ways of making Yixing Teapots, such as by slipcast, are not possible with Yixing clay as it is traditionally processed, and are made with clay that has been altered in some way (by liquifying the clay in the case of slipcast teapots). Slipcast teapots make up the bulk of very cheap Yixing Teapots.
From Ore to Clay
The process from raw ore resembling stone to a finished teapot is one that will usually take at least 6 months to complete. The process begins with the ore being mined in Yixing and then exposed to the elements for a period in a process called “weathering.” Some of the weathered ore is chosen for further processing. It is crushed into very fine pieces. The crushed ore is then sieved into various grain sizes. The powdery sieved ore is then mixed well with water and turned into Yixing clay. The clay is then removed and stored for aging. When it is ready to be used, it will be cut into the amount needed for a teapot.
From Clay to Teapot
The clay is now ready to be shaped. A half handmade teapot will use a mould to help shape the body of the pot and may also use moulds to shape the spout, handle and lid. With the help of these moulds, production is more efficient and the potter is able to make between 5-10 teapots a day. A fully handmade teapot will be formed without any moulds and requires the potter to slowly shape the body by tapping with a wooden spatula and using other small tools to form the shape of the pot. A fully handmade teapot requires more time to complete and a potter may only be able to complete 1 a day (the number will also depend on the complexity of the design). The primary reason for the price difference between the two methods is the amount of time and labour needed to complete a fully handmade teapot compared to a half handmade teapot. A detailed outline of both production processes is outlined below.
Below is a good side-by-side comparison of the production process of half and fully handmade teapots by youtube user 老无敌紫砂壶与茶 (fully handmade on the left and half handmade on the right):
Designing the Mould
As the vast majority of Yixing Teapots sold are half handmade, most studios in Yixing rely on the production of these teapots for their business. For these studios, creating a mould is taken very seriously; it takes a great deal of planning, calculating, designing and redesigning. It’s not unusual for an artist to spend 6 months designing a new mould for a teapot, or for the mould to be redesigned and the teapot shape to evolve over several years until the artist is satisfied with the design. The backbone of the Yixing Teapot studio is the collection of moulds that make production possible and that define the aesthetic of the studio.
Making a half handmade benshan lüni shipiao teapot.
How to tell the difference?
There are a number of signs to tell if a teapot is half handmade or fully handmade. Half handmade teapots will have many small scratch/tool marks inside the teapot where it was shaped against the mould, whereas a fully handmade teapot will not. This is one sign to look for to tell if a teapot was really fully handmade.
Half handmade teapots shouldn't have any visible line where the seam joining both ends of the rectangular band forming the body is. This seam will be visible on fully handmade teapots and is usually found inside the back of the teapot on the opposite side from the handle. This line cannot be fully concealed on fully handmade teapots. Fully handmade teapots will traditionally have two maker stamps on the inside of the body. However, both the seam line and the presence of these stamps can be faked by producers hoping to pass off a half handmade teapot as fully handmade.
Another way to tell if a teapot is fully handmade is to hold it up and compare both sides of the body, looking from side to side, and then turning it and looking at front and back. It may be possible to see a slight or very subtle unevenness to the shape of the body. It is near impossible for a full handmade teapot to be completely symmetrical. Half handmade teapots, on the other hand, can be perfectly symmetrical as they are formed against a mould.
Fully or Half Handmade?
The choice of manufacturing method (whether fully or half handmade) should not matter when it comes to using the teapot for making tea. Both methods have long been used by Yixing artisans and are equally recognized as legitimate processes for manufacturing a teapot by hand. After firing, each kind can make tea just as well as the other. The quality of the teapot for making tea depends on the quality and kind of clay, the firing temperature in the kiln, the shape and size of the pot, and other considerations such as lid fit and pour time. For practical use, a half handmade teapot offers the best value for money. If you care more about the artistic value of the teapot than its use for brewing tea, then a fully handmade teapot may be what you desire. It is up to the collector to decide whether or not a fully handmade teapot is worth the extra cost.