Pottery Clay: The Ins and Out that You Need to Know for Success!

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When it comes to making pottery, clay is often the choice of material. But why is that? What’s the purpose of using clay when making pottery? Well, you’re about to find out.

Clay is one of the best tools to create amazing things with pottery, but there is a reason for it, here, we will go over why pottery uses clay as a staple, and what clay works best for it.

What is Pottery clay?

clay is the medium used when it comes to making pottery. When you do this, you take a bit of it, put it on the wheel, and from there, you spin it to help create various shapes. You use this to create small objects and pots.

You typically use the clay on a pottery wheel and then fire it up in a kiln to help solidify the material.

Clay is what you use to create these objects, and you need quite a bit of it to do so. The best thing to do is to get some, try it on the wheel, and then spin it.

clay has many different factors it, including the following:

  • Its ability to be molded
  • How well it works with tools and such
  • The color it has
  • The firing temperature
  • Whether the components of this will stay the same or not

All of these factors are important to know when using pottery clay, and you’ll learn everything that you need to know about pottery clay, why it’s important, and some of the key things to consider before you begin your adventure in pottery making. It’s fun but knowing the basics of this can prevent accidents from happening, and will help you have better, prettier pieces each time you create them, and much more success with pottery as well because of this.

Clay Assists with Skill Level

Clay is a great beginner tool for anyone getting into pottery. Why is that? Well, it’s super easy to use regardless of skill level.

There are different types of clays out there, but each one will help you, regardless of if you’re a newbie or a veteran. Unlike other forms of art, clay is very easy to use, even to the point that children can use this.

When spinning clay, anyone can do it, and whether you’re creating a huge vase or a mere pinch pot, you can learn how to do this, and clay is super easy to use.

Clay is very malleable, meaning that it can be molded to your liking. That means, that it’s super easy to change into various forms and shapes. You don’t have to use complex techniques to create amazing work, instead, just use your hands.

With clay, you can do so much with it, including the following:

And so much more. It’s super versatile.

Clay is the perfect type of material to work with because it’s a very accessible one, and regardless of if you’re super good at pottery, or just learning, there are some pros and cons to it.

Clay Isn’t boring

You’ll also notice that when you touch this, you’ll realize it’s nice to touch. Clay does feel good in the hands, and there is something relaxing about using your hands to help mold and shape pieces before you put them in the kiln.

Because of the versatility of clay as well, you actually can use it for a variety of things.

There are so many things that you can make with it, including the following:

  • Gorgeous ceramic cups
  • Pretty vases to house flowers
  • Little cup holders
  • Bowls to use
  • Pots to put various items in

The scope of clay is broad, very broad, and you can do so much more with this medium.

 There are many different pottery tools and techniques that you can explore, and clay is the main medium that you use when it comes to this.

Clay is an adventure, and while it might be messy, it actually is super relaxing to use. Remember, clay comes from the earth, and it’s kind of relaxing to think about when you’re molding this. You’re manipulating a part of the earth to create some amazing items, and that’s what’s cool about it.

The types of Clay

Now that you know why clay is fun to use, let’s talk about the types of clay. There are a lot of various types out there, based on what you’re going to be using, and they are as follows:

  • Porcelain
  • Ceramic
  • Earthenware

The different types of clay play a huge part in what you’re going to use. For example, porcelain is a white clay that is durable, strong, and vitreous. It’s white because of the kaolin and other ingredients. Porcelain lacks other additives, such as a way to be stretchy, and it’s not the most plastic clay. It is hard to work with, and probably not the one you’ll be using.

Stoneware is a much coarser and much grainier type of clay that’s either gray or dark brown and because of the different iron and other levels, it’s super durable and it’s very vitreous. This is a much easier clay to work with, and it’s one that a lot of pottery makers typically work with if they want a strong piece that will withstand the temperature changes.

Finally, there is earthenware. The earthenware is typically very low-firing, which means that it fires at a very low level and matures at a lower level. It’s typically the type of clay that you see in creeks and it’s carried by the wind or water. This typically is why there are often impurities in it, and it has a much more brown and orange color to it even when it’s done the firing.

Earthenware is more porous and not as durable compared to the other two, but it’s a great one to use in some cases since it has that breathability, and it’s why many who create terra cotta planters use it. essentially, if you want a clay that will “breathe,” you go with this one.

Here is a rundown of each of the various good and bad points of each of the various types of clay:

  • Porcelain: very durable, hard to work with, pretty white color
  • Stoneware: a stony color, super strong, often doesn’t have much breathability but is subject to impurities
  • Earthenware: has much more breathability, but fires low so is at risk for breaking and cracking. Has an orange and red color in the raw and unfired state

ideally, when you’re beginning with this, you want to choose one that works for you. I suggest earthenware, since it’s very easy to work with, and each of these types, has its pros and cons, but as you continue on your adventure with clay, you’ll understand more and more why one works better than the other.

The Clay Factors

While there are so many different bodies of clay you can get, all three of these fall under this general umbrella.

Each of these is based on three things, and they are:

  • The temperature
  • The workability
  • The color

Now the temperature is a big part of choosing clay. Different clay has different maturity temperatures, which means that they’re fired at different temptress. The higher the clay body it has, it means that it’s more vitreous, which means that the mater won’t be absorbed when it’s completely fired. This also affects the ability of the clay to freeze.

Let’s say that you wanted to make a fountain with some ceramic. If you choose one that isn’t vitreous, this causes water to seep into the pores when it is warm outside, and when it drops, that freezes, and you’ll get ice side. The water expands when it becomes ice, so that’s how it cracks.

Essentially, you want to make sure that you’re using clay that isn’t going to be susceptible to cracking. You want something that is vitreous if it’ll be put outside, but for the purpose of just a general decoration, you can go with a non-vitreous clay

It’s important to watch for this because the wrong clay can make a huge difference in this. if you’re going to be creating a super durable outside piece, you shouldn’t use earthenware since it is susceptible to cracking.

Workability is another, and this is essentially how easy it is to use.

Different factors come into this, such as the following:

  • How easily the clay can center
  • How easily it can change into shapes
  • How easy it can hold the shapes once you’ve created this

For example, porcelain is hard to work with when forming shapes, but it often holds the shape very well when formed. Knowing the workability of each will prevent you from using the wrong one and can prevent you from becoming a frustrating mess.

Finally, there is color, and there are different factors that come into play when it has color in it. For example, there are the following:

  • Clay with iron will be red
  • Clay with manganese will be blackish
  • The more impurities, the different the color

When you do fire these, they do sometimes change color, but not in every single case. Choose a clay that you want to use, and while color is more of a tertiary factor in choosing, it’s important to know this.

The Ideal Places to Use Clay

So, you’ve got your clay, but what is the best place to use it? Well, if you’ve already got a pottery studio that you rent out to use, then obviously there, but there are a few factors that can markedly change the effectiveness of clay when it comes to pottery, and they are the following:

  • Clean concrete floors
  • Water Access
  • A surface where the clay won’t stick
  • Sturdy shelves
  • A place to hold the glazes so that nobody that doesn’t need them doesn’t get into them

Remember that clay dust is so fine that even a vacuum won’t be able to pick it up, so it’s best that you don’t work on a surface or floor with any carpeting or the like. Water should be available since you will need this, and you want a place where you can shape the clay without having too many issues and a place to dry it once you’ve fired it. Clay works well in a space that is catered to this, and if you’re struggling to find one, consider just renting out a pottery space, or taking a pottery class to see what works for you.

Can You Buy Your Own?

One thing some like to do when they’ve gotten the hang of potter is to mix your own. While it can be cool, if you don’t have the machinery to do it, it’s best if you don’t try it.

Lots of commercially available clays are super easy to use, and there are some great advantages to this as well. some of them include the following:

  • They often are more convenient
  • They are processed through de-airing, which helps with a lot of the work that would be used in wedging
  • It’s right there waiting for you, and you can buy a lot in bulk to keep you satisfied.

However, some people like to make clay themselves, which is fine, and there are some advantages that you can get by using this. They are as follows:

  • It’s much cheaper to buy since moist clay is super expensive and weighs a whole lot more.
  • Can lower shipping costs if you make it your own
  • You can create custom recipes and then modify them as you so want to

When it comes to making, it’s something that you can try out, but for learning, just buy the clay that you’re going to work with. You can start to experiment and test what works for you, and when you’re choosing a clay, maybe you do end up liking the one you make on your own more with time. But, it’s sometimes easier to not get stumped at the beginning and to buy the clay body that you’ll use.

Before You Buy

Now, before you buy, many other variables can come into play. We’ve discussed a few of them already, but there are more that you need to know a bit about.

While we talked about clay maturation and the maturation temperature, there are a couple of other factors that are affected when you fire. You already probably know that clays and glazes are rated by the cone, which is the amount of heat that you will need for firing before it reaches the maturity temperature. Knowing this and knowing your kiln will prevent problems from getting bigger over time.

Typically, the cone fires at three temperatures:

  • Low fire, which is cone 6-cone 4 goes from 1828 degrees to 1945 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Med fire, which goes from cone 5 to cone 6, and goes from 2167 degrees to 2232 degrees Fahrenheit
  • High fire, which goes from cone 8 to cone 10, and fires from 2280 degrees to 2345 degrees

Knowing these firing ranges will help you figure out what type of temperature you need to be at, and it’s an important factor when considering the types of clay, you need.

But there is another set of factors that you need to consider when you’re working with clay, and they are as follows:

  • Oxidation
  • Neutral
  • Reduction

These refer to the atmospheres that you’ll be firing in. We’ll touch on each of these further downs.

Oxidation and reduction talk about the amount of oxygen that’s present in the atmosphere of the kiln when you proceed to fire. An atmosphere that’s oxidized has a lot of oxygen inside of it, and a reduced one means that there isn’t a lot. It actually can alter the pottery in many ways, especially since it can change the glazes and paint you use, and with reduction, it can change the pottery texture. Below will discuss each of these environments, and why they’re important.

When it’s oxidized, the following tends to happen:

  • Many oxygen particles are there.
  • Volatile compounds and molecules will break free and create oxides
  • The materials that are there will also convert to their oxide forms

What that means is, that when you use copper, it will break the copper carbon bond, and the oxygen will go to the copper, creating a carbon oxide.

In a neutral atmosphere, the following will happen to the clay when it’s fired:

  • There is not enough for a reduction, but there’s enough fuel to consume but not too much going on.
  • The clay body materials don’t oxidize.

Many potters don’t know if there is a fully neutral atmosphere, but this is essentially what electric kilns will give you, or a very slight oxidizing, so consider that when you’re choosing a kiln.

And finally, there is a reduction, which causes the following to happen:

  • There is not enough oxygen in this, creating a lack of fuel to burn
  • The place becomes filled with carbon molecules that will be freed, and these will take up all the oxygen that they can find
  • They will break molecular bonds and will take the glaze and clay materials of their oxygen
  • The texture of the clay and glazes will change, and it can make a stiff cone turn into a runny mess

Basically, with this, you want to make sure that your clay can handle a reduced atmosphere. It has to be clay that doesn’t have a ton of iron in it. if you’re using clay with a ton of iron and it oxidizes, it makes it very stiff, and possibly more prone to breaking.

The best thing to do with each of these atmospheres is to just talk to the place where you’re using the kiln, get some more information from them about the type of kiln you’ll be using, and even the type of clay that you should try to use, and from there, work forward and try to get the kind that works for the atmosphere that you’ll be working in.

The Best Way to Choose is to Experiment

When it comes to pottery clay, sometimes, the best thing to do is to experiment with what you’re going to use, testing out the clay bodies that you’ll be potentially using.

Now, this can be frustrating, because you might use clay that you thought was fine, but then it turns the work into a runny mess, or maybe you’re using clay, and it gets to oxidized, and from there, it can affect the color of it. The best way to figure out which clay works is really to use it.

But, how do you figure this out? Well, there are a few helpful tips that can make it easy for you to get into the spirit of using clay:

  • Get individual bags of different types of clay, not a lot all at once
  • Test the texture of each clay, see which one fits “right” in your hands
  • Work with each one, perhaps testing out the limits of each
  • When you do this, take some notes, and put them on paper
  • Create test pieces, super small ones, and then fire them according to the instructions
  • Test it out, and from there see how the clay interreacts with the glazes that you’ve used

Clay is a big part of this, and you need to spend time experimenting with it. When it comes to pottery clay, you need to know the ins and outs of it, and this article hopefully helped you understand all about clay, and why you need to know each of its different features.

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