Working with clay is a fantastic hands-on experience for those that like to create three-dimensional items and get a little dirty. However, those that are new to the art of pottery – whether that means hand-building or learning to throw on a wheel – may not be aware of the different types of clay that are available. Each option has its own properties and uses, so it is important to pick the right material for your project.
Below are some brief introductions to the four most common types of clay. They will hopefully provide a little guidance on the properties and common uses of the materials, as well as some important pros and cons. This should help you find the right material for your first project.
What Are The Four Main Types Of Clay?
There are four main types of clay to consider for your project and each has its pros and cons. It is important to understand the properties and general use of the material for the best results. Those clays are Earthenware, Porcelain, Stoneware, and Ball Clay. There are stark differences between the four where misuse could lead to failures. The more familiar you get with each option, the easier it is to create pots and other items to be proud of.
Using Earthenware and Terracotta for Outdoor Sculptures and Planters
Let’s start with a recognizable name, even to those that are new to the art. Earthenware is a term that you may have come across when buying pots, especially if you look for planters for the garden. A terracotta pot, which is instantly recognizable for its color, is a type of earthenware. You can get terracotta Earthenware clay, or other tones, and create some great practical pieces.
This is one of the best options to use for outdoor pots and heavy-duty items because there is more protection against wet and cold conditions. You can leave a pot out on a cold wet night and it shouldn’t crack because the surface is non-porous. The properties of the clay and its use on the wheel allow for interesting pots, such as strawberry planters, as well as for sculpting clay.
The hardiness of Earthenware is one of the many benefits. Others appreciate the material for its ease of use, particularly when it comes to decoration. You can fire it at relatively low temperatures, around 1823 to 2088 degrees, and then manipulate the surface for a textured and decorated finish. Many potters will accentuate the natural tones of Earthenware, particularly anything with red and orange tones. But, you can add color if you want too.
Using Porcelain to Create More Intricate and Decorative Items for the Home
Next, let’s look at something on the complete opposite end of the scale. Porcelain is another term that you should be familiar with as it is such a common descriptive term. We have porcelain dolls with delicate faces and hands. There are porcelain antique vases and other decorative items. Even our bathroom suites contain porcelain – although there may also be another clay involved that you will see below.
This all leads to an assumption that porcelain may be too precious or difficult to work with. China Clay, from which porcelain is made, is still a prized material with large mines supplying the minerals to manufacturers. One of the interesting things about Porcelain is that there are three varieties available. You can get Hard-paste, soft-paste, and bone china. It is the latter that is the more delicate option to be wary of.
One of the benefits of using porcelain is that you get a nice pure look to the material with a great surface for adding decorations. This could be painted glazes and enamels where potters get to unleash their artistic side a little more. This is perfect for making decorative items for the home, such as vases and tableware. You can also create thoughtful personalized gifts this way.
The downside is that it isn’t that easy to work with compared to others because of the lack of plasticity. Plasticity means that the material will conform a little better to pressure and manipulation on the wheel. You also need to make sure that you fire the clay at a high temperature for the best results and a strong final product. Porcelain can be a little daunting to anyone just starting out with pottery. So it might be better to work with the next option to build up your skillset before tackling a more intricate porcelain vase for a loved one.
Using Stoneware Clay for a Range of Beginner-Friendly Projects
The next clay to consider is Stoneware clay. In many ways, this material is a great option for those looking to play around with ideas that aren’t suitable for porcelain or earthenware just yet. There is a strong material that isn’t too difficult to work with and some similar properties to Earthenware. But, it is also better for indoor use and has the same compatibility with decoration as Porcelain.
Many potters will use this clay for hand-building as much as wheel throwing, which is another reason why it is so good for new potters. You can learn to throw with this stuff, while also working on more functional items through hand-building, such as a coiled pot or jug. One of the interesting properties of Stoneware is that the firing process can affect the color of the piece. There are different types of Stoneware clay, with come paler white and off-white tones and some that are darker or more brown. The tone alters with the temperature of the kiln.
Of course, this doesn’t really matter if you plan on adding glazes and enamels to the item. The decorating process isn’t too difficult, which makes this a great clay for experimenting with ideas and forms. Something that may surprise you about Stoneware is that it is actually tougher than Earthenware when handled correctly. You can fire this at a high temperature to create a durable non-porous surface. The addition of vitreous material also means that it should withstand damage and chipping more easily.
Using Ball Clay for Alternative Items in the Bathroom
Finally, we have ball clay. This is a little different because of its mineral properties and the way that it is used to create some common household items. The difference here all comes down to the plasticity of the material and its lack of mineral impurities. Instead, there is a lot of kaolinite and quartz, at around 10-25% mica, and the chance to great some items with a very pure white finish.
The plasticity sets it apart from porcelain in then it can be molded into shape with greater ease. However, there is a downside during the firing process. The clay can shrink back in the heat. Potters that don’t account for this or use the right temperatures could experience some disasters. Furthermore, you need just the right temperature to create that white finish. This is partly why it is one of the more difficult clays to use and why it is recommendable to use it wither other forms. The other downside is that it is very slippery. This means it is great for slip casting and skilled wheel throwers, but not so much for sculpting clay.
Despite all of this, there are many potters that enjoy the challenge of creating items with ball clay because of the properties and the chance of that nice finish. Some will use it successfully in tableware and decorative objects. Others will go for a more practical approach with tiles and bathroom items. Therefore, it is possible to create your own pristine toilet, matching basin, and some tiles with the help of ball clay. This is an extreme project, but worth considering for bathroom renovations in the future.
Which is The Right Clay for Your Project?
As you can see, there are some clear pros and cons to all four clays and you need to match the clay to your project. If you are looking to make something a little more rugged for outdoor use then it is best to work with Earthenware. It should handle any mistakes and hold up to outdoor use if fired properly. Indoor practical items, such as tableware need the minerals and tones of Stoneware instead. You can create a more refined look and play with glazes and slips. With practice and more confidence, you can move into the more delicate porcelain. But, this isn’t ideal for beginners. Finally, don’t forget about the potential of Ball clay as an additive to other clays for tile work.
Don’t Be Afraid of Any of These Clays
The worst-case scenario with any project and any clay material is that the structure collapses on a wheel or breaks during the firing process. It happens to everyone – even those with decades of experience. If you don’t try and experiment with ideas, you won’t learn and develop as a potter. Also, be proud of any completed piece, regardless of its imperfections or impractical nature.
I’m a stay at home mom with our two kids. I really enjoy doing crafts with my kids however, that is typically a challenge with how limited their attention span can be and how messy it gets. So, I’m always looking for ways to make crafting an enjoyable experience and creating fond memory for all of us.