Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Pottery and the colour Blue

Royal Blue

The History of Blue and White Pottery

Blue is one of the colours of the rainbow and it has become associated with many things over time. Perhaps the connections with the sky and the seas are the most strong. However it also been used to denote cold, loyalty, truth and conservatism. In past eras the blue coloured pigments for clothing were scarce and expensive leading to the colour being related to wealth and royalty eg Royal Blue. It is a colour that is not available as a natural ceramic pigment but needs cobalt ore to be refined to produce the highly intense blue colour. In the early days the ore was roasted and then further melted with a a glass to produce the early pigments of Zaffre and Smalt.

The origins of blue colour in pottery are a little confusing.
Ming Vase
The Egyptians are known to have been making blue coloured pottery since before 400AD but it was the Chinese cobalt blue and white pottery from the the Tang Dynasty onwards that led to a huge interest in blue and white in Western Europe. The introduction of tea to England escalated the interest in pottery tea sets especially blue and white.

Cobalt has been the source of pigments for English blue and white pottery since the eighteen century and these were the pigments used to make the famous Spode patterns of Willow and Indian tree. Since that time blue and white has never disappeared from our lives.

Blue and white in the 21st Century

Now old designs such as Burleigh compete with more contemporary blue patterns in our High St. Denby Imperial blue has stood the test of time being unique in colour, texture and appearance. Similarly, the English style of Burleigh ware created by the unique hand made tissue printing technique continues to attract buyers from around the world. New patterns like Blue Hydrangea from hand made producer Peregrine pottery continue to gain interest from those looking to buy English style with a modern look.

Blue Hydrangea from Peregrine Pottery
Burleigh ware
Denby Imperial Blue

The Pigments

Although modern blue ceramic pigments started with Zaffre and Smalt, their development has continued and modern day pigments provide high intensity with the ability to meet specific colour tones or firing temperatures. Whilst the use of the basic cobalt oxide in glazes is still common for craft or studio glazes looking for a low cost, the use of cobalt silicates and cobalt aluminate pigments has flourished. They extend the inter-mixable nature in glaze or coloured decoration and often provide improved dispersion characteristics. Some examples of the colour tones available using the different pigment types can be seen in the table below.
(NB Web colours are never an exact match for ceramic tones)

Colour name
Colour pigment
Colour shade
Matte Blue
Cobalt aluminate

Mazarine Blue
Cobalt Silicate

Royal Blue
Cobalt zinc silicate

Willow Blue

Cobalt alumino-silicate

Flow Blue
Na-Ca-Cobalt silicate

Where next for Blue and White?

Whatever your interest blue continues to feature in pottery decoration across the world. I predict this fashion is unlikely to change soon. I would love to hear whether you agree and your thoughts on blue and white and why its appeal continues so strongly?

More information and other technical articles on pottery and ceramics can be found at my website The Potters Friend.

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Friday, 10 July 2015

Top ten tips on pottery firing

Pottery making provides some challenges for the beginner but non more so than at the firing stage. No-one wants to lose their precious ware after making it so lovingly. It is quite usual for small studio and craft potters to use intermittent box type kilns to fire their ware. Whether you use gas or electric as the energy source the principle is the same; heating an enclosed space containing shelves of pottery. Whilst the science of firing is quite complex and often outside the knowledge of many hobby potters most know it is important to follow some basic rules. The following tips are aimed at giving you the best performance from your kiln whatever the type.

1. Temperature uniformity is key to achieving consistent results. This should be the aim when firing your kiln.
2. Measure the performance of your kiln using bullers rings or Orton cones. Control it using an electronic temperature controller.
3. Record firing cycles used and settings for each firing as well as Bullers Ring or Orton Cone values.
4. Measure and record the gas or electricity used in KWH for each firing. The trends in this often give you a pre-warning of catastrophic failure.
5. Regularly calibrate thermocouples as they deteriorate over time.
6. Inspect refractory brick or lining regularly to ensure large cracks are not present. Remember large cracks in brickwork will affect kiln temperature uniformity.
7. Inspect electric elements regularly as over time they become brittle and may distort or break.
8. For gas users the colour of the flame is a guide to the kiln atmosphere. Yellow flame is reducing while blue flame is oxidising.
9. Placing ware affects the firing performance of the kiln. Large or thick walled pieces require more heat and act as a heat sink.
10. Don't be greedy- firing pottery too fast can lead to all manner of faults. Unless the glaze and body are designed to be fast fired don't do it!

More information and other technical articles on pottery and ceramics can be found at my website The Potters Friend.

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Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Should I make my own Pottery Glazes?

Coloured glazes used by Tinkling toadstools
This question has caused a lot of debate among potters. It is a similar question to "should I make my own bread, cakes or pastry?" Clearly there is no right and wrong answer. People who bake their own bread and cakes do so for numerous reasons. Whether it is to reduce costs or make it fresh or make it taste better; all are valid reasons. However most do it because they like it and the self satisfaction it gives them to create something of value.

 Similarly, the potter will often claim that making glazes gives him the same type of satisfaction, is cheaper and gives him more scope for creativity! But lets look at the issues involved in making glazes in detail to see if his claims are true:-


Glaze materials
There is little debate that buying the glaze materials to make the glaze can reduce costs significantly. Common materials such as clays, felspars, silica, frits and pigments are all readily available from a number of suppliers. However, often they are not in the ideal form to produce a glaze without additional processing. Most need at least a number of processing steps to make a satisfactory glaze. These steps include, preparing a recipe, grinding or mixing with water, sieving, magneting, testing, and controlling the glaze slip consistency using additives. The time and knowledge to correctly process and test the glaze are mostly overlooked when cost comparisons are made. For those with time to learn about glaze materials and the process this is not an issue. However for many hobbyists who are time poor it clearly does not make sense economically.They are better using reliable commercial glazes.


Unique copper ruby glaze
Without doubt making your own glazes is a creative exercise. Again using the same cake making analogy as before, you have complete control of the make up of the glaze and how it will look after firing. Just like cake recipes there are thousands of recipes for glazes each giving its unique colour, texture and appearance depending on how its fired. This uniqueness is what many studio potters strive for.  By varying the pigments and make up of the glaze in theory you can innovate to your hearts desire! Therefore creativity can surely be improved by making your own glazes!

Technical restrictions

In practice, however,  there is considerable science behind making acceptable glazes:
  • The glaze needs to technically match the body or the glaze may just peel off like old paint. 
  • There is a limit to the range of compositions that can be made- for example some recipes will just never make glossy glazes.
  • The firing cycle and atmosphere have as great an affect on the glaze appearance as the recipe.
The fired glaze surface of functional tableware needs to pass the requirements of legislation e.g. toxic metal release into foodstuffs.

So if you want to be creative with glazes you also need to have some technical knowledge. Potters without a scientific background may struggle to understand these technical parameters and hence making glazes could ultimately become more trouble than its worth.

Health and Safety

Unleaded Glaze
In recent years this issue has grown in importance for potters making their own glazes. Lead, for example, is being phased out in commercial glazes and its use and safety has been severely questioned especially in the USA. Other materials such as Barium compounds need to be used within strict guidelines for safe use. Even pigments such as cobalt and nickel oxide have been questioned over their safety. Clearly there is a lot to learn technically to comply with health and safety during the making of glazes. These issues are understood by commercial glaze manufacturers who can provide up to date data sheets on the glazes they manufacture and supply.

Equally important is an understanding of the legislation that applies to the fired product to meet the demands of the end market. Functional tableware has to meet much more legislation than ornamental ware in the various countries around the world.


In summary making your own glazes safely and successfully is much more difficult than at first appreciated. Technical and health and safety issues are not easy to overcome. However for a potter or hobbyist with a scientific understanding he can indeed be more creative and lower some material costs by making his own glazes. For the uninitiated it will be a long road of trial and error and frustrations. For those determined to try I recommend you do some reading and preparation online or in the wealth of books available before you begin. 

Good Luck and Happy Potting
The Potters Friend

More information and other technical articles on pottery and ceramics can be found at my website The Potters Friend.

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Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Inspirational pottery glazes

The special ceramic materials and process

Reactive coloured glazes
The first article of my series on glaze making identified the basic ingredients used in glazes as silica, felspar, frit, and clay and explained how a little science would help speed up your artistic flair!.This second of the series on glaze making discusses the non core ingredients of a glaze and explains how a little science in the form of good processing can ensure that you achieve the best result from your glaze making efforts.

The 3 Basic Questions

To make truly inspirational glazes we need to establish at least 3 things
1) What type of glaze we want to make?
2) What type of body it will be applied to? Stoneware?, Earthenware? Biscuit? Clay?
3) What firing temperature/cycle do we intend to use?
Once we have the answers to these questions we can begin to formulate the glaze.

The choice of non core glaze materials

Making a silky matt -what to add to your basic glaze

Silky Matt glaze

Let us assume we want to make a white silky matt textured glaze firing at 1150C on stoneware biscuit.
We have already identified silica, felspar, clay and frit as core glaze materials. This means that at least 2 of these materials are used in almost all glazes.
Using the same cake making analogy as before, these ingredients are considered the eggs, butter, flour and sugar equivalents of the glaze recipe!
The materials we might consider adding to these core materials could be:-
Limestone (calcium carbonate)
Needle-like crystals on glaze surface
Dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate)
Zinc oxide
Alumina (aluminium oxide)
wollastonite (calcium silicate)
clay (alumino silicate)

These materials help to form crystals on the surface of the glaze on firing and thereby help create the matt (dull) texture. However these materials also influence how the glaze melts and bonds to the body on firing. It is an absolute necessity to match the glaze to the clay body or on cooling the glaze may just flake way like old paint! (Technically the glaze and body thermal expansion need to match so that the glaze is in compression after firing.) But lets not go too deeply into how we do that at this stage.

Alumina does not readily melt at this temperature so the likely (and easier) materials to use are zinc oxide, limestone, dolomite and wollastonite. Adding these materials in the right proportions to make a suitable glaze takes a lot of trial and error.

Developing the Glaze Recipe

If you start a with a basic 1250 C recipe as follows:

Base Glaze

Silica 38
Felspar 40
Clay 10
Limestone 12

and start replacing the silica and felspar with more fluxing ingredients that create crystals and allow you to fire at a lower temperature you might eventually reach a formula

Modified Glaze

Limestone 12
Dolomite 25
Felspar 20
Clay 25
Zinc oxide 4
Boron frit 9
Silica 5

Imagine how many test glazes you might need to make before arriving at such a detailed recipe? Note how different this is from the starting base transparent glaze! The material recipe is not the only part to consider when making glaze. The particle size of the glaze materials needs to be reduced to a fine powder by grinding with ceramic pebbles in water to less than 75 microns. Often, for best results, the mean particle size needs to be closer to 15 microns-the diameter of the finest human hair. This allows the glaze particles to react and melt during the firing process.

Firing the Glaze

The firing process is equally important in obtaining satisfactory and repeatable glaze results. Initially the firing cycle should remain constant as you develop your glaze recipe. A typical glaze cycle might be 150 C per hour ramp from room temperature to the peak at 1150 C, followed by a holding period (soak) at peak temperature of 1 hour, followed by kiln switch off and natural cool to room temperature.
Note that the cooling is often as important as the heating process when firing matt or crystal type glazes.
Clearly making glazes is quite a complex process. However, like the best potters, in time you will come to believe that this is what makes pottery glazing so interesting. You can never be sure what will come out of the kiln each day!
In the next of the series the use of ceramic colouring pigments to create even more interesting coloured pieces will be examined..

Pottery books of value

A great way of backing up your knowledge is to read some simple pottery making books. Some of the best books are those you keep going back to as your knowledge grows!

Thought for the Day

In pottery making it rarely goes exactly as you would like first time. Stay positive! Use it as a learning experience.
Henry Ford Quote:
"Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely."
~ Henry Ford

Happy Potting
The potters Friend

More information and other technical articles on pottery and ceramics can be found at my website The Potters FriendGo now to sign up for my free newsletter.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Why do I need frit in my glaze?

A glaze after firing can be considered to be a glass. Therefore it is not surprising that traditional glass making materials such as quartz, limestone, and felspar are commonly used to make glazes. However glazes which are intended for firing below 1150C need other elements such as lead or boron and alkalis to create the right properties. To enable these elements to be included safely they are often pre-melted with other glass making materials to form a FRIT.

What is a frit?

Borosilicate frit
Lead frit
China clay

A frit is a a pre-melted glass which is granular in nature. Once crushed and ground to a fine powder it provides the basis for all low firing glazes. Often a glaze contains merely one frit and clay. The clay is added as a suspending and binding agent to aid glaze storage, application and firing.

How many frits are there?

There are literally thousands of frits. The compositions have been researched and developed over a long time period to provide the right technical properties such as fusibility, thermal expansion and durability. A wide range of properties are needed to meet the wide range of bodies and firing cycles used by manufacturers and craft potters.In general terms frits are normally classified as transparent or opaque and then lead containing or lead free.For environmental/safety reasons lead containing frits are gradually being phased out and replaced with lead free alkali borosilicates.

Can I make my own frits?

It is possible but not recommended. Large scale frit manufacturers often make frit by a continuous method in a high temperature box type kiln using specialist refractory linings. These kilns produce tonnes of frit per day, meaning they can achieve consistent high quality output. For other than the most demanding glaze requirement, making your own frits is unlikely to be cost effective.

How many types of frit do I need?

This depends on the number of clay bodies and firing cycles you employ. As a basic requirement you need a transparent frit, an opaque frit and an expansion modifier frit. These should allow you to make transparent, opaque and semi opaque glazes suitable for conversion to coloured glazes by adding colouring pigments.

Why not use frits in all glazes?

In theory this is possible but the costs would be excessive. For example high temperature stoneware and porcelain glazes can be manufactured with lower cost glass making materials such as felspars, quartz, limestone and clays.

Where can I buy frits

Most pottery material distributors sell small quantities of powdered frit suitable for the studio or craft potter. Industrial scale potters may buy the frit direct from manufacturers such as Endeka, Ferro or Esmalglas.

Happy Potting
The Potters Friend

More information and other technical articles on pottery and ceramics can be found at my website The Potters Friend.      Go now to sign up for my free newsletter.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Opacification of Glazes

Glaze opacifiers are materials which when added to a glaze change the level of transparency of the glaze. Glazes are often described as clear/transparent or opaque. In order to achieve color tone and hide the body color it is often necessary to add opacifier particles which stay discrete in the glaze after firing. Materials which have a significant difference in refractive index from the parent glaze produce the most effective opacification. To the right you can see the effect of adding an opacifier to a transparent glaze. It becomes whiter and milky (opacified ) in nature and flows less.

Below you can see the effect of adding opacifier to a transparent glaze containing different colored pigments

Top = transparent glaze            Bottom = opaque glaze

Typical glaze opacifiers are zircon (zirconium silicate), tin oxide, and titania (titanium dioxide). 

Zircon opacifier powder


Zircon is the preferred opacifier for glaze due to the low cost, inertness and stability in glaze. To achieve full opacification, the opacifier content and the particle size are important factors. For addition of zircon to the glaze mill during grinding a particle size of 95% less than 3 microns and a content of 5-10% ensures sufficient opacifier is dispersed to create optimum opacity.  

However an exceptional level of opacity can be achieved by pre-melting the zircon into a glass (called frit) and then using the frit as part of the glaze recipe. These frits are transparent before firing but crystallize zircon during the glaze firing process to give a high level of opacity. 

Tin Oxide

Tin oxide has historically been used as a glaze opacifier but its high cost has limited its recent use to low temperature majolica or special effect glazes. At a level of 5% in a transparent glaze a high level of opacity can be achieved. Its lower solubility in glaze compared to zircon means that lower levels of tin oxide can be used to create the same level of opacity as zircon.. Tin gives a slightly blue white tinge and also has a lesser effect on the glaze appearance than zircon which increases glaze viscosity during dissolution.One major drawback of tin is it reactivity with some oxide pigments. For example, with chrome oxide a pink discoloration may result from the formation of a chrome-tin spinel crystal.
Titania reactive glazes


Titania is also a very costly opacifier and is used primarily where reactive special effect glazes are required. Like zircon it has a higher solubility than tin in the glaze and even at levels of 4%  tends to give a yellow tinge to the glaze after firing. It readily reacts with other materials in the glaze to create many unusual crystalline phases on cooling.This is ideal for special effect glazes but undesirable for standard opaque glazes.

Happy Potting
The Potters Friend

More information and other technical articles on pottery and ceramics can be found at my website The Potters Friend.

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Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Wedgwood Collection and the changing face of UK pottery

Wedgwood Museum

Staffordshire pottery manufacture changed forever in the late 1980's and early 1990's. The power of the supermarket buyers, the draw of low cost manufacture overseas and the changing markets in Europe all contributed to the massive decline in pottery manufacture in the UK. So many big names like Royal Doulton, Spode, and Royal Worcester, to name but a few, now exist merely as brands with the factories closed and demolished. Bleak as it was for the thousands of workers who lost their jobs during that time, many of those workers still talk fondly of the friendships, skills and pride of working in the hundreds of potbanks which existed at that time in north Staffordshire and especially Stoke on Trent.

Staffordshire Oatcakes
It was not just  the potteries that demised but also the services to those factories, the engineers, the material suppliers and sandwich and oatcake shops that provided breakfast and lunch to the hungry workers at break times.For the lucky few they found work elsewhere and the humble Staffordshire Oatcake lives on mainly through online marketing and Social Media.

Many of those pottery workers now rely heavily on their work pensions created during their employment at companies like Wedgwood. However Wedgwood pension trust has a big pension deficit that is causing  problems.

Over the last few years the importance of this pension deficit has been highlighted as the struggle to keep the magnificent Wedgwood Collection at its home in the Wedgwood museum in Stoke on Trent continues.

For those who have not seen the collection I urge you to do so. You will not be disappointed. At over 80,000 historical pieces, ranging from early experiments for new bodies and glazes through to modern production as well as rare manuscripts and letters, pattern books, works of art and photographs, covering the 250-year Wedgwood history, it is one of the most unique industrial archives in the world. The importance of the collection is explained in more detail in this Wedgwood video link.

The collection is under threat because a legal loophole allowed a Wedgwood previously in liquidation to place pension debt in the Museum trust. The trustees have no option but to try to pay off this debt by selling some or all of the collection.

We cannot lose this collection from the UK or allow it to be dispersed around the world to private collectors. It is OUR heritage and I urge you to donate to help meet the £2.74m shortfall still required to keep the collection together in the UK.

Thank you for your support.