Thursday, 19 June 2014

Pottery Materials-Potters You've Never Had it So Good!

Sources of materials

Materials dug from the ground have been the source of pottery making for thousands of years. However early potters relied heavily on local materials, especially the clays and sands. This was certainly the case in my beloved Staffordshire, England where local marl clays formed the major source of clay for early industrial potters.

Borax granules
Today materials are shipped around the world to areas of high industrial scale ceramic manufacture. For example the high quality white china clays from the south of England are often shipped to Asia to make the finest bone china and porcelain bodies. Similarly borax and boron minerals from Turkey and the USA are used in Europe to make glazes and frits for tile, tableware and sanitary ware manufacture.

However it is not just the source of available materials but also the quality and consistency that has helped modern potters and potteries to improve their quality, designs and efficiency.

Materials for body making

Body materials
The main materials used to produce a clay body are silica or quartz, felspar, and clays. These materials come in various purities, particle sizes, and qualities. To produce the finest white bodies, high purity low iron materials are used and these materials are sourced locally where available. However most areas of pottery manufacture do not have the required purity or consistency required from all their local suppliers and are therefore forced to consider other supplies. It is the consistency in purity, and control of of material properties that has made a significant difference to large scale pottery manufacturers. They can automate processes and improve efficiency to reduce costs. Materials are now stardardised to fit processing routes. For example 30 mesh and 200 mesh materials are common in the UK. These improvements in materials for industrial scale customers also has a knock on benefit for craft, hobby and studio potters who can also purchase these same materials from distributors and use them with greater confidence.

Materials for glaze making

Frit granules
Like body the main materials used for glaze making are silica, china clay, and felspar. However frits (fused glass fragments) and other minerals such as limestone, dolomite, wollastonite, zircon are often added to control the fired properties of the glaze. Expensive technical grade chemicals such as zinc oxide, barium carbonate,and boric acid are also used in small quantities in the glaze or frit to meet the most demanding glaze requirements. However it is in the use of boron products where industrial scale and craft scale differ the most. Large scale glaze manufacturers predominantly use frits as a source of boron, where craft glaze makers use boron products such as Gerstley borate. The benefits of using frits for industrial scale glaze manufacture are far reaching. The recipe of the glaze is designed to be lead free and often fine tuned to give the widest firing range and technical performance. Control of glaze slip properties, glaze application, and firing properties are of paramount importance especially in automated plants which are not suited to the use of borates in glaze. Slip control of the glaze involves controlling both the solids content of the slurry, the viscosity (fluidity) and the drying time by means of chemical additives.

This differentiation in supply is a benefit to craft and hobby potters who can choose a from a wide range of frits or borates depending on their scale of operation or cost needs. .

Materials for decoration

A whole range of  methods are now available for decoration of pottery. When colour was introduced to pottery in early years it was in the form of naturally occurring coloured minerals usually high in iron. Consequently the colour range was restricted to brown- red to grey blue in colour depending on the firing condition. However with the development of pigments from the eighteenth century many more colours became available with Chinese blue colour on white glaze becoming very popular.                                      
range of onglaze decorating colours

Today a full range of stable mixable ceramic colours are available ranging from bright yellow to blue to red. Together with a wider range of decorating techniques the modern potter now has the opportunity to design truly unique ware that is also repeatable.

Range of ceramic stains

To put this into perspective an anology might be to compare Fords "you can have it in any colour as long as its black" to the current range of colours and effects used to paint modern vehicles.

In a similar way to body and glaze materials, decorating colours such as onglaze have become standardised and more consistent in both their application and firing. Colours have been developed without lead and are available in the best medium (liquid) to allow optimum application whether that is hand painting, machine banding or screen printing. Introduction of digital printing has allowed digital images to be translated from computer to ware using ink jet decals or even direct printing in a similar fashion to paper printing. For the hand made purists in pottery computer support to design has not always been welcomed but it has extended the range of design to new levels.

In the future design will be pushed even further by 3D printing which is in its infancy in the pottery industry.


Clearly material technology and control in the pottery industry has progressed almost unnoticed since the early eighteenth century pottery manufacture. However it has progressed and the development of more consistent, environmentally friendly colours together with a wider colour palette has been of great benefit to modern potters, large and small..  The advent of digital printing in recent years and the potential of 3D printing is set to revolutionise the industry further creating even more design possibilities.

Yes Potters it is true! You've never had it so good!
Comments welcomed?

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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The Potters Friend