The Essential Guide to Buying Clay for Pottery: Everything You Need to Know

When choosing a clay body for your application, consider the end product, cost, and skill level. You must also consider your kiln type and temperature constraints while picking clay, as each clay's temperature range is specific. There are many variables to consider while choosing clay, therefore, we created this guide to share our experiences.
clay buying guide for pottery person using the wheel

Introduction

When it comes to pottery, choosing the right clay is crucial for achieving the desired results. With so many options available, it can be overwhelming to navigate the world of clay for pottery. But fear not! This essential guide will walk you through everything you need to know about buying clay for pottery, from understanding the different types of clay to tips for selecting the best clay for your specific projects.

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced potter, this guide is a must-read for anyone looking to create beautiful ceramics. So, let’s dive in and explore the fascinating world of clay for pottery!

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    What is clay?

    Clay consists of the smallest fragments of rock eroded by wind and rain and transported away by moving water. These particulates adhere to one another and become compacted at the bottom of rivers and streams. Clay is available almost everywhere and is inexpensive. It has multiple transitional states; when moist, it is pliable and elastic, and can be moulded into any shape. It can be incised or scraped when it reaches the consistency of chocolate or cream cheese after drying slightly. As the water dissipates into a brittle state, the material dries further, depending on its thickness and the relative humidity. At this juncture, it can be re-softened by applying water. However, the clay is formed, it will not be permanent until it is heated to extremely high temperatures.

    Understanding the 4 main types of clay for pottery

    There are several types of clay available for pottery, each with its own unique characteristics and suitability for different projects. It is essential to understand these differences to choose the right clay for your creative needs.

    1. Earthenware clay

    This clay is porous and fires at a lower temperature. It is ideal for beginners and is commonly used for making decorative pottery, tiles, and sculptures.

    Earthenware clays are low-fire clays.  Low-fire clay is fired at temperatures ranging between 804°C and 1,154°C (1,479°F and 2,109°F). 

    When potters discuss the cone at which a particular variety of clay is fired, they are referring to the pyrometric cone system.  This is a method for classifying the heat work, the effect of time and temperature. If you wish to learn more about this topic, please read this article

    2. Stoneware clay

    This clay is denser and fires at a higher temperature, resulting in sturdy and durable pottery. It is suitable for functional items like bowls, mugs, and plates.

    When wet, stoneware clays are often grey and plastic. Their fired hues range from pale grey and beige to medium grey and brown. Fired colours are significantly affected by the type of firing.

    Stoneware clays have an absorption factor between 2 and 5 per cent and are typically fired at high temperatures, typically from 1,186 C (2,167 F), cones 5 to 10.  Stoneware clays are referred to as “Stoneware” because the fired vessels exhibit characteristics similar to those of stone (hard, dense surface with varying hues). After maturing in a kiln, stoneware should form strong bonds with its glazes and be impermeable. It is durable and tolerant during the tossing and firing phases. Stoneware is a common type of clay used by production potters.

    3. Porcelain clay

    Known for its delicate and translucent appearance, porcelain clay is often used to create elegant and refined pottery. However, it can be challenging to work with due to its fine and less forgiving nature.

    Pure kaolin (kaolinite, or china clay), ball clay, feldspar (used as a flux), and quartz (silica) are the main components of porcelain. Mixing the body of porcelain clay with various minerals reduces the firing temperature and improves its workability.

    Porcelain holds optimal qualities of fluidity and can be manipulated even when extremely thin to create translucent, delicate forms because it is composed of such minute particles. Due to its lack of plasticity, it is however difficult to manipulate during the tossing stage. It readily cracks and deforms during the drying and firing processes because its optimal density is not reached until the clay is nearly at its melting point.

    4. Ball clay

    Ball clay is the most plastic clay and contains very limited mineral impurities. They contain a large percentage of kaolinite and quarts, with around 10-25% mica. Ball clays occur naturally as very thin mineral-rich sediments or deposits.

    Ball clays loses colour on firing. At the greenware stage, the colour of ball clays is grey. After being fired, they acquire a faint buff hue. When properly fired, they produce a delicate white colour, making them popular among potters.

    Ball clays are frequently utilised for floor tiles, toilet basins, vases, and tableware due to their high plasticity and binding capacity. Ball clay by itself is typically too fine and slippery for use. It can be used for wheel throwing but is mainly used in slip casting and as an additive to other clay bodies.

    By understanding the characteristics of different types of clay, you can make informed decisions when purchasing clay for your pottery projects.

    Determining the right clay for your pottery needs

    Factors to consider when selecting clay for pottery projects

    1. Intended use

    Think about what you want to create with the clay. Are you looking to make functional items like plates and bowls, or are you more interested in sculptural pieces? Different types of clay have varying strengths and textures, so it’s essential to choose one that suits your desired end result.

    2. Workability

    Consider your level of experience and comfort working with clay. Some clays are easier to manipulate and shape, making them more suitable for beginners. On the other hand, certain clays require more skill and experience to handle effectively.

    3. Firing temperature

    Take into account the firing temperature of the clay. If you have a specific kiln or firing method in mind, make sure the clay you choose can withstand those temperatures.

    By considering these factors, you can make an informed decision when purchasing clay for your pottery projects. In the upcoming section, we will explore where to buy high-quality clay and tips for selecting a reliable supplier. Stay tuned for more valuable insights!

    Where to purchase clay

    Where to buy high-quality clay and selecting a reliable supplier

    1. Local pottery supply stores

    Check if there are any local pottery supply stores or ceramic studios in your area. These establishments often carry a variety of clay options and can provide valuable advice based on your specific needs. Visiting these stores also gives you the opportunity to examine the clay before purchasing it.

    2. Online suppliers

    The internet is a vast resource for purchasing clay. Many reputable online suppliers offer a wide selection of clay types and firing ranges. Look for suppliers who have positive customer reviews and reliable shipping options to ensure a smooth shopping experience.

    3. Community and studio clay centres

    Inquire with local pottery communities or studio clay centres that offer classes or workshops. They may have clay available for sale to members or students. This is a great way to support local artists and get recommendations for high-quality clay.

    Remember, when choosing a supplier, it’s essential to consider factors such as their reputation, customer service, and return policy. Look for suppliers who specialise in pottery and have a good track record of providing quality products.

    Essential techniques and tips for pottery beginners

    Now that you have all the necessary tools and equipment in place, it’s time to dive into the exciting world of pottery. Whether you are a complete beginner or have some experience, mastering the essential techniques is crucial for creating beautiful and functional pottery. Here are a few tips to get you started:

    1. Wedging the clay

    Before you start working with your clay, it’s important to remove any air bubbles and ensure the clay is evenly mixed. Wedging involves kneading the clay to achieve a uniform consistency.

    2. Centring the clay on the wheel

    When throwing pottery on the wheel, the first step is to centre the clay. This ensures that the clay is balanced and allows for easier shaping.

    3. Pulling up the walls

    Once the clay is centred, gradually pull up the walls of your piece while maintaining even pressure. This is the basic technique for creating various vessel shapes.

    4. Trimming and carving

    After your clay piece has dried to a leather-hard stage, you can trim excess clay from the bottom and carve decorative designs or textures.

    5. Glazing techniques

    Experiment with different glazing techniques to add colour and texture to your creations. Brushing, dipping, and spraying are some common methods for applying glaze.

    6. Patience and practice

    Pottery is a craft that requires patience and practice. Embrace the learning process, be open to making mistakes, and keep experimenting with new techniques to improve your skills.

    In the following section, we will explore some common pottery mistakes to avoid and provide solutions to help you overcome them. Stay tuned for expert advice on troubleshooting pottery issues!

    Common pottery mistakes and how to overcome them

    While pottery can be a rewarding and enjoyable craft, it is not without its challenges. As a beginner, it’s important to be aware of common pottery mistakes and learn how to overcome them. Here are a few pitfalls to watch out for:

    1. Cracking and warping

    One of the most common issues with pottery is cracking or warping during the drying or firing process. To prevent this, make sure your clay is properly wedged to remove air bubbles, and dry your piece slowly and evenly to avoid sudden temperature changes. Additionally, consider covering your piece with plastic during the drying process to slow down evaporation and minimize the risk of sudden temperature changes.

    2. Uneven thickness

    Creating pottery with inconsistent thickness can lead to problems during firing and affect the structural integrity of your piece. Practice pulling up the walls evenly and use a thickness gauge to ensure consistent thickness throughout.

    3. Glaze defects

    Glazing requires careful attention to detail. Avoid glaze running or pooling by applying a thin and even layer. Experiment with different glaze combinations and firing temperatures to achieve the desired effects. Achieving a flawless glaze finish takes practice and experimentation. Consider using glaze firing tests to determine the optimal firing temperature and combination of glazes for the desired effect.

    4. Poor trimming

    Trimming is a crucial step in creating well-finished pottery. Take your time to trim the foot of your piece carefully, ensuring it is centred and level. Avoid cutting too deeply or unevenly, as it can weaken the structure.

    Remember, learning pottery is a continuous process of improvement. If you encounter any of these mistakes, don’t be discouraged. Instead, use them as learning opportunities and seek guidance from experienced potters. In the next section, we will provide solutions and tips to help you overcome these common pottery mistakes.

    Choosing your pottery clay – best pottery clay for beginners

    Pottery Crafters provides a useful list of the five most significant clay properties beginners should consider when buying clay:

    1. Type of Clay Body (Earthenware, Stoneware, Ball Clay, or Porcelain)

    Different varieties of clay are distinguished by the minerals they contain, their plasticity (stickiness and workability), the size of their platelets, and the firing temperatures.

    There are three fundamental varieties of clay bodies available to beginners: earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. These are some factors you should consider when selecting clay:

      • Earthenware – This clay works well for wheel and hand throwing because it’s easy to form. Its porousness makes it ideal for flowerpots, bricks, and outdoor construction.
      • Stoneware – This is more durable and chip-resistant than earthenware, making it ideal for dinnerware and mugs. Stoneware may be used to produce practically anything with enough sand or grog.
      • Porcelain – True porcelain is buttery and less forgiving than other clays. It absorbs water easily, affecting its workability. Although hard to recover, this clay is smooth to work with on the wheel. Definitely worth the effort.

    2. Texture (Smooth, course, or in-between)

    When choosing clay, check for grog, sand, both, or none. Your clay choice depends on your skill level and purpose.

      • Handbuilding Clay – Handbuilding requires a lot of grog or sand in the clay. You need clay that can stand alone to construct your masterpiece. Earthenware and Stoneware are wonderful handmaking clays. You don’t want clay to sag or collapse while scoring and assembling parts. Hand Building Clay with more grog, sand, or both has a lower shrinkage rate, preventing cracking.
      • Throwing on the wheel – Your clay should be smooth without collapsing on the wheel. A smooth stoneware or earthenware clay with enough texture to play with for hours without hurting your hands is my recommendation. The best (and most difficult) wheel-thrown clay is porcelain. The clay feels great against my hands, but it’s not as forgiving as stoneware and earthenware.

    3. Cone size (Firing Temperature)

    Pyrometric cones (link to cones blog) measure kiln heat. I quickly learned that cone size matters when choosing clay. The firing temperature of each clay variety may decide the kiln you need. Because clay and glaze can expand and contract together, they are an exact fix and food-safe if their cone sizes match. Three temperature ranges exist (low fire, mid-fire and high fire). Know the kiln temperature, clay body and glaze cone size before buying clay.

    4. Colour (What effect are you looking for)

    Buying clay today is fantastic because of the variety of colours. Depending on the look you want, any colour is amazing. Or you can create your own colour. Mixing powdered colourants into clay to make different colours is another exciting aspect.

    5. Price 

    The variety of clays and pricing available now is remarkable. I would start with cheaper clay as a beginner because you’ll practise a lot. Reusing or recycling waste clay saves money and shows clay some love. Consider buying in bulk or visiting a local retailer to save on delivery. It’s surprising how much clay you can use when on a roll.   

    Conclusion

    I hope this guide has helped you in selecting the ideal clay. Knowing exactly what you require and desire from your pottery clay makes all the difference in the world. It is advisable to experiment with various clays until you discover one that feels comfortable.

    Are you ready to create Something Spectacular?

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    Cidinha Moss

    Cidinha Moss

    Cidinha Moss is the founder of Moss51 Art & Design, an SEO Content Writing and Web Design studio. She is a content writer and artist, with a background in languages, education, marketing, and entrepreneurship with years of writing, teaching, and providing effective text, images, and web designs to her clients. You can find her on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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