What Are The 4 Types Of Clay?

December 23, 2021


So you’re starting a pottery project, but you’re not sure what pottery clay would be best. In this article, we’ll cover the 4 different types of clay for pottery and what it’s like to work with each kind of clay.

What are the 4 types of clay for pottery?

The 4 types of clay for pottery are earthenware, stoneware, porcelain, and ball clay.

1. Earthenware

earthenware
Earthenware clay block

Earthenware is typically a more porous and coarse texture than its porcelain and stoneware siblings.

Earthenware was used to make some of the oldest known pottery. The most common earthenware clay is Terracotta or terra cotta. A popular culturally significant piece you might know are the terracotta warriors. But there are other types as well such as Redware (Americas) and Raku (Japan).

If you read our piece on Japanese pottery, then earthenware is familiar to you. Before porcelain, a vast majority of Japanese pottery was made in earthenware clay.

What it’s used for

Building materials

If you have a brick house, chances are you’re surrounded by earthenware. And earthenware has been used for construction in many cultures for many thousands of years.

Earthenware pottery

Earthenware has a rough, celebrated characteristic in ceramic arts. Commonly, you’ll find utilitarian uses of earthenware like outdoor pottery for plants and gardens. But many of the most celebrated pieces you’ll discover in a museum are also made from earthenware.

types-of-clay-earthenware
Bowl with horseman spearing a serpent

Firing

As a low-fire clay (or requires lower temperatures to fire), earthenware was great for our ancient ancestors who didn’t have high-tech kilns. Earthenware is porous. So firing is a three-step process at different temperatures if you want the clay object to hold its form when wet. First, you’ll complete a bisque firing. Second, you’ll glaze. Third, you’ll complete a glaze firing.

  1. Bisque Fire Temperature Range: 1828° to 2088° F
  2. Glaze Fire Temperature Range: 1728° to 1945° F

2. Stoneware

hard-clay

Stoneware is typically a less porous and sturdier material than its porcelain and earthenware siblings. People in the Indus valley (modern-day Pakistan and northern India) made a lot of stoneware. The use of this type of clay spread north to China. The Chinese produced some of the most celebrated ancient pieces in stoneware during the Han Dynasty (Indus Valley).

What it’s used for

Because it’s less porous than other clays, stoneware is great for functional ware: Cooking, baking, or storing liquids. Stoneware is incredibly durable. It can withstand heat and other elements, so it’s safe in the oven, microwave, and other similar uses.

stoneware-example
Recumbent bottle (yokobe)

I recommend using stoneware for a beginner’s skill level. It’s a plastic clay and has nonporous properties after firing meaning it can be used for practical uses. So it’s a safer bet for a successful project than its clay siblings. It’s an excellent choice for your first go with pottery projects.

Firing

Stoneware is a high-fire clay meaning it takes high temperatures to harden. Because it’s less porous, it typically gets to the bone dry stage (stage before firing) faster than stoneware. The slow increase in the heat with a modern kiln is important to properly fire stoneware.

  • Firing temperature: 2124° – 2264° F

3. Porcelain

Porcelain is an incredibly popular style due to its unique delicate finish, yet durable structure.

Porcelain clay is the source of an ancient style of making ceramics dating back to the Shang Dynasty in China (1600 – 1046 BC). Porcelain clay’s main ingredient is kaolin clay (also known as china clay). You’ve probably used porcelain pottery that mirrors the style developed so long ago if you’ve ever eaten on fine china.

Porcelain can be a challenge to use for a beginner. Porcelain has more clay particles than the other clays. Plus, the clay body requires a lot of water. The combination can spell frustration if you’re trying centering your clay when wheel throwing since when you’re new to pottery, you’ll be attempting to center your clay many times thus using a lot of water. With all the added water, porcelain has a tendency to become soft and collapse. As a beginner, this can be very frustrating.

porcelain-example
Potpourri vase (pot-pourri gondole)

What it’s used for

Functional uses of porcelain

We’ve talked about fine china and dinnerware that’s made from porcelain. But porcelain is used for far more functional things as well. Often, toilets and bathtubs are made from porcelain. These functional items require higher temperatures than a piece of fine china or the like.

Decorative uses of porcelain

You may know of decorative knick-knacks, dolls, or collectibles made out of porcelain. There’s a beautiful tradition in Japanese pottery of traditional tea ceremonies. The pots and cups used in the ceremonies are made from porcelain.

Firing

Firing helps the porcelain clay set its shapes permanently and adheres the glaze to the vessel. Firing porcelain normally includes something called vitrify or converting something into a glass-like finish. Porcelain is often fired more than once to get a different style of finish.

  • Firing Temperature Range: 2,200° and 2,600° F

4. Ball Clay

ball-clay
Bptakoma – flickr

Ball clay is less abundant than the other three types of clay. Its properties are similar to that of earthenware. The big difference between ball clay and earthenware is the white finish after firing. You’ll find ball clay in the eastern United States and in Great Britain.

In fact, Great Britain has a bit of a tradition with ball clay. The earliest ball clay vessels were discovered in England. It’s believed the name comes from mining the material by hand.

What it’s used for

In the early days, ball clay was used in floor and wall tiles. But it can be used in any standard ceramic build – mugs, plates, or similar uses.

Firing

Ball clay is popular with many potters because of its white finish after firing. Ball clay is very malleable and is rather mineral pure.

  • Firing: 2336° F

Other clays

There are common types of clay bodies you may have heard about before, but aren’t included in this article. Ceramic clay like polymer clay or air dry clay are great options for projects that need to be quick turns or when you don’t have firing equipment. But those clays aren’t one of the primary clays potters will turn to. I left them out since the best clays for your next project will be one of the four detailed above.

Conclusion

Now you know about the 4 main types of clay for pottery: Porcelain, earthenware, stoneware, and ball clay. Want to know even more about clay? Check out our article on everything you need to know about pottery clay.

If you have any questions, simply email us at hello@wheelandclay.com. We’d be happy to help.

Kristen-in-italy

About The Author

Hi, I'm Kristen! I've been making ceramics for almost 15 years. As a certified teacher, I taught kindergarten through 8th grade for almost a decade. I’m now regularly in my neighborhood studio where I’m trying out new things and getting better at the craft!

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What Are The 4 Types Of Clay?