When you first dip your toe into the pottery world, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with the plethora of new lingo that comes with it. Don’t let that scare you off though – conquering the basics comes with practice.
What Is Pottery?
Firstly, it’s helpful to realise that the terms “pottery” and “ceramics” refer to the same thing – almost. Ceramics refers to any clay objects, while pottery specifically refers to containers made of clay. Clay itself is a natural soil material that is pliable but hardens when heated.
Firing Your Work
Firing clay objects means heating them to a specific temperature in a kiln; a furnace specifically designed for this purpose. The temperature in a kiln can reach at least 1200 degrees Celsius. To put that in perspective, the temperature of lava can be 1250 degrees Celsius.
A Quick Guide
Not all clays are created equal. Different types are distinguishable by their colour, plasticity, composition and firing temperature.
- Earthenware: this is possibly the oldest clay that was used to mould objects such as large pots and sculptures. It comes in warm tones of red and orange, or alternatively grey, and fires at a lower temperature.
- Stoneware: this clay is quite hard and comes in tones of grey and white. It is often used for larger tableware and can be painted with various glazes. It can require firing temperatures up to 1285 degrees.
- Porcelain: trickier to work with than earthenware and stoneware. It is typically lighter in colour and has less plasticity. Porcelain is sometimes mixed with other clays to reduce the firing temperature, as it only fires at extreme temperatures. It is best for daintier objects such as teacups.
- Ball and fire clays: both used mainly with other types of clay to enhance various properties.
There are many different tools used by potters to perfect their work. For beginners, it’s best to start off with the essentials: a kiln (or access to one), a wheel, nylon or metal wire, a sponge and your hands – the most important tool of all. Once you’ve got the gist of these five you can branch out towards chamois for smoothing edges, potters’ needles for trimming and scoring, ribs, and scrapers, used to smooth and shape pots.
How They’re Used
A potter’s wheel is a heavy disc upon which the artist shapes clay into a pot, for example. This is called “throwing”. Wheels can be electric or manually operated. Another essential is wire, which is used to cut clay and to remove work from a wheel. It usually has small handles on either end.
The most important tool, however, is a kiln – without this, clay objects are extremely fragile and cannot be used for anything other than an ornament. Kilns can be fired either by wood or gas and range vastly in size.
Some Final Tips
These terms are just a small taste of the world of pottery, which is as fun as playing games with friends. But practice and experimentation is equally important as knowledge of terms. When all else fails, use the most basic tool of all: your hands.