Pottery can be tricky to learn, and if you are doing it with the wrong clay, it is even harder. When I started out, I spent some frustrating time at the potter’s wheel. Then I decided to look into the best pottery clay for beginners and things got a lot easier. This is what I found out about choosing clay…
Stoneware clay with a fine grog is best for a beginner choosing clay. This is because it is cooperative and does what the potter wants. And it holds its form once shaped. It is versatile and can be used for throwing, hand-building and modeling. Also, stoneware with fine grog is easy on the potter’s hands.
When you are a beginner at pottery, it can be difficult to know which clay to choose. If you go onto a pottery supplier’s website, there will be a very wide range of clay. Clays often have technical or obscure names, so it can be hard to know how to choose the right clay.
Choosing clay wisely is important. Because if you start off with the wrong clay, it can make learning much harder.
The best pottery clay for beginners depends upon a few factors. In this article, I will look into these factors and consider the merits of different kinds of clay.
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If you don’t have time to read this article, you may find these top tips helpful for choosing clay that’s right for you…
Stoneware Clay is Best for Beginners Because...
- It is plastic and holds its shape.
- If it has added grog this will strengthen it and make it even more
- It is tough and non-porous when fired.
Earthenware Clay is Good for Beginners Because...
- It is very plastic and holds its shape.
- Like stoneware, if you add grog, this makes it even more workable.
- It is still porous once fired. If you want to make a vessel that holds liquid, like a cup or vase, you will need to glaze earthenware seal it.
- Even when glazed and sealed, earthenware chips relatively easily.
Porcelain is Not the Best Clay for Beginners Because….
- It is tricky to throw, it become soft quickly and collapses easily.
- Even with added grog, it can be temperamental and difficult to control.
- Although some potters like to learn using porcelain, it is twice as expensive as other clays. So, even if you are up for the challenge of learning with porcelain, it is a costly clay for beginners.
Grog is a Beginners Friend Because….
- It makes clay more workable and stronger.
- It reduces the amount clay shrinks and can prevent cracking during drying and firing.
- Grog, is helpful in stoneware and earthenware for beginners. However, if you are wheel throwing your clay then you will need a clay with a soft fine grog.
- Course hard grog is ok for hand building and modeling, but is tough on the hands when throwing.
Click the button below to print off your a free clay buying tip sheet for beginners. It’s handy to have at the ready when you are looking for the right supplier.
Choosing Clay as a Beginner - Find One That is Easy to Use
One of the most important criteria for beginner’s clay is that it is easy to use.
You can make things out of clay using different techniques. Some of these approaches are throwing on the wheel, hand-building, and sculpting or modeling.
Regardless of which approach you prefer, working with clay involves both motor skills and creative ability. Both of these can be learned however it takes time.
In the meantime, whilst you are learning, it is a good idea to choose clay that is easy to use.
Some clay is easier than others. If you are someone who likes a difficult challenge, then you may want to start off with a trickier clay. But, when you are starting out, you have enough to think about without adding a difficult clay into the mix.
Choosing Clay - How to Find An Easy One to Work With?
Clay has a few properties that affect how easy it is to use. Some of these are:
This refers to how workable clay is. If a clay is ‘plastic’ then it is relatively soft and malleable.
Also, it will retain the shape you give it when you squeeze, pinch, pull or bend it. It does not return to its original shape once you have stopped applying pressure to it.
In that sense plastic clay is not elastic. Clay plasticity is on a spectrum.
Some clay is more plastic than others. The best clay for beginners is quite plastic. This is because you don’t have to work so hard to get the clay to do what you want.
Although plastic clay will have some strength, strength, and plasticity in clay are not the same thing.
A clay’s strength refers in part to how much weight it can support. For example, if you are making a large piece, the clay needs to be quite strong.
If the clay doesn’t have enough strength it will collapse under the weight of itself.
What they mean by this is that the clay requires a lot of water to remain workable.
The trouble is that water makes clay softer. Typically, when beginners start out, they are slower at doing things. For example, a beginner potter may take longer to center a piece of clay.
Because it takes them longer to achieve a particular result, they will add more water as the clay dries out.
The more water that is added to the clay the softer it gets. The beginner potter may find that the piece gets very soft and collapses.
Therefore, the best clay for beginners will have a relatively low water absorption rate. Luckily plastic clays tend to be less absorbent of water.
One of the ways that clay can be strengthened is by adding grog to it. Grog is clay that has been fired and then ground up.
It can be ground up into fine pieces or it can be quite coarse. Course grog will give clay a textured look.
Grog is also useful because it reduces the amount that clay shrinks as it dries and is fired. It also decreases the chance that the clay will crack.
Whilst grog is useful for these reasons, it affects how you can work with a piece of clay. For example, throwing clay with a course grog in it will feel very tough on the potter’s hands.
As the potter works on a piece, some of the softer clay particles will dissolve away. When this happens, more of the grog is left behind.
As a result, a pot being thrown on the wheel will feel increasingly like sandpaper beneath your fingers.
The best pottery clay for beginners should have some grog in it. This will give it strength. However, if you are wheel throwing choosing clay with a fine grog is a good idea. Otherwise it will hurt your hands
How to Choose Clay that is Best for a Beginner
There are a few other simple questions that will ensure you are choosing clay wisely. When you are deciding, I would recommend that you consider the following questions:
- How are you making your pottery?
- What is the pottery going to be used for?
- What temperature will you be firing to?
- What finish would you like the piece to have?
Let’s look at why each of these questions is important.
How Are You Making Your Pottery?
Different clays are suitable for wheel throwing, hand building, and sculpting or modeling.
What is Your Pottery Going to Be Used For?
Are you making something functional like a pot plant or a dinner set? Or are you making something decorative and ornamental?
If you are just starting out, you may not be at the stage where you are doing either of the above. Perhaps you are still focused on getting the clay to center.
If so, then you may be throwing clay simply to improve your skills rather than making something in particular.
What Temperature Are You Firing Your Pottery To?
Different kilns will fire to different temperatures and will have a maximum heat. Individual clay bodies need heating to different temperatures to mature. Therefore, the kind of kiln you have will affect your decision making when you are choosing clay.
Here is a general overview of the different temperature ranges that clay is fired to.
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Most likely as a beginner you won’t have your own kiln. It’s a good idea to find out where you are going to be firing your work.
Ask them what temperature their kiln fires to. This will determine what kind of clay you can use.
What Finish Would You Like Your Pottery to Have?
Pottery can either be glazed or left unglazed. You may want it to be smooth or textured. You may want it to be colored or stained. You need to bear this in mind when choosing clay.
In the next section, I will look at the different clays that are available. And I will address each of these questions as we go along.
Choosing Clay - What are the Different Types of Clay?
Clay is a naturally produced substance. It is made of fine particles of stone that have been worn away by the wind and rain.
Sometimes the particles are carried away elsewhere by water. During this journey, they pick up impurities.
At other times, the particles will settle at the point where they are created. These clays tend to have fewer impurities.
Although in theory clay can be used straight from the ground, it is usually mixed with other substances.
This allows the manufacturer to create clays with particular properties. These different types of clay are called clay bodies.
Broadly speaking clay can be divided into 3 types of clay body. These are:
There are other variations of these themes, but the above categories are the most common ways to distinguish clay types.
Let’s look at each type of clay. Using the questions above, I will consider which one is the best pottery clay for a beginner. And keep them in mind when you are choosing clay for yourself.
Choosing Clay - Is Earthenware Best for Beginners?
How Are You Using The Earthenware?
Earthenware clay is very plastic and is therefore easy to work. It is good for throwing, hand-building, and sculpting because it is malleable and retains its shape.
Because it is plastic, Earthenware will not need a lot of water to be added whilst you are working. As such it is quite forgiving to the beginner.
A clay that demands a lot of water to stay workable will tend quickly go soft and collapse. Earthenware is quite resilient in that respect.
What Are You Making?
When earthenware clay is fired, it remains porous. If it is glazed it can be made impermeable. However, in its unglazed state, it is not suitable for cups, mugs, dinnerware, and vases.
Earthenware is typically used for products like plant pots and bricks.
What Temperature are you Firing at?
Whilst it can be white or gray, Earthenware is often brown, orange or red. The particular blend of minerals and impurities will determine its color.
Because of its high mineral content, it matures in the kiln at a low temperature.
Earthenware is normally bisque fired between 1830 – 2100F (1000 – 1150C). And it is often glaze fired between 1740 – 1920F (950-1050C).
As a result, Earthenware takes less energy to fire, and is therefore economic to make.
Furthermore, if it is glazed then it can be used for items that hold water such as vases or dinnerware.
However, because it is fired at a lower temperature it is not vitrified. Vitrification is the process whereby elements of the clay turn to glass when it is fired.
As such earthenware pottery is not as strong as other fired clays. Also, because it is porous beneath the glaze, it must be hand washed and cannot be used in a microwave.
What Finish Do You Want?
Firing clay at higher temperatures can change the clays original color. Similarly, when glaze is fired at a high temperature, it can lose some of its brightness.
Because earthenware is fired at a lower temperature, it can retain its color. An unglazed piece of earthenware may still have a rich color. Likewise, glazed earthenware can have vivid colors.
Grog can be added to earthenware to give it strength. Also, if the grog is quite course, this can give the pottery a rough-textured appearance.
Course grog is best used in pottery that is going to hand-built or sculpted. It is too uncomfortable to use on the potter’s wheel.
Choosing Clay - Earthenware Properties Summarized?
It is porous if not glazed. Therefore, in an unglazed state, it cannot be used for making dinnerware and cups.
If it is glazed it can be used to make plates and bowls and the like. However, because of its underlying porosity is not especially refractory1 and it does chip easily.
Grog can be added to make earthenware stronger and to give it a toothy texture. However, if you are wheel throwing the pot, it is important that the grog is fine and soft.
Choosing Clay - Is Stoneware Clay Best for Beginners?
How Are You Using The Stoneware?
Broadly speaking stoneware clay is quite plastic and can be used for wheel throwing, hand-building, and sculpting.
However, there are many different types of stoneware clay and some are more suitable for some tasks than others.
For example, a stoneware clay that contains courser grog may be good for hand-building and sculpting. But not for wheel throwing.
As with earthenware, some grog in stoneware is good for beginners, as it makes the clay easier to manage. However, the grog needs to be fine, otherwise, it will be tough on the potter’s hands.
When I started wheel throwing, I was using a clay called Buff School clay. This is a stoneware clay. I had used it for years to sculpt. What I didn’t know is that the clay I had in stock had added sand. This worked as a kind of grog to help the clay stand up when sculpting.
When threw it, the Buff School would feel fine for about 5 minutes. Then it would start to feel like sandpaper under my hands.
A stoneware like this is not good for beginners, as they typically take a long time to center. And they also tend to use a lot of water to keep things moving.
As such the softer clay particles wash away and leave behind a clay body with a higher concentration of grog. The clay that is left is hard to work and feels very rough.
What Are You Making?
Stoneware is a good choice if you are making cups, bowls, plates and other liquid holding vessels like vases.
There are a few reasons for this:
- When fired Stoneware clay is non-porous and therefore leak proof.
- Glaze adheres well to stoneware. As well as proving an extra level of seal, this also makes the item more resilient. Glaze is less likely to flake or chip off through wear and tear.
- When stoneware has reached maturity, it is strong and durable. This is in part where it gets its name from. Fired stoneware has a stone-like strength.
- It is usually suitable for using in dishwashers and microwaves.
Because Stoneware is so practical and relatively easy to use, it is popular amongst production potters. These are potters that work full-time and will make large batches of the same item, rather than one-off pieces.
What Temperature are you Firing at?
There are many different kinds of Stoneware. Some are considered to be mid firing clays, others are at the high firing end of the spectrum. But as a rule of thumb Stonewares are fired between 2100 and 2370F (1149-1300C)
The higher the temperature at which Stoneware is fired, the tougher it will be. High fired Stoneware is also less porous and therefore more waterproof.
What Finish Do You Want?
Unfired Stoneware clays are often gray. But they can range from almost white to buff (tan). Some are reddish brown or speckled.
Once fired, Stoneware clays can be white, gray, buff, red/brown or dark gray. They often have a speckled surface effect, which is another reason for the name ‘Stoneware’.
Glaze can lose some of its pigment when fired at higher temperatures. For that reason, glaze on a high fire Stoneware may not have the same brilliance that you get on Earthenware.
Choosing Clay - Stoneware Properties Summarized
Stoneware is versatile and can be used for throwing, hand-building, and sculpting.
It fires at a higher temperature than Earthenware and is therefore tough and non-porous. This makes it ideal for dinnerware.
Grog can be added to make it more cooperative whilst it is being handled. However, as with Earthenware, if you are throwing on the wheel, you need a Stoneware with a finer grog.
Choosing Clay - Is Porcelain Best for Beginners?
How Are You Using The Porcelain?
Clay particles are called platelets, and porcelain clay particles are very small. There are more clay platelets in porcelain per square inch than in stoneware and earthenware.
The result of this is that porcelain has a very smooth finish. Also, because there is less space between porcelain particles the clay can be pulled and stretched more than its counterparts. As such, porcelain clay can be made into very thin forms.
It is a versatile clay in the sense that you can use it for throwing, hand-building, and sculpting. However, it is not the easiest pottery clay for beginners to use.
Porcelain is not very plastic, which means that it is harder to shape and form. It is true that it will stretch and pull further than other clays. However, it tends to have a mind of its own and wants to go in directions other than the potter intended.
It is also quite soft and floppy so it can lose its shape easily.
Whilst porcelain can create exquisite looking pottery, it is also quite ‘thirsty’. That means that it dries out quite quickly as you work and demands additional water. This is fine if you work quickly.
However, beginners tend to be slower and this can mean that they use a lot of additional water. The more water that is added, the softer the clay becomes. And the higher the chance that the pottery will collapse.
What About Grogged Porcelain?
It is possible to buy porcelain that has been grogged with fine molochite. This makes it easier to work with, but it is still not the easiest pottery clay for beginners.
Porcelain is often described as ‘fussy’ or ‘finickity’ clay. This is because it is a bit high maintenance. Porcelain is not very forgiving if you are throwing it and there is a small bump in the clay. A little bit of unevenness can throw a piece way off center. And this may mean that you have to start again.
An alternative to pure porcelain is a clay called B-mix. B-mix falls in the category of being a porcelaneous stoneware. B-mix is smooth and refined like porcelain. However, it is mixed with a quantity of stoneware to make it more workable.
However, B-mix, like porcelain is also thirsty when it is being worked. And like porcelain, it goes soft when it is worked for too long, which is not helpful for beginners.
What Are You Making?
Fired porcelain has the potential to be extremely hard. As well as making beautiful ceramics, it also has many practical purposes because of its strength. This includes porcelain teeth and lab equipment.
The reason it’s hard is that it has a high content of silica, which is the glass forming ingredient in clay. Its strength is also the result of its particles being densely packed together.
Because porcelain clay is so dense, it is generally completely non-porous after it has been bisque fired. It’s density, strength and beauty make it ideal for dinnerware and water holding vessels like vases.
However, porcelain does shrink significantly when it dries and is fired. On average porcelain ware can have shrunk by up to 15% by the time it has been fired.
Because it shrinks so much and relatively quickly, it is at a higher risk of cracking than stoneware or earthenware.
The risk of cracking and shrinking is another reason porcelain may not be the best pottery clay for a beginner. It can be demoralizing to lose work in this way when you are starting out.
What Temperature are you Firing at?
Porcelain is a high fire clay. It is generally fired between 2200-2600F (1200-1400C). If it has been mixed with other ingredients this may bring the firing temperature down. None the less, a porcelaneous clay body will have a higher firing temperature.
Many kilns, especially domestic hobby kilns only fire to 2300F. This would limit you from using a porcelain clay that fires at 2600F.
What Finish Do You Want?
Fired porcelain can have a thin delicate transparent appearance. Also, because it is non-porous after a bisque fire, it does not necessarily need to be glazed.
However, because porcelain is free of impurities, it can fire very white. This means that the color of the clay will not show through and interfere with the color of the glaze. The result of this is that the color of glazes on porcelain can be very vivid and fresh.
Choosing Clay - Porcelain Properties Summarized
Porcelain can be made into exquisite refined looking shapes, but it is harder to manage than other clays. It has a tendency to go its own way and get floppy quickly. As such I would say that it is probably not the best pottery clay for beginners.
It fires at a high temperature and has a tendency to shrink and crack. Although beautiful, porcelain, is often referred to as being quite high maintenance.
It is also expensive. Typically, porcelain cost about twice as much as stoneware or earthenware. When you are starting out, it is likely that you will be making more mistakes. So, choosing a clay that is less expensive than porcelain may be sensible when you are starting out.
None the less, there are potters who learn their craft using porcelain. If you like a challenge this might be the one for you. If you do want to learn using porcelain, it may be better to start with a porcelaneous stoneware like B-mix.
Final Thoughts on Choosing Clay
As you become more experienced, you will be able to experiment with different clays. However, when you start out, stoneware with grog is the best pottery clay for beginners.
If you are throwing on the wheel, it is important that the grog is fine, to avoid hurting your hands.
Most suppliers provide quite comprehensive information about the ingredients of clay on their websites. However, if you are still at a loss, I would suggest giving them a call and having a conversation with them. They are often extremely knowledgeable and willing to help when you are choosing clay.
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