The Basics of Pottery Clay

illustration of types of pottery clay

Illustration: Ashley Nicole DeLeon. © The Spruce, 2018

Clays and inelastic earth are the results of decomposing rocks in which the particle size is extremely small. Most clays contain several different types of clay minerals with different amounts of metal oxides and organic matter; this is what sets the different types of pottery clay apart. Learn more about the properties of clay and different types of clay here.

  • 01 of 07

    Clay's Plasticity

    Clay pottery wheel
    Vesnaandjic/ Getty Images

    Clay differs from inelastic earth and fine sand because of its ability, when wetted with the proper amount of water, to form a cohesive mass and to retain its shape when molded. This quality is known as clay’s plasticity. When heated to high temperatures, clay also partially melts, resulting in the tight, hard, rock-like substance known as ceramic material.

  • 02 of 07

    Classes of Clay

    There are many different types of clay bodies you can work with. Pick which is best for you.

    Clay can be divided into several classes, based on its characteristics and at what temperature the clay must be fired in order for it to become mature—or reach its optimum hardness and durability.

    The three most commonly used clay bodies are earthenware clay bodies, mid-fire stoneware clay bodies, and high-fire stoneware clay bodies. All three are available commercially in moist, ready-to-use form. Clay bodies can also be produced by mixing dry clays and additives with water to create your own desired clay body.

  • 03 of 07

    Earthenware Clays

    Earthenware is the most commonly found type of found clay

    Earthenware clays were some of the earliest clays used by potters, and it is the most common type of clay found. These clays are highly plastic, or easily worked, and can be sticky. Earthenware clays contain iron and other mineral impurities which cause the clay to reach its optimum hardness at lower temperatures, between 1745 F and 2012 F (950 C and 1100 C). 

    Typical colors for moist earthenware clays are red, orange, yellow, and light gray. Colors for fired earthenware includes brown, red, orange, buff, medium grey, and white. Fired colors are in large part determined by the content of mineral impurities and the type of firing. Terracotta, which means quite literally "baked earth", is one of the most popular types of earthenware.

  • 04 of 07

    Stoneware Clays

    Stoneware is fired at very high temepratures

    Stoneware clays are plastic and are often grey when moist. Their fired colors range from light grey and buff to medium grey and brown. Fired colors are greatly affected by the type of firing.

    Mid-fire stoneware clay bodies are formulated to fire to maturity between 2150 F and 2260 F (1160 C and 1225 C). High-fire stoneware clay bodies fire to their mature hardness between 2200 F and 2336 F (1200 C and 1300 C).

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Ball Clays

    Ball clay is usually a very fine-textured clay

    Ball clays are highly plastic and contain few mineral impurities. They fire to their mature hardness at about 2336 F (1300 C). When moist they are dark grey and when fired they are either light grey or light buff.

    Ball clays do have a serious drawback. They cannot be used by themselves due to their excessive shrinkage during drying and firing. They are extremely useful, however, when added to other clays to increase workability and plasticity.

  • 06 of 07

    Fire Clays

    Fire clay often has a beautiful speckled texture when fired

    Fire clays vary widely in their characteristics. The hallmark is their high firing range. They mature at about 2696 F (1500 C). Although relatively free from mineral impurities, they tend to have spots of iron which lend a speckled appearance once fired.

    Fire clays are often used in stoneware clay bodies to increase their maturation temperature and to give the fired clay a bit extra roughness, or "tooth". They are also used fuel-fired kilns to create cone packs (which monitor temperature), as supports for ware or shelving, and to seal doors.

  • 07 of 07

    Kaolin (Porcelain) Clays

    An example of porcelain clay when fired

    Due to their mineral purity, kaolin clays are used for porcelain. Although kaolin clays do have some range in color, they are all very light in color. While moist, they will be light grey and will fire in the range from a very light grey or buff to near-white and white.

    Kaolin clays are not nearly as plastic as other clays and are difficult to work with. Pure kaolin clays fire to maturity at about 3272 F (1800 C). They are often mixed with other clays to both increase workability and lower the ​firing temperature. Many porcelain bodies are a mixture of kaolin and ball clays.