5 Fun Facts Everybody Should Know About Ceramics

Have you ever found yourself wondering how your favourite handmade coffee mug was made? In this month’s article, we asked Show + Sale Assistant and graduating Ceramics major Kendra Sleeman to share 5 fun facts about making ceramics that you can share with friends. Read on to learn more about clay bodies, kilns, and other cool things our ceramics students do to make their work! 


1. How many different types of clay are there?

Most handmade ceramics are made from one of three basic clay types (or bodies):

Pure porcelain is a beautiful high fire white clay, but is not so forgiving, as well as has a high price point making it not so beginner friendly. However, porcelain produces beautiful results, and potters should not feel that they should avoid the clay body. 

Stoneware, which varies in colour from a yellowy beige to brown to grey. Stoneware is more durable making it a more popular option for utilitarian ware.

There is also earthenware, which also comes in many different colours and is a low firing clay body. Earthenware is known to be more plastic (enabling it to be shaped and to hold its form) making it great for handbuilding and wheel throwing.

Each ceramicist have their own favourite(s) clay body for different reasons, depending on what works for them, which clay meets their needs, and what results they want.  

2. What Is the difference between Wheel Throwing and Handbuilding? 

The difference between wheel throwing and handbuilding is pretty simple. Wheel throwing is making a piece on a pottery wheel that spins and hand building is making a piece using your hands!  



Learning to make pottery on wheel takes time and patience - it’s not as simple as it seems. It can take a good ceramicist years to learn how to control the pressure of their hands and their wheel speed properly. You are also somewhat limited with what you can make on the wheel. Because the wheel goes in a circular motion, you can only make circular items like cups, bowls, plates, etc. Don’t think this restricts you; there are endless possible forms you can make on the wheel. You can also customize these pieces by cutting into them, manipulating the rim, or attaching handles or sculptural additions.  

When handbuilding, you sculpt and manipulate the clay on a stable surface, like a table. You can use your hands, tools - almost anything – to make shapes and textures 

With both wheel throwing and handbuilding, you are never limited to creating functional ware. Like other artforms, you can create anything you want, whether it is utilitarian, sculptural or both! 

3. There are different kinds of Kilns?! 

There are a lot of different kilns to fire ceramics with, the two most common are electric and gas. Electric kilns use electricity, and have metal elements to conduct heat.  

Gas kilns use gas and flame to conduct heat instead of electricity. All gas kilns have a chimney or flue which promotes airflow and gives a safe exit for smoke and fumes. Gas kilns require time to learn and manage, while electric kilns are simple to use and easier to be installed in different environments.

With gas kilns there are different firing options, oxidation or reduction. Oxidation is where there is enough air in the kiln to burn the fuel, the fuel in this case is gas. Reduction happens when there isn’t enough air to burn the gas in the kiln. Reduction can produce amazing unique results, but cannot always be replicated, since these results are based on how the kiln was loaded, the airflow, and other factors.  


 4. How hot does the kiln need to be to fire ceramics?

Different clay bodies also fire at different temperatures. Ceramic artists use a special “cone” system to refer to certain temperatures that clays should be fired at. Porcelain (being high fire) can reach up to Cone 14 or 1400c (2552f). Stoneware is a mid range fire and can go up to Cone 9 or 10 reaching around 1300c (2372f). For earthenware which is a low fire clay body, it reaches up to cone 5 or 6 which is around 1200c (2192f) or less. You must group works together based on their firing range, if you put a low fire clay body like earthenware into a high temperature firing it can melt into puddle.  

5. Are you supposed to paint or glaze clay?

We don’t paint pots, we "apply a glaze”.  Though we may use paint brushes as tools to apply surface decoration on our works, we don’t necessarily see it as painting our pieces. Glaze is what makes a piece food safe or not. Glaze covers the porous clay in a glass like coating create an impermeable layer to allow food particles to wash away and not stay causing health risks.  

However, not all artists create food safe work. For example, sculptural work does not need to be food safe since it is not intended for people to eat off the piece. In that case that artist may choose to use non-food safe glazes or do a “cold finish”. This means the peice does not go through a glaze firing; instead, it is bisqued and then other materials such as acrylic paint, spray paint, metal leaf, etc. are applied to the

Kendra is currently a forth year ceramics major studying to receive a BFA. Her goals are to work and teach in the arts and pass on knowledge and skills she has come to learn to others.

1 comment

  • Joan

    This is very informative and I love all the photos. I tried handbuilding in the early 1970’s and this
    is a great reminder of all the complexities behind ceramics. Important for buyers to understand
    what goes into making the creations they are interested in.

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