Pottery has been a part of different cultures for thousands of years. Anthropologists have determined many facts about ancient cultures through the study of their pottery. One of the earliest pottery makers was China mainly because the country had large deposits of natural clay which was the prerequisite for pottery production. Pottery became a sustainable product with the development of a heating process that was hot enough for transforming the clay into a ceramic. This method enabled pottery manufacturing to last for centuries.
Need for Clay
Today there are different types of clay used for pottery. Each type of clay has different properties which determine how the fired pottery will respond to water absorption and shrinkage from water removal. Because there are regional differences in the makeup of clay, the preparation work will determine how the pottery will be used. Decorations on the pottery may be added before or after the firing.
Hand Building Pottery Pieces
Artisans throughout the world still use hand building for their pottery pieces. This method usually results in one-of-a-kind pieces which add to their value. The work is begun by starting with flat clay slabs or solid clay balls. The raw materials are placed in the center of a potter’s wheel which is set in motion by a stick, foot power or through a variable speed electric motor. As the wheel spins, a shape is developed by the clay being pressed and squeezed and pulled upward and outward so that a hallow shape is made. As the skilled artisan works, the clay becomes centered on the wheel creating a perfect symmetry and a base that is flat or rounded inside the pot results. This is a most difficult part of the process and takes a great deal of practice to perfect.
Glazing of pottery adds to both the protection of the piece as well as to decoration. It is especially necessary to add to porous pottery to make it waterproof. Glaze is added before firing by spraying, brushing or dipping.
The final process is the firing which creates an irreversible change to the pottery by permanently hardening the piece. Various potteries have different temperatures for firing. Earthenware is fired between 1830 degrees Fahrenheit and 2190 degrees. Stoneware firing occurs between 2010 degrees Fahrenheit and 2370 degrees and porcelain firing occurs between 2190 degrees Fahrenheit and 2550 degrees. The firing is generally done in a kiln.
The Pottery Kiln
The kiln is heated by several fuel methods. These include wood, coal, gas or electricity. Each of these types of fuels contributes to different properties on the finished pottery. As would be expected, wood and coal release soot and ash which can impact the appearance so many artisans use lidded ceramic boxes to protect their pieces. Gas and electricity are much cleaner and the temperature can be controlled more easily.
Pottery making is still very popular with many adult education programs having courses available for all levels of students.
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