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How to Choose the Right Clay for You

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There are so many choices of pottery clays, it can be baffling. How do you choose which clay is right for you and your needs as a potter? What do you need to know? How do you find out?

What Type of Pottery Do You Do?

The type of pottery you want to create has an absolutely critical impact on the clay body you choose. For example, some clay bodies are great for throwing, but would be a disaster if you wanted to create an outdoor hand built piece.

Like me, you may find that you want to use more than one clay body. When you use a variety of construction methods, that is often the best solution. For more information on the characteristics to look for in clay bodies, read

What Equipment Is Available to You?

Although people can do all the functions by hand that are needed to create finished pottery, it is a tremendous amount of effort and time that most of us today don't have. Machinery has been developed to help free up your energy for what you probably want most: time spent creating with your clay.

The first set of equipment is that to may a workable clay body. Do you have a
  • clay mixer
  • pug mill
  • pugger-mixer, or
  • will you mix and wedge your clay by hand?

What equipment do you have to shape your clay?

  • potter's wheel
  • slab roller
  • extruder?

What equipment is available to you for firing your pieces? Do you

  • own a kiln
  • can rent a kiln, or
  • have access to kilns through classes?
For more information, see The 3 Main Pieces of Equipment for Potters

To What Temperature Will You Fire?

Clay bodies and glazes need to both mature at the same temperature. Discrepancies between their maturation temperatures can lead to a number of defects in the finished piece.

There are three basic temperature ranges. Although there is some slight variation between individual potters, these ranges are generally considered to be

  • Low-Fire: Cone 06 to Cone 3 (1850⁰F - 2135⁰)
  • Mid-Range: Cone 4 to Cone 7 (2160⁰F - 2290⁰)
  • High-Fire: Cone 8 to Cone 10 (2315⁰F - 2380⁰)

For more information on clay and temperature, read

Moist Clay Bodies versus Mixing Your Own Clay

Commercially available moist clays are a very convenient way to buy clay if you don't have the machinery to mix it yourself. This is especially true of the clays that are processed using a de-airing pug mill, which alleviates a huge amount of work wedging the clay.

There are two advantages of mixing it yourself. The first is economic; moist clay weighs a great deal more than dry clay and shipping costs reflect that. (Remember that 100 pounds of dry clay, once mixed with water, weighs a great deal more.) The other advantage is that in mixing it yourself you can use your own clay body recipes and can modify themas desired.

For more information, read Commercial Moist Clays and How to Read a Clay Body Recipe.

Experiment

One of the best ways to find a clay that is perfect for your needs is to experiment with various clay bodies. For example, when I have looked for a new clay body, I have bought individual bags of several varieties of clay that look like what I am looking for. I work with each clay, pushing them to their limits, and noting down on paper my thoughts and observations on each one.

Create test tiles, bowls, bells, bowls, or other test pieces. Fire them as you normally would, following your normal firing schedule. Check how the clay body interacts with the glazes you use. You can find out how to test for a variety of characteristics at How to Test Clay Bodies.

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