What is clay?

Clay is a natural product dug from the earth, which has decomposed from rock within the earth’s crust for millions of years. Decomposition occurs when water erodes the rock, breaks it down, and deposits the eroded particles. The particle size of these minerals is extremely small.

Because it is dependent on the type of rock that it decomposes from, clay is specific to a geographic area. Hence, different types of clays, each with its own particularities, are found in different areas of the world. Clay can come in a wide spectrum of colours, from white, to red to black, and many colours in between.

Two properties of clay

Clay differs from the inelastic earths and fine sand because of its ability, when wet with the proper amount of water, to form a cohesive mass and to retain its shape when moulded. This quality is known as clay’s plasticity.

A second property of clay is that of shrinkage and rigidity when air-dried or heated. The more water clay holds, the more it will shrink when it dries. To prevent excessive shrinkage which will deform a finished piece, a potter can add in small quantities of materials that do not absorb water to the clay, such as feldspar or flint, called additives.

What are additives used for?

Different types of additives lend different qualities to the clay. Different types of clay can also be mixed together. Ingredients may be added to aid plasticity, change its fired coloration, or to lower or raise the firing temperature. To make the clay materials fuse better, a flux may be added. A common flux agent is wood ash, which was also used extensively in Cambodian and Thai pottery as glazing.

Sometimes potters also use clay that has already been fired and then ground up to add to their mixture. This type of substance is called grog. Grog can be used to add colour to a piece as well, as can flakes of rust or adding chemicals such as manganese dioxide.

The clay and additives are then mixed thoroughly together with water to form a liquid mud, called slop. Once the ingredients are sufficiently blended, the slop must be air dried, so that excess moisture may evaporate, otherwise the clay will not have enough consistency to be shaped.

The resulting compound is the clay body, although we generally use the term clay to describe this composite material that is used to make pottery.

A third property of clay

A third characteristic of clay is that when heated to high temperatures, it partially melts, resulting in the tight, hard substance known as ceramic material. The higher the temperatures, the harder the clay becomes, depending on the type of clay used. Firing also changes the colour of the clay and makes it less porous. Thus, both the type of clay used, and the firing processes, will influence the look and properties of a finished piece.

Pottery, therefore, is not made only from raw clay but a mixture of clay and other materials.

De-airing before shaping

Before a lump of clay can be fashioned into a ceramic object, another step of preparation is needed: clay has to be de-aired to remove any air trapped within it, as air bubbles in the clay can cause cracks in the final product when it is fired. This is because the trapped air will expand in the hot kiln atmosphere and sometimes even cause the object to explode in the kiln, destroying other objects in the process.

Nowadays, a machine called a vacuum pug mill can be used, but in earlier times (and still used by craft potters), a potter had to wedge it by hand. This just means kneading the clay in different directions to push out the air bubbles. Wedging can also help to ensure an even moisture content throughout the body. There are modern methods of wedging, but it is safe to say that the technique of kneading clay has probably remained the same for millennia. Only after all this is done can the clay be shaped into a desired object.

Pottery: Both an art and a science

Pottery-making is a long process. In modern society, clay is readily bought and ceramics can be mass produced. But imagine when potters had to dig their own clay from the banks of the river, remove the minuscule impurities from it, mix it with various ingredients that they had to collect themselves, fashion an object from the resulting clay compound, monitor the drying process, fabricate their own glazes, construct their own firing chambers (kilns), gather their own firewood and even sell their own products.

Little wonder then that the objects that have passed through the ages now command such respect from us; respect for their art and craft, for those anonymous, ancient potters, of whom we know so little.

The world’s oldest known pottery

The world’s oldest known pottery was found in Xianrendong in southern China in 2012. “Pottery making introduces a fundamental shift in human dietary history, and Xianrendong demonstrates that hunter-gatherers in East Asia used pottery for some 10,000 years before they became sedentary or began cultivating plants.” Read the story of its discovery here.