Ceramics vs. pottery, what’s the difference? Are they the same thing? These are common questions about these seemingly similar products. There are clear distinctions, but also some blurry lines.
What Is the Difference Between Ceramics vs Pottery?
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of ceramics vs. pottery is probably clay. However, this is only part of the answer.
The short answer is that pottery is a type of ceramics. So, all pottery is ceramics, but not all ceramics are pottery.
Pottery has a pretty narrow definition when it comes to the material and shape of the product. Meanwhile, ceramics include countless products made from different materials.
The exact differences between ceramics vs. pottery are a bit more complex than that. So, an in-depth look at each is in order.
What Are Ceramics?
Ceramics are products made from non-metal inorganic materials that go through permanent changes as a result of heat treatment. This is what makes ceramics suitable for the typical uses, such as kitchenware and wall tiles.
Since clay is the most widely used ceramics ingredient, it makes a great example of how this works. Clay is a soft, sticky compound that’s easy to shape because of its water content.
However, this water makes it soft. Even after drying, clay will only absorb new water, which will soften it or make it dissolve. Therefore, people fire the clay.
When clay reaches a temperature of 660 degrees Fahrenheit, or 350 degrees Celsius, the structure permanently changes. It has now become ceramic and won’t ever dissolve in water. Since many of the oldest uses for ceramics revolved around containing liquids, that’s a game-changer.
Once fired, a ceramic material has a fixed shape. There’s no way to un-fire ceramics.
These days, there are more ceramic materials than simple clay. Examples include zinc, silica, zirconium oxide, and various transition metal oxides. The latter ones often create semi-conductive ceramics, which gives them different uses than typical ceramics, which are insulators.
Glazed ceramics have a glass coating, usually made from silica. The glaze makes them glossy and more resistant.
Examples of ceramic products
These advanced ceramics often serve completely different purposes than that of pottery or art. For example, they make up crucial components of spaceships, where they serve to insulate everything from the intense heat of entering the atmosphere.
Other examples are knives and frying pans, engine parts, and even body armor. So, the properties of ceramics can vary a lot from the typical brittleness of ceramic clay or porcelain.
Then, there are things like ferroelectric and piezoelectric ceramics. Subjecting a ferromagnetic ceramic mix to a polarized charge creates piezoceramics, which converts mechanical energy into electricity and vice versa.
These materials are excellent for creating various sensors and ultrasonic transducers. Since ceramics have different properties than the metals and crystals usually used in these components, they allow for different uses where only ceramics are viable.
More classic ceramic products are things like plates, vases, sculptures, and tiles. You’ll find them all over the typical household, both in the house and in the garden. Almost anything made from a heat-hardened material that isn’t metal counts as ceramics.
That ties in with the core difference between ceramics vs. pottery. Pottery is so much more specific than this.
What Is Pottery?
Pottery is the oldest form of ceramics. Although all pottery belongs under the label of ceramics, the opposite is not true.
As the name implies, pottery revolves around pots. The definition isn’t quite that narrow, but it gives us a good idea.
Works of pottery all fill purposes similar to that of a pot. Mugs, decanters, flower pots, and bowls are some examples. They’re all containers of different kinds, which is essential to the definition.
Also, pottery always consists of fired clay, also known as terra cotta. Some argue that glazed pottery technically doesn’t belong under this category, although others would beg to differ.
Also, pottery naturally develops a glaze at very high temperatures. So, it can be hard to tell the difference between naturally glossy high-quality pottery and low-quality ceramic containers with supplemental glaze.
However, there are different subtypes of clay pottery, as well. For example, porcelain and stoneware are both forms of pottery. But not everything made from those materials counts as pottery.
Do you still find the whole ceramics vs. pottery thing confusing? Don’t worry; it’ll make perfect sense soon.
What about clay sculptures?
You may have seen pottery classes where people intermittently make sculptures on their pottery wheels between the typical pots and vases. Would this count as pottery?
Unless it can serve as a container, the answer is no. Technically, this also applies to many ceramic clay products that would usually come with a set of pottery. Coasters, for example.
So, making clay figures and terra cotta decorations doesn’t count as pottery. However, it is an example of ceramics.
Ceramics vs. Pottery – The Process
The process of making ceramics vs. pottery is another significant difference. As before, the pottery example is also an example of ceramics, but not vice versa.
How to make pottery
Essentially, a pottery wheel is like a small worktable that rotates. Older models have a disk at foot level, which you kick to keep the clay spinning. Modern designs usually have foot pedals that make everything easier and more consistent.
As the lump of clay spins around, you shape it with your hands or sometimes with a tool. This way, you get smooth and generally symmetrical pots and similar containers.
By gently pressing down in the middle, you create the mouth of the pot or bowl, or whatever you’re making. Cupping the sides evens out the shape. Then, you can move up and down and vary the pressure to alter the shape. There’s a reason why people think it’s fun.
When you’ve shaped the clay to your liking, you move it to the kiln. Here, it’ll heat up to the right temperature and then slowly cool down to give you a finished piece of pottery. After this, you may paint it.
How to make other ceramics
There are various procedures and techniques for creating ceramics. From the base materials to the heat treatment and additives, it’s a pretty diverse class of materials.
For example, people often add a stain to their ceramic mix. This colors the finished product. Structural enhancements made from non-ceramic materials are also pretty common. Lastly, the glaze finish is another common element of most ceramics.
Although a pottery wheel is great for many ceramics, it’s only suitable for certain things. If you don’t want something rounded and symmetrical, it’s the wrong approach. Ceramics manufacturers often use molds and casts to produce their products.
Many of the methods used for metal and glasswork are also suitable for many types of ceramics. So, the differences between ceramics vs. pottery are vast in this regard.
What Are Some Common Types of Ceramics and Pottery?
As we mentioned, clay is the most common material used in pottery and ceramics. However, different types of fired clay exist. Therefore, it’s wise to get familiar with these types of ceramic clay to get a better understanding of ceramics vs. pottery.
If you fire your clay at a temperature lower than 1,200 degrees Celsius (2,192 Fahrenheit), you make earthenware. Usually, temperatures are significantly lower than this upper limit. This is the original ceramic that ancient people used, and it’s still the standard for bricks and tableware.
Earthenware is a nonvitreous material. In other words, it doesn’t have a natural glaze of its own, although manufacturers usually paint and glaze it after firing.
Also, it’s quite porous, and therefore, pretty fragile. Plus, liquids can seep through the porous structure. However, that doesn’t matter if there’s a glaze. This harder finish makes the vessel waterproof.
Stoneware is ceramic clay fired at temperatures above 1,200 degrees Celsius. This intense heat vitrifies the clay, essentially turning it into a form of glass. It’s like comparing porous lava rock to hardened obsidian. You can easily see the change since the object gains a shiny surface.
As the name implies, stoneware is much denser and harder than ordinary terra cotta. It’s non-porous, which makes it durable and waterproof. Therefore, it’s a common material for pottery and all sorts of kitchenware.
Since stoneware has its own glaze, anything added to the surface is only a visual element. Often, people leave stoneware unpainted to show off the natural, usually reddish-brown hue of the clay.
Regarding the matter of ceramics vs. pottery, stoneware can also be both. It depends entirely on the final product.
Another tough nut to crack regarding ceramics vs. pottery is porcelain. Porcelain, also known as china, is a very hard white ceramic. It consists of fine white clay mixed with powdered feldspar, granite, and silica. The stronger type, known as bone china, also contains powdered bones.
Most porcelain also counts as stoneware, although some types of china count as earthenware. True porcelain, also known as hard-paste, requires temperatures between 1,200 and 1,450 degrees Celsius. That’s over 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit.
The result is a very hard white ceramic. Its glass-like structure becomes obvious when you hold a thin piece up to a light source. It’s semi-transparent.
You may be wondering, “Why do they call it china?” Well, porcelain first appeared in China sometime around 1,600 BC. It took a long time before people started importing and creating this material elsewhere, which is why people named it after the country of origin.
What about the ceramics vs. pottery aspect then? It can vary. Although porcelain is a common material for pots and other containers, it usually doesn’t technically doesn’t count as true pottery. And the main use of porcelain these days is in the production of sinks and toilets.
Sometimes, a potter or artist may use something called slip to create interesting shapes and patterns. Slip is a slurry of clay, liquid, and various additives. Pure clay slip exists, as does slip that contains no clay.
Where does it place in the ceramics vs. pottery distinction? Well, it depends on the composition of the slip. If it’s just a dissolved clay material, the result counts as pottery. Otherwise, it may not, but it depends on the amount of slip and the person you ask.
You add the slip when the main ceramic has reached a hardness similar to leather. You can paint it on, splash it across the surface, add little shapes of thick slip, or dunk the whole project in the slip.
What can you do with slips? Well, you can create patterns and images. Alternatively, you can add shapes or textures to your pottery using the best glue for ceramic too. You can even do all of the above. Slip often has different colors than the main material and glaze.
The Bottom Line
The easiest way to summarize the matter of ceramics vs. pottery is that pottery is one form of ceramics. It’s the oldest and simplest form, and it always results in containers made of clay. Clay ceramics can come in a variety of forms, such as earthenware and stoneware.
Ceramic covers far more than clay pots. Various ceramics with different properties are useful for everything from knife-making to space engineering and interior design.
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