What is Pottery Clay?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Clay is a fine-grained aggregate of hydrous silicate particles. It is usually formed by chemical weathering or hydrothermal activity and is defined by geologists by the size of the grain, as well as the content. Clay is plastic when wet, but firm when dry.

Pottery making can be a very messy hobby.
Pottery making can be a very messy hobby.

Pottery clay is the clay used to make the three categories of pottery: earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. If baked by intense heat, a process known as firing that is undertaken in a special oven called a kiln, it becomes permanently solid. Firing is used both to harden all three types of pottery and to adhere glaze to it or otherwise permanently color it.

Earthenware clay is usually pulled from river beds.
Earthenware clay is usually pulled from river beds.

Earthenware — including faience, delft, and majolica — is pottery made from porous pottery clay fired at low temperatures. Because it is fired at low heat, the clay does not lose its porous nature and does not become translucent.

Stoneware is fired at high temperature, and so becomes nonporous. Jasper ware and basalt ware – both developed by English potter Josiah Wedgwood in the eighteenth century, are examples of stoneware. Stoneware tends towards a grayish color when fired, and though vitrified, is more opaque than porcelain. Porcelain, also called china, is fired using very high heat, resulting in a white, nonporous, translucent pottery.

Different types of pottery are made from different types of pottery clay, including kaolin, ball clay, stoneware clay, glacial clay, slip clay, and bentonite. These types of pottery clay differ in color, plasticity, and firing properties, and they are found in different parts of the country. After firing, clay pottery can be used for many kinds of items. The type of clay chosen will depend on the type of object being made. There are so many types of clay products, requiring different clay properties, that choosing the component pottery clay is an important part of a potter's work.


  • jugs
  • pitchers
  • planters
  • tea pots
  • vases


  • bowls
  • goblets
  • mugs
  • napkin rings
  • plates and dishes
  • saucers
  • tea cups


  • candle holders
  • fountains
  • jewelry
    • beads
    • bracelets
    • brooches
    • earrings
    • necklaces
    • rings
  • lamps
  • sculpture
  • tiles

Architectural Items

  • chimney pots
  • mosaics
  • murals
  • plaques
  • wall pots


  • casserole dishes
  • cookie jars
  • mixing bowls
  • pie plates
  • pots
  • salad bowls
  • trays

Musical Instruments

  • bugles
  • didgeridoos
  • drums
    • bongos
    • djembes
    • doumbeks
    • finger drums
    • gattams
    • klong yaw
    • talking drums
    • Udu drums
  • flutes
  • horns
  • maracas
  • ocarinas
  • pipe organs
  • shakers
  • whistles
  • wind chimes


  • dolls
  • dreidels and other tops
  • jumping jacks
  • rattles


  • bricks
  • door trim
  • fireplaces
  • hearths
  • sinks and other bathroom fixtures
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@ahain - Porcelain, unlike many kinds of potter's clay, is a liquid before it gets poured into a mold. This liquid porcelain is called porcelain slip. I suggest you check your grandmother's supplies that she left you for any bottles of porcelain slip before going out and buying some, as it sounds like you were expecting a box of clay or something.

If there is no porcelain slip, you can order some that is ideal for porcelain doll making by looking at ceramics sites that specialize in porcelain doll making. Really, if they are marked as used for porcelain doll making, they should work with your molds -- the real concern is making sure that you pick the right slip color for the style and era of doll that you're making.

That is, if you're worried about making a period recreation doll -- if you're just doing this for fun (and you probably should do that for your first doll), don't sweat the details and just pick what ever you like best.

Good luck -- it's cool to hear that you're keeping your grandmother's memory alive by carrying on the porcelain doll making hobby!


Porcelain doll making is something that my grandmother used to do for a living, and her finished pieces are beautiful work. When she passed away, she left me and my sisters a bunch of porcelain doll making supplies -- molds, paint, doll wigs, doll clothing, patterns for more doll clothing -- but there isn't any pottery clay included.

I'm assuming that they take some form of porcelain, but since I have no experience with this, I figured I had better ask someone before I try using the materials. Are there different kinds of porcelain? If so, which kind should I use for porcelain doll making? Thank you.


As someone who makes clay art pottery using a potter's wheel, let me tell you, wet pottery clay is awesome stuff! For a potter's wheel, the clay must be much wetter than it would be if you were working it only be hand. The potter's wheel rotates the piece you're working on around in a circle, and you hold your hands out and let the movement sculpt the shape of the piece. It's a very calming and relaxing hobby to have.

When I first tried making pottery I did the by-hand method where you just squish the clay around like you're playing with Play-Doh, but the results always looked kind of lumpy and have fingerprints embedded in them. I wasn't happy with the results, but thankfully I didn't give up -- instead, I tried out different kinds of pottery clay.

When I went to the store and bought one particular kind that was wetter, the store employee there told me that it was meant to be used on a potter's wheel. You can guess what happened next...I tried out the new clay and a potter's wheel, and I haven't looked back! If you're frustrated working with regular pottery clay, I highly recommend giving the wet potter's wheel variety a try.

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