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What is Stoneware?

Stoneware is a term for dense pottery that has been fired at a high temperature to make it impermeable to liquids. It is made from clay, but is more durable than other kinds of pottery and earthenware.

It is named for its stone-like characteristics and used in common household items like steins, crocks and mugs. What sets stoneware apart from other items like porcelain or traditional earthenware though? There are several factors distinguishing stoneware from other types of ceramics and pottery.

What is the difference between ceramics and pottery?

Both pottery and ceramics involve clay. Clay is made of fine mineral particles that are malleable when wet but harden when dried. Clay has been used to create pottery and ceramics all over the world by multiple civilizations since the Stone Age.

Early earthenware

The biggest difference between ceramics and pottery is that traditionally, pottery contains only clay. In pottery, clay is formed into a shape or object and heated to a high temperature, which removes all water and melts the minerals within the clay. The process permanently changes the clay body and increases its hardness and strength.

On the other hand, ceramics can include clay and other other materials, such as glazes or compounds. Ceramics are also fired at higher temperatures to improve their durability and prevent porousness.

According to the American Society for Testing and Materials, pottery is “all fired ceramic wares that contain clay when formed, except technical, structural and refractory products.”

Therefore, all ceramics are pottery, but not all pottery are ceramics.

There are three different types of pottery: earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. They vary based on the types of clay used to make them and the temperatures at which they are fired.

How can I make pottery at home?

While most people don't have access to a kiln to fire their own ceramics, you can make your own pottery at home in a few simple steps.

First, you'll need to find some clay. Oven-bake clay is found at most craft stores in numerous colors and brands, including natural and white. This clay has a slightly different composition from the clay we use for our stoneware, so you'll be able to work it relatively easy without adding water or needing extreme temperatures.

To get started, knead and warm the clay to make it easier to manipulate. After that, you can shape it into any object you want, including bowls or pots. We recommend using a nonstick surface to make the cleanup easier once you're done. You can also use tools like sewing needles, knives and toothpicks to add small details to your pottery.

Never try to fire pottery in your oven like it's ceramic. Attempting to do so in most kitchen ovens can potentially cause a fire, especially since ceramic firing the way Sunset Hill Stoneware does it requires temperatures of over 1000°F. Oven-bake clay temperature requirements change depending on the brand of clay, but most require between 200-300°F to properly harden. The process usually takes 30 minutes or less, but the baking times may vary.

As a general rule, you should not try to use your homemade pottery for holding or storing food or beverages. They're great for holding keys and office supplies, but food could be contaminated since the pottery is not glazed.

How do Earthenware, Stoneware and Porcelain differ?

Earthenware is the oldest type of pottery, dating as far back as the Stone Age. Traditionally, earthenware is fired at lower temperatures than other types of pottery and does not require a kiln.

Earthenware is porous and less durable than stoneware or porcelain, meaning they absorb some of the liquid they store and are prone to shattering. In ancient times, earthenware that was used to transport perishable liquids such as olive oil could not be reused because the absorbed liquids would go bad.

Sunset Hill Stoneware in a kiln

To make earthenware nonporous, or impermeable to liquid, it needs to be coated in a glaze that hardens and gives it a glassy finish when fired in a kiln a second time.

Stoneware was developed after the invention of earthenware and is fired at higher temperatures than its predecessor. Stoneware is fired in kilns at temperatures ranging from 2,010°F to 2,370°F, hotter than lava from an erupting volcano. The high temperature forges the stoneware's durability.

Stoneware pottery is strong, hard, opaque and nonporous. It does not absorb its contents. Many stoneware pieces made in centuries past were household items such as bowls, jugs, jars, crocks and other containers to store water, oils, food and other ingredients.

Glazes can be applied to stoneware before the final firing stage to add color, strength and beauty. The high firing temperature fuses the glaze to the clay, creating a permanent, durable surface. This surface is similar to having a layer of reinforcing glass over the clay.

White porcelain teacupOriginating in China, porcelain is made with a fine-quality white clay called kaolin and is fired at temperatures higher than earthenware and stoneware, up to 2600°F. Porcelain is strong, has a nonstick, non-porous smooth surface, possesses some translucent qualities and is impermeable to liquids.

Unlike earthenware and stoneware, glazing is not required in order for porcelain to be nonporous. However, it's sometimes glazed for decoration and to make the white material resist staining.

Porcelain is known for its delicateness and has been used for centuries as plates, food containers, statues and figurines. Some lesser-known uses for porcelain also include electrical insulation materials and as floor or ceiling tiles in construction.

What is the history of stoneware?

The earliest stoneware was made by the Indus Valley Civilization in 1900 BC, in what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan and northwestern India. Other early examples throughout history were made during the Shang dynasty, which ruled in China from 1600 BC–1046 BC. Their stoneware was glazed and fired in kilns and was designed to store food, liquids and spices.

Early 20th century stoneware bottles

Even earlier examples of stoneware have been discovered at archaeological sites in China dating back to the Paleolithic era, more than 10,000 years ago.

Considerable amounts of stoneware were imported to America from Germany and Great Britain in the late 1600s. The earliest dated production of stoneware in colonial America was around 1720 in Philadelphia; Yorktown, Virginia; and New York City. Glazes were used to decorate stoneware, along with stenciled, hand-painted or dipped designs to mark the contents or manufacturer.

Before refrigeration, stoneware was used to bottle and store beverages and condiments, as well as keep the contents cool and extend its shelf life. Its impermeability to liquids was vital for preserving food during the winter months and throughout the year.

How is stoneware made today?

Thousands of years after its earliest examples were created, stoneware is still made in pottery shops and studios all over the world. Several methods of creating stoneware exist in the present day, all of which start with either naturally occurring stoneware clay or other clay varieties.

Molding

For stoneware, molding refers to the act of inserting clay into a mold before glazing or firing it. Similar processes are used in manufacturing to produce a wide variety of goods at scale.

To create mugs, steins and other stoneware products with this process, a plaster mold is created with a portion hollowed out in the shape of the final product. A liquid slurry of clay and water, called slip, is poured into the hole and allowed to harden around the edge of the mold. After the outer edge of the slurry has solidified, the liquid interior is poured out and the hardened mug is removed. It can then be dried and potentially fired in a kiln for added durability.

Given that the process makes it relatively easy and inexpensive to produce uniform products, molding is a popular method in the mass-production of pottery. Printed mugs are frequently made with this method as well, so there are numerous options for decoration by heat pressing or sublimation printing. However, a chief complaint with molded ceramics is that they lose their decoration easily with regular use.

Slipcasting

Similar to molding, slipcasting is a process that involves pouring liquid clay into a mold and allowing it to form a cast on the inside of the mold. Unlike other methods of creating pottery, slipcasting allows for the creation of more intricate shapes that can't consistently be made or mass-produced on a pottery wheel.

Once the clay is poured into the mold, it is given time to harden and form its hollow cast until it can retain its shape when handled. This can take several hours to complete and is sometimes done overnight, depending on the humidity and overall weather outside. After the piece is completely dried, it is ready to be glazed and put into the kiln for firing.

While slipcasting does allow for shapes that can't easily be mass-produced by hand, slipcast pottery is fragile compared to products made with other methods. The stoneware is easier to break and generally don't withstand high temperatures, so they're not always safe for use in the dishwasher, microwave or oven.

Wheel throwing

Wheel throwing is popularly associated with pottery and ceramics. The wheel-throwing process for stoneware is always done by hand, although the mechanism for turning the wheel can be human-powered, motor-powered or both depending on the potter's preferences.

The term "wheel throwing" comes from the beginning of the process, wherein a lump of wet clay is literally thrown onto the top of a pottery wheel. The clay is then centered in the middle of the wheel and formed, using water and the potter's wet hands to form the clay into the desired shape.

Once the potter has shaped the clay into the requested piece, it's cut from the pottery wheel with a thin metal wire, such as cheese wire, and smoothed and trimmed along the bottom. Soon after, the mug, stein or bowl can be fitted with a handle or outer decorations such as a medallion.

Stoneware is often fired in a kiln twice in order to make it more durable, but it must first be allowed to air dry so the clay can harden and the water in it can evaporate. If an excessive amount of water is still in the clay body, the stoneware could shatter in the kiln. Bisque-firing, which is the first round of firing wheel-thrown stoneware, allows the clay to fuse and harden for added durability and removes any remaining water.

After bisque-firing, the stoneware can be coated in mineral-based glazes if desired, which further adds to its durability by adding a tough, glass-like layer to the outside of the product. During the second and final firing, the glaze hardens and changes color, resulting in the end product.

How is stoneware used today?

DSC07161-EditToday, stoneware is sturdy and meant to be used for serving foods or beverages, and baking. It is used for drinking vessels, serving dishes and cookware, because it can withstand the temperatures of a conventional oven. It holds heat well and distributes it evenly, which is important in baking.

Unlike other forms of pottery, stoneware resists chipping and can often last for decades even with daily use. Because of its durability and heat resistance, stoneware can be placed in the dishwasher and microwave. It can also

Stoneware endures the test of time and is often passed down from generation to generation. On our website, there are different types and styles of stoneware for every taste, and they can be customized with stamped logos and graphics.

See your artwork on a medallion