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The term 'clay' is used in different ways. Potters often refer to their 'clays', these are typically recipes or mixtures of clay minerals, feldspar and quartz (more correctly these are clay bodies, or, just bodies). A lump of the material that has been mined from a deposit is also referred to as 'a clay'. However, it its strictest sense, the term 'clay' refers to flat microscopic particles from which that lump is composed. Actually, even more precisely, it refers to 'some of the particles' (since the lump will invariably have particles of many other minerals also). Clay particles have a surface chemistry that imparts an affinity for water (the other particles are just dead micro-rocks).

Clays occur when parent making rocks, referred to as 'clay-making minerals', break down physically (by weathering) and hydrate to form new mineral particles with new properties. This hydration involves insertion of complete water molecules into the crystal structure (whereas with most minerals oxides are converted to hydroxides on hydration).

Clays have plasticity. This property is a product of the fact that the surface chemistry attracts water electrolytically. The water thus becomes a glue and a lubricant that gives billions of particles the opportunity to express that collective property of plasticity.

From a mineral point of view, clays are hydrous-layer silicates of aluminum (kaolin is pure clay mineral, its chemistry is Al2O3.2SiO2). Clays have a wide range of particle sizes and shapes and mineralogies and these are related to the identity of parent rocks, mode of conversion and whether they are primary (on site of alteration) or secondary (moved by water or wind). These factors produce different tactile properties, plasticities and drying shrinkages. The different chemistries of clays and amounts of contaminants produce different firing behaviors (e.g. temperature of vitrification, color, strength, efflorescence).

Sometimes the data sheets of clay suppliers can miss the point of what their material really is. They do this by providing only the chemistry. But this does not answer questions like: Is it plastic? Does it have a fine particle size? Does it have a high soluble salts content? What is the porosity and fired shrinkage at various temperatures? What is the wet particle size distribution? What are the drying properties? What does it look like when fired to various temperatures?

Out Bound Links

  • (Glossary) Vitrification

    Vitrification is the solidification of a melt into a glass rather than a crystalline structure (crystallization). Glass, clay bodies and glazes vitrify, but in ceramics use of the term focuses most on clay bodies. Vitrification is a process. As clay is fired hotter and hotter, it reaches a point ...

  • (Glossary) Efflorescence

    A term describing the whitish or brownish scum (depending on iron content) left on the surface of a fired clay body (most often red earthenware or raw stoneware and fireclays). Many clays contain soluble sulphates that are left on the surface after having been left there by water that has subsequent...

  • (Glossary) Clay body

    For potters and in industry, the term "clay" is not specific enough, thus the term "body" is used. Clays are ingredients that can be found in glazes, engobes and in the body (but obviously bodies have a higher clay proportion than glazes). Thus there is danger of ambiguity when one refers to the bod...

  • (Materials) Ball Clay - Highly Plastic Fine Particle Clay
  • (Glossary) Porcelain

    Traditional utilitarian porcelains are comparatively white burning and vitreous clay bodies that are made from feldspar, clay and quartz. When fired, the feldspar flows and dissolves many of the other particles into a viscous glassy melt that bonds the quartz particles and, and if temperatures are s...

In Bound Links

  • (Materials) Kaolin - Al2O3.2SiO2 or Al2Si2O5(OH)4 - Hydrated alumina silicate, Pure clay mineral

    China Clay

  • (Glossary) Plasticity

    This term is used in reference to clays (or more often bodies which are blends of clay, feldspar and silica particles) and their ability to assume a new shape without any tendency to return to the old (elasticity). Plasticity is a product of the electrolytic character of flat clay particles (they ha...

By Tony Hansen

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