Digitalfire Ceramic Glossary

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Firing Shrinkage

All clays shrink during drying. Most people that have anything to do with using plastic clay will note that the drying shrinkage increases as does plasticity, and with that increase comes more drying cracks. This happens because plastic clays have finer particle sizes and thus greater particle surface area and more inter-particle water holding things together. As that water is removed during drying, the resultant particle packing shrinks the entire mass more. Notwithstanding this, testing effort can reward you with sweet-spots in formulation (in mixes of ball clay, kaolin, feldspar, silica for example) where higher-than-expected plasticity can be achieved with lower-than-expected drying shrinkage.

Drying shrinkage can easily be measured (see test procedures linked on this page), this enables you to compare one clay with another. From this value you can infer things about relative plasticity and particle size. The shrinkage measurement results are more meaningful when methods of sample preparation and water content or stiffness are controlled and when they are done as a matter of routine over time. It is not always practical to make shrinkage test bars, some clays shrink so much and dry so slowly (e.g. bentonite, ball clay) that the raw powder must be mixed with a calcined version of itself or with a non-plastic (like silica). Other clays can lack plasticity and make it difficult to roll and form test bars.

Fired shrinkage (shrinkage from dry to fired) is a comparative indicator of the degree of vitrification. As a clay is fired higher it shrinks more and more to a point of maximum shrinkage (after which swelling occurs as a precursor to melting). If fired shrinkages are measured over a range of temperatures for a body it is possible to create a graph to get a visual representation of the body's maturing range. The shrinkage plotted against temperature produces a line that increases to a maximum, levels out and then drops off. As noted, fired shrinkages are relative within a system, there is no absolute of how much a clay should shrink when fired. It is common for whitewares to shrink 7-8% during firing, vitreous porcelains more than 10%. Again, these percentages are not total shrinkage pugged-to-fired, but dry-to-fired. Stonewares might shrink 5-6%, earthenwares 3-4% or less. Some special purpose sintered bodies have very low shrinkages (almost zero).

It is very important to consider firing shrinkage when adopting an engobe to fit a clay body. If they do not shrink the same amount the engobe will be either excessively compressed for excessively stretched on to the body below. While some incompatibility can be tolerated an overgraze having an unmatched thermal expansion can be a cause of failure in the bond between engobe and body. The firing shrinkage is normally adjusted by changing the amount of frit or feldspar in the engobe recipe.

Developing an efficient way to make, fire, measure, boil and weigh test bars is a key to being able to study fired shrinkage of your bodies and body materials. You can use an account at to learn how to do this and log and report your results.


Scale, calipers and fired test bars to be measured for shrinkage

These are part of the procedure for the SHAB test. The length of the bars is entered into a recipe record in your account at When Insight-live has these numbers it can calculate the drying and fired shrinkages.

The white one feels smoother, but it is actually far coarser. Why?

Large particle kaolin (left) and small-particle ball clay (right) DFAC drying disks demonstrate the dramatic difference in drying shrinkage and performance between these two extremes (these disks are dried with the center portion covered to set up a water content differential to add stresses that cause cracking). These materials both feel super-smooth, in fact, the white one feels smoother. But the ultimate particles tell the opposite story. The ball clay particles (grey clay) are far smaller (ten times or more). The particles of the kaolin (white) are flatter and lay down as such, that is why it feels smoother.

Particle size drastically affects drying performance

These are DFAC drying performance tests of Plainsman A2 ball clay at 10 mesh (left) and ball milled (right). This test dries a flat disk that has the center section covered to delay its progress in comparison to the outer section (thus setting up stresses). Finer particle sizes greatly increase shrinkage and this increases the number of cracks and the cracking pattern of this specimen. Notice it has also increased the amount of soluble salts that have concentrated between the two zones, more is dissolving because of the increased particle surface area.

Stonewares dry better than porcelains

The plastic porcelain has 6% drying shrinkage, the coarse stoneware has 7%. They dried side-by-side. The latter has no cracking, the former has some cracking on all handles or bases (the lower handle is completely separated from the base on this one). Why: The range of particle sizes in the stoneware impart green strength. The particles and pores also terminate micro-cracks.

How to test drying and firing compatibility between engobe and body

I have made bi-body strips for testing to tune a white slip for a terra cotta clay body (about 4 mm thick). They need to shrink a similar amount in drying and firing to be as compatible as possible. Here, the white body needs more plastic clay or a bentonite addition to shrink more. It also needs a little less frit or a coarser silica to shrink a little less on firing (pending porosity tests to match their fired density). Amazingly, the fired bars break much more easily one way that the other, because on one side the clay is being stretched (and ceramic does not do well under tension).

How can you test if an engobe fits your clay body?

This is part of a project to fit a fritted vitreous engobe (slip) onto a terra cotta at cone 02 (it fires harder there). Left: On drying the red body curls the bi-clay strip toward itself, but on firing it goes the other way! Right: Test bars of the white slip and red body compare their drying and firing shrinkages. Center back: A mug with the white slip and a transparent overglaze. Notice the slip is going translucent under the glaze. Why? It is too vitreous. That explains how it can curl the bi-clay bars toward itself (it has a higher fired shrinkage). So rather than add zircon to opacify the slip, it is better to reduce its frit content (thereby reducing its firing shrinkage). Reducing the frit in the slip will also make it more opaque (because it will melt less). Front: A different, more vitreous red body (having a frit addition) fits the slip better (the strips dry and fire straight).

When two clays are joined are they compatible?

These bi-body strips are made by rolling two clays together in a thin sandwich. Three porcelains are being compared to a very plastic grogged sculpture body. After drying (top) they curl a little, two toward the sculpture body and one, the most plastic of the porcelains, toward the white. But on firing to cone 8 they curl dramatically toward the porcelain side (because it shrinks alot more). Now imagine one of these porcelains is being used as a slip on this body.

Stacking of SHAB clay test bars for firing

OM#4 ball clay test bars fired from cone 4-10 oxidation and cone 10 reduction. The yellow on bar 12 is iron stained soluble salts.

Example of firing test bars stacked into an electric kiln for firing.

What really is Barnard Slip?

These are fired bars of Barnard Slip going from cone 04 (bottom) to cone 6 (top). It is melting at cone 6. Porosity is under 3% and the fired shrinkage above 15% from cone 1 upward. Drying shrinkage is 4% at 25% water (it is very non-plastic). The darkness of the fired color suggests higher MnO than our published chemistry shows.

How much does a porcelain piece shrink on firing?

Left: Dry mug. Right: Glazed and fired to cone 6. This is Polar Ice porcelain from Plainsman Clays. It is very vitreous and has the highest fired shrinkage of any body they make (14-15% total). This is the highest firing shrinkage you should ever normally encounter with a pottery clay.

Double-slip layer incised decoration: A challenge in slip-body fitting

An example of a white engobe (L3685T) applied over a red clay body (L3724F), then a red engobe (also L3724F) applied over the white. The incised design reveals the white inter-layer. This is a tricky procedure, you have to make sure the two slips are well fitted to the body (and each other), having a compatible drying shrinkage, firing shrinkage, thermal expansion and quartz inversion behavior. This is much more complex that for glazes, they have no firing shrinkage and drying shrinkage only needs to be low enough for bisque application. Glazes also do not have quartz inversion issues.

Test bars of different terra cotta clays fired at different temperatures

Bottom: cone 2, next up: cone 02, next up: cone 04. You can see varying levels of maturity (or vitrification). It is common for terra cotta clays to fire like this, from a light red at cone 06 and then darkening progressively as the temperature rises. Typical materials develop deep red color around cone 02 and then turn brown and begin to expand as the temperature continues to rise past that (the bottom bar appears stable but it has expanded alot, this is a precursor to looming rapid melting). The top disk is a cone 10R clay. It shares an attribute with the cone 02 terra cotta. Its variegated brown and red coloration actually depends on it not being mature, having a 4-5% porosity. If it were fired higher it would turn solid chocolate brown like the over-fired terra cotta at the bottom.

How much does the size of a piece change when it is bisque fired? Glaze fired?

Three mugs. Dry. Bisque fired. Glaze fired. Notice the shrinkage at each stage (these were the same size in the dry state).

A clay that has negative shrinkage during the glaze firing

It seems impossible but that is what happens with this one at cone 03. This is a native material that was found on the banks of the South Saskatchewan river near Hayes, Alberta (and brought to me for testing). Even when fired to maturity (around cone 2) it still has 10% porosity! This specific sample has even been ball milled for hours and it still does not shrink. And it still feels sandy on the potters wheel. It also has incredible dry strength, the highest I have ever seen. Yet its drying shrinkage is still less than 7% (that of a typical plastic pottery clay). Plus it has very high plasticity. This behavior defies logic, I have found a good explanation.

Out Bound Links

  • (Glossary) Ultimate Particles

    Processed ceramic materials are typically ground t...

  • (Articles)

    The Physics of Clay Bodies

    Learn to test your clay bodies and recording the results in an organized way and understanding the p...

  • (Glossary) Porosity

    In ceramic testing this term generally refers to t...

  • (Glossary) Engobe

    A white or colored slip applied to clay as a coati...

  • (Tests) SHAB - Shrinkage/Absorption
  • (Glossary) Vitrification

    Vitrification is the solidification of a melt into...

In Bound Links

  • (Project) Ceramic Tests Overview

    Every ceramic production facility should have some...

  • (Tests) FSHR - Firing Shrinkage
  • (Tests) DSHR - Drying Shrinkage
  • (Glossary) Drying Performance

    Refers to the ability of a clay to dry without cra...

By Tony Hansen

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