Ceramic glaze opacity refers to the degree to which a glaze is non-transparent. Non-colored glazes can be either transparent, opaque or somewhere in between. Transparent glazes are glossy (matt glazes, by definition, are never completely transparent but they can be partly translucent to reveal underglaze decoration, for example). Opaque glazes are normally just transparent glazes with additions of light-reflecting opacifer particles that do not melt and dissolve into the glaze with the rest of the oxides (like tin oxide or zircon). Often, significant percentages of opacifier must be added to a transparent glaze to achieve complete opacity. Tin oxide is by far the most expensive, whiteness can be achieved with 7% or less (whereas at times 20% zircon opacifier is needed to get full opacity). But the bottom line with opacity is almost always zircon materials, they are the most practical. The finer the particle size the better they opacify. It is really quite amazing that such small particles can resist being dissolved into the glaze melt, this is a testament to how refractory they really are.
Does Zircon only whiten and opacify a clear glaze? No.
This melt flow tester demonstrates how zircon opacifys but also stiffens a glaze melt at cone 6. Zircon also hardens many glazes, even if used in smaller amounts than will opacify.
Al2O3 in glazes make them durable and wear resistant
The cone 6 glazes on the left have double the boron of those on the right so they should be melting much more. But they flow less because they have much higher Al2O3 and SiO2 contents. This effect renders them milky white vs. the transparent of those on the right. Why? Because G and H are trapping micro-bubbles because of the increased viscosity of the melt. In spite of this, the two on the left do fire almost transparent when applied to ware, they have enough fluidity to shed most of the bubbles when in a thin layer. The ones on the right are too fluid, they will run excessively on ware unless applied thinly. The sweet-spot is a little more fluidity than those on the left. But there is another very important factor: Durability. The increased Al2O3 in G and H make them fire harder, more resistant to abrasion. The added SiO2 adds resistance to leaching.
The action of Zircopax vs Tin Oxide at cone 10R
On Plainsman H443 iron stoneware in reduction firing. Notice Tin does not work. Also notice that between 7.5 and 10% Zircopax provides as much opacity as does 15% (Zircon is very expensive).
Too much frit in an engobe and it will lose opacity and whiteness
The white slip on the left is an adjustment to the popular Fish Sauce slip (L3685A: 8% Frit 3110 replaces 8% Pyrax to make it harder and fire-bond to the body better). The one on the right (L3685C with 15% frit) is becoming translucent, obviously it will have a higher firing shrinkage than the body (a common cause of shivering at lips and contour changes). The slip is basically a very plastic white body. Since these are not nearly as vitreous as red ones at low fire they need help to mature and a frit is the natural answer. With the right amount the fired shrinkage of body and slip can be matched and the slip will be opaque. This underscores the need to tune the maturity of an engobe to the body and temperature. Although zircon could be added to the one on the right to opacify and whiten it, that would not fix the mismatch in fired shrinkage between it and the body.
Boron blue in low fire transparent glazes
This high boron cone 04 glaze is generating calcium-borate crystals during cool down (called boron-blue). This is a common problem and a reason to control the boron levels in transparent glazes; use just enough to melt it well. If a more melt fluidity is needed, decrease the percentage of CaO. For opaque glazes, this effect can actually enable the use of less opacifier.
The covering power and opacity of an encapsulated stain
This cone 6 porcelain bowl has a black engobe inside and half way down the outside. This inside glaze is a transparent (G2926B) but the outside is that same transparent with 11% added encapsulated red stain. Notice that the glaze is so opaque that you cannot see where the black engobe ends and the while porcelain body begins!
The right amount of opacity highlights the incised design
The mug on the left is a commercial brushing glaze. The mechanism of this effect is that the glaze is much thinner on the edges of the design, thin enough that its opacity is mostly lost. The potter is attempting to mix her own equivalent (center and right). Her glaze adds 4% tin oxide to a transparent. However, as you can see, she has added too much. Further testing using lower percentages will find the right balance between the opacity needed to cover the brown body on the flat areas and the transparency needed to expose it on the contours.
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