Digitalfire Ceramic Glossary

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Particle Size Distribution

When minerals and mixtures of minerals are ground into a powder a particle size distribution is produced, that is, populations of particles of various sizes. The relative sizes of these populations can be measured to rationalize the behavior of the powder in the ceramic process.

Wide distributions of sizes in a clay, for example, produce the most density in the dried product. When the particles are all of similar sizes, a less dense matrix is produced. Clays of higher density are stronger in the dry form. Particle size distribution (PSD) measurements are an excellent way to characterize a material for quality control purposes. When problems occur in a ceramic process, particle size distribution information about the materials and body can help explain the causes. PSD information is also critical to spot wear in grinding equipment. Data sheets of most ceramic minerals contain at least some PSD information.


Ball clay powders were minus 200 mesh. Right? Wrong!

These are the oversize particles (from the 79, 100, 140 and 200 mesh sieves) from 100 grams of a commercial Gleason ball clay. They have been fired to cone 8 oxidation. There is 1.5 grams total, this is within the limits stated on their data sheet even though the material is sold as 200 mesh grade. Firing the samples shows whether the particles contain iron that will produce specking in porcelains and whiteware. In this case there are a few. We do this test on many materials and this is typical of what we see.

The same clay in lump and powder form. Which is heavier?

Which one of these samples weighs more, the raw lump form of the clay or after it has been ground into a powder? Wrong. It is the lumps. Even though there is all that empty air space between those lumps, there is even more air spaces in the powder. The top one weighs 1662 grams (there is a 500g counter-weight barely visible), the bottom one is 1255. The finer I grind it the lighter it will be. If I were to fill in all the voids between the lumps on the top one with smaller sized lumps I could get alot more weight yet! It works the same on the ultimate particle level, when we combine powders of varying particle sizes we get a more dense and stronger dried product.

Particle size distribution and root-of-two stack of sieves from 48-325 mesh

Skagit Fireclay PSD test

Particles from each category in a particle size distribution test of Skagit Fireclay

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.

Could these bentonite particles cause specking in a porcelain?

The stated particle size of a material and fired appearance can both be misleading. For example, these are Volclay 325 bentonite particles fired to cone 8 oxidation. They are from a water washed sieve analysis test, the oversize particles from a 325 mesh screen (left) make up 2% of the total and 1% are from the 200 mesh screen (right). Although the 325 particles appear ominously dark, individually they are likely to small to produce apparent fired specks in a porcelain. However 200 mesh sizes can produce visible fired specks, but that fraction of oversize does not have nearly as high iron or flux content. Still, the finer darker particles could agglomerate, it might be better to use a cleaner bentonite to plasticize a porcelain.

Large particle grogs are difficult to produce

These particles are from a grog that has been milled and separated into its constituent sizes in the lab. As you can see it has a wide range of particle sizes, from 48 to finer than 200 mesh. When fired ceramic (like bricks) is ground the finer sizes often predominate. Because the coarser grades have a lower yield they can be much more expensive and harder to get. But they are the most effective in reducing the drying shrinkage and fired stability of structural and sculptural bodies.

How small can clay crystals be?

Table salt crystals on a 60 mesh screen. It has an opening of 250 micro meters (these are the half of the crystals that passed this size). Notice on the right, several crystals are in the openings, about to fall through. Imagine that bentonite or ball clay crystals can be 0.1 um in diameter, that is 2500 times smaller on a side. That would be 2500x2500 on a layer the size of a salt crystal and the thickness of a clay crystal. Since the clay crystal is much thinner than wide, perhaps ten could stack to the same dimension. That means theoretically 2500x2500x25000 could pack into a grain of salt!

This is what labs use to measure particle size

To measure particle size in a slurry or powder you need sieves. This is the most popular type used in labs. They are made from brass by a company named Tyler. The range screen sizes for testing particle size is very wide. The top screen has an opening of 56 mm (that size and smaller pieces can fall through). The bottom sieve has an opening of 0.1 mm, the wires are almost too small to see. Coarser and finer sieves are available. You can buy these on ebay for a lot less than new ones, just search for tyler sieves. Keep in mind that the finer sieves (especially 325) are fragile and easily ripped. We use a series that bottoms out at 200.

This appears to be a drying crack, but it is not

This clay normally dries well, but not this time. Strangely, this crack is not at the handle join, it is penetrating into the mug wall. Actually, this is not a crack, it is a split. Excessive slip around the join was not removed, that is bad when a body has larger particles, they permit water left on the surface to penetrate inward and begin a split. An aggravating factor was that the handle was allowed to dry faster than the mug itself, pulling at this join and opening the split even more.

Oversize particles in a typical manufactured porcelain body

Example of the oversize particles from a 100 gram wet sieve analysis test of a powdered sample of a porcelain body made from North American refined materials. Although these materials are sold as 200 mesh, that designation does not mean that there are no particles coarser than 200 mesh. Here there are significant numbers of particles on the 100 and even 70 mesh screens. These contain some darker particles that could produce fired specks (if they are iron and not lignite); that goodness in this case they do not. Oversize particle is a fact of life in bodies made from refined materials and used by potters and hobbyists. Industrial manufacturers (e.g. tile, tableware, sanitaryware) commonly process the materials further, slurrying them and screening or ball milling; this is done to guarantee defect-free glazed surfaces.

A root-of-two series of test sieves

The coarsest screen is at the top, the finest on the bottom. The opening for each is shown on the label. They are chosen such that each successive screen going down has an opening that is about half the area of the one above it. Using this series you can produce a practical measurement of the distribution of particle sizes in ceramic materials and bodies used in traditional ceramics (structural products industries, like brick, measure coarser particles than this, starting at perhaps 10 mesh and ending at 70). The 325 screen on the bottom is only used sometimes, it is difficult to finer-that-325 particles to pass through it because it blinds. It is not possible to shake powder through sieves that are this fine, samples must be washed through.

Particle size and LOI determine behaviour of over-fired bodies

These are four terra cotta body disks that have been fired to cone 10 reduction. The fluxing action of the iron has assisted to take them well along in melting. Notice that one is hardly bubbling at all, it is Redart clay that has been ground to 200 mesh (the lower right one is a body mix of 200 mesh materials also containing it). The upper left one is bubbling alot more. Why? Not just because it is melted more (in fact, the one on the lower left is the most melted). It is a body made from clays that have been ground to 42 mesh. Among the particles are larger ones that generate gases as they decompose. Yes, the particles in the others do the same, but their smaller size enables earlier decomposition and expulsion of smaller gas amounts distributed at many more vents. Some bodies cannot be fired to a point of zero porosity, they will bubble before they get there.

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