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In traditional ceramics, glazes are suspensions, not solutions. They are mixes of insoluble mineral, frit and/or stain particles that have been added to water to form a liquid useful in the ceramic process. That suspension is what confronts us in the bucket or tank, learning how to assess and control it is critical to any ceramic process.

The particles normally stay suspended in the slurries because of the presence of clay particles (e.g. kaolin, ball clay, bentonite or other clay like mineral whose particles have an electrolytic affinity for water). Clay particles typically form a 'house-of-cards' structure within the suspension because the particles are flat and have opposing electrolytic charges on their faces and edges. This structure holds other particles in suspension. The specific gravity, the types of the clay(s) used to suspend, the pH of the water and the nature of the interactions of particles of all materials present (according to their shapes, size, surface topologies, electrolytic character) interplay to determine the gelling, thixotropic and other rheological properties of the suspension. Organic binders and/or flocculants/deflocculants are often added to modify the natural suspension characteristics of the mix, the amount of water needed, the degree of dry hardness and the gel and viscosity behaviour.

Glazes used in large scale manufacturing must have a high specific gravity (e.g. 1.7) so they can go on thick in one coat and dry quickly with minimal shrinkage (because ware is not bisque fired). Most potters would find these impossible to use but industry has developed machinery that works with them. Those used in traditional pottery and functional applications, where the ware has been bisque fired, can, and should have a higher water content (a specific gravity as low as 1.4). This enables adding an agent to gel the slurry for easier and more even application, stays more stable over time and is easily adjusted if needed.

Glaze recipes almost always appear with no instructions about how much water to use. This is not entirely inappropriate since one of the variables is electrolyte levels in water, your water could flocculate or deflocculate it. Your working preferences are another variable. It is thus appropriate to develop or discover your best mixing procedure for the recipe. In addition, many recipes have anomalies that make them inherently difficult to use. Thus it is entirely appropriate to make certain modifications immediately. This is especially the case with clay content. Clays of course include kaolin, ball clay, other plastic clays, but also Gerstley Borate (it is highly plastic). Glazes for traditional ceramics work best with 15-20% kaolin (most common) or ball clay. Although you might not think that is enough, keep reading, you will see why. Certain kaolins and ball clays create better glaze slurries than others, substitute the one you have found works best (kaolin chemistries are very similar). If a glaze has 20% or more clay content then no bentonite is needed (remove it if present, you will see why below). If clay content exceeds 25% then shrinkage could be enough that the glaze will crack on drying. The solution is to use a mix of raw and calcined clay. Glazes having raw borate (like Gerstley Borate) often also contain significant kaolin, the combined amount can easily exceed 50%. They definitely do not need bentonite, rather, they need a reduction in plastic clay to reduce drying shrinkage. Substitute some or all of the kaolin with calcined kaolin (using 12% less, see the calcination page for why this is).

Sometimes settling properties of glazes can change dramatically by the addition of a material that would seem unrelated (e.g. a stain), in these cases that specific variation of the recipe must be treated as a special case to optimize its suspension properties.

The field of glaze rheology (suspension properties) is one of the most important applications of glaze chemistry. Why? Because, by using modern chemistry software, it is possible to maintain the chemistry (which determines fired properties) while adjusting the mix of materials that source the oxides to that chemistry. For example, Al2O3 can be sourced from a frit, a feldspar or a clay (or a different clay than the one in your recipe). The one you choose depends on which is better for the working and suspension properties you need. Optimizing the suspension properties of a glaze can have a dramatic impact on its ease-of-use, and in turn, the quality of the fired ware.

Most technicians, especially potters, do not realize that almost any glaze recipe, provided it does not contain too much raw clay, can be suspended and made into a beautiful-to-use slurry that applies evenly without drips. Even if it has almost no clay! How? By increasing water content and using a flocculant to gel the slurry (see the thixotropy page referenced below).

The ball clay you use to suspend your glaze is important!

The ball clay you use to suspend your glaze is important!

I poured 4 teaspoons of two glazes onto a board and let them sit for a minute, then inclined the board. The one with Gleason Ball clay (right, much higher in coal and finer particle size) has settled and the water on the top of running off. The one with Old Hickory #5 ball clay has not settled at all and the whole thing is running downward. Below I have begun to sponge them off. Old Hickory No. 1 Glaze Clay is even better than #5 for suspension. The most amazing thing about this: There is only 7% ball clay in the recipe.

Yikes, the glaze on the right is going on way too thick and drying too fast

Yikes, the glaze on the right is going on way too thick and drying too fast

Sometimes EP Kaolin is the best suspender in a glaze, sometimes it isn't. These are the same 85% fritted glaze. A (left) employs 15% Old Hickory #5 ball clay to suspend it, B (right) has 15% EPK. B settles quickly, demands low water content or it runs like water, it goes on very thick even if dipped quickly, it dries instantly and creates uneven thicknesses. By contrast, A goes on like silk, doesn't settle, dries evenly in about 10 seconds. What a difference! All simply because of using a different clay to suspend it.

Suspending pure feldspar and applying it as a glaze

Suspending pure feldspar and applying it as a glaze

Most people think that would be impossible. But it is not. This slurry will stay in suspension for days. How? It is flocculated using a tiny bit of epsom salts. Without the epsom salts it is watery and will settle in seconds. How does the slurry apply to this porcelain? Since it contains no clay it has complete permeability. Against the immersed bisque a layer builds very rapidly, pieces must be dipped and removed immediately. Does it dry hard enough to handle? Yes.

A pure silica suspension that behaves like a glaze. Is that possible? Yes.

A pure silica suspension that behaves like a glaze. Is that possible? Yes.

This slurry is just water and 295 mesh silica. I have mixed it to 1.79 specific gravity and it is creamy. It applies like a glaze to bisque ware (if I dip it fast) and goes on super smooth and even. It does settle, but only slowly. Unlike feldspar and nepheline syenite, if I thin it a little and add epsom salts or vinegar it does not gel, no matter how much I put in. The only response I can see is that it appears to settle out a little less. I was always taught that clay is needed to suspend things, every thing else will settle out like a rock if there is no clay present in the slurry. Of any material, this is one that I would have expected to settle out the fastest.

Two glazes. One crawls, the other does not. Why?

Two glazes. One crawls, the other does not. Why?

The glaze on the right is crawling at the inside corner. Multiple factors contribute. The angle between the wall and base is sharper. A thicker layer of glaze has collected there (the thicker it is the more power it has to impose a crack as it shrinks during drying). It also shrinks more during drying because it has a higher water content. But the leading cause: Its high raw clay content increases drying shrinkage. Calcining part of the raw clay is an effective way to deal with this. Or doing a little chemistry to source some Al2O3 from other materials than clay.

Fundamentals of Fluid Mechanics - book

Fundamentals of Fluid Mechanics - book

Many aspects of ceramic production relate to the control of fluids (mostly suspensions). This is also true of material production. If you want to solve problems and optimize your process this is invaluable knowledge. This book is available at amazon.com.

Out Bound Links

  • (Troubles) Glaze Crawling

    Ask yourself the right questions to figure out the real cause of a glaze crawling issue. Deal with the problem, not the symptoms.

  • (Videos) A Broken Glaze Meets Insight-Live and a Magic Material

    This is an outline transcript of the video. Use the link below to go to the video itself. The video is about this cone 10R rutile blue glaze (see close-up photo below) and how to fix its problems u...

  • (Troubles) Foaming of glaze slurries

    - UnDescribed

  • (Troubles) Powdering, Cracking and Settling Glazes

    Powdering and dusting glazes are difficult and a dust hazard. Shrinking and cracking glazes fall off and crawl. The cause is the wrong amount or type ...

  • (Glossary) Thixotropy

    Knowing about thixotropy will enable you to mix a glaze that stays in suspension much better. It does not drip alot when a piece is dipped into it. It goes on evenly and does not run. It dries quickly (on porous bisque) and is just much nicer to use. The secret to all of this is not intuitive. It in...

  • (Glossary) Calcine, Calcination

    The calcining process is used to remove some or all unwanted volatiles from a material (e.g. H2O, CO2, SO2) and/or to convert a material into a more stable, durable or harder state. Varying temperatures are employed to calcine various materials, depending on the decomposition temperature of the vol...

In Bound Links

  • (Videos) Fixing a Settling Glaze Slurry

    Change the recipe of a glaze to increase its clay content (and thereby improve its suspending properties) while maintaining the same chemistry (and therefore fired results). Transcript 1 Welco...

  • (Glossary) Slip

    In ceramics, this term can refer to a number of things: -A clay slurry poured into molds to be cast into shapes. The slip is deflocculated to minimize water content and fine tune viscosity. The deflocculation process involves using special chemicals that enable you to create a fluid clay-water slur...

  • (Glossary) Water

    There is a need to discuss water in ceramic production as it related to a number of natural phenomena and production processes: Plasticity: Clays are plastic because water glues and lubricates the particles. The micro-dynamics of this are complex. Rheology: Suspensions (solids:water systems) e...

By Tony Hansen

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