Pinholing is a common surface defect that occurs with ceramic glazes. The problem emerges from the kiln and can occur erratically in production.
A glaze defect where tiny holes are present in the fired glaze surface. These holes normally go down to the body surface below. Pinholing is a plague in industry, the tiniest hole in the glaze surface of a tile or utilitarian item can make it a reject. Industry goes to great pains to get materials of very fine particle size for their bodies and glazes to reduce the occurrence of glaze defects. They need to be sure that ware can survive their fast firing schedules.
Glazes that melt and flow well often still have pinholes if gas producing particles are present in the body (these expel gases up through the glaze melt thereby disturbing its surface). Thicker layers of glaze pinhole more than thinner ones. Blisters, dimples and pinholes often occur together. Fast firing produces more pinholes.
Potters and smaller operations have a universal solution that manufacturers do not: The freedom to use drop-and-hold and slow-cool firing schedules, these can produce a perfect glaze surface on almost any clay body. Reduction gas firing is known to produce much fewer glaze defects, the reason is often that the kiln, because of its mass, cools much slower.
Some glaze chemistries are much more prone to pinholing. For example, high Al2O3 and ZrO3 stiffen the glaze melt making it less able to heal defects.
This was a fast firing. The glaze is G2934, a silky matte. But that does not mean it is pinhole-prone, it has good melt mobility. The clay on the right is Plainsman Coffee Clay. It contains 10% raw umber, that generates plenty of gases during firing. The centre one is Plainsman M390, not normally difficult to fire defect-free. The left one, M332, should be the worst, but is the best! What is needed to fire these without pinholes? The drop-and-hold and slow-cool C6DHSC firing schedule. It is extra effort to program your kiln controller, but well worth it. If you don't have a kiln controller then by a little experimentation you can develop a switching pattern to produce the same effect.
First, the layer is very thick. Second, the body was only bisque fired to cone 06 and it is a raw brown burning stoneware with lots of coarser particles that generate gases as they are heated. Third, the glaze contains zircopax, it stiffens the melt and makes it less able to heal disruptions in the surface. Fourth, the glaze is high in B2O3, so it starts melting early (around 1450F) and seals the surface so the gases must bubble up through. Fifth, the firing was soaked at the end rather than dropping the temperature a little first (e.g. 100F) and soaking there instead.
The difference is a slow-cool firing. Both mugs are Plainsman M340 and have a black engobe inside and partway down on the outside. Both were dip-glazed with the GA6-B amber transparent and fired to cone 6. The one on the right was fired using the PLC6DS drop-and-hold schedule. That eliminated any blisters, but some pinholes remained. The one on the left was fired using the C6DHSC slow-cool schedule. That differs in one way: It cools at 150F/hr from 2100F to 1400F (as opposed to a free-fall). It is amazing how much this improves the brilliance and surface quality (not fully indicated by this photo, the mug on the left is much better).
These particles contaminating particles are exposed on the rim of a bisque fired mug. The liqnite ones have burned away but the iron particle is still there (and will produce a speck in the glaze). Remnants of the lignite remain inside the matrix and can pinhole glazes. Since ball clays are air floated (a stream of air takes away the lighter particles and the heavier ones recycle for regrinding) it seems that contamination like this would be impossible. But the equipment requires vigilance for correct operation, especially when there is pressure to maximize production. Ores in Tennessee are higher in coal than those in Kentucky. North American clay body manufacturers who confront ball clay suppliers with this contamination find that ceramic applications have become a very small part of the total ball clay market, complaints are not taken with the same seriousness as in the past.
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.
Pinholing on the inside of a cone 6 whiteware bowl. This is glaze G2926B. The cause is likely a combination of thick glaze layer and gas-producing particles in the body. Bodies containing ball clays and bentonites often have particles in the +150 and even +100 mesh sizes. The presence of such particles is often sporadic, thus it is possible to produce defect-free ware for a time. But at some point problems will be encountered. Companies in large production need to have fast firing schedules, so they either have to filter press or wet process these bodies to remove the particles. Or, they need to switch to more expensive bodies containing only kaolins and highly processed plasticizers. But potters have the freedom to use drop-and-hold or slow-cool firing schedules, that single factor can solve even serious pinholing issues.
Pinholing is often related to the smoothness of the underlying body surface. The lower half of this vase was tooled during the leather hard stage, all the pinholes occur there. Even though this body contains 10% grog, the pinholes are not appearing on the upper half because the slip generated during throwing has left a smooth surface.
Testing for pinholes and dimples is often best done using a transparent glaze over a large surface and looking at the surface in the light. In this case, an open bowl is used. Heavy pieces like this are difficult to fire evenly and encourage under fired areas where pinholes are more likely to appear.
These are 10 gram balls of four different common cone 6 clear glazes fired to 1800F (bisque temperature). How dense are they? I measured the porosity (by weighing, soaking, weighing again): G2934 cone 6 matte - 21%. G2926B cone 6 glossy - 0%. G2916F cone 6 glossy - 8%. G1215U cone 6 low expansion glossy - 2%. The implications: G2926B is already sealing the surface at 1800F. If the gases of decomposing organics in the body have not been fully expelled, how are they going to get through it? Pressure will build and as soon as the glaze is fluid enough, they will enter it en masse. Or, they will concentrate at discontinuities and defects in the surface and create pinholes and blisters. Clearly, ware needs to be bisque fired higher than 1800F.
This cone 6 vase was made using a coarse-grained stoneware. That generates lots of gases on firing, and it left behind plenty of pinholes as a testament. Today I still use clays like this but my pieces have almost no pinholes. Why? Electronic kiln controllers enable me to do drop-and-hold and slow-cool firings. It is that simple. Well, actually, there is another reason: I make sure my glazes have adequate fluidity to be mobile enough to heal the holes during hold, but not so fluid that they percolate while doing that (producing blisters and micro-bubbles).
This problem was suffered by a potter moving from Europe to Canada. In Europe she used lead based glazes and got smooth defect-free surfaces. But in Canada she began using our Gerstley Borate based glazes and had many problems adapting to them. We used glaze chemistry to both adjust recipes to source boron from frits instead of GB and to reduce their melt fluidity. She also adjusted firings: Higher bisque and glaze firings and a drop-and-hold firing schedule (like C03DRH). And she adopted a finer particle-sized terra cotta clay body. These measures enabled her to eliminate the issue.
This chart compares the decompositional gassing behavior of six materials as they are heated through the range 500-1700F. These materials are common in ceramic glazes, it is amazing that some can lose 40%, or even 50%, of their weight on firing. For example, 100 grams of calcium carbonate will generate 45 grams of CO2! This chart is a reminder that some late gassers overlap early melters. That is a problem. The LOI (% weight loss) of these materials can affect your glazes (causing bubbles, blisters, pinholes, crawling). Notice talc: It is not finished gassing until 1650F, yet many glazes have already begun melting by then (especially fritted ones). Even Gerstley Borate, a raw material, is beginning to melt while talc is barely finished gassing. And, there are lots of others that also create gases as they decompose during glaze melting (e.g. clays, carbonates, dioxides).
The glaze is simply insufficiently melted. In cone 10 reduction the iron acts as a flux and it melts very very well, so there are no pinholes. But here it simply does not have enough fluidity to heal the disruptions caused as gases escaping from the body below bubble up through it.
This is happening on five different stains at 8% concentrations. The body: A fritted porcelain. Temperature: Cone 03. The glaze: 85% frit. The solution? Documentation for inclusion frits notes that adding 2-3% zircon can brighten the color. Although this does not seem intuitive, we added 2% anyway and refired another sample. You can see the dramatic difference on that tile below. The color is brighter because the micro-bubble clouds that were diffusing it are gone! Of course, it is apparent that the percentage of stain also needs to be increased to get more intense color. What happened to the bubbles? It could be that the particles of zircon that float, unmelted in the glaze melt, act as seed-points for bubble agglomeration and the bigger bubbles then break the surface and it heals behind them. But where do the bubbles come from? I do not know.
It was put into the kiln before it was dry (from glazing). The kiln was fired fairly fast (without using a drop-and-hold firing schedule). These glazes have significant boron, they melt early and seal the surface. But water vapor can remain until surprisingly high temperatures. And it needs to get out. So it finds a discontinuity in the glaze cover and vents and bubbles out there. That leaves these defects that even a drop-and-soak and slow-cooling did not heal.
This is L3724E terra cotta stoneware. The inside slip is L3685S, a frit-fluxed engobe that is hard like the body and attaches well to it (engobes are often insufficiently fluxed). The glaze (G1916Q) is Frit 3195, Frit 3110 and 15% ball clay. The body has about 3% porosity, enough to make very strong pots. However that porosity is still enough to absorb water (and coffee). Although not too visible here, the pinhole in the inner surface has enabled absorption and there is a quarter-sized area of discoloration below the glaze. The piece could possibly be fired a cone higher, but testing would be required to see if the slip is still firing-shrinkage and thermal-expansion compatible with the body and that the body would not be over-fired. A better solution is adjust the firing curve to heal the glaze better. High temperature stoneware can easily have a 3% porosity also, so this is not just a low fire issue.
There is a direct relationship between the way ceramic glazes fire and their chemistry. Wrapping your mind around that and overcome your aversion to chemistry is a key to getting control of your glazes. You can fix problems like crazing, blistering, pinholing, settling, gelling, clouding, leaching, crawling, marking, scratching, powdering. Substitute frits or incorporate better, cheaper materials, replace no-longer-available ones (all while maintaining the same chemistry). Adjust melting temperature, gloss, surface character, color. Identify weaknesses in glazes to avoid problems. Create and optimize base glazes to work with difficult colors or stains and for special effects dependent on opacification, crystallization or variegation. Create glazes from scratch and use your own native materials in the highest possible percentage.
These are thick pieces, they need time for heat to penetrate. Both were soaked 15 minutes at cone 6 (2195F in our test kiln). But the one on the left was control-cooled to 2095F degrees and soaked 45 more minutes. Pinholes and dimples are gone, the clay is more mature and the glaze is glossier and melted better. Why is this better than just soaking longer at cone 6? As the temperature rises the mineral particles decompose and generate gases (e.g. CO2, SO4). These need to bubble through the glaze. But on the way down this activity is ceasing. Whatever is gassing and creating the pinholes will has stopped by 2095F. Also, these are boron-fluxed glazes, they stay fluid all the way down to 1900F (so you could drop even further before soaking).
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Glaze Pinholes, Pitting
Analyze the causes of ceramic glaze pinholing and pitting so your fix is dealing with the real issues, not a symptom.
A kiln firing schedule where temperature is eased to the top, then dropped quickly and held at a temperature 100-200F lower.