Choosing Your Pottery Clay – Best Pottery Clay For Beginners

a picture of a potter looking confused

Before considering what equipment to buy, it’s worth thinking about what clay to use. There are many different clays you can choose from. Find out which one is best for you.

When starting to make Pottery, I was amazed and confused by all the clays there were to choose from.

I stayed with the clay that was given to me at the pottery studio until understanding the differences and began the journey of experimenting with different clays.

After a lot of experimenting, searching, and asking a lot of questions, I now know an easier way to choose my clay. Let me share with you what I have learned to help make selecting clay easier. Here is your guide detailing the 5 main things a beginner potter should look for when choosing a clay.

What to Look For When Selecting Clay

1) Type of Clay Body (Earthenware, Stoneware, or Porcelain)
2) Texture (Smooth, course, or in-between)
3) Cone size (Firing Temperature)
4) Color (What effect are you looking for)
5) Price (Good Price Point for beginners)

1) What Type of Clay Body To Use

The difference in types of clay has to do with the different minerals, the amount of plasticity ( Stickiness and workability), the size of the platelets, and the firing temperatures.

There are 3 basics types of clay for beginners to choose from; Earthenware, Stoneware, and Porcelain. These are a few things you will want to know when choosing your clay.

Qualities of Earthenware

  • This is a good clay for throwing on wheel and handbuilding because it’s easy to work with and shape.
  • It is very porous, that’s why it is used for flowerpots, bricks and other outdoor construction. If it freezes, water can’t get trapped inside and crack.
  • You can make almost anything with earthenware. If you want it to be watertight and food-safe, just glaze it, and hand wash only.
  •  This clay is basically a low-fire clay. Most Earthenware is bisque fired at Cone 04 1945 °F (1063 °C) and Glaze Fired at cone 05 1888 °F or 1031 °C. or Cone 06 1828 °F or 998 °C.  
  • It is commonly made thicker because it chips easier than other clay types.
  • Is typically red or orange (terracotta) because of its high content of iron oxide, but you can also find it in white.

Qualities of Stoneware

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  • Is more durable and chip-resistant than earthenware and which makes it more popular in its use for dinnerware and mugs.
  • You can make almost anything with stoneware depending on how much sand or grog is added.
  • Their colors range from white, buff (sand), brown, and different shades of gray.
  • It is a lower quality clay than porcelain but more popular because of its durability and value.
  • I find stoneware to be a nice clay to throw on the wheel. I found it to be a nice workable clay for beginners.
  • Stoneware has two firing temperatures: Mid fire range which is typically Cone 5 2167 ℉ (1186 ℃) to Cone 6 2232 ℉ (1222 ℃). And High fire which is usually Cone 10 2345 ℉ (1285 ℃).
  • It’s better for beginner potters because we tend to play with our clay far longer than the pros. I use and recommend these Clays. Amaco Stoneware #46, Buff Clay (amazon) – (blick arts) because it holds up nicely even without sand or grog in it. If you prefer a white clay check out Amaco stoneware 38 (blick arts) is also a good choice

Qualities of Porcelain

  • True porcelain feels smooth as butter and less forgiving than other clays.
  • It absorbs water rather quickly which can make big changes in its workability.
  • When it comes to pottery or ceramics, porcelain is known to be the most regal of all clay types.
  • I have thrown with cone 5 – Porcelain 16, Hagi porcelain, and Porcelain Five. These porcelains are not the true porcelains, but I still find them to be nice clays to throw with.
  • You can also get mid to high fire porcelain. Mid fire range which is typically Cone 5 2167 ℉ (1186 ℃) to Cone 6 2232 ℉ (1222 ℃). And High fire which is usually Cone 10 2345 ℉ (1285 ℃).
  • When this type of clay starts to collapse it’s hard to get it back, but oh so smooth to play with on the wheel. It’s totally worth the challenge. Who knows maybe someday I will throw a true porcelain clay.

(The description or Label should indicate what Type of clay you are buying.)

2) What Is The Best Texture For You  

A good thing to know when selecting your clay is if there is grog (ground up fired clay), sand, both, or none in your clay. Your selection will depend on what you are using your clay for and what skill level you are.

Handbuilding Clay 

When handbuilding you want to have a good amount of grog or sand in your clay. There are several reasons for this:

  • You need a clay that has the ability to stand on its own as you create your masterpiece.
  • While scoring and slipping pieces together, you don’t want your clay to start slumping or even collapse.
  • When choosing a handbuilding clay, it’s best to go with one that has more grog, sand, or both, because it’s better to have a lower shrinkage rate to help prevent cracking.

Clay For Throwing On The Wheel

You will want your clay to be as smooth as possible without collapsing on the wheel. The first clay I threw on the wheel was Stoneware with grog; it felt like I was throwing with fine sandpaper.

I recommend a nice smooth stoneware that has enough texture to play with for a long time and does NOT hurt your hands, even after throwing for hours.
When it comes to throwing clay on the wheel, porcelain truly is the best. It feels so good as the clay runs against my hands, I could throw all day.

(The description or label should indicate if the clay has any sand or grog in it. Some will even say heavy grog.)

3) What Cone Size Do You Need

When I went to my first Pottery Class, the instructor said, “You will be using a Cone 10 clay.”
I said, “What’s a Cone?”
The instructor replied, “A cone is the measurement of heat that your piece can be fired to in a kiln.”
I quickly found out when choosing clay, you must know the cone size. The different firing temperatures of each clay type may determine what sort of kiln you need.

To What Temperature Will You Fire?

You want the cone size of your clay to match the cone size of your glazes because clay and glaze can expand and contract together making them an exact fix and food safe. There are basically three different temperature ranges. When buying your clay, it’s important to know what temperature the kiln will be firing to and the cone size of your clay body and glaze.

Lower fire ranges anywhere from Cone 022 (1087 degrees F) to Cone 2 (2088 degrees F) Most popular firing range is Cone 04 to 06.

Note: Low firing pottery will not be waterproof unless it is glazed.

Mid fire ranges between Cone 3 (2106 degrees F) to Cone 7 (2,262 degrees F) Most popular fire range is Cone 5 and 6.
Mid-fire is popular because of the numerous colors of glazes to choose from, plus being dinnerware safe. When choosing your mid-fire clay make sure it does NOT have a zero in front of the number. If the clay or glaze is low fire it will melt in the kiln.

High fire ranges from Cone 8 (2280 degrees F) to Cone 10 (2,345 degrees F) most popular is Cone 10.
This clay is stronger and durable than lower fired clays. If the clay you high fire is mid-fire only or low-fire it will melt in the kiln.

(The description or label should indicate the cone size. If it’s missing I would not buy it because you don’t know what temperature it can be fired to, if any. Keep in mind there are also no fire clays.)

4) Colors To Choose From

a picture of color powder explosion isolated on white background

The great part about buying clay today is the array of colors you have to choose from. These are some colors you may want to consider.

  • White is a nice choice if you want your glaze colors to pop. The color tends to turn out more vibrant. Clean up is also better because white clay does not stain your clothes or anything else for that matter.
  • Sand/ Buff color is very close to white when it comes to glazes being vibrant because there’s not much of a difference. When buff clay is wet it looks pretty dark, once it is bisque it has a nice light buff color that doesn’t interfere with the glaze colors.
  • Red is great if you like working with a deep, rich color. Red is beautiful with a clear matte, satin, or glossy glaze over it. Darker clays will stain your clothes because of the iron content in them. Check out What to wear when making pottery.
  • Black clay is a stunning color that goes beautifully with light or white underglazes or all by its self with a clear glaze.
  • Make your own color. Another fun part of clay is being able to mix powdered colorants into your clay to create an array of different colored clays. I have evergreen, light green, and light blue so far. Just wedge it into your clay and you’re ready to play. You can even put strips of white and colored clay together to create a marble effect when you throw it on the wheel. For a few mason stain colors, to choose from at Amazon you can Click Here (amazon).
  • Each color is beautiful in its own way depending on what look you want to achieve. After trying different colors, I tend to go with sand/ buff and white because I enjoy making my own colors.

(The description or label will indicate the color that the clay will fire to. Most clays are darker when wet.)

5) Price Point

The great part about clays today is the selections you have and the range of prices to choose from. As a beginner, I would start out with the lower-priced clay because of the sheer amount of practice clay you will go through.
Another way to save some money and show a little love to your clay is to recycle or reclaim your scrap clay. Here is an article I wrote on How Many Times You Can Reclaim Clay with some good points on why it’s important not to waste, and with a little extra work you can use almost 99% of your clay.

There are wonderful clays in the mid-range price and there are high-quality, high-end clays like the true porcelains that are so beautiful but not that forgiving. For now, I find the lower to mid-range priced clays to be very good for beginners.
Keep in mind you may have a local store in your area to save on shipping costs, or you could buy bulk. When you’re on a roll, you would be surprised at how much clay you can go through.    

In Conclusion

Keep this list in mind when choosing your clay to help you make the best choice. Knowing what you need and want in your pottery clay makes all the difference in the world. It’s a good idea to practice with different clays until you find the one that feels right for you.

I recommend Amaco Stoneware #46 Buff for beginners because of how smooth and easy it is to work with and does stay up longer on the wheel.

If you want to know about more clay info and choices, then check out my Top Clay Picks page.

A Few More Related Questions 

Is it Better To Buy Dry Or Moist Clay

a picture of a potter hugging a premixed moist bag of pottery clay

For convenience, it’s best to buy moist clay in the bag ready to wedge.
There are some definite advantages to buying dry clay such as the shipping cost, weight, storage, and mixing it to your own liking with the right amount of sand, grog or other minerals. Mixing Dry clay has some extra steps and there is a definite learning curve, this is why a Beginner Potter should always get moist premade ready to wedge clay.

Can You Mix Different Clays Together 

a picture of two balls of clay that you don't mix

The more advanced Potters do mix different clays together. As a beginner, I would not. Most beginners don’t know enough about how different clays will interact with each other. Plus, there are different shrinkage rates in each clay. If the shrinkage rate is not the same, then the clay particles will shrink at different rates putting pressure on the platelets. This could cause your mixed clay to crack as it dries. I never mix different clay bodies together. If you have several different clays it’s best to keep them separate and mark our bags and containers.

What Is The Best Clay For Cookies 

A cookie is made by rolling out your clay a quarter-inch thick like a sheet of cookie dough; then cut circles out that look like cookies and bisque them. Cookies are used to prevent the Glaze from running on to your Kiln shelf by placing them under your glazed pieces. Make sure the cookie is larger than the base of your piece to catch that runaway glaze.
When Glazing Pottery, it’s best to use cookies especially if you’re a beginner.

The best clay to use for cookies would be a Cone 10 Stoneware with Heavy Grog. There are several reasons for this.

  • Cone 10 can withstand high heat. If you are low-firing or mid-firing, your cookie will last longer. After all, you don’t want to be making cookies all the time. (unless they are the eating kind.)
  • Stoneware is stronger and therefore will last longer.
  • Heavy grog also makes your cookie stronger, plus it makes your shrinkage rate a lot less. This is important because you don’t want your cookie to shrink under your glazed piece.

If you use this clay for your cookies, they will last many glaze firings, and you don’t have to make them as often. Just like real cookies, I like to make my clay cookies in batches.

It’s fun to play with clay especially if it’s the right clay. Figuring out what clay you like will come down to a lot of hands-on practice. We hope this article will help you in finding your clay. Stay Dirty My Friends

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