From the tiles that beautify your floor to the sinks, bathtubs, and toilets that accommodate your waste, ceramics remain durable, aesthetically pleasing, and simplistic.

Ceramic properties make it possible for you to utilize electronic devices. Without them, it would be impossible reading this write-up on your phone or computer. Obviously, ceramics differ in form based on the function they perform. For instance, the toughened ceramic used in a hip replacement would differ from the ceramic insulator used in televisions and silicon chips present in computers.

With these endless functions, you might be contemplating: what then are ceramics? How did they evolve? How important are they to human existence?

These and more would be answered in this article.

“Having a little fun at my work does not make me any less of an artist and people who appreciate truly beautiful and original creations in pottery are not frightened by innocent tomfoolery!”

- Clarice Cliff

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What is your bathroom wall made of? Photo Credit: Unsplash.
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What Do We Mean by Ceramics?

“Ceramics” originated from the Greek word “keramikos” which translates as “for or of pottery”. Ceramics are hard, fragile, corrosion-resistant, and heat-resistant materials formed by firing clay or other non-metallic and non-organic mineral at high temperatures.

While elements like silicon and carbon are ceramic, glass isn’t. This is because of its non-crystalline feature. Three major types of ceramics or pottery exist and they include the following:

  • Earthenware: this pottery type is clay that’s fired at low temperatures ranging between 1,000ᵒC and 1,150ᵒC. This firing temperature makes the clay hard but brittle which makes it somewhat porous. The porosity causes tiny holes through which air and liquid can pass through. Thus, earthenware doesn’t hold water unless the object is glazed before it’s fired. Majolica, Delft, and Faience are earthenware products.
  • Stoneware: this pottery form is created by firing a unique clay type at 1,200ᵒC. Firing the clay at a higher temperature would improve the material’s durability, quality, and density. The finished product, unlike earthenware, is waterproof and doesn’t need glazing. It is a chip-resistant, durable, and sturdy product suitable for cooking, serving dishes, storing liquids, and baking.
  • Porcelain: the refined clay is fired at an extremely high temperature ranging from 1,200 to 1,450ᵒC. Porcelain is a very hard and shiny white material that is translucent. 1600 BC marked the evolution of the earliest type of porcelain in China. The term “bone china” or “fine china” was universalized because of China’s affiliation with porcelain. To create porcelain, feldspar, granite, and glass are ground and mixed with white kaolin clay and water. The mixture is then kneaded, shaped, and fired in a kiln. For aesthetic purposes, decorative glazes are added before firing it once more.

Bone China is slightly different from porcelain. It is simpler to make, stronger, and harder to chip. Its materials are slightly different and they include feldspar minerals, silica sand, clay, and ash derived from cattle bones. This combination improves the durability and porosity of the material.

Ceramic is the non-organic material left once all organic materials like rubber, wood, plant fibres, plastic, and metal have all been removed. You might be wondering what sets ceramic apart from porcelain.

First off, they are both products of fired clay but with varying firing temperatures. While ceramic is fired at a relatively lower temperature, porcelain withstands higher temperatures. Furthermore, porcelains are often translucent, but this depends on how thin it is; ceramics, however, are opaque. In terms of aesthetics, porcelain is less porous, finer, and smoother on the surface. Its smoothness prevents bacteria from harboring and festering. This explains why bathroom sinks are made of porcelain.

Since porcelain has almost all the features, why not have everything made in porcelain rather than ceramics right? The simple answer is that porcelain isn’t best suited for what ceramic is. Also, ceramic is more affordable. This means that everyday objects like your mug, plates, wall, and floor tiles made from glazed ceramics, would be more expensive than they already are.

Finding ceramic arts in Nigeria is very easy as there are a couple of ceramic studio outlets in almost every city. Ceramic sculpting remains an ancient art form practised to date. Besides enrolling for short-term pottery lessons or ceramics classes, you can study fine arts professionally at the university level.

“To practise art, no matter how well or badly is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.”

- Kurt Vonnegut

learn ceramics
The invention of the potter's wheel changed pottery. Photo Credit: Unsplash.

The Evolution of Ceramics

Since we’ve established that pottery and ceramics mean the same thing, let’s discuss the basic four-step process of creating pottery.

  • Forming: once the clay is dug up and mixed into a smooth paste, it is then shaped using a potter’s wheel.
  • Firing: this involves baking the mixed clay in a kiln. The clay is fired at a high or low temperature, depending on the pottery type intended.
  • Decorating/glazing: the third step comprises applying decorative techniques or coating the fired material with a glaze.
  • Refiring: clay is refired to harden the applied glaze.

Speaking of the evolution of ceramics, there are different historical claims surrounding the inception of ceramics. Archaeologists have revealed that human-made ceramics dates back to 24,000 BC. These human and animal-shaped ceramic balls, slabs, and figurines were first discovered in Czechoslovakia. The materials used include animal bone, clay, and bone ash, and they were fired at temperatures within 500ᵒC and 800ᵒC. Unlike the modern-shaped kilns, the kilns used then were horseshoe and dome-shaped and were slightly dug into the earth.

It’s believed that 9,000BC marked the first functional use of pottery vessels. The vessels were probably used to store food items, especially grains. It’s presumed that there’s a strong link between pottery making and ancient glass manufacture which gained currency in Egypt around 8,000 BC. During the pottery firing process, overheating the kiln and the presence of CaO might have given the ceramic pot a coloured glaze. Experts opine that glass was not manufactured independently until 1,500 BC.

The major discovery that changed pottery was the invention of the potter’s wheel between 3,500 BC and 2,500 BC. While several sources have contradicting opinions of where the device was first used, it’s been proven that pottery wheel was found in Iraq, Romania, and China.

“Clay folds, clay moulds, clay rests, clay sets, clay dances to the tune you love to hum, clay grows into the person you finally become.”
- Praveen

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The uses of ceramics extend to all sectors. Photo Credit: Unsplash.

Common and Uncommon Uses of Ceramics

It is evident that ceramics would always be an important aspect of human existence, from our computer devices to our floor and wall tiles that give your home an aesthetic effect, and mugs that make our coffee tempting to sip.

Take some time out to examine your home. Do you have wall tiles in your kitchen or floor tiles in your living room? Are there lightweight ceramic knives in your kitchen? Have you considered that your wall is made of brick and stabilized with cement? Brick and cement are both products of ceramics. After a thorough inspection of your home, you would discover that ceramics are all around us.

Now that we’ve highlighted some common ceramic-made items, let’s discuss the ‘not so common’ ones. Are you aware that the electric motors in your blender and vacuum cleaner are made from ceramics?

Ceramic use cuts across almost every sector, including the medical sector. Dental implant and augmentation, for instance, requires ceramic filling. The filling process involves chemically bonding your teeth with ceramic to strengthen them. Additionally, hip replacement requires the use of toughened ceramic. The ceramic must be porous for it to enhance the natural growth of the bone surrounding the artificial joint.

Talking about NASA’s Space Shuttle, tons of heat-resistant tiles were used to protect its surface from the overheating caused by the friction created by the atmosphere. Also, composite ceramics are utilized in manufacturing a spacecraft’s nose cone.

What do you think catalytic converters are made with? Ceramics! Catalytic converters in cars reduce pollution by converting toxic fumes into non-harmful gases. Almost all major car parts have ceramic materials present in them.

Pottery for beginners may seem daunting because of its numerous applications. But pottery lessons are straightforward, especially if you learn from a professional teacher.

“A potter is one of the few people left who uses his natural faculties of heart, head and hand in balance – the whole man.”

- Bernard Leach

Learning Ceramics

If you want to learn ceramics, note that not all clay types are suitable for moulding. Thus, you must be well versed in sourcing for clay as they all vary in character and consistency. Besides clay sourcing, mixing clay manually is another arduous procedure beginners find difficult to execute successfully. This is because kneading the clay improperly would cause air bubbles to form. The presence of air bubbles during the firing stage can cause the clay to either explode or break.

As a prospective sculptor, you might have considered searching for pottery classes near you. For online and offline pottery classes, check the Superprof platform.

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