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Pottery is the process of forming vessels and other objects with clay and other ceramic materials, which are fired to give them a hard, durable form. Major types include earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. The place where such wares are made by a potter is also called a pottery (plural "potteries"). The definition of pottery used by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), is "all fired ceramic wares that contain clay when formed, except technical, structural, and refractory products." In archaeology, especially of ancient and prehistoric periods, "pottery" often means vessels only, and figures etc. of the same material are called "terracottas". Clay as a part of the materials used is required by some definitions of pottery, but this is dubious.

All the earliest forms of pottery were made from clays that were fired at low temperatures, initially in pit-fires or in open bonfires. They were hand formed and undecorated. Earthenware can be fired as low as 600C, and is normally fired below 1200C. Because unglazed biscuit earthenware is porous, it has limited utility for the storage of liquids, and even eating off. However, earthenware has a continuous history from the Neolithic period to today. It can be made from a wide variety of clays, some of which fire to a buff, brown or black colour, with iron in the constituent minerals resulting in a reddish-brown. Reddish coloured varieties are called terracotta, especially when unglazed or used for sculpture. The development of ceramic glaze which makes it impermeable makes it a popular and practical form of pottery. The addition of decoration has evolved throughout its history.

Stoneware is very tough and practical, and much of it has always been utilitarian, for the kitchen or storage rather than the table. But "fine" stoneware has been important in China, Japan and the West, and continues to be made. Many utilitarian types have also come to be appreciated as art.

Although porcelain was first made in China, the Chinese traditionally do not recognise it as a distinct category, grouping it with stoneware as "high-fired" ware, opposed to "low-fired" earthenware. This confuses the issue of when it was first made. A degree of translucency and whiteness was achieved by the Tang Dynasty (AD 618906), and considerable quantities were being exported. The modern level of whiteness was not reached until much later, in the 14th century. Porcelain was also made in Korea and in Japan from the end of the 16th century, after suitable kaolin was located in those countries. It was not made effectively outside East Asia until the 18th century.

Hand-building. This is the earliest forming method. Wares can be constructed by hand from coils of clay, combining flat slabs of clay, or pinching solid balls of clay or some combination of these. Parts of hand-built vessels are often joined together with the aid of slip, an aqueous suspension of clay body and water. A clay body can be decorated before or after firing. Prior to some shaping processes, clay must be prepared, such as tablewares, although some studio potters find hand-building more conducive to create one-of-a-kind works of art.

Granulate pressing: As the name suggests, this is the operation of shaping pottery by pressing clay in a semi-dry and granulated condition in a mould. The clay is pressed into the mould by a porous die through which water is pumped at high pressure. The granulated clay is prepared by spray-drying to produce a fine and free-flowing material having a moisture content of between about 5 and 6 per cent. Granulate pressing, also known as dust pressing, is widely used in the manufacture of ceramic tiles and, increasingly, of plates.

Roller-head machine: This machine is for shaping wares on a rotating mould, as in jiggering and jolleying, but with a rotary shaping tool replacing the fixed profile. The rotary shaping tool is a shallow cone having the same diameter as the ware being formed and shaped to the desired form of the back of the article being made. Wares may in this way be shaped, using relatively unskilled labour, in one operation at a rate of about twelve pieces per minute, though this varies with the size of the articles being produced. Developed in the UK just after World War II by the company Service Engineers, roller-heads were quickly adopted by manufacturers around the world; they remain the dominant method for producing flatware.

Glaze Perhaps the most common form of decoration, that also serves as protection to the pottery, by being tougher and keeping liquid from penetrating the pottery. Glaze may be clear, especially over painting, or coloured and opaque. There is more detail in the section below.

Firing pottery can be done using a variety of methods, with a kiln being the usual firing method. Both the maximum temperature and the duration of firing influences the final characteristics of the ceramic. Thus, the maximum temperature within a kiln is often held constant for a period of time to soak the wares to produce the maturity required in the body of the wares.




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