Ceramics and the difference between ceramics and pottery

The difference between ceramics and pottery
The difference between ceramics and pottery. Getty

What is ceramics?

Let’s start with the very definition of ceramics: Ceramics (noun and adjective) are those things made from materials, which are permanently changed when heated. Changes are on the molecular level, which also changes the physical characteristics of the object. Here’s where it gets a little tricky as ‘all clay is a ceramic material, but there are other ceramic materials as well’. Some elements such as carbon or silicon could be considered as a ceramic (ceramics are always non metallic materials).

But we’re here to talk about clay and in the traditional sense ceramic raw materials include minerals such as kaolinite (sometimes known as china clay).

The key in ceramics is the change it undergoes in the firing process. For example, clay has chemically-bonded water in it which will cause it to slake down (disintegrate) when a dried clay object is put in water. Once heated (fired) to between 660⁰ and 1470⁰F (350⁰ and 800⁰C), the clay is converted to ceramic and will never dissolve again.

The word "ceramics" derives from the ancient Greek word keramos, which referred to potter's clay and the objects made from it.

What is the history of ceramics?

One of the most wonderful things about ceramics, is that it dates back to being one of the oldest surviving industries in the world. And what’s even greater is that many of the original processes remain the same (essentially, discovering clay could be mixed with water to make it soft enough to form shapes with and then fire it to make it watertight).

The American Ceramic Society states that ‘as early as 24, 000 BC animal and human figurines were made from clay and made from kilns dug into the ground’. Mostly these figurines were used for ceremonial purposes and it wasn’t until another roughly 10, 000 years later that major developments were made in that ceramics could be used as more functional wares, such a food vessels and for storing water and also making clay bricks to build houses.

With the development of more functional ware came a new definition: pottery. So to explain further…

What is pottery?

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines pottery quite simply as ‘pots, dishes, etc… made with clay that is baked in the oven, especially when they are made by hand’. The very first pots which were created were often made using the simple techniques that are still found today, such pinch pots, where a ball of clay is formed and the potter’s thumb or finger is used to make an opening in the middle and from there it’s carefully pinched evenly on each of its sides. The walls will get thinner as the clay is spread out and beautiful wares can be made this way. There’s also the technique of coil pots, another method which, dates back thousands of years but is often used to create taller or thicker vessels as it’s that bit sturdier. Firstly base is evenly rolled out flat, then long tube shaped coils are rolled by hand and worked around the base. The coils are built on top of each other higher and stronger. It’s really easy with this technique to create the shape and size you want for your vessel. Another important way potters work is with moulds, this ensures each piece is the same every time.

Studio potters tend to work on a larger scale in terms of the body of work they produce and they often use slipcasting, which can be great for creating wares such as an identical dinner service.

What is the difference between pottery and ceramics?

It can be so tricky to know which category you fall into as a potter or ceramic artist, as most people who work with clay are versatile and create pieces, which could cross the boundary into either definition. Here we’ve broken down in a little more detail, the difference between what are pottery and ceramics?