Clay bodies: Paper clay and what you should use it for

Introduction to the benefits and beauty of working with paper clay

Clay bodies: Paper clay and what you should use it for
The benefits of working with paper clay in your ceramics. Getty

What is paper clay?

Paper clay is described as ‘clay mixed with shredded paper or other fibres' and that it is 'valued for its strength and light weight in the production of large ceramic works’. Although, paper clay is actually so versatile, it can be used to build ceramics of any size. Paper clay is made by mixing regular clay with paper pulp, as the paper fibers create a strong structure within the clay and a ‘capillary system, which transfers moisture easily and evenly throughout the clay’.

Regular clay can also be mixed with any other cellulose fiber, which will also create the same effect, although paper is the most common and easiest fiber to work with. You can buy ready mixed paper clay at any good ceramics store.

What are the benefits of paper clay?

One of the biggest benefits of using paper clay is that it can be made with a variety of different clays for example; terracotta, porcelain, earthenware or stoneware. If you make your own paper clay you can have complete control over how much paper/fibres you are adding, dependent on the kind of strength you want to achieve. This added strength means you will be able to easily make slabs that you can fold and bend (without the tearing you may experience in more traditional clay). This makes hand moulding a dream to create shapes with.

Paper clay is also brilliant to use if you are making a large structure, as the added internal strength of the body clay means that the work can generally support itself.

The strength also makes it much easier to transport. Additionally, with paper clay you can make thinner, more delicate work as again, it can support its own weight. Paper clay is also excellent for repairing any joins or cracks which have appeared in your work, in fact most potters use paper clay to mend flaws, even if they are using regular clay as their body clay.

You can even fix any breaks in bisque fired paper clay with wet paper clay.

Paper clay can dry more quickly than regular clay, as the moisture tends to evaporate much faster. Potters are also known to ‘force dry’ their paper clay, the benefits being when you dry work more quickly there is less chance of it cracking. The firing and glazing process for paper clay can be exactly the same as regular clay (although some potters do fire paper clay at a slightly higher temperature), but generally you won’t need to make any amendments to your normal routine. Be aware that the extra fibers which make the work so strong in building can mean the fired work becomes more porous (when the paper fibers burn away during firing), and it can make the work slightly more fragile to handle afterwards.

What is it best used for?

Typically potters use paper clay for hand building. You can throw paper clay but it doesn’t tend to stretch quite as easily as regular clay. If you are throwing with regular clay, then you can make paper clay with any scraps of clay that are left over from your throwing. Note that paper clay is best used within about two weeks of making it; this is because over time the fibres in the clay can start to disintegrate, meaning the properties of the clay change completely.

Can you make your own paper clay?

Yes, it’s fairly easy to make your own paper clay. As a general rule if you’re making a lighter piece of work, then add less paper and if you’re making a heavier piece then add more. You’ll need clay slip and paper pulp and it is recommended that to make ‘10 – 15 pounds of clay, you’ll need two gallons of recycled clay slip’. If you’re using paper fibers like newspaper or printer paper then a good tip is to mix in a tablespoon of bleach and then re-mix it before adding it to the clay slip, so mold cannot develop. Pour three handfuls of your paper fibre into your clay slip and mix well for around 20 minutes, making sure the consistency is completely smooth.