Pottery vs Ceramics [What Is The Difference]

Last Updated on March 21, 2021

couple forming ceramic bowl

I get a lot of questions from my beginner students about pottery vs ceramics. So in this article you will learn the answers to the most often asked questions such as:

What is the difference between ceramics and pottery?

What is pottery?

What are ceramics?

Are all ceramics made out of pottery? And is everything made out of clay pottery?

So let’s dive right in!

What Is The Difference Between Ceramics and Pottery?

For centuries pottery and ceramics have been an important part of human existence. Pottery has been found going back to prehistoric times and our ancestors depended on vessels made of pottery for many uses. Everything from early food storage to drinking cups have been unearthed. It is clear that pottery has played an integral role in human culture and it’s importance cannot be overstated.

What Are Ceramics?

Ceramics specifically refers to items made of clay that have been set by being heated. When clay is used for creating a ceramic item the water found within the clay is chemically bonded which leads to a process called slaked down. This happens when a clay item is put in water and then heated up through a process called firing.

Firing clay is the process that makes the clay item hold it’s form. Firing clay temperatures vary depending on the type of clay used and temperatures range from as low as 660 degrees F and goes all the way up to 1470 degrees F. Once fired, the clay has been converted to a ceramic. Once fired the clay will not dissolve and can used for it’s intended purpose.

For something to be considered a ceramic it must become set through the firing process. Therefore all clays are ceramics. Glazes also set through the firing process which makes them a ceramic as well. Less well known ceramics are silica carbide and zirconium oxide.

man using pottery wheel

What Is Pottery?

Pottery is any container that has been made out of clay. Pottery is not a process but is defined by it’s ingredients. The name pottery is derived from the root word Pot which comes from the old english word potian.

Pottery is generally created by a potter who “throws” clay on a spinning pottery wheel. These wheels can be manually spun or motorized. The unfired clay is formed by the potter as the wheel spins. This process is continued until the desired form has been created.

Pottery has traditionally been classified in two ways. Commercial pottery which is produced in mass quantities in large factory facilities and the second is studio pottery which is created by skilled craftsmen.

The term art pottery is not an official classification of pottery. It can be produced by an individual or in a mass produced setting. This style of pottery refers to the presentation of the pottery and it is often colorful with intricate designs.

vase being formed on pottery wheel

What Is Studio Pottery?

Studio pottery, aka studio ceramics, refers to a wide range of pottery items. Individual artists and craftsmen produce many useful and artistic ceramics in a small studio settings. Everything from dinnerware to mugs, to artistic pieces can be produced in a ceramics studio. These pieces are usually produced in small quantities and are desired for their unique qualities.

Craftsman can produce hundreds of pounds of pottery in a day and professionals utilize a process called throwing off the mound to increase their production capacity. This process is an efficient way for an individual to produce relatively large amounts of ceramics without resorting to mass production methods.

Potters focused on artistic expression will usually produce far fewer pieces as they spend more time methodically creating their pieces in an artistic manner. These types of ceramics are unique and not easily replicated. This often makes them desirable pieces that command high prices.

Sculpting With Clay

There is evidence that prehistoric humans produced more than just functional pottery. Clay sculptures have been found that are thousands of years old. Even bowls and jars have been found that are ornamental meaning function was not the only consideration when formed.

Modern potters with a creative eye will still make ornamental pottery and sculptures and the process can be very rewarding as they result in unique and beautiful ceramic pieces.

man preparing to use pottery wheel

What Is Someone Called Who Works With Clay?

There are a number of terms used for those who work with clay pottery and ceramics. Because clay has been used for both functional and artistic pieces for centuries one term does not suffice. Here are some of the most commonly used names for those who work with clay.

  • Ceramics Artist: Artists who use clay as their medium
  • Clay Artist: Much the same as the above. The difference is that clay artist do not necessarily fire their pieces. Clay artist is also commonly used for those who work in the commercial pottery space.
  • Potter: This is used for an individual clay craftsman
  • Studio Potter: These are artists and craftsmen who create unique ceramics that are often one of a kind
  • Production Potter: These are the craftsmen who work in a factory ceramics setting. They are well versed in creating larger quantities of ceramics for mass use.
  • Ceramist: This is a general term for an individual who works with clay in any setting.
  • Ceramics Engineer: These are the scientifically trained individuals who work with the chemical and physical development of pottery and ceramics.

For more ceramics guides and tips read these articles