When it comes to pottery, there are several options, including stoneware, porcelain, and earthenware. They each have different properties, and you may find that one is more conducive to different uses than another.
So, what’s the difference between stoneware and earthenware? The major difference is the firing temperature for the clay; earthenware is fired at a lower temperature. Earthenware is also more porous than stoneware and needs to be glazed, or it will absorb water.
Stoneware and earthenware can both be fun to make, and you may decide that you like one material more than the other. It’s worthwhile to try working with both and see which you prefer. Read on for more information about both of these great ceramic types.
What is Stoneware?
Stoneware is a common type of pottery. The hallmark of these objects are that they are fired at a higher temperature than earthenware pottery. In comparison to other types of pottery, stoneware is relatively young, only a few thousand years old.
Your stoneware objects have to be fired at very high temperatures, usually between 1,100 and 1,300 degrees Celsius. This is one of the highest firing temperatures in ceramic making. The only pottery that gets fired at a higher temperature is porcelain.
Another major feature of stoneware is that it tends to be non-porous, and as such, it does not soak up water readily. As such, unlike earthenware, it does not need to be glazed, although it often is glazed anyway for decorative purposes.
Stoneware tends to be dense and hardy. It is often able to resist scratching, even by a steel point. Based on impurities in the clay that are used to make stoneware, it is often a grey or brown in color (unglazed). It often has feldspar and quartz in it.
It is important to note that your piece of stoneware will shrink when it is fired, but the rate of shrinkage depends on the type of clay used.
Features of stoneware:
- High firing temperature
- Non-porous so doesn’t readily absorb water
- Does not need to be glazed
- Naturally brown or grey (depending on clay type)
What is Earthenware?
Earthenware is a type of pottery that is fired at lower temperatures, generally up to 1200 degrees Celsius. For a great deal of history, earthenware was the predominant type of pottery.
In fact, pit-fired earthenware was developed between about 29,000 and 25,000 years ago, while stoneware was only developed about 5,000 years ago.
Earthenware is opaque after it is fired and is more porous or non-vitreous (water can get inside the body). The clay for making earthenware tends to have greater plasticity than for making other forms of pottery such as stoneware and porcelain and is generally fine-grained.
This form of pottery has greater absorption than stoneware, usually around 5 to 8 percent. The material has to be glazed to be made more watertight, although you should still not soak your earthenware pottery as it can still absorb water. There are also instances in which it is beneficial to leave earthenware unglazed.
Earthenware articles are more susceptible to being chipped because they have lower mechanical strength than other forms of pottery. When you make earthenware pottery pieces, they are also typically made thicker in cross-section.
Earthenware does not tend to shrink significantly between its wet and its fired states, although some mild shrinkage can be expected.
The most commonly recognized form of earthenware is terracotta. You might even have some around your house. The orange or red coloring to these clay pots is due to the higher amount of iron oxide found in the clay. This is my favorite terracotta clay on Amazon.
Features of earthenware:
- Lower firing temperature
- Less durable than stoneware (lower mechanical strength)
- Absorbs water readily due to its porous nature; non-vitreous
- Typically must be glazed to minimize porosity
Stoneware Vs Earthenware – What’s the Difference?
It is quite difficult to tell the difference between finished stoneware and earthenware. Even when you are familiar with ceramics, glazes and the technical skill of the maker can be deceptive.
While many earthenware pieces are large and “clunky,” you can make them and fire them to be much thinner than their traditional size. At the same time, you can get a piece of stoneware that looks rather similar to porcelain (another common ceramic type we’ll discuss below).
Sometimes you will get lucky and have an unglazed piece which is easily recognizable. Terracotta, for example, is a dead giveaway for earthenware. But much of the time, you will have trouble guessing for finished work.
If you are looking to work with stoneware or earthenware clay, however, you can learn to pick out some of the differences:
Earthenware is typically finer-grained, offers quite a bit of plasticity, and also tends to pick up a high amount of impurities, as it is typically sourced from riverbeds. This is usually a great choice for beginners because it is easier to work with.
Earthenware is more likely to take on a red or warmer brown color, though this is not a precise indication.
Stoneware tends to be coarser-grained, denser, and tougher. It is a little less plastic (compared to earthenware), but still generally easy to use. Fired stoneware can sometimes look speckled thanks to the nature of its impurities.
Stoneware is more likely to fall on the grey to the brown color spectrum, but again, this is not a perfect indication.
Determining the Difference by Absorption
Because earthenware tends to absorb water more readily than stoneware just by nature of its porosity, you can try to calculate the water absorption.
If it is between about 5 and 8 percent, it is likely earthenware. If there is little to none, you likely have stoneware. In comparison, stoneware should not absorb much water at all, which is what makes it so good for use in the oven and microwave.
Here’s how to calculate absorption:
- Start by weighing your plate or pottery and record the weight.
- Soak the piece of pottery in water for 24 hours. Do not try this with anything that might absorb water and be ruined, such as a family member’s dish for keys that has not been glazed.
- Weigh the piece of pottery after it has soaked.
- Now you’ll need to do a little math, but your calculator can help you. Divide the starting weight by the soaked weight and then multiply by 100. Now you have the percent of water absorption.
Determining When To Use Stoneware or Earthenware
When deciding to work with stoneware or earthenware clay, consider your final product, your budget, and your abilities.
Earthenware tends to be the least expensive clay, which is great if you are working with large amounts or may have beginners or children practicing their clay working for the first time.
It is also helpful to use earthenware clay if you just need something that is easy to work with and will maintain its size after being fired.
Earthenware is incredibly useful as a planter because of its ability to absorb water and nourish your plant as the plant’s soil dries out a bit, even though these pots tend to be less durable than others.
If you are not going to be using the piece regularly and it is just for decoration, consider trying to make the piece out of earthenware.
In contrast, if your piece will be used a great deal, consider making it from stoneware clay thanks to the durability that the material offers.
Stoneware should also be used if you need the piece of pottery to be food-safe, go into the microwave, or hold liquids. Because of the lack of water absorption in stoneware, it can typically go into the oven. It’s no surprise that much of the ceramic dishware out there is made with stoneware.
Cleaning Your Stoneware or Earthenware
Cleaning your stoneware and earthenware properly is important. Here’s how to do it.
With porous earthenware, you have to be especially careful about how you clean it, if you have to at all.
Particularly if the piece has not been glazed, make sure that you do not use soap to clean earthenware, which can soak into the clay and then contaminate any food (if you use it as dishware). Use hot water and a brush only to clean it.
If you need to use a cleanser, consider using baking soda or salt to scrub the pot with hot water. You can even make a paste from baking soda to help get rid of grime. Regardless, you should not allow the pot to soak too long in water or the pot will absorb water.
Store your earthenware pot in a cool, dry area that is not too humid. In a damp environment, your pottery could potentially mold. Keeping a lid separate from the pot, such as separated by a towel, can help the pottery to breathe and may make it less likely for any mold to develop.
Generally speaking, stoneware is safe to soak in water, although you will want to follow the manufacturer’s directions before you pop a piece into the dishwasher.
You may consider a few non-soap options to help preserve your piece of pottery. Like earthenware, stoneware can be cleaned with a baking soda paste, which will help get a lot of food grime off your pottery. Soaking stoneware can also help get stuck on stains off.
If you have a lot of grease on your pottery, rub a little lemon onto the piece. It will be lemony fresh and cut through the grease in no time.
Related – What is Porcelain?
While you are looking at stoneware versus earthenware, it is important to distinguish that these are different from porcelain, another common ceramic type, as well.
Porcelain is a more refined clay, and it tends to be fired at much higher temperatures than stoneware or earthenware (or the majority of clays), usually between 1,200 and 1,450 degrees Celsius.
Porcelain originated in China at around 1600 BCE – which is where the term “china” came from when referring to porcelain. Bone china is porcelain that had ground-up bone added to the clay before firing it, which made the resulting material even more durable.
Because of the fine-grained clay (kaolin) used to make porcelain and its high firing temperature, the resulting pottery is incredibly hard and durable. It tends to be shiny, white, and many pieces appear almost translucent.
Features of porcelain:
- Highest firing temperature
- Very durable
- Non-porous and doesn’t readily absorb water or contents
- Difficult to work with
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