Porcelain has been crafted and treasured for centuries, dating back to 25 CE in ancient China. Its elegantly smooth texture was a welcome replacement for ceramic pottery. Chinese porcelain was lighter, less porous, and miraculously more durable than any ceramic material at the time.
So, what is porcelain made of to cultivate such esteemed reviews and what is the difference between porcelain vs stoneware? Recruiting a wealth of fine materials, true porcelain is composed of clay, kaolin, feldspar, and quartz.
But its creation is not as simple as mixing these ingredients in a bowl. A complex execution of science, artistry, heat, and time brings these materials together to architect its lustrous magic.
A Breakdown of Porcelain Materials
The formula for traditional true porcelain has evolved somewhat over the last few centuries, but its primary components remain the same. Clay, the most commonly known material, lays the foundation. Then, the supplementing materials are meticulously measured, mixed, and heated to master porcelain’s seashell delicacy.
The foundational material of porcelain or any ceramic material is clay. Clay is a type of soil with a unique mineral composition—so you won’t find clay under any old lawn. These minerals are formed from years of weathering and erosion. They also provide extra plasticity that helps the porcelain transform from clump to creation.
Kaolin is a rare white clay that gives porcelain ware its smooth structure and bright whiteness. In fact, aside from setting porcelain structures, kaolin clay is used to coat paper for added glossiness. Kaolin clay is a crucial ingredient in porcelain production as it provides its famed lightness and translucency.
Feldspar is a more common material, making up about 60% of all the rocks on Earth. With rocks in mind, feldspar helps contribute to porcelain’s strong foundation and durability. Feldspar’s enamel acts as a shield against imperfections and scratches and is often used in glassmaking.
Quartz is a ubiquitous mineral prized for its durability, flexibility, and abundance around the world. There are many kinds of quartz, which are used to make everything from precious jewelry to countertops. Porcelain employs flint, a hard variety of quartz, for its durability and unique melting temperature that helps fuse the porcelain piece together during baking.
How Porcelain Is Made
The real magic happens when science and art mingle within the careful steps of making porcelain. Like sand and water molding to construct a majestic sandcastle, porcelain is the embodiment of each separate material reimagined and reborn.
At a minimum, porcelain-making involves these steps:
- Grinding and cleaning the materials – To make a Chinese porcelain piece, the mix of measured raw materials is first ground into a fine powder in multiple grinding cycles. Then, the powder is sifted like flour through a kitchen sifter to remove impurities and unwanted materials. What’s left? The most high-quality sand you’ll ever touch.
- Molding the mixture – Water is typically added to the powder to create the Chinese pottery clay that is used to mold the shape of the piece. This can be done by hand, in molds, or on a throwing wheel. The potter must pay close attention to the shape and thickness of the piece to ensure it can withstand the heat of the kiln later on.
- Firing at a low temperature – The draft undergoes a first round of lower-temperature firing called bisque-firing. Rather than fully solidifying the shape, the lower temperature helps build flexibility and resilience during the final kiln bake.
- Firing at a high temperature – If the porcelain is unglazed, it will move into its final kiln baking process at a higher temperature to solidify the final product. This is where the real magic happens. A symphony of elemental transformations occurs—liquids to gasses, gasses to solids—