Ceramic beads 101

Ceramics, porcelain, and raku all belong to a family of clay-based wares. Learn how to tell the difference between the various styles so you know what you’re looking at next time you go bead shopping.
creamic beads
Ceramic artists often use molds so they can recreate pieces exactly over and over. Ceramics shaped by hand will each look unique.
porcelain beads
Porcelain beads are characterized by a fine, smooth surface and a high level of detail. The smooth texture is ideal for using decals, like in the top two designs.
raku beads
Raku often features metallic glazes set off by a black background. The unpredictable nature of raku firing produces one-of-a-kind creations.
Part 1 Raku pendants
VIDEO
To learn more about raku watch our five-part series of videos featuring Colleen Volland of Cream City Clay in West Allis, WI. We visit with Colleen as she takes us through the fascinating process of making raku pendants and beads. 

The term “ceramic” refers to the entire family of items made from clay or clay-like substances that are then fired in a kiln, and includes porcelain and raku, two types of pottery you’ll encounter frequently in the bead world. Clay and other ceramics have been used to make beads for thousands of years, beginning with faience, a non-clay ceramic used in Mesopotamia approximately 5000 years ago. Ceramics are durable, can range in style from earthy to refined and sophisticated, and work well in all sorts of jewelry.  

TERMINOLOGY

Earthenware is the most porous and most common type of clay available. It contains iron oxide, so it usually appears brown, red, gray, or greenish in its raw state. When fired, it can be red, tan, brown, or black. The surface of an earthenware bead made will be somewhat rough.

Stoneware is less porous than earthenware. It exhibits stone-like characteristics when fired and is usually buff to dark gray or light to dark brown. The surface of a finished piece will be fairly smooth.

Porcelain clay is a combination of quartz, clay, and feldspar, with the addition of kaolin, a silicate mineral produced by the weathering of certain rocks. It is usually white and produces a very strong ceramic product with a dense texture, which allows artists to produce fine, intricate details in their designs. Porcelain is the least porous of the ceramic clays and the finished surface will be very smooth and fine. 

Raku refers to a style of Japanese pottery that is made in a somewhat unconventional way. Raku pottery, unlike other ceramics, is generally brought up to firing temperature very quickly — in a matter of minutes rather than hours — and removed from the kiln while still hot. Raku can be made with any clay that can withstand the thermal shock that is experienced in this firing environment.

Furthermore, raku often goes through an unconventional post-firing procedure: The fired piece is placed into a container filled with combustible material, which catches fire from the heat of the piece. The flow of oxygen is reduced, usually by the placement of a lid on the container, which causes the flame to take oxygen from the glaze or the clay itself, creating unpredictable color reactions on the surface of the piece. Unglazed areas take on a characteristically black or sooty appearance.

Slip-casting refers to the process of making beads or components with clay that has been thinned to a viscous consistency, a state called slip. The slip is injected into a plaster-of-Paris mold where it is allowed to harden for awhile before excess slip is dumped out and the form is removed from the mold to dry completely prior to firing. Slip-casting allows the artist to precisely re-create specific shapes over and over. If you see, for example, a string of lentil-shaped beads that are all exactly the same, there is a good chance they were slip-casted.

GETTING FIRED UP

To make a ceramic bead, damp clay is shaped, usually by hand, though sometimes with the aid of a mold, and then allowed to dry. Once dry, it is refined and bisque-fired to harden it. After bisque-firing, glazes are painted onto the surface and the piece is fired again, sometimes more than once. For firing, traditional ceramics are placed into a cold kiln, the heat is ramped up slowly (usually over eight to 24 hours) to firing temperature and then gradually allowed to cool (usually over 12 to 24 hours) before the piece is removed.

SOURCES: Porcelain beads: amazingporcelain.com, joanmiller.com; Ceramic designs: artbeads.com, golemstudio.com, kazuriwest.com; Raku pieces: makustudio.com, laurasouderstudio.etsy.com.

FIND MORE: artist beads , pendants

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