Are you into pottery and are interested in preparing your own clay? Finding and preparing clay makes playing with it more exciting, fun, and meaningful. But, where can you find one? The first place you’ll probably start looking would be your backyard.
There may or may not be clay in your backyard, however, if there’s none you can still find clay within your area. Unearthing clay is easy as long as you know where and what you’re looking for. In this article, we will teach you how to find clay in your backyard as well as in other places and how to prepare them.
What is Clay?
Clay is a natural soil that contains minerals such as aluminum and magnesium. They are usually found in areas where rivers or streams had flowed before. Clay particles have a grain size of not more than 4 micrometers and are formed due to the erosion and weathering of rocks. They are known to be the tiniest particles of soil, due to this they linger longer in water compared to silt and sand particles. Even if the water is gone, clay can still exist where they were left.
Clay is probably one of the most important earth materials as it is widely used for different industries. They play a vital role in plant growth, providing water retention, aeration, and porosity. They are hard and have a crackled texture if dry and when wet clays are soft with a plastic texture. It can be a bit challenging to work with clay, but once you’ve learned how to prepare it, you can do a lot of things with it.
Clay soil is smoother than other soils because of its very tiny particle size and it has no gaps, so you don’t need a large space for it. Some plant roots may find it hard to penetrate it because it is very dense. During the cold season, clay soil takes longer to warm up than other types of soil.
Different Uses of Clay
Growing Different Kinds of Plants
Although not all plants can grow in clay soil, there are still a number of vegetation and flowers that can grow on it. Plants with taproots are ideal for clay soil such as butterfly milkweeds, silphiums, Bluestar blooms.
Other plants that are not taproots that can thrive on clay soil are asters, black-eyed Susan, and ornamental grasses like big bluestem and Indian Grass. Vegetables that can grow in clay soil are broccoli, lettuce, pumpkins, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and snap beans. Some trees that can grow in clay are willow, elm, apple, and ash.
Since ancient times, clay has been used for construction. It is used to make adobe bricks by using fire or drying under the sun. The adobe bricks can be used to build a house. When you combine clay with straw and sand you can form a building material cob which is used in buildings, ovens, benches, and a lot more. The advantage of using cob or adobe for construction is that they are affordable, durable, and sustainable. Structures made of cob and adobe can last even for hundred years.
Arts and Crafts
There’s a ton of arts and crafts you can do with clay. Once the clay is combined with water it becomes a malleable material that can be formed in many different shapes. Clay can be turned into pots, sculptures, and other helpful household materials. They can also be turned into tiles that can be used on floors, kitchen counters, and walls. Objects made from clay are hardened by fire and are then glazed or decorated.
Different Types of Clay
When using clay, you need to know that there are different types of them and each type has its own characteristic and use. This means you can’t use the same clay for different kinds of projects. Each type may also be applicable only depending on one’s skills and level.
Ball clays contain extremely fine minerals with few mineral impurities. The main component of ball clay is kaolinite and quartz with only about 10 to 25% of mica. This type of clay is considered the most plastic among other types. They are formed through natural deposits or sediments.
When ball clay has not yet been fired, it has a gray color. Once it undergoes the process of firing, its color changes to a light brownish yellow color. It is the most preferred clay for potteries. You’ll know you fired it right when it produces a white color.
Since ball clays have a high binding quality and are the most plastic clay they are typically used for vases, tableware, floor tiles, kiln furniture, and toilet bowls. Ball clays can be very slippery to use which is why they are mostly used in slip casting, but they can also be formed with wheel throwing.
If you are a beginner with using clay you need to be careful as they can shrink extremely under fire. However, if you mix it with kaolin, for example, they can be the best choice for pottery. But if you have a large kiln or are skilled enough you’ll be able to fire it with no problem. Ball clays should be fired to at least 2345℉ for it to harden.
Stoneware clay is less porous and is moderately plastic. Same with stone, it is more resistant to chips and breaks. It contains a large amount of kaolinite with traces of quartz and mica. Sometimes it may also contain smectite and illite. It can come in different colors like gray, white, and brown when it becomes wet. Another factor that can affect its color is temperature and firing.
Due to its stonelike quality, it is mostly used for dinnerware. They can be painted, glazed, overglazed, etc. Stoneware clay is usually used in wheel throwing and hand-building.
Stoneware clays can be fired in two temperatures, mid-fire, and high fire. Mid-fire can range from 2106-2262℉ while high-fire can range from 2280-2345℉. Most of the time, fire clays are added to stoneware clays to help them mature and make them a bit rough.
Earthen clays are perfect for people with no experience with clays and who want to learn pottery. This is currently the most commonly used clay and is also considered the oldest type of clay utilized by potters. Its color varies when wet and once it has been fired. It typically has a shade of orange, red, tan, and yellow when wet. After firing it can give a shade of gray, white, and brown. When fired, it can look refined and smooth. Terracotta is the most common color you’ll produce after being fired. It can be glazed or painted over.
It is typically used in wheel throwing, hand-building, and sculpting. Flowerpots, tableware, outdoor decorations, and sculptures. To make it waterproof, it needs to be glaze fired. To achieve the desired hardness, earthenware clays need to be fired at the lowest temperature around 1828-2088°F when bisque fired and at 1728-1945 for glaze firing. They are not as durable as other clays and can still be a bit soft even after firing.
Fire clays have a high content of alumina and silica which allows it to stand up to higher temperature, which also makes them a refractory clay. They often have a gray or buff color when dry and the color lightens after being fired. Fire clay helps enhance the plasticity of another clay when combined.
Fire clay is used as an additive and cannot be used on its own. It is normally added to stoneware clay for pottery. It can be used in many ways when added to other types of clay such as oven bricks and kiln bricks. The temperature should be at least 2912°F to reach its melting point.
This is the most commonly used type of clay for dinnerware which is also known as China ceramics. It contains a large amount of pure kaolin. Its color varies but is usually very light, like a very subtle gray shade when not yet fired. It turns to off-white or white after firing. It can be challenging to work with porcelain clays because they are the least plastic among types of clays. Enamels and porcelain glazes are used to give it color.
To improve workability and lower firing temperature, different minerals are combined with porcelain clays. Aside from dinnerware, it is used to create vases, and other things used as decorations. It is typically used in cast slipping and wheel throwing.
There are different kinds of porcelain ceramics, namely soft paste, hard-paste, and bone China. The soft paste is the most uncommon type among the three and is deemed to be weak. It is fired at around 2167℉. Hard-paste on the other hand is the most common type which is also known as true porcelain. Unlike soft paste, it is fired at a higher temperature usually around 2345℉ and to produce more durable objects. Bone China is the sturdiest among other types of porcelain. It is now more commonly used in the modern world.
How to Find Clay
Now that you know what clay is made of and how it looks like, searching for it will be a bit easier and it may be just within your backyard. Since clay can be found almost everywhere, it wouldn’t be that difficult to find one. So, here are the steps on how to find clay in your backyard.
Searching for Natural Clay
Ready to go hunting for clay in your backyard? It is important to know that it needs to be hunted down. You can’t just scan the area and say, nope there’s no clay in here. It doesn’t work that way; you need to get your hands dirty and dig around to find clay. Since most soils contain clay, it would still be best to find higher content of clay soil, so you can produce more for your craft projects.
As you go through your yard, start searching for areas where water tends to linger after raining. Once you’ve found that area, there’s a great chance that you’ve found clay. Remember that before you get to the dense clay part, it will be covered with at least 8 to 18” of topsoil. So you would have some digging to do.
In case you are having a hard time finding one in your own backyard, you can try searching for wild clay soil in areas around you. Some of the places where you might find local clay are stream beds, river banks, construction sites, road cuts, and gullies or canyons. If you’re planning to dig clay in these sites, make sure to get written permission from the owner of the land. It is also important to follow safety practices and to steer clear of machinery and dangerous areas.
It is important to know that there may be some potential hazards in looking for clay on your own. Although these possible risks are not life-threatening, it would still be best to be careful and know these hazards. No matter where you’ll be digging your clay, be it in your own backyard or at a construction site, dangers may still be possible.
While digging, expect to be surprised with burrowing animals or ground wasps, other things you need to watch out for are debris that you might accidentally left behind on your clay. If you are to look for clay near rivers or streams, the place may be slippery so wear proper footwear and clothing.
Test your Wild Clay
If you want to know how much clay is in your soil, you can do a test jar. Get a jar and fill half of it with soil then add water. Stir it until the soil particles break up. Let it sit for a few minutes and wait for the sand and silt to settle. The soil particles that are left suspended in the water are your clay soil. Testing your native clay is easy and it gives you an idea of how much clay you might have in your yard.
Harvesting your Clay Soil
Now that you have tested the clay content on your soil, it is time to harvest it. There are two types of clay harvesting. It can be dry or wet.
Wet Harvest Method
When using the wet method, it is almost the same process as when you did the test jar. Get a bucket and put the soil in it. Add water and stir the soil then wait for a few minutes to allow the silt, sand, and rocks to settle in the bottom.
The clay soil will stay in the water. Now get a soft fine cloth and filter the water and clay. You will then be left with a ball of clay.
Dry Harvest Method
As the name suggests, you need to dry out your soil completely. Then you need to sift, pound the clay globs until they are as fine as flour. This process will also involve several rounds of winnowing. The clay powder is then mixed with water and kneaded until it can be used in pottery.
Most people prefer the wet method as it is easier and faster. However, not everyone has access to water which makes it hard for those areas with very warm climate and have less rain.
Testing Clay Plasticity
Not all clays are the same and if you are curious about the plasticity of the clay you’ve found in the ground, there’s a way to do it. To find out the plasticity, wet the natural clay with water if you have dry clay. Knead it for a few minutes, you may need to add water to your clay until you you get the right texture. Once the clay has been thoroughly wet and you have achieved the correct texture, form a coil with your hands and try to bend it around one finger. If the clay bends easily without cracking, then the clay you’ve found on your ground has high plasticity. If it cracks, then it lacks plasticity.
Processing Natural Clay
Now it is time to process the clay that you’ve found and create something nice. The fastest way to make your clay usable is by dry processing it. If you have damp clay you can place it in an area where there’s enough sunlight. Leave it for a couple of days to dry, however, be sure it won’t get wet in case it rains.
Another method you can try is to get some of the clay and spread it on a baking sheet. Place it in the oven at a low temperature for a few hours to ensure it is completely dry. If you are worried about firing the clay, that will not happen since clay needs a higher temperature to turn them into ceramics.
Once your clay is thoroughly dry, the next step is grinding it. You don’t need a special tool or grinder to do this. All you need is a hammer and pound it on the ground, preferably a concrete surface such as your driveway. If you can’t find a hammer, a big rock will do. Pound the clay until it looks like grains of sand.
Once you have the right texture, add at least 20% of sand or a 4:1 ratio. Four parts of sand to 1 part of clay. Keep in mind that the percentage of sand and clay may vary, as it will depend on your clay particles. However, 20% is a good number for most clay mixtures. But you can always adjust it until you find the right mixture for you. Now, you might be wondering why we need to add sand to your clay, this is to help make your clay form minute gaps, so moisture can get out and aid in keeping the pot dehydrated without cracking. Mix sand and clay until they are evenly combined.
The next step is to add water to your clay to make it damp. Start with little water and knead your clay so that water combines with the clay perfectly. Avoid putting a lot of water as it will make your clay too sticky, but don’t under-water it as it will make your clay too firm and crack easily. Add water and knead until you have reached a plastic consistency. It may not be easy to know if you have achieved nice plasticity, especially if you are new to this. However, through practice and experience, you’ll learn it.
Different Pottery Techniques
If you are interested in making pottery whether as a hobby or as a business, you may want to know the different pottery techniques from creation until the finished product, so here are some of the most common pottery techniques.
Use of Pottery Wheel
This is the most common and popular technique used by many potters. There is an automatic and manual pottery wheel. The manual pottery wheel is powered by the foot, while automatic ones are powered by an electric motor. The wheel can be made of a wood slab or a circular stone to help the potters create and form the clay into their desired shape. When using pottery wheels, your hands should be coated with slip and water so the clay will slip on it as you form something out of your clay. You need to apply pressure on your fingertips and palms to form the shape.
Hand-building is known to be the first method of pottery hundreds of years ago. Today it is still used by many traditional potters. This technique of pottery does not use wheels but rather building pots through hands. Potters will get a block of clay and manually shape it to create their pots. Another way to form and shape clay by hand-building is through coiling. This process is done by putting layers of hand-rolled coils made of clay. These coils are put together and blended to attain a well-proportioned pot.
Once you have finished forming your desired shape and have added any designs, set it aside and let it dry. A raw clay needs to be waterproof and to do this you must glaze and fire it to make it usable. There are different ways to decorate your pots. If you prefer to have your pot with one color, dip pots will do.
When dipping pots, it is dipped straight to glaze to give it an even coat everywhere, except the bottom of the pot. Aside from dipping, you can also glaze your pots using a brush or sponge, like you would when painting. When a glazed pot is not yet fired, it may look dull and lifeless, and the color may be different. However, don’t worry after firing the pot; your desired color will show. The final product can be shiny or matte.
This is an important part of pottery and you need to find the right temperature to achieve the desired final product. There are different types of firing and using a specialized kiln is the most common today. However, primitive kilns were practiced hundreds of years ago by our ancestors.
Firing is done either in low fire or high fire. Using the right type of fire is important as this can make or break your final product. Cone is used to measure the temperature of the kiln. Cone 4 is usually described as low fire. If your intention is to create brightly colored pots and have carved designs low fire is ideal. This is because the high fire may cause discoloration and allow the glaze to be embedded in the design.
Hiring firing on the other hand is ideal for objects that need to be waterproof like ceramics and vases. High firing is typically at cone 10. Using high fire allows the clay to bond fully to make the final outcome stronger. Pots fired at low temperatures are more prone to breaking and chipping easily.
Tips for Beginners
Pottery is a fun activity, however, if you are new to it, you might be a bit scared to mold your first ever creation. But here are some of the tips to help you get through your journey to pottery.
During your pottery class, you don’t have to wear stylish or expensive clothes. Remember that there’s a big chance your clothes will be stained, so wear comfortable clothes and something that you won’t mind getting stained. An old shirt and pair of jeans will do. Avoid wearing clothes that are too loose or baggy as they may accidentally catch fire when working on the kiln.
Lower Your Expectations
Your first pottery pieces may not go as planned or as you expected. However, don’t give up easily as that is normal. Even experienced potters failed during their first try. It may take time to create amazing results, so be patient.
Learn the Different Pottery Techniques
Apart from your pottery class, you can also learn about the different pottery techniques in advance by watching a video online or reading articles about them. This way you are always prepared during your pottery class. If you’re not enrolled in a class, you can still learn the different pottery techniques on your own. But if you want to take pottery seriously, enrolling in a class is ideal.
Don’t Worry If You Mess Up
Remember that clays are malleable and you can easily rework them if you mess up with them. So, don’t worry, your clay will not be wasted and you can still use it. You can reshape and form another object from it.
Just try and try until you are confident and have perfected your craft. It may take some time and a lot of frustrations, but it will all be worth it. Just continue practicing and learning and you will be just fine.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can you identify clay?
Clay is easier to identify when it is wet than dry. It typically has a plastic consistency when wet and is soft.
How do you make clay in your backyard?
Processing clay from your own backyard can be done in two methods – the wet or dry method. Once you dug the clay from the ground, you can either separate the sand, silts, and rocks by drying them or filtering them through the wet method.
What are the different ways to fire clay at home?
There are several ways to fire clays at home. Some of the things you can use are microwave kilns, wood pit firing, sawdust firing using a brick kiln, charcoal barbeque grills, plug-in hobby kilns, and raku firing.
How long should bisque firing take?
It would depend on the type, age, size, and kiln to be used. However, on average it can take at least 10 hours.
Finding clay on your own yard can be fun; processing it makes it even more exciting. However, if you can’t find clay within your yard, don’t worry, there are still a lot of other places to look for clay. Digging clay is easy, but the process to make pottery out of clay may take some time, especially when working with wild clay.