The Uniqueness of Porcelain

what is porcelain

You may be familiar with porcelain for a number of reasons. Whether it’s art or antiques or from one of its more practical uses the material has been around for centuries.

What is Porcelain?

Porcelain is a type of ceramic pottery that is primarily made from Kaolin, a paste made out of a clay mineral called Kaolinite. After it is formed to the desired shape, it is baked in a kiln or pottery baking oven, to harden and strengthen the clay. Due to the mineral color of the Kaolinite, most people are very familiar with porcelain’s white color.

How it’s Made

Creating something out of porcelain is a four-step process. The four steps are forming, glazing, decorating and firing.

Forming the porcelain creation is much the same as any other ceramic or pottery. You can do it by hand or using a pottery wheel to shape it. Whichever way is chosen, the maker must remember porcelain is very sensitive to moisture in the creation stage so even a slight amount of moisture may affect how easy or hard the Kaolin is to work with.

Glazing is a common but not mandatory step of the porcelain-making process. Unlike other types of pottery, porcelain does not need a glaze to make it waterproof. Glazing porcelain does make it dirt and stain resistant though. It also can create some amazing decorative effects when used in the right way.

The next step is decorating. If the creator is using materials to decorate the porcelain that includes metals in the pigments like copper or cobalt, the decorating needs to be done under the glaze. If they are using colored enamels, they would do the decorative flourishes over the glaze.

The final step in the process is the firing. This is baking the final product in a kiln until hardened. This will permanently set their shape as well as adhere to any glazing or decoration that has gone on earlier in the process. This is generally done at a high heat. Most porcelain is fired at a range of 1,200 – 1,400 degrees Celsius or 2,200 – 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

History of Porcelain

Porcelain can trace its history back to ancient China. While no specific date can be found, it is believed porcelain originated in the Shang Dynasty, which ruled China over 1,000 years BC.  When the people of China started making things out of porcelain, they found that they were harder, stronger and easier to clean than other types of pottery. They were also known for making beautiful, ornate artworks out of porcelain and many of the most valuable and prized artifacts from that time were made for and owned by members of the ruling dynasty of the day.

Porcelain first made its way out of Asia and over to Europe thanks to the Italian merchant and explorer, Marco Polo. However, for years, European artisans tried and failed to reproduce the beautiful porcelain creations they found to the East. It wasn’t unit Portuguese explorers and traders in the 1500s actually brought back Kaolin that Europeans were actually able to start producing it on their own. Once they understood how it was made, producers in Italy, France, and England all started making things from porcelain starting in the 1700s.

What is it used for?

Other than art and sculptures, there are many other uses for porcelain which is another reason why it is so highly valued. From your home to more industrial uses, there are many ways the interesting properties of porcelain are put to work. 

In the Home

The most well-known use to people nowadays is for “the Porcelain Throne”, as it is nicknamed, nor the toilet as it is better known. Porcelain has been used in all type of bathroom fixtures for years. The fact that it doesn’t rust when exposed to water and moisture coupled with the fact that it is durable and easy to clean made it a perfect fit for the bathroom.

You can also find it in the kitchen. When you hear people talk about their ‘fine China” or “bone China” dishware, that is a type of porcelain. It has been used for centuries to make all sorts of things to serve and eat off of. Bowls, plates, cups and tea sets are some of the most common porcelain crockeries you’ll find in a kitchen or dining room cabinet. A common misconception is that porcelain dinnerware is more breakable than other types. While it may be more fragile than stoneware or earthenware, it is a stronger material than glass, a material that much dinnerware has been made of over the years.

In Industry

It is a great insulator for all things electric. Since it does not conduct electricity it is used for housing in high voltage situations. The fact that it is very durable is why it is used a lot with outdoor high voltage cables specifically. 

It is also used to build things. Porcelain is usually found in tile form when used for construction purposes.  It is generally prized for its atheistic value and is found in ornate, decorative pieces of buildings and houses. It is also an incredibly strong material so it can also be used as a foundational material at times.

Porcelain crowns and filings are becoming more and more popular in dental procedures. Usually, gold or metal alloy had been used in the past but modern dentistry is going more towards all-porcelain or porcelain mixed with a metal alloy. Porcelain dental fixtures are very resistant to wear and much less noticeable in the mouth with their white color.

As you can see, porcelain has a rich and interesting history and has a myriad of uses. It has been valued and prized for thousands and thousands of years in places all over the world. This is what makes it such a unique material. So next time you look around your house, be it the in the kitchen or bathroom or you turn on a light in another room, you can think about all the ways we use porcelain.

Thanks to Porzellanshop for their contribution to this article.

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