Glazing pottery is one of the snags that many beginning potters face, this post explains some of the choices that you will need to make and provides this hobbyist's personal suggestions.
There are a lot of options open to the potter (or ceramicist) in regards to glazing pottery and ceramics. As you travel further into the world of making your own pottery these options will open up new possibilities, but for a beginning potter, they may seem overwhelming. The good news is that you can make choices for now without them preventing you from going back and trying new things later and that there are some choices that you can make which will help guide and simplify future choices.
The first decision is one that you have likely already made or had made for you: what type of clay will you be working with? Different clay bodies have their own characteristics that effect how they fire and how they interact with glazes. It is very important to have your glaze and your clay match each other. For instance both glazes and clays have firing temperature requirements that will need to be met. Firing temperatures are generally lumped into the ranges of low fire, mid-range, and high fire, though it should be noted that occassionally you may see references to people lumping mid-range and high fire together, so always double check the cone ratings to be certain (especially if someone else will be handling the firing for you). Other criteria include compatible absorption and shrinkage.
The next step to choosing your glazes is to decide whether you want to make your own or buy commercial glazes. It is generally easier for beginners to buy commercial glazes as they are usually formulated to work well with appropriate clay bodies, are fairly consistent, and don't require a large amount of equipment in order to use safely. If you do want to make your own glazes, it is important that you follow appropriate safety precautions, including using equipment such as respirators.
Whether you decide to make your own glazes or buy commercial, this is a good point to decide whether or not you want (or need!) your glazes to be food safe, i.e. appropriate for pieces that will hold food. If you are going to be making dinnerware, I recommend sticking with glossy glazes, even if a great looking matte glaze is food safe. This is also a good time to consider if children will be involved in the glazing process as there are some glazes that are not safe for children to use and not all online ceramic suppliers list this information. If children will be using the glazes, double check with the manufacturer to ensure they are properly rated.
Now it is time to start picking colors! If you are making your own glazes, look for recipes and consult with experienced potters to pick what is best for you.
If you are buying glazes, read product descriptions (and reviews if you can find them) to find glazes that are user friendly, work well with a wide variety of clays and conditions and generally meet your conditions. This is a time where depending on your interest in glazing and personal aesthetic, you may decide to purchase a larger amount of one glaze, purchasing a sample kit that includes a variety of colors, mixing and matching your own choices or some combination of those options.
Glazes are most commonly sold by the pint (16 ounces) but are often available by the gallon and sometimes in 4 oz containers or in dry form where you will need to add water. As a general rule, the larger the container the cheaper the glaze will be per ounce. So, if you aren't very interested in glazing it may be more cost effective to choose a small number of colors of user-friendly glazes and stick to those. If you want to experiment with color, however, a sample pack may be a good starting point. Whatever you decide, please remember that each glaze does have its own characteristics and it may take a few tries to get it right, particularly in regards to how thick they glaze should be applied.
I use a midrange stoneware clay for my own pottery, and recommend that beginners using a similar clay look at the following glazes:
- Amaco Potter's Choice Blue Midnight, Deep Olive Speckle and Deep Firebrick are three of my favorite glazes and generally produce good results for me. Blue Rutile can have some nice effects, though I have found the results are very sensitive to how thickly it is applied (thicker is better) and can get a little messy.
- Georgies Gloss Glazes, I get good results with these and if you want a sample pack with a lot of options, the manufacturer's website offers the entire series in 4 oz jars as a set.
Choosing glazes that will fit your personal style and sense of aesthetic can help you to create beautiful and useful finished pottery that you can enjoy using in your life.