Whether you are picking up pottery as a new hobby or planning to buy new tableware, it’s important to know what the difference is between stoneware and earthenware.
Both types of pottery might look the same at first glance, but both of them have very material properties.
So let’s start simple and go over a basic explanation of both stoneware and earthenware.
What is earthenware?
Earthenware pottery is made from coarsely grained clay that can easily be found in nature. Among the different types of pottery, earthenware requires the lowest firing temperature and can possess various colors such as brown, red, orange, or gray.
Since earthenware is porous, it is more prone to chipping than other types of pottery, and it requires a glaze to make it food safe and waterproof.
What is stoneware?
Stoneware pottery is made from coarsely grained clay and needs to be fired at high temperatures to harden. It normally comes in lighter gray, tan, or brown colors. Stoneware only needs to be fired once and doesn’t require an additional glaze.
Since it’s heated at higher temperatures and less porous, it’s more durable than earthenware.
What is the difference between earthenware and stoneware?
So now that you roughly know what earthenware and stoneware are, let’s take a closer look at the most important differences in terms of the porosity, firing temperature, price, color, and durability.
Earthenware is more porous than stoneware. Sometimes earthenware is even described as any type of pottery with a porosity above 5%.
This perhaps doesn’t sound like very much, but it has a big impact on your ceramics. For example, even after firing, earthenware can still absorb a lot of water or liquids because of its porous nature. Which is also why it’s not safe to use for food.
To make the earthenware waterproof and food safe, a glaze needs to be applied, which will provide a protective coating. However, this glaze also needs to be heated at high temperatures, so earthenware normally needs to be fired twice.
And even after glazing, the pores on the inside will still make earthenware prone to chipping. But we’ll discuss the durability later on.
Stoneware normally has a porosity around 2~3% or even lower depending on the temperature it’s fired at.
As a result, stoneware is waterproof and food safe without needing a glaze. It’s also less prone to chipping.
2. Firing temperature
Earthenware is fired at lower temperatures (roughly 2100F or 1150C) than stoneware (roughly 2200F or 1200C). However, the exact firing temperature can vary depending on the composition of the clay.
Moreover, earthenware is normally fired twice. The first time is called bisque firing and is done to harden the clay. The second time is called the glaze fire and is needed to vitrify the glaze.
For more information, read our article on the pottery making process.
Stoneware is normally only fired once. However, if you want to apply a glaze for decorative purposes, that’s still possible.
Earthenware clay normally comes in a range of earth colors such as brown, gray, orange, tan, red, or white.
Stoneware often comes in gray, brown, or white. However, other colors can be obtained with additives such as iron oxide to achieve the typical red color that terracotta is famous for.
In my personal experience, stoneware clay is normally a little more expensive than earthenware clay. But the price can vary a lot depending on what you buy it and the composition of the clay.
Moreover, for a fair comparison you should also take into consideration what the firing cost is and the cost for the earthenware glaze.
If you are pursuing pottery as a hobby, I wouldn’t worry about the cost too much though. Since the price difference is not that big anyway.
For more information, you can read our article on the price of pottery clay.
Is stoneware more durable than earthenware?
For decorative pieces, the durability isn’t the most important factor to consider. But if you are planning to use the cups, mugs and plates that you carefully crafted by hand, you want to make sure that they don’t break at the slightest touch.
Fortunately, both earthenware and stoneware are very durable.
However, when you compare the two of them, stoneware is a little more reliable than earthenware. And a very thin wall of earthenware has the tendency to break off more easily.
A way to prevent this from happening is to make all the walls a little thicker when working with earthenware and minimize the number of small attached pieces.
Regardless of the type of pottery, it should be able to without change from room temperature to boiling hot water. But placing a frozen piece of ceramics into a preheated oven is never a good idea.
How can you tell earthenware from stoneware?
Imagine you have one earthenware mug and one stoneware mug, but you forgot which one is which. How can you tell the difference between the two?
Unfortunately, without a background and lots of experience in pottery, there is no easy way to tell them apart.
One method you could use is to weigh both of the mugs before and after placing them in water. The earthenware mug is more porous and absorbs more water. So you can observe a bigger weight increase for the earthenware mug.
Unfortunately, this only works if the earthenware mug isn’t glazed. Because any glaze will block the pores.
You can also try to make a guess based on their weight alone. As mentioned before, earthenware is more prone to chipping. As a result, handmade earthenware pieces normally are a little thicker and weigh more.
Earthenware vs stoneware glazes
Earthenware pieces need to be glazed to ensure that they are waterproof and food safe. While stoneware pieces only need to be fired at sufficiently high temperatures. However, a glaze can be added to stoneware as decoration.
The glazes used for earthenware normally contain bright colors and have a high sheen. However, these colors only survive at relatively low temperatures.
Stoneware glazes have more dull and natural colors because they can resist higher temperatures.
Which clay to choose?
Which clay you want to use depends a lot on your personal preference, your goal, and the clays themselves.
There is a pretty wide variety among both stoneware clays and earthenware clays. And the ratio between the components that make up the clay has a big impact on how easy it is to handle.
Roughly speaking you can use the clay for throwing on a wheel, hand building, and slip casting. And you want to choose your clay accordingly.
For example, for hand building you want a pretty solid and strong clay, so terracotta earthenware would be great. But white earthenware clay would be a bad choice because it’s very smooth and easily collapses.
On the flip side, for throwing on a wheel you want a clay that feels smooth, so stoneware clay with fine grog would be a good option, whereas stoneware clay with very rough grog would be a bad option.
As you can see, you can’t simply say earthenware clay is better for hand building and stoneware clay is better for using on a pottery wheel.
You’ll either have to experiment by yourself with different clays, or ask any local potters what their experiences are.
Which is better: stoneware or earthenware?
Now that we have gone over all the differences between stoneware and earthenware, I hope it helped you make a decision on which one to use.
Earthenware is slightly cheaper and requires lower firing temperatures, but needs to be glazed before it can be used. Stoneware is more durable due to the lower porosity and only needs to be fired once.
That being said, not every stoneware or earthenware clay is the same. So it’s difficult to say which one is easier to use.
What about porcelain?!
That’s right! Besides stoneware and earthenware, porcelain is also a very common type of ceramics that you can choose to work with.
For a good overview of the differences, read our article on the differences between stoneware and porcelain.