World Pottery

What is Bisque?

Bisque is a term that has various meanings in different contexts. In the culinary world, bisque refers to a thick, creamy soup made from pureed seafood, such as lobster or shrimp, and often flavored with wine, cognac, or sherry. However, in ceramics and pottery, bisque refers to a specific stage in creating ceramic art pieces, such as pottery, sculptures, and figurines.

This article will focus on bisque in ceramics, exploring its definition, its creation process, and its significance in the pottery world.

What is Bisque in Ceramics?

In ceramics, bisque is the term used to describe clay that has undergone its first firing in a kiln, transforming it from a soft, pliable material into a hard, porous ceramic piece. This initial firing is known as the bisque firing or biscuit firing. The bisque stage is essential in the ceramic-making process, as it prepares the clay for further decoration and glazing.

Bisque is characterized by its porous, unglazed surface, which allows it to absorb moisture and adhere to glazes applied in subsequent stages of the pottery-making process. The bisque stage is critical for creating a stable, durable ceramic piece that can withstand the rigors of everyday use.

The History of Bisque Firing

The use of bisque firing in ceramics dates back thousands of years, with evidence of its use found in ancient civilizations across the globe, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and the Americas. The bisque firing process allowed these early cultures to create durable, functional, and beautiful ceramic pieces for everyday use and artistic expression.

The bisque firing process has evolved, with technological advancements in kiln design and temperature control allowing for greater precision and consistency in the firing process. Despite these advancements, the basic principles of bisque firing remain unchanged, as ceramic artists continue to rely on this essential step to create lasting, functional, and visually stunning pieces of pottery.

The Bisque Firing Process

The bisque firing process is critical in transforming clay into a ceramic piece. It involves several stages and precise temperature control to ensure the proper chemical and physical changes occur within the clay. Here is a detailed breakdown of the bisque firing process:

Drying the Clay

Before bisque firing, the clay must be thoroughly dried to remove any residual moisture. This is important because any remaining moisture within the clay can cause it to crack or even explode during the firing process. To achieve this, ceramic artists typically allow their clay pieces to air dry for several days or even weeks, depending on the size and thickness of the piece. Some artists may also use fans, heaters, or dehumidifiers to speed up drying.

Loading the Kiln

Once the clay pieces are completely dry, they are carefully loaded into the kiln for the bisque firing. The kiln must be loaded so that each piece has adequate space around it, ensuring it is not touching any other pieces or the kiln walls. This prevents the pieces from sticking together or being damaged during the firing process.

The Firing Process

The bisque firing process typically involves a slow, controlled increase in temperature, followed by a cooling period. The firing schedule varies depending on the type of clay being used, but generally follows a similar pattern:

  • The kiln is gradually heated to a low temperature, usually between 200°F (93°C) and 300°F (149°C), and held at that temperature for a few hours. This step, known as candling or preheating, helps to drive off any remaining moisture within the clay and prevents thermal shock.
  • The temperature is then slowly increased to the bisque firing temperature, which typically ranges from 1700°F (927°C) to 2100°F (1149°C), depending on the clay type. The kiln is held at this temperature for a specific amount of time, usually several hours, to ensure the clay undergoes the necessary chemical and physical changes.
  • After the bisque firing is complete, the kiln is allowed to cool slowly, typically taking between 12 and 24 hours. Rapid cooling can cause the ceramic pieces to crack or break due to thermal shock.

Unloading the Kiln

Once the kiln has cooled to room temperature, the ceramic pieces can be removed from the kiln. At this point, the clay has been transformed into a bisque, and the pieces are hard, porous, and ready for further decoration and glazing.

Importance of Bisque Firing

The bisque firing process serves several important functions in the creation of ceramic pieces:

  1. Chemical and Physical Transformation: During the bisque firing, the clay undergoes several chemical and physical changes that give it unique properties. For example, organic materials within the clay burn off, and the clay particles partially fuse together, making the bisque more durable and less prone to breakage.
  2. Porosity: Bisque firing results in a porous ceramic surface ideal for accepting glazes and other surface treatments. This porosity allows the glaze to adhere well to the bisque and ensures a proper bond between the glaze and the ceramic piece during the final glaze firing.
  3. Shrinkage: Clay shrinks as it dries and during the bisque firing process. This shrinkage is important to account for when creating ceramic pieces, as it affects the final size and shape of the piece. Bisque firing helps to stabilize the ceramic piece and minimize further shrinkage during the glaze firing.
  4. Testing and Troubleshooting: The bisque firing process allows ceramic artists to test their pieces for defects, such as cracks or warping, before glazing and final firing. This allows artists to address any issues and adjust their techniques or materials.

Glazing and Final Firing

After the bisque firing, the ceramic pieces are ready for glazing and final firing. Glazing involves applying a thin layer of glass-like material to the surface of the bisque, which, when fired, will melt and fuse to the ceramic piece, creating a smooth, glassy surface.

Glazes serve several purposes in ceramics, including providing a decorative finish, adding color, and creating a waterproof surface that makes the ceramic piece functional for everyday use. Many types of glazes are available, each with unique properties, colors, and firing requirements.

Once the glaze has been applied to the bisque, the ceramic pieces are loaded back into the kiln for the final firing, known as the glaze firing. This firing is typically done at a higher temperature than bisque to ensure the glaze melts and fuses properly to the ceramic piece. The glaze firing can range from 1800°F (982°C) to 2400°F (1316°C), depending on the type of clay and glaze being used.

Decorating Techniques for Bisque

After the bisque firing, several decorating techniques can be employed to add color, texture, and patterns to the ceramic pieces. Some popular decorating techniques include:

  • Underglazing involves applying colored, liquid clay (underglaze) to the bisque surface before glazing. Underglaze can be applied using various methods, such as painting, stamping, or sgraffito, to create intricate designs and patterns.
  • Glaze Layering: Glaze layering involves applying multiple layers of different glazes to the bisque surface to create depth, texture, and unique color combinations. The layers can be applied using brushing, pouring, dipping, or spraying techniques.
  • Slip Trailing: Slip trailing is a technique where liquid clay, or slip, is applied to the bisque surface using a syringe, squeeze bottle, or slip trailer tool. This method creates raised lines and patterns on the ceramic piece.
  • Wax Resist: Wax resist is a technique where a layer of wax is applied to the bisque surface to create a barrier that prevents glazes from adhering to certain areas of the ceramic piece. This results in patterns and designs with unglazed, matte areas contrasting with the glazed, glossy areas.

Troubleshooting Common Bisque Firing Issues

As with any art form, potential issues can arise during the bisque firing process. Some common problems and their possible solutions include:

  • Cracking: Cracks can occur in ceramic pieces if there is uneven drying, rapid temperature changes during firing, or if the clay is too thick. To prevent cracking, ensure the clay dries evenly, fire the kiln at a controlled rate, and avoid creating excessively thick clay pieces.
  • Warping: Warping can occur if the clay piece is not properly supported during the firing process or if the clay is unevenly rolled or constructed. To minimize warping, use kiln furniture to support the piece during firing and ensure even clay thickness during construction.
  • Pinholes: Pinholes can form in the bisque surface if air bubbles are trapped within the clay, organic materials are present in the clay, or if the clay is overfired. To prevent pinholes, wedge the clay thoroughly to remove air bubbles, use clean, high-quality clay, and follow the recommended firing schedule for your clay type.

Safety Considerations in Bisque Firing

Working with kilns and high temperatures during the bisque firing process requires proper safety precautions to prevent accidents and ensure a safe working environment. Some safety considerations to keep in mind during the bisque firing process include:

  • Proper Ventilation: Ensure that your kiln is located in a well-ventilated area to prevent the buildup of harmful fumes and gases that can be released during the firing process.
  • Protective Gear: Wear heat-resistant gloves, safety glasses, and closed-toe shoes when handling hot kiln shelves, posts, or ceramic pieces.
  • Fire Safety: Keep a fire extinguisher nearby and be familiar with its proper use in an emergency. Regularly inspect your kiln’s electrical components and wiring for signs of wear or damage.
  • Proper Training: Ensure that you are familiar with the operation of your kiln and the recommended firing schedules for your clay type. Following the manufacturer’s guidelines and safety recommendations is essential to prevent accidents and ensure a successful firing.

Bisque Firing in Different Ceramic Traditions

Bisque firing is a fundamental step in ceramic-making across various cultural and historical traditions. While the basic principles of bisque firing are consistent, different traditions may have unique methods, materials, and styles that influence the bisque firing process. Some examples of diverse ceramic traditions that utilize bisque firing include:

  • Japanese Pottery: The Japanese pottery tradition is known for its unique glazes, such as Shino and Oribe, and techniques like Raku firing. Japanese potters often use local clay materials and carefully control the firing process to create stunning ceramic pieces with a strong connection to their environment and culture.
  • Native American Pottery: Native American potters have been creating functional and decorative ceramics for thousands of years, utilizing materials and techniques specific to their local environment. Many Native American pottery traditions use pit firing, where the clay pieces are fired in a shallow pit dug into the ground, rather than a traditional kiln.
  • African Pottery: African pottery traditions are diverse and varied, with regional differences in materials, techniques, and styles. Many African potters create ceramic pieces using coil-building techniques and often fire them in open, wood-fired kilns.

Contemporary Uses and Innovations in Bisque Firing

While bisque firing is an ancient technique, contemporary ceramic artists continue to push the boundaries and explore new possibilities in the bisque firing process. Some examples of contemporary innovations and uses of bisque firing include:

  • Alternative Firing Techniques: Some ceramic artists experiment with alternative firing techniques, such as pit firing, barrel firing, and soda firing, to create unique surface effects and textures on their bisque pieces.
  • Digital Technology: Integrating digital technology into ceramic-making, such as 3D printing and CNC milling, has opened up new possibilities for creating intricate and complex bisque pieces.
  • Collaborative and Community Projects: Many ceramic artists and organizations engage in collaborative and community-based projects that involve bisque firing, such as community tile murals, public art installations, and pottery workshops for underserved populations.


Bisque is an essential stage in the ceramic-making process that serves as the foundation for creating beautiful and functional pottery pieces. From the initial bisque firing to the final glaze firing, the process requires precision, patience, and a deep understanding of the materials and techniques involved. As ceramic artists continue to explore new possibilities and push the boundaries of their craft, the bisque firing process remains a vital part of the creative journey.

The significance of bisque firing extends beyond the transformation of clay into a ceramic piece; it is also a testament to the rich history and cultural diversity of pottery traditions across the globe. From ancient civilizations to contemporary artists, the bisque firing process is a shared experience that connects generations of potters and showcases the enduring appeal of this versatile art form.

As we continue to appreciate and celebrate the beauty and functionality of ceramics, the importance of bisque firing as a foundational step in the creative process remains indisputable. By understanding the nuances of bisque firing and its role in creating pottery, we can better appreciate the skill, dedication, and artistic vision of the ceramic artists who bring these timeless pieces to life.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the difference between bisque and greenware?

Greenware refers to unfired clay pieces, while bisque refers to clay pieces that have undergone their first firing in a kiln.

Can bisque be fired more than once?

Yes, bisque can be fired more than once, although multiple firings may cause the ceramic piece to become more brittle and prone to breakage.

What is the difference between bisque and pottery?

Bisque is a stage in the ceramic-making process where clay has been fired once, resulting in a hard, porous surface. On the other hand, pottery is a general term encompassing all types of ceramic art pieces, including those made from bisque.

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