Understanding the difference in stoneware vs. porcelain is important for identifying antique china and assigning value to pieces you own. Although people tend to refer to all pieces as "china," there are some significant differences between stoneware, porcelain, and ceramics. Learn how to spot these differences at a glance.
Stoneware Is More Common Than Porcelain
If you're looking at china in an antique store or even a modern home store, you'll see more stoneware than porcelain. Most ceramic tableware is stoneware, and even antique pieces like flow blue china or ironstone are crafted from stoneware. Don't assume a piece is porcelain because it's beautiful and old; many lovely antiques are stoneware.
Porcelain Has a Finer Grain Than Stoneware
One of the main differences in stoneware vs. porcelain is the grain of the clay. Stoneware is named because the courser clay used to create it has the rougher appearance of stone. When it's glazed, this may not be as obvious. You may or may not be able to see this when looking at a finished piece. Sometimes, unglazed areas on the bottom of an item can offer a clue.
Stoneware Is Heavier Than Porcelain
Weight is an important thing to note when considering whether an item is stoneware vs. porcelain. Stoneware is always heavier than porcelain, since the clay used to make it is courser. If you lift a stoneware tea cup and a porcelain tea cup, you will notice the porcelain cup is lighter. You can easily notice this if you have a lot of experience with both materials, but even a novice collector can compare the weights of two similar items in a shop.
Stoneware Is Thicker Than Porcelain
Stoneware is also thicker than porcelain. In fact, many porcelain items are transparent. If you hold a piece of porcelain up to the light, you may notice that the light glows through the material. This is especially true with lighter colors. However, if you lift a piece of stoneware to the light, the material will not glow. You can also measure the thickness of the rim of a cup or the edge of a plate or bowl and compare it to another piece. The thicker items are usually made of stoneware.
Porcelain Can Take More Delicate Forms Than Stoneware
Because it is thinner, porcelain can take on more delicate forms. Fine decorations, such as you might see in antique Victorian porcelain, really wouldn't be possible in stoneware. It requires more skill from the potter to work with porcelain, but this material also allows for more creative expression. Look for delicate sculpted flowers, leaves, and other dimensional decorations.
Porcelain Is Fired at Higher Temperatures Than Stoneware
Because stoneware and porcelain use different types of clay, they also have different firing temperatures. According to Clay Times, stoneware is fired at about 2,100 degrees to 2,372 degrees Fahrenheit. Porcelain, on the other hand, is fired at temperatures above 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the high firing temperature, both of these materials handle heat well when you use them. Depending on the glazes and decorations, they may both be dishwasher safe.
Stoneware Is the Most Durable Dinnerware Material
Although porcelain is actually stronger than stoneware and can be crafted into thinner pieces, stoneware tends to make a more durable choice for dinnerware. Everyday pieces from almost any era are most likely to be stoneware, while fine dining items may be porcelain. As you're looking at items in an antique shop, you may see fewer chips and cracks in stoneware.
Porcelain Sounds Like a Bell When It Is Tapped
If you tap gently on a piece of porcelain, it will emit a sound like a bell. This resonance doesn't happen with stoneware, so it's a good way to tell the two materials apart when you're shopping for antiques.
Differences Between Stoneware, Porcelain, and Other Materials
Stoneware and porcelain are only two of the types of china you may encounter in antique stores, flea markets, and other shopping venues. It helps to have some additional tips for telling these two materials apart from some other common options.
Ironstone vs. Porcelain
Whether you collect ironstone tea pots or simply just enjoy the history and durability of this simple type of china, it's natural to wonder how it relates to porcelain. Ironstone is actually stoneware that is crafted as delicately as possible, mimicking the look of porcelain. However, it's still stoneware, and you can often see the stoneware grain in unglazed spots on the bottom of a piece.
Bone China vs. Porcelain
When it comes to identifying porcelain vs. china, it's important to remember that people use the term "china" to mean any fancy dishes. They can be stoneware, porcelain, ceramic, or anything else. However, there's a specific type of china that is always porcelain. Bone china is porcelain that that includes a certain amount of animal bone ash in the clay, allowing it to be lighter and more delicate than ordinary porcelain. Most bone china pieces are marked.
Stoneware vs. Bone China
Telling the difference between stoneware and bone china is similar to differentiating between stoneware and porcelain. Look at the item's weight, thickness, and level of transparency. Many bone china pieces also carry a stamp that says they are bone china.
Stoneware vs. Earthenware
Earthenware is a type of china produced using courser clay and fired at lower temperatures. Art pottery can be earthenware, although it's uncommon to find earthenware in fine dining pieces. Earthenware is not as durable as stoneware, and it is always glazed or painted.
Ceramic vs. Porcelain
In general, "ceramic" refers to pieces that are stoneware and earthenware. This means that identifying ceramic vs. porcelain dishes comes down to the same methods as differentiating between stoneware and porcelain.
Let the Pattern Help You in Identifying Your China
If you aren't sure whether an item is stoneware, porcelain, earthenware, or something else, take some time to identify the china pattern. You can use backstamps and marks to tell you about the age and pattern, and from there, you can determine which material your dinnerware is.