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Ceramics Industry Job Descriptions, Careers in the Ceramics Industry, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Industry, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Ceramics is a general term applied to many kinds of products made from clay and similar materials processed at high temperatures. Many ceramic products are whitewares—for example, bathroom fixtures, floor and wall tile, pottery, dinnerware, and electrical insulators.

The process of making ceramic products begins with the digging of clay in large quantities. Power shovel operators scoop it from open pits, or mine workers extract it from below the surface of the earth. The industry also uses other raw materials such as silica, feldspar, and sand. Because these raw materials are plentiful in the eastern United States, much of the industry is concentrated there. However, plants are found in other parts of the country as well.

Raw materials are usually transported by truck, rail, or conveyor to a sliphouse, where slip mixers soak the clay and mix it with water. They then feed the slushy mixture, known as slip or engobe, through giant sieves that strain out pebbles, stones, and other unwanted materials. The mixture then flows into troughs or tanks, where the heavier sand particles settle to the bottom and the lighter clay material stays afloat. Simultaneously, magnets draw iron and other unwanted metal bits out of the slip. Filter press operators control the next process. They operate equipment that drives the slip through a series of filters that remove most of the water. Clay puggers then mix the clay with water in pug mills. They beat it into a mixture that resembles bread dough and force it through cutters that separate it into blocks of clay.

In the making of household china and other small flat and round articles, a batter-out processes chunks of clay by flattening them in a press or by slapping them against plaster blocks by hand. A potter then molds the flattened clay on a jigger wheel into a mold in the shape needed for the plate or dish. This process is known as jiggering. Articles that are oval or of another special shape go to pressers. The pressers use irregular plaster molds to form the clay pieces by hand, smoothing them with damp sponges or with pieces of heavy cloth or leather. This process is known as pressing.

Using slip casting, ceramic workers make hollow pieces such as deep bowls, vases, or bathroom fixtures. In this process, casters pour the slip mixture into molds made of plaster of paris. As the slip begins to harden, they pour out the excess liquid. When the clay dries and hardens completely, the workers remove the molds in two or more sections and take out the formed articles.

The finest wares and those that require special shaping are formed by hand. Skilled potters select a piece of clay of the needed size, place it on a rapidly revolving wheel, and shape and finish it. For many centuries, all pottery was produced this way.

No matter how it has been shaped, all ware must go to a drying room where moisture in the air is controlled. The ware dries, hardens, and shrinks as it loses water. Once dried out, finishers work on the pieces. These workers smooth rough surfaces, sponge away cracks and surface defects, remove excess materials, and straighten or round off edges. Handlers attach handles to cups, spouts to teapots, or ornamental parts to other kinds of pieces. All of this work is done by hand.

Workers then put the ware through a series of kiln firings, the first of which is called a bisque firing. For the bisque firing, the kiln placers carefully put the pieces in kilns, or ovens. The kilns are gradually raised to the desired temperature and then allowed to cool. Kiln firers supervise the kiln operation. In some plants one stationary kiln is used, but in more modern potteries the ware is carried on continuously moving cars through tunnel kilns. The temperature slowly increases as the ware moves along until the maximum level is reached. The temperature then declines toward the end of the tunnel, and the ware begins to cool.

After kiln firing, brushers clean all the pieces by hand or by using mechanical brushes or sandblasting. Dippers then apply a glaze, or glassy liquid. They apply the glaze either by spraying it or by dipping the ware into the glaze.

Workers then fire the glazed articles for a second time to remelt the glaze and to fuse it with the base ware. Some wares go to the decorating department, which is supervised by ceramic artists. Workers in this department are called liners, stampers, or decal appliers, depending on the kind of work they do. They apply designs by hand, with a stamp, or by machine. For fine and expensive products, the decoration is done by highly skilled ceramic artists.

The decorated ware is returned to the kilns for the third time. It needs several more hours of firing to fuse the minerals, paint, or other decorating materials into the glaze. This process is called overglazing and is the most common way of finishing ceramic ware. In another method, called underglazing, workers decorate the greenware before the bisque firing, after which they apply the final layer of glaze. In either case, the ware is now ready for final inspection, packing, and shipment to the market.

Ceramic engineers are usually responsible for all production operations. They control the design and installation of manufacturing equipment, the development of new products and processes, and the quality of the plant's output. There are other special workers in the ceramics industry. Designers create the forms and plan the colors and decorations for the ceramic articles produced in a plant. Modelers and mold makers work from the designer's plans to build the plaster molds needed for most ceramic ware processes. Ceramics plants also employ other engineers and technicians, besides clerical staffs, maintenance workers, and managers.

Education and Training Requirements

Many jobs in the ceramics industry can be learned on the job in a few days or weeks. For these jobs, there are usually no set education requirements. Some equipment used in making ceramic ware demands plenty of training, mechanical skill, and manual dexterity. Workers usually learn to run this kind of machinery after many years of job experience. Where handwork is done in the shaping, forming, and decorating processes, workers must be able to work rapidly and skillfully. They often need some artistic talent.

Ceramic engineers and other professional workers employed in the ceramics industry usually need four years of college. Engineers generally have a degree in ceramic engineering. Designers and artists may have a degree in design or fine arts.

Getting the Job

If you want to do production work in the ceramics industry, you can apply directly to plants that make china, pottery, and other kinds of ceramic ware. Sometimes openings are listed in newspaper want ads or on signs outside the plant. Your state employment office may also know about plants that are looking for workers. Your college placement office may be able to give you information about getting a professional or technical job.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Although the output is large and the ceramic whiteware industry is stable, mechanized processes limit the number of workers needed. The industry must also meet competition from many foreign sources. Typically, there are a few job openings each year to replace workers who leave the field or to meet the changing needs of the industry. Skilled workers have an advantage in finding a job and in advancing. Production workers can move into better-paying jobs or can become supervisors—especially if their plants expand. Workers who show that they are able to learn new skills and to lead other workers are most likely to be chosen as supervisors. Skilled workers such as potters and ceramic artists sometimes advance by starting their own businesses.

Working Conditions

Working conditions in the ceramics industry vary considerably from plant to plant. Conditions depend in part on the age of the plant and the way it has been maintained. In modern factories, good lighting and ventilation and the use of laborsaving equipment provide conditions comparable to those in any light manufacturing industry. In older plants, however, exposure to dust, heat, and mechanical hazards may be greater. To lift ceramic ware and to operate machinery and other equipment, workers need to be in good health, fairly strong, and well coordinated. In some plants, especially in the kiln baking departments, the work must be controlled around the clock. Therefore, some workers are assigned to do shift work. The workweek is usually forty hours long, although extra hours may be required from time to time. Many workers belong to labor unions.

Where to Go for More Information

American Ceramic Society
735 Ceramic Place, Ste. 100
Westerville, OH 43081
(614) 890-4700

International Ceramic Association
PO Box 39
Glen Burnie, MD 21061
(410) 923-3425

Earnings and Benefits

Wages for skilled and semiskilled ceramics production workers are generally comparable to those paid to other manufacturing workers in the same geographic area. Wages for beginners are often at the federal minimum rate. Regular increases can be expected as workers gain more skills. Highly skilled ceramic artists and potters can earn higher incomes. Most plants offer their workers benefits that include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production