I've heard this many times since then, that Soldate is the best clay for beginners because it's the most forgiving. So how can clay be forgiving? Maybe some of us really should ask the clay for forgiveness after we've molested it, but we can't literally hurt clay and it can't forgive us. I think "the most forgiving" means that clays like Soldate have lots of grog, and clays with grog can absorb more water without collapsing. They also dry more evenly since the grog creates pathways for water to escape so pieces don't crack. These are important advantages for any potter. We carry Soldate 60 at HPG, the 60 being the mesh size of the grog. Grog is just clay that's been fired and then ground up into larger and smaller pieces. The smaller the mesh size number, the larger and more coarse the grog overall; the higher the number the finer the grog, so 60 is pretty coarse. Many experienced potters use Soldate for making larger pieces and for raku and pit firing. All of that grog helps the clay carry more weight and withstand intense thermal shock.
Does that make Soldate the ideal clay for beginners? No. It's absolutely the worst clay for beginners. Why? Because it becomes increasingly more difficult to throw under the conditions that all beginning potters experience. Here's what I experienced and here's what all beginning potters experience. A beginner puts a fresh piece of Soldate on the wheel and starts to center it. She struggles with it, adds more water and pushes it toward center some more. Finally a piece starts to go up but after 30 minutes the whole things collapses. She cuts it off the wheel and puts it in a bag. The next time she comes to the studio she wedges some of the same Soldate she threw the last time, puts it on the wheel, and starts centering again. After trying to center it for 10 minutes, she starts to shape it but the piece collapses and she throws it back in a bag until the next time she comes to the studio. Each time she adds water, more of the soft clay liquefies and becomes slip which ends up in the bucket or in the splash pan. The more clay that liquefies, the higher the proportion of grog becomes. After throwing a piece a few times, she can hardly budge it because the proportion of grog to clay has become so high. Just last week I saw a beginning potter struggling to center a piece of clay, about 4 pounds. I watched him and was surprised that a strong young man would have such trouble getting the clay on center. I asked if I could coach him a little and he said "Sure." After watching him and giving him a few suggestions, he still was struggling, so I asked if I could sit down and show him. As soon as I touched the clay, I knew what the problem was. It was so groggy that I could barely move it. I told him to cut it off and recycle it. I came back a few minutes later and he was struggling with another piece of Soldate. Turned out this was a piece he'd thrown a few times before and it was just as groggy and just as hard to move as the first piece. I asked him if he had any more clay that was fresh. He said he had a bag of Black Mountain so I asked him to get it. With a fresh piece of clay he was able to center it and shape a bowl in about 15 minutes.
I've used Soldate 60 many times and it starts feeling very coarse if I don't get it centered quickly. The point is that beginning students don't center quickly, they use lots of water that washes the soft clay away, and they tend to throw the same piece of clay again and again because they can't successfully complete a bowl or a vase. So Soldate is really the worst clay to use under the conditions that all beginning potters experience. Then what's a better clay for beginners to use? In my experience there are two clays that are ideal for beginners: B-Mix with Grog and Black Mountain. Both have grog in them so you get the benefit of grog, but the grog is finer and less harsh on the hands. They're smooth and plastic and the same piece of clay can be thrown again and again without losing its original characteristics. Again, if clay loses its original characteristics too quickly it can't be good for beginners, and Soldate becomes coarser and harder to move every second you're working it. In the hands of more experienced potters, Soldate 60 can do wonders; in the hands of beginners, it can lead to frustration and even injuries to fingers, wrists and shoulders. So if you're a beginning potter, scrap the Soldate and try something like B-Mix with Grog and Black Mountain.