Bisque porcelain is a white, unglazed ceramic. The finished product is hard and translucent, and it is widely used to make decorative figurines. Dolls of the Victorian era were commonly made from bisque porcelain, and they remain popular among collectors.
Chinese craftsmen were the first to make bisque porcelain, and for centuries, they were the only ones to manufacture it. It wasn’t until the 18th century that Europeans began working with the ceramic. These early pieces were especially porous and brittle after the first firing, often referred to as biscuit ware. The word "bisque" is derived from this name.
By the 1860s, bisque porcelain was being used to make dolls. Previously, dolls were often made from china, but bisque offered a warmer, more natural color and texture. Bisque porcelain dolls remained popular until the 1930s, when composition dolls became widely available. In the 1980s, bisque dolls saw a resurgence in popularity with a growing collector’s market.
The creation of a bisque porcelain piece begins with the design and sculpture of a clay model. After the model is complete, plaster casts can be made. Often, the model is separated into pieces, with casts made of each part to better capture the sculpture’s details.
Clay used to make bisque porcelain is made from a mixture of kaolin, feldspar and flint that is then mixed with water to form a paste called slip, which is poured into the casts and allowed to set. The plaster casts absorb water so that the slip hardens more quickly around the sides. After half an hour, the hardened sides are thick enough that the liquid in the center can be poured away, leaving a porcelain shell. Once fully dry, the pieces can be removed from their plaster casts with a little light tapping.
These pieces, commonly referred to as green-ware, is then ready for assembly. Green-ware is assembled by brushing on some of the remaining slip to glue the pieces together. Seams are carefully concealed, and artisans add flourishes and artistic details as required. Next, the piece is allowed to thoroughly air dry before going into the kiln.
A bisque kiln is heated to about 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit (1,260 degrees Celsius), with pieces typically requiring at least 14 hours of baking. Depending on the piece, as much as 70 hours might be needed. During this time, the piece loses all moisture and vitrifies, shrinking by up to 15 percent.
After cooling, a tumbler can be used to gently polish the piece if its creator desires. Polishing not only smooths the texture of the bisque porcelain, it also serves to prime the piece for painting. Hand-painted details are often featured on decorative figurines and other collectible pieces. After these finishing touched are complete, the piece is ready for a second firing before it is finished.