Why Toilets Are Still Made Of Porcelain

We've been sitting on the same kind of crapper for centuries. Sure, the plumbing has gotten more tucked away and seats are now fashioned out of all sorts of materials and styles (including plush vinyl embroidered with cats), but as far as the toilets themselves go, hundreds of years after they were invented, they're still largely porcelain.

But why? Isn't there some fancy new material that's better at holding up to our modern gustatory preferences?

Not really!

A toilet needs to do three things well, according to Brian Hedlund, Kohler's senior product manager for toilets. First, "It needs to be a flushing engine." Next, he says, "It needs to be water-proof, clean, and sanitary." Finally, explains Kohler's king of thrones, "it needs to be sturdy." Because people sit on it. Some of those people will be quite heavy. Porcelain, as it turns out, aces at all three of these requirements.

Most important to the user is that the toilet be an effective, ahem, waste remover. But what looks to most of us like some water swirling down a hole to who-knows-where is actually a machine with a pretty complicated design. "The tank, bowl, jetway, trapway -- it's highly detailed," says Hedlund. "There's a lot of intricate engineering." Vitreous china toilets (what we call porcelain) are made from clay and water. The manufacturing process, which includes being poured into a mould, finished, glazed, and then sent through a kiln, is pretty straightforward and fairly inexpensive.

Plastic, on the other hand, is formed into objects via extrusion or injection moulding. For a structure as complicated as the toilet, plastic manufacturing is prohibitively expensive. That's why plastic's presence on the throne is typically confined to the seat; it's just too expensive to have a leading role.

Another factor is durability. Let's face it, we've all needed to haul arse to the toilet -- and when that happens, the thing better damn sure not give way beneath us. Vitreous china is super-strong and highly rigid. Plastic, though, has some give. While it likely won't buckle under the weight of a hard landing, it certainly might feel that way, and the way it feels matters to users.

OK, so maybe plastic isn't practical. What about stainless steel? It's strong and easy to manufacture. Hell, they have steel toilets in jail, right... The problem, it seems, is user experience. While stainless steel is super sturdy, it's also really sensitive to temperature changes. In other words, it will freeze your arse. Topping it with a plastic or wood seat just doesn't look right, and prison chic doesn't go very far in the average home.

Porcelain is also a champ at shrugging off water. It may sound simple, but a porous material will allow liquid and bacteria in, so being impervious to both is important in a structure that's main job is to deal with waste. The key to keeping water out is in the porcelain's glaze. After the toilet is coated, it's fired in a kiln. Unlike, say, grout in a shower, which takes on both water and bacteria, the glaze stops bacteria at the toilet's surface.

Having all the gross stuff remain on the toilet's surface also makes it easier to clean. (Imagine if cleaning the toilet were any less pleasant.) And every year another wave of aggressive cleaning products claim to do better work on the bowl. In order to ensure that the toilet can withstand the pressure from both abrasion and chemicals, Kohler sends their cans through the equivalent of 20 years of use, or 80,000 scrubs. The testing, Hedlund says, just confirms that people are more likely to upgrade their toilets for water conservation or style reasons than for actual need.

It's amazing the porcelain has remained our number one for so long, especially considering, says Hedlund, that "no one uses the toilet the same way." I'm not really sure what he's talking about, but it makes sense for the man behind the magic to have high standards. In fact, it's very comforting -- a defective toilet is an awful, awful thing.

Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.


    Vitreous china is also brittle. When it breaks it forms hundreds of
    razor sharp shards, Not the most pleasant thought. It doesn't take
    much for it to happen either. happened to me once. In a public
    toilet, someone had kicked in the base of it. Sitting on it
    stressed the tiny cracks and it shattered. Let me tell you that an
    8cm long 4 cm deep gash on your ass is not a pleasant experience.

      And the toilet bowl said to your ass "why so serious"?

      What a stupd comment. The problem you encountered was because of an idiotic vandal and not the material.

        What a stupid comment. My comment was about the material that toilets are made from being prone to breaking with only minor damage and that when it does break it forms large. extremely sharp, dagger like shards.

        Like a carabiner used my abseilers and rock climbers, extremely strong until it gets a small, microscopic crack in it, then it has all the strength of tissue paper.

      When my wife was pregnant with twins she sat on our toilet and it buckled under her (their) weight. Of course it was over 20 years old and the bolts had rusted, causing extra stress on the porcelain - no gashes or shattering, just a crack right around the base. Replaced it the next day.

    American toilets are ridiculously complicated devices compared to
    the elegant simplicity of ours. I always figured the reason they
    stick with porcelain is that plastic tends to absorb odours,
    something undesirable in a waste disposal mechanism.

    US toilets suck shit. What is it with sitting on the can & your crap floating within touching range of you & a tiny hole for the crap & paper to go out into the mains.

      I have had about 10 blocked toilets and 30 that required 2 or 3 flushes in the US in the past 8 years of travelling there, and no blocked and maybe a few that needed 2 flushes in the last 30 years of using them in Australia.

      The US really needs to change their inefficient systems.

      ideally, most toilets WOULD suck shit....

    I'm quite happy with the way toilets work, it's toilet paper, or the wiping of the dot that needs to be re-engineered. Where are the clam-shells from 'Demolition Man' or some other clever hands free system that doesn't require squirting water up my chocolate starfish..? :)

      What, you don't know how the 3 sea-shells work?

        John Spartan, you have been fined one credit :)

    There are often stainless steel toilets in jails and public places so they cant be smashed up/damaged, so the article is somewhat mute, although on the whole porcelin is still the primary thing i sit on to read the morning paper

      What you describe is not common as the vast majority of toilets are made of ceramic. So, perhaps it is you who should remain mute!

    Give me a teflon coated toilet bowl.... non stick could be useful....

    "a defective toilet is an awful, awful thing"
    The scene from Trainspotting, anyone?

    Stainless steel will probably eventually rust...? It happens in the end. :)
    Plastic isn't nearly as hard, it gets scratches. That wouldn't be very sanitary at all. There's also glass or stone. I wouldn't like a glass one much though.

    Now I want to design better bathroom flooring.... That grout stuff is shit, hard to clean and full of bacteria.

    OZ-ocean.. depends on the stainless steel. (rustability that is)... they are all different for good engineering reasons (including cost).

    Porcelain Bowels in Public facilities used to (probably still do) get blown up by lads with home made bombs.... (not by me)... one soda bulb (boom), and the porcelain is in hundreds of pieces... hence replacing them wit SS variations over the last "few" years.

    Stainless steel pans would match the current stainless fashion, especially at the front (or top) end of the process - in kitchens. ; )

    Unfortunately, I think stainless would negate the colloquial expression "driving the big white bus", so I challenge commenter's for variations on "steering the silver saucer".

    Sanitaryware is not made of porcelain, it is made of Vitreous China. Although VC is noted in your article it is incorrectly described as being the same as porcelain.

      @ Jerome. This is corect. Also "made from clay and water"! !! This is further shoddy work that even the most cursory research would have found to be wrong. Typical raw materials are ball clay, kaolin, quartz, feldspar (or nepheline syenite)

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