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A Low Cost Tester of Glaze Melt Fluidity

Section: Glazes, Subsection: Adjustment, Adaptation


This device to measure glaze melt fluidity helps you better understand your glazes and materials and solve all sorts of problems.

Article Text

There are many complex and expensive instruments designed to observe and measure the goings-on in firing kilns. Generally this type of equipment is expensive and measures absolute physical properties that can be quantified easily. However glaze melt flow is like clay plasticity, it is more subjective and not so easy to quantify. It is best measured comparatively, that is, one specimen directly compared with another. Fortunately such tests can be done using inexpensive methods and devices.

I would like to submit a general purpose testing method for many glaze melt properties that is both inexpensive and easy to use. So many factors related to the melting, solidification and physical properties and defects of fired glaze surfaces are related to melt viscosity. Thus a test that provides information about this has the potential of being very valuable.

Before going on, I will give credit where credit is due. This is not an original idea. I have seen this device described in industry literature to compare melt properties of nepheline syenite and feldspar. Also, I was sent a very nice dual-flow mold by Hugh Nile at Sterling China (it had the initials IMC embossed on it). I am aware that other industries also use similar devices. However I want to take it to the next level by clearing documenting its advantages and a procedure to use it.

I have made a rubber master mold of the one described herein and can making working molds for others. If you would like one please see the bottom of this article.

Testers that do not work well

Small or steep angle testers: Although I have messed with smaller sizes in the past I have now seen the light. They just do not work as well. You need a large enough reservoir, and long enough flow ramp at a shallow enough angle to get repeatable and sensitive tests.

Inclined tile testers: Some companies prepare a lump of the glaze to be tested and glue it to one end of a tile using a slurry made from the same material. While this will often work it is problematic with compounds that shrink a lot or those lacking dry hardness. The former could crack off and the latter may crumble off. I'll leave it to your imagination what might happen if pieces or the whole sample rolls into contact with a kiln element.

The Dual-Flow Large Tester

This is shown in the picture. It is 13.5cm high while standing (5.5 inches). The long runway is at less than a 45 degree angle for extra sensitivity (there are actually two orientations for two different angles). One of the big advantages of the dual tester is that it can be employed for side-by-side testing of two specimens (e.g. one alongside a benchmark). It is amazing how close you can match the melt fluidity of two materials using this method.

This device is cast in a plaster mold using a mix refractory enough to resist warping if walls are cast thin (in production situations flow testers should be made from the same clay that ware is made from but if such is too vitreous you can reduce the feldspar content somewhat. See below for more information on the slip recipe. I usually bisque fire these testers for extra strength. The reservoir accepts a 10-12 gram ball of material that you can just drop right in. These balls are easy to make by dewatering the glaze or material slurry on a plaster surface to the right working consistency and then rolling the ball in your hands, drying it and shaving material off to achieve the right weight. (thus the glaze does need to have enough plastic ingredients to enable this workability or you need to add some bentonite to impart it).

I have defined a procedure for this test in the testing area of this site. As noted in the procedure there, for repeatable results it is important that your testers be the same thickness, made from the same clay, fired at the same rate of rise and to the same temperature, and the ball sample must be the same dry weight each time.

In case you are not yet clear on how this tester is used: Two glazes are compared by dropping dried balls of each into the reservoirs at the top and the whole thing is fired to the desired temperature (with a tile below to catch any glaze that runs right off the end of the runway). During the firing, the glazes flow down the runway according to melt development, melt surface tension (and other factors like bubble development).

What this tester can show you about glazes:

Raw Materials Testing

Most companies can readily test clay materials for use in bodies and glazes using physical testing methods that require a minimum of equipment. But it is not so obvious how to compare and test fluxing materials like feldspar for consistency. One can just trust the particle size and chemistry information provided by the manufacturer for each shipment and compare numbers. But what is the actual relationship between these numbers and the consistency of product on a production line? Can you trust the numbers anyway? The tester is an elegant simple alternative. It accurately shows melting power, color and impurities, you need to see two feldspars side-by-side to see how sensitive it is (see pictures at bottom for an example).

Product Development

Many ceramic products are tuned to melt to a certain extent to achieve their function. For example, an engobe needs to have a stiffer melt than a glaze, but much more maturity than the underlying body. Likewise, a ceramic printing ink must have a specific degree of melt fluidity, enough to adhere or melt to a smooth hard surface, but not so much as to bleed into the covering or underlying glaze. Melts used for bonding purposes likewise need to develop enough glass to bond, but not so much that fired geometry cannot be maintained. A standard and a test can be evaluated side-by-side using this tester. If the melt is not fluid enough, then it can be fired higher, or a percentage of frit can be added.

Taking Photos

Since these fired testers are quite large, storing them for future reference can be a problem. Taking a picture of them and scanning it onto the computer for archival purposes makes more sense. Make them at least twice as large as the ones shown here and they should still take less than 100kb of memory. You may find that making the testers from an off-white, grey or even tan body might be better to prevent washed-out results when taking photos. Also, have plenty of side lighting so that gloss is highlighted.

Slip Recipe

A good starting recipe is #L2540, it is 50% ball clay, 25% feldspar and 25% silica. This does not cast quickly but the pieces have good green strength and the clay will vitrify around cone 10-11. For a more refractory mix replace some of the feldspar with kyanite, calcined alumina or some other non-plastic high temperature material. You will need to know how to mix and deflocculate a clay slip, search in this library for the word "deflocculation" for an excellent article on understanding the casting slip mixing process.

Getting a Tester

If you would like a mold of the flow tester shown here, use the email form on this page and ask for a quote. Plainsman Clays has the master rubber mold and can make plaster working molds from it for $100 each plus shipping. If you need a lot of these we recommend you buy one plaster mold and use it to make a master rubber block mold so that you can make as many plaster working molds as you need. We can contact them on your behalf to arrange it and get a quote. Delivery time will likely be a month.

Two runs of Alberta slip plus 20% frit 3134 in a flow test comparison at cone 6.

Melt flow tester used to compare feldspars

Fired to cone 10 oxidation. Although feldspar is a key melter in high and medium temperature glazes, by itself it does not melt as much as one might expect.

Custer feldspar vs. G200 feldspar

This is a melt fluidity test fired to cone 10. By themselves, feldspar melts surprisingly less than you might think at cone 10.

Feldspars, the primary high temperature flux, melt less than you think.

A cone 8 comparative flow tests of Custer, G-200 and i-minerals high soda and high potassium feldspars. Notice how little the pure materials are moving (bottom), even though they are fired to cone 11. In addition, the sodium feldspars move better than the potassium ones. But feldspars do their real fluxing work when they can interact with other materials. Notice how well they flow with only 10% frit added (top), even though they are being fired three cones lower.

Melt flow comparison between Nepheline Syenite 270 and 400 mesh

This Nepheline Syenite flow test did not demonstrate much of a difference in melting at cone 9 between 270 and 400 mesh materials.

Glaze flow tester mold (three pieces). Piece on the left goes on top.

Glaze melt flow tester after casting

Flow tester side view

Severely cutlery marking in a glaze lacking sufficient Al2O3

The glaze is cutlery marking (therefore lacking hardness). Why? Notice how severely it runs on a flow tester (even melting out holes in a firebrick). Yet it does not run on the cups when fired at the same temperature (cone 10)! Glazes run like this when they lack Al2O3 (and SiO2). The SiO2 is the glass builder and the Al2O3 gives the melt body and stability. More important, Al2O3 imparts hardness and durability to the fired glass. No wonder it is cutlery marking. Will it also leach? Very likely. That is why adequate silica is very important, it makes up more than 60% of most glazes. SiO2 is the key glass builder and it forms networks with all the other oxides.

L3617 Cornwall Stone substitute vs. real Cornwall Stone

These flow tests demonstrate how similar the substitute recipe (left) is to the real material (right). 20% Frit 3134 has been added to each to enable better melting at cone 5 (they do not flow even at cone 11 without the frit). Links below provide the recipe for the substitute and outline the method of how it was derived using Digitalfire Insight software. This substitute is chemically equivalent to what we feel is the best average for the chemistry of Cornwall Stone.

Flow tester master model showing dimensions

This is one of multiple views of the solid plastic original model of a glaze melt fluidity tester.

Flow tester original plaster model angle view

This is one of multiple views of the solid plastic original model of a glaze melt fluidity tester.

Melt flow tester mold - two main pieces

This is one of multiple views of the mold of a glaze melt fluidity tester.

Assembled melt flow tester mold

This is one of multiple views of the mold of a glaze melt fluidity tester.

Melt fluidity of Albany Slip vs. Alberta Slip at cone 10R

Albany Slip was a pure mined material, Alberta Slip is a recipe of mined materials and refined minerals designed to have the same chemistry, firing behavior and raw physical appearance.

Improving a clear by substituting frit for Gerstley Borate

Melt fluidity test showing Perkins Studio clear recipe original (left) and a reformulated version that sources the boron from Ferro Frit 3134 instead of Gerstley Borate (right). The later is less amber in color (indicating less iron) and it melts to very close to the same degree.

How can you test if a different brand of tin oxide will work?

This is a melt fluidity test comparing two different tin oxides in a cone 6 transparent glaze (Perkins Clear 2). The length, character and color of the flow provide an excellent indication of how similar they are.

Comparing the brands of calcium carbonate

A cone 6 melt flow test to compare two calcium carbonates (they make up 27% of this glaze recipe that was designed to maximize their percentage). Notice the amount of bubbles (due to the high loss on ignition of the material). Different brand-names of the material obviously have slightly different chemistries so they exhibit different flow properties during firing.

This cone 6 transparent looked good, but I still improved it alot

The green boxes show cone 6 Perkins Studio Clear (left) beside an adjustment to it that I am working on (right). I am logged in to my account at insight-live.com. In the recipe on the right, code-numbered G2926A, I am using the calculation tools it provides to substitute Frit 3134 for Gerstley Borate (while maintaining the oxide chemistry). A melt flow comparison of the two (bottom left) shows that the GB version has an amber coloration (from its iron) and that it flows a little more (it has already dripped off). The flow test on the upper left shows G2926A flowing beside PGF1 transparent (a tableware glaze used in industry). Its extra flow indicates that it is too fluid, it can accept some silica. This is very good news because the more silica any glaze can accept the harder, more stable and lower expansion it will be. You might be surprised how much it took, yet still melts to a crystal clear. See the article to find out.

Flow tester measurements front side

This is one of multiple views of the solid plastic original model of a glaze melt fluidity tester.

Flow tester measurements 2

Checking new glazes using a melt fluidity test

This is an example of how useful a flow tester can be to check new glaze recipes before putting them on ware and into your kiln. This was fired to only cone 4, yet that fritted glaze on the left is completely over-melted. The other one is not doing anything at all. These balls are easy to make, you only need weigh out a 50 gram batch of glaze, screen it, then pour it on a plaster bat until it is dewatered enough to be plastic enough to roll these 10 gram balls.

4 good reasons to consider making your own underglazes

Commercial underglaze colors fired at cone 8 in a flow tester (this is another good example of how valuable flow testers are). Underglazes need to melt enough to bond with the underlying body, but not so much that edges of designs bleed excessively into the overlying glaze. A regular glaze would melt enough to run well down the runway on this tester, but an underglaze should flow much less. The green one here is clearly not sufficiently developed. The black is too melted (and contains volatiles that are gasing). The pink is much further along than the blue. And cone 5, these samples all melt significantly less. Clearly, underglazes need to be targeted to melt at specific temperatures and each color needs specific formulation attention. Silk screening and inkjet printing are increasingly popular and these processes need ink that will fuse to the surface of the body.

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By Tony Hansen

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