In most electric periodic kilns firing schedules are programmed into electronic controllers to control the rate-of-rise, soaking time and often the cooling curve. In industry firings are very fast, optimization of every stage is absolutely critical, in hobby ceramics and small companies firings are much slower and the awareness of the need to plan and adhere to firing schedules is less. While many higher end periodic gas kilns also have electronic controllers, it is also common to manually oversee the rate-of-rise and atmosphere of the firing. The thermal history to which ware is exposed in a tunnel kilns is controlled by the speed of the ware through the kiln and control of the heat and draft in various parts of the tunnel (thus the complex firing curves that an individual piece of ware can experience in a periodic kiln are is not possible in a tunnel kiln).
Manually programming a typical electric hobby kiln electronic controller
I document programs in my account at insight-live.com, then print them out and enter them into the controller. This controller can hold six, it calls them Users. The one I last edited is the one that runs when I press "Start". When I press the "Enter Program" button it asks which User: I key in "2" (for my cone 6 lab tests). It asks how many segments: I press Enter to accept the 3 (remember, I am editing the program). After that it asks questions about each step (rows 2, 3, 4): the Ramp "rA" (degrees F/hr), the Temperature to go to (°F) to and the Hold time in minutes (HLdx). In this program I am heating at 300F/hr to 240F and holding 60 minutes, then 400/hr to 2095 and holding zero minutes, then at 108/hr to 2195 and holding 10 minutes. The last step is to set a temperature where an alarm should start sounding (I set 9999 so it will never sound). When complete it reads "Idle". Then I press the "Start" button to begin. If I want to change it I press the "Stop" button. Those ten other buttons? Don't use them, automatic firing is not accurate. One more thing: If it is not responding to "Enter Program" press the Stop button first.
Firing schedules at insight-live.com
A cone 11 oxidation firing schedule used at Plainsman Clays (maintained in our account at insight-live.com). Using these schedules we can predict the end of a firing within 5-10 minutes at all temperatures. We can also link schedules to recipes and report a schedule so it can be taken to the kiln and used as a guide to enter the program.
The difficulty of vitrifying the base of heavy stoneware
This 1 gallon heavy crock was fired to cone 6 (at 108F/hr during the final 200 degrees) and soaked 20 minutes (in a electric kiln). The bare clay base should be the color of the top test bar (which has gone to cone 6). Yet, it is the color of the bottom bar (which has gone to cone 4)! That means the base only made it to cone 4. The vertical walls are the right color (so they made cone 6). It may seem that this problem could be solved by simply firing with a longer hold at cone 6. But electric kilns heat by radiation, that base will never reach the same temperature as the sidewalls!
More carbon needs to burn out than you might think!
Hard to believe, but this carbon is on ten-gram balls of low fire glazes having 85% frit. Yes, this is an extreme test because glazes are applied in thin layers, but glazes sit atop bodies much higher in carbon bearing materials. And the carbon is sticking around at temperatures much higher than it is supposed to (not yet burned away at 1500F)! The lower row is G1916J, the upper is G1916Q. These balls were fired to determine the point at which the glazes densify enough that they will not pass gases being burned from the body below (around 1450F). Our firings of these glazes now soak at 1400F (on the way up). Not surpisingly, industrial manufacturers seek low carbon content materials.
Plainsman iron red clays with rutile blue Alberta Slip glaze
Cone 6 mugs made from Plainsman M350 (left) and M390 dark burning cone 6 bodies. The outside glaze is Alberta-Slip-based GA6-C rutile blue and the inside is GA6-A base (20% frit 3134 and 80% Alberta Slip). That inside glaze is normally glossy, but crystallizes to a stunning silky matte when fired using the schedule needed for the rutile blue (cool 100F and soak, slow cool to 1400F).
How to get more accurate firings time after time
When I fire our two small lab test kilns I always include cones (I fire a dozen temperatures). I want the firing to finish when the cone is around 5-6 oclock. To make that happen I record observations on which to base the temperature I will program for the final step the next time. Where do I record these? In the schedules I maintain in our Insight-live.com group account. I use this every day, it is very important because we need accurate firings.
Why is the clay blistering on this figurine?
This is an admirable first effort by a budding artist. They used a built-in cone 6 program on an electronic controller equipped electric kiln. But it is over fired. How do we know that? To the right are fired test bars of this clay, they go from cone 4 (top) to cone 8 (bottom). The data sheet of this clay says do not fire over cone 6. Why? Notice the cone 7 bar has turned to a solid grey and started blistering and the cone 8 one is blistering much more. That cone 8 bar is the same color as the figurine (although the colors do not match on the photo). The solution: Put a large cone 6 in the kiln and program the schedule manually so you can compensate the top temperature with what the cone tells you.
Slow cooling vs. fast cooling on a cone 6 transparent glaze
These are the inside uppers on two mugs made from the same clay with the same clear glaze. The one on the left was fired in a large electric kiln full of ware (thus it cooled relatively slowly). The one on the right was in a test kiln and was cooled rapidly. This glaze contains 40% Ferro Frit 3134 so there is plenty of boron and plenty of calica to grow the borosilicate crystals that cause the cloudiness in the glass. But in the faster cooling kiln they do not have time to grow.
Pinholing at a cone 6 stoneware mug. Why?
It was put into the kiln before it was dry (from glazing). The kiln was fired fairly fast (without using a drop-and-hold firing schedule). These glazes have significant boron, they melt early and seal the surface. But water vapor can remain until surprisingly high temperatures. And it needs to get out. So it finds a discontinuity in the glaze cover and vents and bubbles out there. That leaves these defects that even a drop-and-soak and slow-cooling did not heal.
Let me count the reasons this glossy white cone 6 glaze is pinholing
First, the layer is very thick. Second, the body was only bisque fired to cone 06 and it is a raw brown burning stoneware with lots of coarser particles that generate gases as they are heated. Third, the glaze contains zircopax, it stiffens the melt and makes it less able to heal disruptions in the surface. Fourth, the glaze is high in B2O3, so it starts melting early (around 1450F) and seals the surface so the gases must bubble up through. Fifth, the firing was soaked at the end rather than dropping the temperature a little first (e.g. 100F) and soaking there instead.
The difference: Firing schedule!
These are the same glaze, same thickness, Ulexite-based G2931B glaze, fired to cone 03 on a terra cotta body. The one on the right was fired from 1850F to 1950F at 100F/hr, then soaked 15 minutes and shut off. The problem is surface tension. Like soapy water, when this glaze reaches cone 03 the melt is quite fluid. Since there is decomposition happening within the body, gases being generated vent out through surface pores and blow bubbles. I could soak at cone 03 as long as I wanted and the bubbles would just sit there. The one on the left was fired to 100F below cone 03, soaked half an hour (to clear micro-bubble clouds), then at 108F/hr to cone 03 and soaked 30 minutes, then control-cooled at 108F/hr to 1500F. During this cool, at some point well below cone 03, the increasing viscosity of the melt becomes sufficient to overcome the surface tension and break the bubbles. If that point is not traversed too quickly, the glaze has a chance to smooth out (using whatever remaining fluidity the melt has). Ideally I should identify exactly where that is and soak there for a while.
A bubbling glaze having an encapsulated stain fixed. How?
These two pieces are fired at cone 6. The base transparent glaze is the same (G2926B Plainsman transparent). The amount of encapsulated red stain is the same (11% Mason 6021 Dark Red). But two things are different. Number 1: 2% zircon has been added to the upper glaze. The stain manufacturers recommend this, saying that it makes for brighter color. However that is not what we see here. What we do see is the particles of unmelting zircon are acting as seed and collection points for the bubbles (the larger ones produced are escaping). Number 2: The firing schedule. The top one has been fired to approach cone 6 and 100F/hr, held for five minutes at 2200F (cone 6 as verified in our kiln by cones), dropped quickly to 2100F and held for 30 minutes.
Programming a Bartlett Genesis kiln controller
Why program? None of the built-in schedules have hold times on any segments (these are a must for defect free glazes). None of them have controlled cools (a must for enhancing the effects of reactive glazes that develop crystallization or variegation). Tap the blue edit button to edit a program, then tap a column of any segment to edit its value. Tap a segment number to delete or duplicate it. Google "bartlett genesis controller" for short videos on creating and editing a schedule.
Program your firings manually, calibrate the final temperature
Here is an example of our lab firing schedule for cone 10 oxidation (which the cone-fire mode does not do correctly). We need it to actually go to cone 10, the only way to do that is verify with a cone (self supporting cones are the only accurate way). Then make a note in the record for that schedule in your account at insight-live.com.
Kiln Firing Curve Recorder - Coming Soon
So many glazes appear as they do because of the firing schedule (especially the cooling curve). Imagine getting an awesome result out of a kiln and not knowing (or being able to replicate) the exact firing schedule that produced it. This device reads and records the temperature once per minute. It is a Raspberry Pi computer with camera, Wifi and custom software we made. It costs about $100 (with the Lego case and GoPro compatible gooseneck mount). Because the device is a full-power Linux web server I can login, see the list of schedules, and download any into my Insight-live.com account. And then I can link that firing it to photos of glaze test results!
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