|Monthly Tech-Tip |
Electric hobby kilns are certainly not up to the quality and capability of small industrial electric kilns, being aware of the limitations and keeping them in good repair is very important.
Firing an electric kiln is like using a microwave oven, right? Just slap the ware in, slam the lid, set the controller to cone fire, and take out the beautiful ware the next day. It is that simple isn't it? Not quite! If you are using a top loading hobby electric kiln for stoneware pottery, it is good to be aware of what you have. Compared to industrial electric kilns, you have something that is fragile, hard to control, difficult to maintain, fires unevenly, has little or no ventilation and is an energy hog! It has no element holders, no draft, a heat leaking lid, bulky energy-stealing kiln furniture and a toy controller. Yet hobby kilns have proven great for earthenware and slip cast ceramics that do not require tight control and they have also given many people the opportunity to get into stoneware pottery and porcelain, and even small scale manufacturing. Producing somewhat consistent ware will be a matter of learning to program the up and down temperature ramps to compensate the amount of ware in the chamber with the inaccuracy of the pyrometer and the condition of the elements. Uptime will depend on being vigilant about maintenance (e.g. replacing relays, thermocouples, elements as needed). Before getting too depressed, it is possible to do amazing things: Crystalline glazes for example were once the domain of a select few, but now they are simple because of these devices.
Consider some specific points about making these contraptions work:
Hobby kilns are not so bad after all. Like so many other things in ceramics, limitations can be compensated for by experience and care. If you get richer some day, take a look at an industrial grade electric kiln, they are amazing.
Should you get a gas kiln instead? If you get really rich it is an option, but be prepared for quadruple the price! And installation hassles and costs that could double that again! At cone 10 high temperatures are "on your side", all the common ceramic materials melt easily so you don't have to fiddle with frits or boron. Bodies and glazes are less expensive. Glazes seem to just fit bodies naturally. Ware durability is almost a given. That being said, gas kilns require more expertise and dedication to fire and willingness to lose loads of ware during the learning period (when fired wrong neither the temperature or reduction atmosphere distributes evenly). It is possible to spend $50,000 or $100,000 and not be able to get it working! It is definitely best to buy one through you local ceramic supplier to get their support. You will know that other customers are using it successfully and learn details about by-laws and installation issues. I personally have a cone 10 reduction kiln. But, strangely, I do hundreds of electric firings for every gas firing.
This 12 inch test kiln has done 910 firings. The element loops are laying down and nearly touching each other. If they are not changed soon the coils will touch the kiln will have hot spots. And the coils are expanding and getting tighter in the grooves, the longer we wait the more the grooves will be damaged when removing them. Although elements seem expensive, when costed on a per/firing basis they can be surprisingly inexpensive. Most hobby kilns service two elements with each relay and relays generally need to be replaced more often than elements. Consider, for example, replacing the elements on a Skutt 818. Being a smaller kiln it is well-powered in relation to size and elements can last up to 1000 firings (assuming 50:50 bisque and cone 6 firings). It has 4 elements and 2 relays (relays cost $65/ea, elements $95 each). The labor to replace is ~4 hours or $250 - total cost is about $750 (that is ~75¢ per firing or 32¢ per ft³). How about a larger kiln? An 8 ft³ Model 1222 has 5 elements and 3 relays and replacement is ~$1100. But its elements are only likely to last 200 firings. That yields a per firing cost of ~$5 and per ft³ of 65¢. But there is a much greater cost to consider: Old elements increase power consumption. An 818 uses 6.4 kwH and a 1222 uses 11.5 kwH - at our electricity cost of 14¢/kwH a firing costs ~$7 for the small kiln and ~$13 for the large one. But that is the cost when elements are new. When they need changing those numbers can more than double! An additional cost of old elements is ware consistency, the kiln cannot execute the firing schedule in the time programmed and this will likely affect the appearance of bodies and glazes.
Every potter should have one of these. This one has a Bartlett Genesis electronic controller, you will never go back after having one. Start with a kiln like this and then graduate to having a large, second kiln. We have done 950 firings on this one in the past few of years, it is still like new. Ongoing testing is the key to the constant development of your products and their quality.
When electric kilns, especially large ones are tightly packed with heavy ware, the shady or undersides of the pots simply will never reach the temperature of the element side, no matter how long you soak. In this example, the inside of this clear glazed cone 6 bowl has a flawless surface. The base is pinholed and crawling a little and the surface of one side (the shady side), the remnants of healing disruptions in the melt (from escaping gases) have not smoothed over. The element side is largely flawless like the inside, however it is not as smooth on the area immediately outside the foot (because this is less element-facing). Industrial gas kilns have draft and subject ware to heat-work by convection, so all sides are much more evenly matured.
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.
When we fire our two small lab test kilns we always include cones (we 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.
Replacing the elements in a old test kiln turns it into a new kiln! Relays are also checked. Notice how the elements are bent and pushed well into the corners. If this is not done properly, they will pull out of the corners after it is fired a few times.
Soak the firing 30 minutes to mature the mug and the planter will not mature. Soak 2 hours for the planter and the glaze may melt too much and the clay be too vitreous. This is a troublesome issue with electric kilns. Furthermore, they employ radiant heat. That means that sections of ware on the shady side (or the under side) will never reach the temperature of those on the element side no matter how long you soak.
These are thick pieces, they need time for heat to penetrate. Both were soaked 15 minutes at cone 6 (2195F in our test kiln). But the one on the left was control-cooled to 2095F degrees and soaked 45 more minutes. Pinholes and dimples are gone, the clay is more mature and the glaze is glossier and melted better. Why is this better than just soaking longer at cone 6? As the temperature rises the mineral particles decompose and generate gases (e.g. CO2, SO4). These need to bubble through the glaze. But on the way down this activity is ceasing. Whatever is gassing and creating the pinholes will has stopped by 2095F. Also, these are boron-fluxed glazes, they stay fluid all the way down to 1900F (so you could drop even further before soaking).
This 1 gallon heavy crock was fired to cone 6 (at 108F/hr during the final 200 degrees) and held 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, which we exposed to the direct radiant head of the elements, 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 again, electric kilns heat by radiation, that shielded and heatsunk base will never get the same thermal treatment as the sidewalls!
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.
When clay materials and bodies bubble as they melt or over fire. This normally happens in raw materials that contain particulates that produce gases during firing.
Also called "middle temperature" by potters, cone 6 (~2200F/1200C) refers to the temperature at which most hobby and pottery stonewares and porcelains are fired.
In ceramic kilns the firing schedule is typically managed automatically by an electronic controller. But that may not mean that ware gets automatically fired to the correct temperature and atmosphere.
In ceramics, this term is most often used to refer to kilns firing with an atmosphere having available oxygen to react with glaze and body surfaces during firing
Cones are ceramic and bend through a narrow temperature range. They used to be actively used to determine when firings were completed but now are used to calibrate electronic devices.
Designing a good kiln firing schedule for your ware is a very important, and often overlooked factor for obtained successful firings.
The process of holding a kiln at the final temperature (or at other temperatures) to enable the heat to penetrate the ware or to effect or complete a glaze or body reaction
Firing: What Happens to Ceramic Ware in a Firing Kiln
Understanding more about changes taking place in the ware at each stage of a firing helps tune the curve and atmosphere to produce better ware
Working with children
Go in with both eyes open if you are planning to work with clay with a group of children! A lot can go wrong but it can be unforgettable for them when it goes right.
|By Tony Hansen|
Follow me on