By: Danielle Kearns
So now it’s time to actually load the kiln. Good thing I had a hankering for Tetris in college. Those skills are definitely coming through for me now. In order to keep up with the many events, classes, workshops, and painters we get on a daily basis, we are almost always running a kiln in the back of the studio. We have 2 on site, which is why it's always so warm and cozy. Items take priority based on due date, since we give a one week turn around time. We also have to take size into consideration, though, because like-size pieces fit better together on the same shelves. Here's a little more about how all that works.
The largest pieces go in first. It is always easiest to put the tallest, bulkiest pieces at the bottom of the kiln and work around them. You can't just put them straight down, mind you. You need to put them on stilts to ensure they will not stick to the shelf. This is a whole bunch of terminology that probably makes no sense to someone who hasn't seen it before, but it goes something like this. Stilts come in all different sizes, but are made out a combination of ceramic and metal prongs. Not only do they avoid the piece to stick, but they allow air to circulate around and up the piece so both the inside and outside will be fired evenly, including the interiors. That is immensely important when it comes to something you'll be using day in and day out in your kitchen. Each and every item is positioned on a stilt that is size appropriate.
Step Two: Wiggle Test
You read that right. Once the pieces are stilted, you must make sure they are stable. We tap and wiggle each piece to make sure they are firmly on the stilt and not in danger of touching any other pieces. Items will shake and rattle in the kiln naturally due to the extreme temperatures, so we do our best to ensure they all have room to groove. Should the items tap or touch, that could result in them fusing together, which is a problem we try to avoid at all costs.
Step Three: Building Up
We utilize every space, nook, and cranny we can on each level, but we also get to determine how tall each level can be by building them to our needs. We do this by adding kiln posts around the edges at varying heights. Posts range from 1 to 12 inches long and can be stacked to make unique heights. A shelf balances on these posts to create the levels. We then start the Tetris game again on this next level and do it all again, building as high as we can towards the lid without touching it.
Step Four: Close Her Up
The top comes down, latched, and plugs put in. The plugs will fit into the peepholes that run down the middle of the kiln. These need to be filled during the firing process to trap the heat and ensure even heating throughout the cylinder. We make sure all the levels are set for firing and hit Start. We have an electric kiln, so the rest is mostly a waiting game. We have a digital read of the inner temperature, which peaks at around 1800 degrees.
Step Five: Firing
It takes a few hours for the kiln to reach its highest temperature. That is also dependent on how packed the kiln is. The more crowded it is, the longer it will take to get to temp. A lighter kiln might finish quicker. On average, the kiln will be closed and do its thing for 12-18 hours. We sometimes get calls asking if we can take a peak inside and see if someone's piece is in there, but by cracking the lid open prematurely, not only could you burn yourself, but you risk cracking and ruining all of the other pieces int here. During our peak season, that could be over 100 different holiday gifts that all crack down the middle, so we never open the kiln before it's time. (We know, it'd be a lot easier if you could open it like an oven door, but that's just not how the technology works.)
Step Six: Cool Down
It will take many hours for the kiln to come down in temperature so that we can unload it. We do our part to further this process naturally, but only once it's to a manageable temperature. We open the kiln's lid at 150 degrees, so it's still plenty hot in there, but cool enough to take out with heat resistant gloves. We go layer by layer, taking the stilts off each individual item, and put them on our work shelves to cool at room temperature.
Step Seven: Dremel + Spot Check
The unfortunate, but unavoidable, side effect of stilts are sometimes sharp indentations on the bottom of the piece. We dremel these down by hand for any piece that might have them. During this process, we also evaluate the piece for imperfections from the firing process. For instance -- cracks, blemishes, fusing, crawling, or shivering. If the piece is to our satisfaction, it travels to our pick-up shelves, which are organized by style and type. If they are from a party, they'll be individually wrapped for your convenience.
There are always parts moving in the front, as well as the back of the house to get things out to you on time and without imperfections. We do our best, and we hope you see the time and attention we put into your items.
Danielle is a CT native, She started at the claypen in 2018 as a Studio Associate and quickly became a Team Lead and our resident blogger on staff. She now manages The Firestone, our new sister studio in Manchester.