“Hey–Quit Sniffing That!”–A Guide to the Art Room’s Hazardous Materials

Do you ever have that nightmare? No, not the one where you forgot your pants–the one where the kids are taking over your art room. Two kids are having an X-ACTO knife fight in the corner, another is playing hide-and-seek inside the kiln, a group in the back are busy spray painting each other, and that last one is about to drink the paint thinner. You ever have that dream?

That kind of dream got me thinking about exactly what we do to keep kids safe when they’re with us in the art room. My thought is that the materials we use are not necessarily dangerous by themselves–the danger comes when we use them (or allow our kids to use them) improperly. So, what can we do to keep our kids safe?

There are a few obvious things that need to be done. Hazardous materials need to be stored in an out of the way place, somewhere that students cannot or will not be able to access them. If you are able to lock your cabinets or storage, so much the better. In addition, with all of the hazards we have in our art rooms, food needs to be kept out of the room when possible. Aside from that, there are some issues with specific materials that most art rooms need to take into account.
Hazardous Materials

X-ACTO Knives and Cutting Tools

Going back to the idea of how we use materials, it is imperative that students learn the correct and safe ways to utilize cutting tools: X-ACTO knives, linoleum tools, even scissors. In addition, supervision is important at all times. Just because you teach your students the right way to use materials doesn’t mean they’ll actually DO it the right way. Keep moving around the classroom and be vigilant in your observations.

Lastly, when disposing of your blades (or “sharps”, as my custodian calls them), never put them directly into the trash. I like to put them into a baby food jar, a soda can with a taped-over top or another sealed container before throwing them away.

Screenshot 2015-02-26 15.18.37

Your Kiln


First, and probably most importantly, make sure your kiln has a working vent. There are toxic fumes, particularly carbon monoxide, that come from the kiln during a reduction firing. A vent can direct those fumes to the outdoors and away from you and your students. I like to let my kiln fire overnight to avoid these fumes altogether.

If it can be in a separate room, that is undoubtedly the best setup. If that’s not possible, make sure that students stay away from the kiln at all times. No matter how responsible your students may be, any action near the kiln is dangerous and not worth the risk. As a teacher, you should always be using gloves, goggles and other safety materials when needed around the kiln.


Fixatives should be stored (or even locked up) so that students cannot access them. When you are spraying your fixative, go outside when possible, but always have windows open and preferably a fan going. It also helps to spray last thing before you leave, so no students are exposed to the vapors and you can get away from them as soon as possible.

In addition, the middle and high school levels have a few other challenges when it comes to material safety. Older students obviously have a wider range of advanced projects, and the materials available to them have their own set of safety issues.


Spray Paint

It is always good to wear masks when working with any type of aerosol supplies, but remember that masks need to be rated for vapors and not just for dust. I also have my students wear gloves when working with spray paint. Part of that is a safety issue, but the bigger part for me is that spray paint is just annoying to wash off.

Acetone and Other Solvents


Most solvents are both vaporous and flammable–some, like acetone, can even be ignited from a distance. Make sure that the lid fits tightly on the container and that it is stored away from heat sources and electrical outlets. All of your solvents (turpentine, mineral spirits, etc.) should be kept in their original containers or be very clearly labeled, and again, stored safely.

When you are done with the solvents, there should be a specially labeled storage container in which you can dump them. When that container is full, it needs to be disposed of properly. Sign up for hazardous waste collection, or check locally to see where you can safely dispose of hazardous materials.
Lastly, there are a couple of additional resources that can help with your understanding of how to deal with hazardous materials in your classroom: A great resource for all things health and safety related can be found here. Additionally, the reference book you should probably own is The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques. Lastly, a good amount of information specific to solvents can be found here.

If you have any questions about materials and how to best deal with them, make sure you do your research to keep your students and yourself out of harm’s way. Knowledge of the materials, how to use them, and how to store them will go a long way toward this goal. Be smart and be safe.

What are the most hazardous materials you use in your art room? How do you stay safe?

What other questions do you have about using hazardous materials?


Timothy Bogatz

Tim is a high school teacher from Omaha, NE. His teaching and writing focus on the development of creativity, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking skills.


  • Elithea Whittaker

    oh, please stop firing overnight! my district has a rule that no kiln can be on when i’m not present. they are the biggest source of fire, often from the heavy electricity connections they require. our district lost a school to kiln fire since i’ve been there! a good kiln olcy is to notify administrstion when it’s on. my own policy is: send an email to prncipal, AP, secretary and head custodian that says KILN ON! in the subject line, so they’ll know it must be turned off by me) before locking up for the night, just in case i keel ver during a firing day; i resend it, modified to kiln off, AFTER i turn it off (no cheating and saying i’ll turn it off n the way out!) i also put a sign on my computer screen for myself, thay says KILN ON!

    paranoid? not after we lost that school due to the art department! not good.

    • Mr. Post

      I have seen many kilns over-fire when the old style kiln sitter has failed. These kilns have become so hot that the shelves inside it even started to melt and yet they did not cause a fire in the school. When I have been asked to assess or repair these kilns I have found that the kiln sitter itself was in such poor shape that it caused the malfunction – what’s more, if the teacher had simply replaced the kiln sitter before the incident it could have been totally avoided.

      In order for there to be a fire there has to be something to burn – a combustible needs to start burning. Most schools have no idea how hot kilns get and some art teachers don’t understand this as well. I have seen kiln rooms full of cardboard boxes, matt board, art show projects etc. These rooms are a disaster waiting to happen.

      Having said that, there is no reason to be afraid of firing your kiln. At the beginning of the year, look at the plug. Use a piece of sandpaper to make sure the prongs are nice and shiny. Open up the receptacle, see if it’s in good shape. Grab the power cord while your kiln is firing – if it’s hot, there could be a problem. If the person who installed the kiln did not use the proper gauge wiring – making sure it is thick enough according the manufacturers specifications, and making sure it has the proper sized breaker there may be problems firing the kiln and it may be a fire hazard.

      There is a lot more to it than just assuming that a kiln will start a fire. It once took me three months to get a school district to install the 45 amp breaker that the kiln manufacturer specified because they read a label on the side of the kiln that it was rated at 30 amps. They had me replace the elements twice instead of following the manufacturer’s specs for the breaker. Finally I got them to install the correct breaker and ever since then, the kiln has fired perfectly.

      I fire my kiln at night. I use the delay function on the computer to start it at midnight. Then when I arrive in the morning it is at about a 1200 degrees. The kiln then reaches its hottest temp during the day when I am there to attend to it at the end of the firing. My school kiln is in a cinder block room with no combustibles anywhere near it. I sleep like a baby never giving it a second thought…

      • Great info Mr. Post! I think many people misuse kiln-sitters. A kiln sitter is a safety device, *not* a kiln shut off device, even though that’s what everybody uses them for. If someone has a kiln sitter equipped kiln, they really should be there in person when the kiln reaches temperature.

  • Just to clarify this post, electric kilns do not fire in reduction, so CO emissions are not really the issue for typical school kilns. However, dangerous fumes are a real issue as the components of clay and glaze are fired. Proper kiln installation includes two kinds of ventilation: a downdraft vent which physically attaches to the kiln (aka: skutt envirovent) and also ventilation for the room itself (hood vent, fan, etc) with a fresh air source. Separate kiln rooms do not necessarily require the downdraft vent. As far as comments to fire safety, a properly installed kiln is typically not a fire hazard. Nobody worries about HVAC, and other high voltage appliances which run way more often in schools than kilns. So stories of a kiln being the source of a building fire seem actually pretty rare, unless it was improperly installed. Kilns, by their very design, are made to contain heat, so any fire danger is in improper installation.

    • This is a great resource for Art Teachers using kilns:

      Covers firing basics and the question of kiln safety for administrators, fire marshall, etc.

    • Tim Bogatz

      Thanks for the correction and the additional resource. Appreciate it!

      • Thanks for the article! I really think that the more well-equipped teachers are on safety, the more well-equipped we are on the defense of the use of these things.

  • Anne Fry

    Those were very important issues. Since I teach high school I have had times when students have joked about inhaling (huffing) these dangerous sustances. I plainly explain that if they do huff, their brain may swell and not return to the normal size. If that would happen they could enroll in a school near by that teaches students born with brain injury. it’s a great school with sports and homecoming.
    After hearing this, the students don’t joke about inhaling substances with me anymore.

    • Tim Bogatz

      That is a great response for high schoolers. Very effective.

      • Anne Fry

        One time after I caught a student “sniffing a permanent marker” I explained the scenario, and a student said he was going to tell his mother that I called him “retarded”. I replied “please tell your mother to call me and I will tell her what goes on in this class”.

        He dropped it and she never called.

  • Amanda Vroman

    I like to put my used x-acto blades in an old tic-tac container. It’s see through, and has a lid. And yes….I had that nightmare when I first began. I took over someone else’s classroom. The first day I found a handsaw poking out of a pile of randoms stashed in the corner, and containers of lead in the kiln room. I have since installed the proper safety precautions and I don’t have those dreams anymore : )

  • In elementary school it’s “hey don’t smell the sharpies!!!” They always claim they don’t, but the proof is in the Hitler stache they’ve created below their nose.

    • So true!

      • Mr. Post

        Kids today will never know the smell of a freshly printed ditto – the only good smell from schools in the 70’s.

        • Jennifer Carlisle

          that was a “memory inducing” smell

  • Keeping the potentially hazardous stuff in high school or college settings, while using less hazardous stuff in grade school or middle school settings, helps.

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