Help! I’m Afraid of my Kiln!

I once had a colleague who was called to his school in the middle of the night because “the kiln was on fire.” Of course, the kiln was very much on fire because there was a load of clay pieces being fired. But, when the custodian noticed “flames inside a machine,” his first reaction was to call the fire department.

Although my colleague tried to explain that there should be a fire in the kiln, the firefighters still made him turn it off. Just as any good art teacher would do, he turned that kiln right back on knowing his students had work to do! Unsurprisingly, when he returned to school several hours later, the kiln was running just fine and there were no fires to be seen.

Although most of us will never get a call like that, it’s normal to feel nervous about using your kiln.

If you’ve ever worried about causing a major disaster with your kiln, use the following tips to make sure you’re being as safe as you can be.

kiln

1. Clean and Prepare Your Kiln

Kilns have a tendency to be neglected when it comes to the art room cleaning routine. Even without major clay explosions, bits and pieces of bisqueware gradually collect at the bottom and in the elements which can affect firing and the condition of the kiln over time. Start making it a habit to clean your kiln before each firing. Use a shop vac or handheld broom to make sure your kiln stays in tip top shape!

Before a glaze firing, you will also want to prep your kiln shelves with kiln wash. Using kiln wash on the tops of the shelves will prevent puddles of glaze from becoming permanent. If glaze does drip onto the shelves, it can easily be chipped off. Generally speaking, your kiln shelves will need to be coated with kiln wash every 6-12 months. For more on precautions when setting up your kiln room, check out this download.

2. Tell Someone You’re Firing

It’s nearly impossible to fire your kiln from start to finish while you’re at school. There are going to be times when you are not physically in the building to check on your kiln. Make it a habit of telling someone you are firing. I’d recommend telling your evening custodian or building administrator so the above scenario doesn’t happen to you!

glazed pieces in kiln

3. Plan Accordingly

Since it isn’t always practical to be present from start to finish while your kiln is firing, create a firing schedule that works for you. If you aren’t able to be present the entire duration of the firing, I’d recommend being there when the process is complete. Plan for the firing to finish when you are at school. This will help you avoid any major catastrophes and ensure pieces are not over-fired and the kiln is stopped.

4. Test Fire

Typically speaking, it’s in the best interest to fire with a full load to save on electricity and the integrity of the kiln. However, if this is your first time firing a kiln, test fire your own sample work before you fire a load of student work to make sure no problems arise. Consider using the same techniques your students will be using so you’ll know what to expect as you fire.

glazed pieces

5. Know Your Materials

If you’re new to clay, stick with low-fire clay bodies and glazes. Problems like pinholes and cracks in glaze occur when the proper clay body and glaze are not used. To prevent these issues from happening, start simply by using clay bodies and glazes that are near the same low-fire cone. There will be plenty of time to explore more advanced techniques once you’ve become comfortable with your kiln!

Working with clay is such a rewarding process for your students. Do not do them a disservice by simply letting your kiln collect dust in the corner of your room! Remember to get to know your kiln by using the resources and online manual provided by your kiln company. Your kiln does not need to be scary, and you’re most likely not going to burn your school down!

Have you ever had a major kiln catastrophe? 

What is preventing you from using your kiln?

Abby Schukei

Abby is a middle school art teacher in Omaha, NE. She focuses on creating meaningful experiences for her students through technology integration, innovation, and creativity.

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  • Hannah June
    • Abby Schukei

      Yikes! I hope you jumped back on the saddle and continued using your kiln!

      • Debra Troyanos

        AAh! This is exactly what I saw when I opened the kiln this morning. Already a bad day by 7:30 am! What did it turn out to be? I am just heartsick about it!

  • Jeanette

    It’s a good idea to find a local ceramic artist in your area to help teach you proper kiln usage. I was recently in a school in Singapore where the kiln was in a corner of the art room with a wall built around it but did not see a purpose built extraction fan built to ensure adequate ventilation to the outside of the building. Hence such situations can lead to noxious fumes in an area.

    • Abby Schukei

      Great suggestion, Jeanette!

  • Tiffany Wiles

    I think there should be more training in Art Ed programs on firing a kiln. When I started teaching in 2007, a senior showed me how to start our kiln. I’ve been firing it the way she showed me ever since. The kiln was recently serviced for the first time in my tenure. The “kiln guy” told me things I’d never heard…did you know your kiln should be serviced approximately every 100 fires, for example? Me either!