Should I Get my Own Kiln?
In a span of a couple of weeks I've received a number of messages pertaining to owning your own kiln. I thought I'd share some of the considerations you might need to assess before making your decision. It's a big one for any ceramic artist, for sure! To cut straight to the point, whether or not to get your own kiln really depends on what you hope to solve by doing so. Every ceramic artist has their own requirements and preferences so it's up to you to weigh the different aspects and make a decision after. No right or wrong answers here! I'll be expanding on a few of the considerations ahead.
1: Do you have convenient access to a pottery studio that can fire for you?
This goes without saying but if you don't have a pottery studio you can access conveniently to help fire your work, you'll likely need to get your own kiln. Convenience of course is relative, so you'll need to decide how much effort you're able to expend for ceramic adventures! How delicate your work is also factors into this as transporting your pieces to and fro the studio will increase the likelihood of breakage.
2: How much work do you produce?
When it comes to firing, quantity matters. Often times when we fire up the kiln, we try our best to fill it as much as we can. That allows more efficient use of energy. Regardless the number of pieces in the kiln, I believe it still consumes a relatively similar amount of energy to fire. Do correct me if I'm wrong! So if you only have very few pieces of work to fire each time, it might make more sense to fire at a studio. Alternatively, you can get a smaller kiln so it takes fewer pieces to fill.
3: Can you dedicate a space to your kiln?
Kilns come in all sizes but even the smallest kiln will heat up the space around it. Unlike something like a refrigerator that doesn't very much affect the space around it, the heat from the kiln is not completely contained within. The heat radiating from the kiln causes the space around it to get hot as well, albeit nothing compared to the temperature within. You can definitely stand beside it with no issue but Imagine being inside a sauna room or standing directly beside a heater. The outer surface of the kiln will get hot and you'll definitely need to keep young children and pets away from the area while the kiln is firing and cooling too.
My longest firing program takes about 12 hours to hit top temperature. Once it hits the top temperature, the kiln turns off but it also takes a long while to cool down to a safe temperature for you to open the kiln. On this firing program, I usually give my kiln about 24 hours from start of firing till it's cool enough to open the kiln up to check my pieces.
4: Do you have time to maintain your kiln?
Kilns need some simple maintenance to keep them running smoothly. Personally, I dust the thermocouple and elements after every cycle of firing (or so I aim to) and vacuum it. When I lagged behind on the cleaning, I noticed it took longer to fire my work. Sometimes it even has difficulty reaching the top temperature set. I did some troubleshooting online, did a brief cleaning and on the next firing everything went smoothly. Never underestimate a little TLC when it comes to your kiln!
When you have your own kiln you'll also use kiln shelves to make efficient use of the space. Every so often you'll need to reapply a new coat of kiln wash to your shelves to protect them and to prevent glaze drips from damaging the shelves too badly. And if you do get glaze drips on your shelves, you'll need to chisel them off otherwise they'll keep eating away at your shelf with each firing. Dropping your pieces off at a studio saves you all the hassle of maintenance and possible repairs which can be costly.
5: Are you able to follow the firing schedule of the studio?
If you are a hobbyist and the timeline required for your work to be fired is flexible, or that you're just patient in general, you might be happy firing at the studio. But the fact that you're on this article probably means you're not too happy with that arrangement. Firing at a studio is indeed quite the hassle when it comes to the wait. You'll need to drop your greenware off at the studio, wait for them to do a bisque firing, head down to collect your bisqued work, bring it home to glaze, bring it back to the studio, wait for them to do a glaze firing and finally head back down to collect it. You sometimes have to wait a few weeks or more before the studio fires as they also want to fire the kiln with a full load. If you just miss the firing you need, you'll need to wait longer if the studio is having a lull period. So the whole process could be really stretched out. With your own kiln, you decide when you're ready to fire.
6: Budgeting considerations.
Kilns can come with a hefty price tag. My own kiln cost about 4000SGD (If I remember correctly...) and that excludes having the electrician come down to install a new socket and assess electrical requirements for the kiln. You can see below that my kiln uses a 15amp 3-pin plug. The kiln needed a dedicated socket that allowed for the drawing of more electricity than usual appliances.
Each time you get the kiln technicians down to change the elements and do a servicing it also costs money. In my 5 years of owning my kiln, I've only had the technicians down once for an element change. It cost me 700SGD for them to replace the elements and do a quick check of the kiln. They also tried to help mend a crack in the kiln door but it didn't really hold up. Thankfully it doesn't really affect the kiln much. Just to give a gauge of my usage, I fire about 3 times a month or two; Bisque, glaze and luster. If you're firing more or to higher temperatures your kiln will have more wear and tear quicker.
(You can see the kiln door when it was brand new in the image right at the top.)
On the flip side, firing costs at studios can also add up. Studios usually charge your work either by weight or volume (length x width x height). The cost of you transporting your work to and fro the studio and the time taken is also a factor.
7: Do you have time to learn how to fire your kiln?
Depending on the kiln you get, firing it can be a whole different process. My electric kiln is really simple to use. Once you have the programs set on the controller, it just takes a click of a button to get the kiln firing. The controller then does the rest of the work, adjusting the ramp rates and hold durations, even cutting off power to the elements once the desired temperature is reached.
However, there are also kilns that don't come with a programmable controller. I've only ever seen a glass kiln that my friend owned which was like this. It was a top loader with a temperature meter and an on off switch. Every time she fired the kiln, she would have to actively monitor the temperature and manually switch it off after it reached her desired temperature.
You'll need to figure out how to work your kiln and troubleshoot it when required.
There are many different points to consider and pros and cons of each side. It really boils down to personal preferences and your work requirements.
I fired at a studio for a few months before deciding to get my own kiln. The hassle of bringing all my tiny pieces down to the studio and back, plus waiting on their schedules just didn't work for me as I was trying to create more and build up inventory for my store. The wait time also hinders your growth to some extent. With each firing you learn what works and what doesn't. With your own kiln you get to see how different experiments turn out at a quicker pace and also the convenience outweighs so much of the other cons. These factors were important to me when I was making my decision but you have your own set of goals and priorities. Perhaps you're not ready to commit a space to your kiln or you've got a studio nearby you can fire at. See what works for you (-:
I hope my sharing helps you in some way on this journey. Have fun with it and enjoy the process, whichever route you choose. May your clay journey be filled with lots of joy and moments of peaceful quiet.