Pam's Blog

Tips, Tricks and Random Thoughts
Directly from Pam's Brain to Yours

Enamel Enemy Number One: Bubbles

 by Pam East

Think you don't have bubbles in your enamel?  Think again.   Pretty much all enamels contain bubbles to some extent. They might be so small you can't see them without magnification, but trust me, they're there.  And they are clouding up your gorgeous transparent enamels. 

There are a number of things that cause bubbles, and a lot you can do to eliminate the problem.  

METAL CLAY BUBBLES

Metal Clay is a porous material, and the way pieces are constructed can cause issues.  Bubbles may form from air coming through the porosity of the material or from an area where joins were not sealed properly.   This type of bubble will usually be large and obvious.  

Porosity can be dealt with by ensuring proper burnishing after firing.  Tumble for at least 2 hours.  For smooth areas, use ball tip burnishers to really compact the surface, closing off the pores.  

If you are stacking pieces to create your piece, make sure the top and bottom are well sealed together with paste before firing.  Gaps can cause bubbles. 

ENAMEL BUBBLES 

Most bubbles come from the enamel itself and how it's applied. These types of bubbles tend to be very small and are the real culprit when your enamels don't come out looking clear and deep.  Tiny bubbles, even the microscopic ones you can't see, refract light. That means instead of the light penetrating all the way into your piece, it gets bounced back out.  This will cause the enamel to appear hazy and obscure the underlying metal.   

Fines:  Fines consist of the super fine dust in the enamel that is created during the grinding process.  This dust traps a lot of air in your enamel and will certainly make it look cloudy.   Removing the fines is your first line of defense.  They can either be washed out with distilled water or screened out.  

Sizing: When you buy enamel, it comes 80-mesh. That means the ground enamel was passed through a screen with 80 holes per linear inch. You get everything that passes through the screen, from the large 80 mesh particles to the fines.   You can improve clarity by sizing the enamel so you have smaller, tightly packed particles.  I use 150-mesh and 325-mesh screens.  Instructions for this are in my screening video at the 4:23 time mark.  

Application:  When using wet application, It's important to apply enamels in thin layers. If you pile a lot of enamel into a space, air pockets can get trapped in the enamel and cause bubbles.   Applying and firing in thin layers helps alleviate this problem.

Surface tension: The surface tension of the water can cause issues as well, trapping bubbles within the water you use for application and making it difficult to get the enamel to lay down flat.   Up until recently there wasn't much to be done about this.  Now I have a new product out called ClearNamel(tm).  It's a wetting agent that reduced the surface tension of water.  This allows you to apply the enamel much more easily and eliminates most of the bubbles in the water used for application.   The difference in enamel clarity when you use ClearNamel(tm) is striking!  You'll really see all the way to the metal with none of the bubble refraction you usually get.  

Here's a video on how to use ClearNamel(tm)

Sheet Metal - A New Product Review

by Pam East

There is a really interesting new product out on the market that I’m testing right now.   I thought I’d give ya’ll a review.  My results are mixed.  The good news is really good, but the down sides are significant. 

First the good stuff. 

It’s called Sheet Metal, and It comes in just about any metal or alloy you can think of or would want.   You can get it pre-rolled to any thickness you like too!  Gram for gram, it’s far less expensive than any brand of metal clay on the market.  

Are you ready for this?  The product DOESN’T NEED FIRING!   You don’t need a kiln at all!  It’s even pretty smooth and polished on arrival.   Doesn’t take much effort at all to bring it up to a mirror shine.  It held up fantastic to my bend and twist tests.  I bent it 360 degrees and twisted it into a spiral.   I could tie this stuff in knots without breaking it.  Just amazing. 

But then there’s the downside.  

My rubber stamps made no impression at all. No matter what I did, it just will not take a texture with my stamps!   And cutting out a shape with my template and needle tool?  I only got the barest scratches.   I was forced to use something called a saw to make even the most basic shapes.  It took forever and still needed massive cleanup.  I had to use a metal file to clean up the edges. My damp sponge tip applicator had no effect. 

When I went to join two pieces together things got even worse.  With my regular silver clay, I can pretty much just dampen the two pieces and they stick together just fine.  With this I was finally forced to use a torch to get the pieces put together, and it looked pretty messy when I was done. There was a lot of clean up left.  

All in I’m not sure this new product is going to take off.  The price is good and you don’t need a kiln, which is a plus. But it’s just so hard to use.  The learning curve is steep and you need to invest in a whole new set of tools just to work with it.   

I’m sure somebody will do something with Sheet Metal, but for myself. I’m sticking to my good old metal clay.  

EZ960(tm) Review

by Pam East

For the last month or so I've been testing a new clay invented by Bill Struve of Metal Adventures and distributed by Cool Tools.  

Introducing EZ960(tm) Sterling Silver Clay!

EZ960 is 96% Silver, 4% Copper.  This is a lower copper content than traditional sterling, which is 7.5% copper.  The advantage of the lower copper content is it does not require a carbon firing. It can be fired on an open shelf without any fire scale issues. The small addition of copper greatly increases the strength and hardness of the finished product, making it perfect for items that take a lot of abuse, such as hinges, rings and bracelets. 

I made several projects while putting it through its paces, including a bracelet, hinged swing box, a ring, and of course, enameled pendants.  

WET CLAY

The wet clay has a lovely soft consistency and is not sticky.   It has a tremendously long working time.   It takes textures beautifully and is easy to sculpt and mold.

GREENWARE

Once dry, it remains surprisingly flexible.  I was able to make this bracelet by creating the separate links and then joining them together before firing. it was a piece of cake to open up the dry links to interlink the pieces.   

FIRING

Like most metal clays, the manufacturer is providing a number of firing schedules.   

  • 1675°F / 913°C - 2 hours
  • 1700°F / 927°C - 1 hour
  • 1725°F / 941°C - 15 minutes

I fired most of my pieces at 1675 for 2 hours.  I got full sinter and had no trouble bending pieces.    I did try firing at 1700 on one piece, but got blisters on the silver.  My personal kilns do run hot, so this may not be a problem for others. I would recommend firing a few test strips to find the optimum schedule for your kiln.

My first piece stuck to the fiber shelf and discolored.  I was able to clean off the discoloration, but it was difficult.    On my second firing I used a piece of fiber paper as a barrier. This solved the sticking problem, but I still got discoloration on the down-facing side of the piece.   Next I used vermiculite as a support.  Third time's the charm!  No sticking and no discoloration.  You'll definitely want to fire the product on vermiculite. 

FINISHING

The fired silver has a grayer color than .999 silver. This is normal for an alloy and should be expected. The fired EZ960 has a slightly grainy surface.  It's not extreme, but it is noticable.  Sterling, even at 4%, really is harder than fine silver, so cleaning up the graininess takes some effort.  I did not get great results with my rotary tumbler. I had somewhat better results with my magnetic tumbler, but ultimately I got my best results with my flexshaft.   

Smooth areas polish up like a dream. This stuff mirror finishes like nobody's business.  The mirror finish I'm getting on EZ960 is superior to any other metal I've used, including .999 silver clays.  Finishing textured surfaces was not quite as good. It's just not as easy to get rid of the slightly grainy effect on a texture.  

With regards to patina, I was unable to achieve any colors with LOS.  In fact, it took a very strong LOS solution to darken it.  I had good results with BlackMax.   

ENAMELING

This brings us to what you really want to know.  Can you enamel it?   

The short answer is "yes", you can enamel it.  If you put enamel on it and fire it, it will stick just fine. You don't even have to depletion gild it.  I had no problem with it cracking or chipping.   

BUT...  960 clay, whether you mix it yourself or buy it premixed, is NOT a substitute for .999 clay when it comes to enameling.  There are problems with it that you need to be aware of.   

The copper in the 960 causes oxidation issues. Transparent enamels come out cloudy and/or discolored. Even "good" results are not as crisp and clean as on .999.   

In this photo you can see brownish specks in the enamel. This is copper oxidation.  When enameling on copper you use a higher firing temperature to cause the oxidation to absorb into the enamel and disappear from the surface.

You might think the solution is to do a high firing here too. I knew what would happen, but I decided to go ahead and do it so you could see the results.  A picture is worth a thousand words, right?   

In this photo BOTH pieces have 2020 Clear for silver on them and nothing else.   When you high fire on silver it releases more silver salts into the enamel and causes massive discoloration.   The .999 sample was fired at my usual 1400 to 1450.  The .960 sample was fired at 1550, my usual firing for COPPER, not silver.  Yes, the oxidation spots are gone, but it's a mess.  The yellow you see is silver contamination. The greenish tint is caused by the copper that was absorbed into the enamel. None of that is a problem on pure copper, but here its a disaster.  If I were trying one of my more complicated shaded peices I'd never get it to come out right. 

At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself "Why am I trying to enamel .960 silver?"   .999 silver clay is readily available and is PERFECT for enamels.  Enamel pieces do not generally experience the wear and tear that make .960 desireable.  If they did, your bigger concern would be chipping the enamel, not the strength of the underlaying silver.  

The only justifiable reason I could come up with for enameling EZ960 would be for a ring.   You probably can't see it in the photo, but there are fine bubbles and some clouding in this example.

If I were doing another ring with EZ960 I'd be inclined to stick to opaque enamels where such problems would not show up except for perhaps at the edges.  

Unless you have a compelling reason for using .960, stick to .999 for enamels.  

EZ960(tm) Sterling is a great addtion to our metal clay family. If you are making bracelets, clasps, hinges, rings or other elements that take considerable wear it's a tremendous boon to have the added strength, and it's dead simple to use and fire.  

Cool Tools is releasing the clay July 2016, but you can Pre-Order it now.   

ABCs of Cloisonné Wire


If you're ready to try your hand at cloisonné enameling, the first thing you'll need is some cloisonné wire.  Cloisonné wire is a flat ribbon and is measured by height and thickness.  You can buy it easily enough.   Most companies that sell enamels also sell the wire.  It's how I started out.   But after a while I was left wondering how the enameling greats got such intricate detail into their work while my efforts always looked crude and clunky by comparison.

It turns out the answer, at least in part, is you can't get refined detail using stock cloisonné wire.

Stock cloisonné wire is .040" x .010" (1.02mm x .25mm or 18ga x 30ga) The first number is height of the wire.  It tells you how far your wire is going to stand up when you place it in your piece (and how much you'll be grinding off later if it's too tall).   The second number is how thick the wire is, and this is really the key.  .010 (.25mm or 30ga) may sound paper thin to you, but when you start trying to bend it into graceful shapes, it's going to fight you.

Rio Grande offers a second size that is .060 x .005.   .005 is much better than .010, but .060, while fine for traditional enameling, is too tall for the work I do with photo-polymer plates.  I'd end up grinding off significant amounts of material unnecessarily.

The solution is to buy custom drawn cloisonné wire.  This is MUCH easier to do than it sounds.  I get mine from Hauser & Miller.  They have no minimum order (although there is a $5 handling fee on orders under $50) and they are very nice to work with.  Their customer service is terrific.

Personally, I use .045 x .004.  It's a hair taller than the standard wire, but much thinner.   It's a good height for the pieces I make using .059 PhotoPolymer plates, and the thinness allows me to create the tiniest of details.

1 oz of .999 Silver cloisonné wire drawn to .045 x .004 is approximately 84 FEET long.  That's a LOT of wire!   And as of this writing costs only about $30.

1 oz of 24K gold cloisonné wire drawn to the same dimensions is about 45.5 feet long and would cost $1400.

Fortunately, Hauser & Miller does not require you to buy a full ounce.   At today's price, 36" of 24K wire would be $103 and they will happily sell you that amount.  For me a typical piece uses anywhere from 8" to 16" of cloisonné wire, so you could get several pieces from just three feet of wire.

Kiln Review - SC2 vs SC2 PRO

by Pam East

Last year Paragon launched the SC2 PRO model kiln. Being me, I HAD to have one.  In PURPLE no less. With a 12-key controller!  If you're going to be a kiln hound, might as well go all the way, right?
 
I've been using the kiln for months now and it's time to report on it.  I'm going to take this review in two parts; the kiln itself, and the 12-key controller which is a different kettle of fish.
 
The SC2 Pro kiln:
 
This little baby has several features that make it well worth the price.
 
The Door - OMG, the door!  With a smooth spring hinge and a nice big handle that doesn't get hot, the Pro model is worth it for the door alone.   As an enamelist, my biggest beef with the standard SC2 kiln is the door latch. It's so tight it pops the kiln when you open and close it.  This leads to spilled enamels. You end up having to modify the door latch to make it usable for enameling, and it's still not perfect.  By contrast, this new door design requires no fiddling with latches; and it opens and closes very smoothly with no jarring.  

Solid State Relay - Unlike the standard mechanical relay, the solid state relay does not make a sound while in use.   That means the SC2 Pro is very quiet.  No constant clicking sounds from your kiln.
 
Slanted control panel - The slanted panel means no bending over to read and program the computer.  It's much easier to view this way.
 
The SC2 PRO is available with either a 3-key or a 12-key controller.  I got the 12-key controller, but recommend the 3-key controller. Read on for why.
 
The 12-Key Controller:
 
Sigh.  I wanted to love this. I really did. I paid the extra bucks for it.   But overall I've been disappointed.   
 
There are features on the 12-key that are a great benefit to glass fusers and others who need complex, multi-phase programming. Program 1 can have up to 20 segments. Programs 2 - 9 can have up to 10 segments each. There is also an "Add time" button that allows you to add 5 minute increments to any segment. in combination with a window this would be a boon to glass fusing if you were watching for a particular state of fuse and it wasn't quite there towards the end of a phase. 

The 12-key also gives the user the ability to skip segments, get a review of the programming during firing, and to find out which phase of the program the kiln is currently running. The ability to set an alarm when a particular temperature is reached is also very useful for fusers. 
 
So yes, it has a lot more buttons and whistles, but as a metal clay artist and enamelist, for the most part they aren't things I use, and it's missing one important feature I need.  
 
It has no "program finished" alarm.  I can set a temperature alarm to let me know when a certain temperature has been reached, but for my work and for my classes I need to know when the hold time is done and the program complete, and that is not available.  
 
The only real benefit for me has been punching in the numbers instead of holding the up and down arrows to scroll the numbers.   And since there is absolutely nothing I need to do with the 12-key that I couldn't do with the 3-key, that benefit certainly wasn't worth the $392 price tag.    
 
Overall, I give the Paragon SC2 PRO with a 3-key controller a HUGE thumbs up. At only $40 more than a standard SC2 it's worth it for the new door alone.  I also highly recommend adding the optional window.  It's another $50 but makes enameling and glass fusing so much more accurate and easy.  
 
So, are you ready for a new kiln? This is the one!
 
(All prices in this article are manufacturer recommended retail pricing at the time of this writing. Prices subject to change without notice.)

Thompson Enamel Numbering System

by Pam East

So far as I know, Thompson Enamel is the only company with an intelligently thought out stock numbering system. It might not seem so at first glance, but crack the code and you'll never be guessing at your colors again.

For the purposes of this article I'm going to focus only on Thompson's 1000 and 2000 series enamels for Copper, Silver and Gold; however, the same system applies to their other lines of enamel.

Each color is assigned a four digit number, and each digit carries with it specific information. 

___ ___ ___ ___

 A    B    C    D

Position A identifies if the color is opaque or transparent. Any color starting with a "1" is opaque. Any color starting with a "2" is transparent. There's a neat little mnemonic you can use to remember this. The words "Opaque" and "One" both start with "O". The words "Transparent" and "Two" both start with "T". The only exception is stock numbers starting with “2” and ending in "00" or "01" which are opalescent rather than transparent.

Position B identifies the color family. For example "3" denotes green. That means every color starting with 23 is going to be a transparent green. This can be very helpful when putting together shading sets. You can see at a glance if they are complementary or not.

Here's a handy list of the color families for you.

Opaque
0 - White
1 - Brown
2 - Beige / Light Yellow
3 - Green
4 - Blue Green
5 - Green Blue
6 - Blue
7 - Pink / Purple
8 - Yellow / Orange / Red
9 - Gray / Black
Transparent
0 - Clear
1 - Beige / Brown
2 - Yellow / Green Yellow
3 - Green
4 - Blue Green
5 - Green Blue
6 - Blue
7 - Purple
8 - Pink / Red / Orange
9 - Gray

Positions C and D should be treated as a single two-digit number and denote color intensity. The lower the number, the lighter the color. The higher the number, the darker the color.

With this information, I can take one look at 2680 Prussian, and know immediately that it's Transparent (2) Blue (6) and very dark (80). 1410 Robin’s Egg is Opaque (1), Blue Green (4) and very pale (10).  2600 is Opalescent Blue because it starts with a 2, is in color family 6 and ends with 00.  

 

Simplifed Kiln Programming Instructions

For Paragon 3-key Controllers
By Pam East

Paragon kilns arrive with an instruction manual, but I’ve found it can be overwhelming for the first time kiln user.  These simplified instructions will help get you started.  There are two sets of instructions. One for programming the kiln to fire metal clay, and one for programming the kiln to fire enamels. 

Metal Clay Firing

Before programming your kiln you will need to determine the firing requirements for the type of metal clay you have selected. This information will be included in the packaging with your clay.  

There are three things you need to know.

  • Firing Temperature: How hot will you fire the clay? 
  • Hold Time: How long will you hold it at the peak firing temperature?
  • Ramp Speed: How fast will the kiln heat?  For pieces that are just clay, the answer will be “full speed”, however if you are using cork, ceramics, glass or other inclusions, you may need to slow it down.  A ramp speed of 4 is commonly used for many of these items.

The controller has three buttons: A Start/Stop button, an up arrow that is labeled “Higher” and a down arrow that is labeled “Lower”.  The Start/Stop button is used to progress from segment to segment in the programming. 

  1. Press the “Start/Stop” button until the display reads “Pr0” or “SPd” followed by a number.
  2. Press the “HIGHER” button until you reach “SPd5”. This display will alternate with “FULL”. If you scroll past SPd5 do not use the “LOWER” button. That will launch the program at this stage. Just continue using the “HIGHER” button until it comes around again. This step sets how quickly your kiln will reach the desired temperature (ramp speed). These instructions are for clay only, with no inclusions. Different ramp speeds may be used if other items are being fired with the clay.
  3. Press the “Start/Stop” button again to move to the next programming segment.
  4. “°F 1” will display, alternating with the programmed temperature. Press the “HIGHER” or “LOWER” buttons until the display reaches the desired firing temperature.
  5. Press the “Start/Stop” button.
  6. “HLd1” will display, alternating with the set hold time. Press the “HIGHER” or “LOWER” buttons until the display reaches the desired hold time. Time is displayed in hours and minutes. For 10 minutes the display should read 00.10.
  7. Press the “Start/Stop” button two more times. The first time “Strt” will display. The second time “-ON-“ will display. At this point the kiln is on and firing will commence per your programmed instructions.

The unit will remember these settings until you change them. The next time you can just use the “LOWER” button after reaching “SPd5” to review the program and launch the kiln for  metal clay firing.  Press the “Start/Stop” button until the display reads “Pr0” or “SPd” followed by a number. Scroll "Higher" until you reach " SPd5" and then click the "Lower" button.  At this point the display will review the program you set, ending with "Strt".  One more click of the Start/Stop button will switch it to "-ON-" and firing will commence.

To fire the clay, simply place it on a kiln shelf in the kiln and launch the program as described above. Once the program cycle is finished, the kiln will beep and shut off automatically. As long as it’s just metal clay, without other inclusions, go ahead and open the kiln door to speed up the cooling time. You can use a pair of tweezers to remove the piece from the kiln to cool it faster. Be sure to wear heat resistant gloves when you do this, and place the piece on a tile, extra kiln shelf, or some surface that won’t burn.

Enamel Firing

Enamel firing differs from metal clay firing in that you pre-heat the kiln to a set temperature and then use it for a series of short, 1 to 3 minute firings.  The kiln is left on and hot while additional layers of enamel are applied, dried and fired. Often you will be working on several enameling projects simultaneously.  Unlike metal clay firing, the kiln does not need to be set to hold for a pre-determined period of time, but rather is just shut off manually when the user is done.

  1. Press the “Start/Stop” button until the display reads “Pr0” or “SPd” followed by a number.
  2. Press the “HIGHER” button until you reach “Pr01”. If you scroll past your target do not use the “LOWER” button. Just continue using the “HIGHER” button until it comes around again. This is the ONLY step where you can not use the lower button. You can go up or down on all other steps. 
  3. Press the “Start/Stop” button again to move to the next programming segment.
  4. The display will now read “rA 1” alternating with the desired ramp speed. Press the “HIGHER” or "LOWER" button until the display reads FULL. "Full" falls between 1798 and 0000, so if you are closer to the high end use the "higher" button. If you're closer to "0000" use the lower button.
  5. Press the “Start/Stop” button.
  6. The display will read “°F 1”, alternating with the programmed temperature. Press the “HIGHER” or “LOWER” buttons until the display reaches the desired firing temperature. For enameling I usually set my kiln around 1450°F.
  7. Press the “Start/Stop” button.
  8. The display will read “HLd1”, alternating with the set hold time. Press the “HIGHER” or “LOWER” buttons until the display reaches 99.59.
  9. Press the “Start/Stop” button.
  10. The display will read “rA 2”. Press the “HIGHER” or “LOWER” buttons until the display reaches 0000. If you've never done this before it will probably default to 0000 and you won't have to change anything.
  11. Press the “Start/Stop” button two more times. The first time “Strt” will display. The second time “-ON-“ will display.

The kiln will commence heating to the set temperature at this point and will hold until you are done and manually shut off the kiln (or for 99 hours and 59 minutes, whichever comes first). One more click of the start/stop button will shut the kiln off.

“Pr01” is now set for enameling. The next time you can just use the “LOWER” button after reaching “Pr01” to review the program and launch the kiln for enameling.  Press the “Start/Stop” button until the display reads “Pr0” or “SPd” followed by a number. Scroll "Higher" until you reach "Pr01" and then click the "Lower" button.  At this point the display will review the program you set, ending with "Strt".  One more click of the Start/Stop button will switch it to "-ON-" and firing will commence.

First time firing

If you have never fired your kiln you should pre-fire it. It should have come with a kiln shelf. If it was brand new, the shelf will be wrapped in cardboard.  Remove the cardboard and put the shelf in the kiln. Close it up and fire the kiln to about 1650 for five minutes or so. This will burn off any dust or debris in the kiln.  I'd do this even if the kiln has been used before (but not by you) just to make sure it's clean inside.

And lastly, for enameling I recommend modifying the door catch to make it easier to open and shut.  As delivered, the door catch can be so tight the unit is jarred when you open and close it. This can dislodge enamels before they are fired on.  Use a small screwdriver to remove the bottom bearing of the latch assembly. The top bearing is enough to hold it closed, but not so tightly that you jar your enamels when you close the door.  If it's still tight you can loosen the top bearing a tiny bit, but don't remove it. You need one of them in place.

Working with Dial Controlled Kilns

 

Computer controlled kilns are so prevalent these days, it’s hard to remember not long ago all kilns were controlled by a simple dial. If you were lucky, you also got an analog needle gauge pyrometer to squint at and try to interpret. The thing is, those kilns were workhorses. We made beautiful things in them, and you can too.

Today there are several models of kilns on the market still using dial controllers, and they are much more affordable than their computer controlled cousins. A willingness to learn how to use the dial also opens up the possibility of picking up a used kiln at a bargain price. For the budget minded artist, these finds can be a godsend.

So let me see if I can demystify this for you.

What is a dial controller?

Simply put, a dial controller, also known as an infinite dial switch, is a round knob on the front of the kiln that controls the kiln. It is not, as many people believe, a temperature controller. You cannot simply turn the dial to a particular number and expect it to correlate to a specific temperature.

The dial controls the amount of power the unit is receiving. The varying amount of power controls both the speed of the kiln and the temperature it can reach. A lower setting is not only giving you a lower temperature, it’s also slowing the unit down. This is actually good news. It means you have complete control over your firing schedules and ramp speeds.

Do I need a pyrometer?

Yes, absolutely! A pyrometer is a temperature gauge which lets you know how hot it is inside your kiln. You aren’t going to be able to accomplish anything without one. If you’re lucky, the unit you get will have one built in, but a hand-held portable pyrometer works fine too.

What’s a firing profile and why do I need to do it?

It’s important to know how your particular kiln, in your personal environment is going to fire. There is a lot of variation from place to place. Because the dial is a power regulator, environmental differences will change how your kiln fires compared to someone else with the same model. Factors such as how many devices are plugged into the same circuit, the temperature of the room, and a host of other variables will affect how the kiln runs.

A firing profile is a map of how your kiln, in your workspace, runs. It will give you the knowledge you need to get the most efficient use out of your kiln, and will reduce the need for constant tending.

Performing the firing profile is not difficult, just a little time consuming.

  1. Create a work sheet with the dial settings across the top and time in 5 minute increments down the side.
  2. Set the kiln to a power setting and note the temperature every 5 minutes to fill in the form.
  3. Cool the kiln and start from room temperature between each setting.

Once you have this profile, you have everything you need to make a dial controlled kiln jump through hoops for you.

Can a dial maintain a holding temperature?

In a nutshell, yes it can. But the term “holding temperature” is something of a misnomer. There is a perception if you set a kiln to a particular temperature it’s going to hold steady there. That’s not how it works. All kilns, whether controlled by a dial or computer, rise and fall up to 10 to 15 degrees above and below the set point. That’s completely normal. I refer to this state as “Neutral Buoyancy.” There’s a bit of drift up and down, but remaining around the desired temperature.

Neutral buoyancy with a dial kiln takes a bit more practice than with a computer control, but it’s perfectly achievable. Unless a slower ramp speed is needed for the materials in the kiln, set the kiln to “high” to reach the desired temperature. Use your firing profile to figure out how long it’s going to take and set a timer instead of watching over it. Once it’s at the temperature you want, look at your firing profile again to determine about where you should set the dial to maintain it. Wait a bit. Watch your pyrometer and see if the temp rises or fall too fast. Make micro adjustments to correct it. Remember, the numbers on the dial are just reference points, they don’t lock into place. You can set the dial anywhere in-between to get the results you desire

I spent a couple months testing the SpeedFire® ElectricMini™ FrontLoader kiln. From here on out, my examples are based on that; however, all the same concepts apply no matter which dial controlled kiln you are using.

Firing Silver Clay

My first test was an Art Clay™ Silver piece. I wanted to fire the piece above 1500°F (816°C) and below 1650°F (900°C) for 10 minutes. Referring to my firing profile, I could see setting the kiln on “High” would get to about 1550 in 20 minutes, and on “5” it would rise from about 1550°F (843°C) to 1600°F (871°C) in another 10 minutes. Piece of cake!

I put my piece in the kiln, set it on “high”, and set a timer for 20 minutes. When the timer went off my kiln was, indeed, just over 1500. I dropped the dial down to “5” and set the timer for another 10 minutes.

Voila! My piece was perfectly fired in 30 minutes, about the same amount of time it would have taken in an SC2. Brick kilns will take longer, of course, but with the firing profile and a timer in hand, very little tending is required.

Enameling Silver Clay

My second test was to enamel the silver piece I had made. Enamels fuse between 1350°F (732°C) and 1550°F (843°C). Generally I run at 1450°F (788°C). Pre-heating the kiln on “High” took about 18 minutes. I dropped the kiln to a little above setting “4” to keep it at an appropriate enameling temperature. With enameling, making it hold steady is not critical so long as you are in the firing range, so this worked fine.

Firing enamels requires putting the piece in while the kiln is at the appropriate firing temperature and firing it for 2 to 3 minutes. It’s normal for the kiln temperature to drop when you open the door. What’s important to note is the recovery time. Remember, lower settings are not only keeping the kiln temperature lower but also slowing the kiln down. To mitigate this problem, Once I put the piece in, I turned the kiln back up to “High” long enough for the temperature to rise above 1400°F and then turned it back down to just above “4” to finish out the firing.

This method worked like a charm and I was able to do everything I can do in my bigger kilns. There were no enameling tasks any more difficult than in my more expensive, computer controlled kilns. In fact, I liked the instant control I had. Some colors require firing at lower temperatures, others fire better higher. With the dial, I was able to make firing adjustments on the fly without having to stop and reprogram a computer.

Firing Copper Clay

I did an open shelf firing for Art Clay™ Copper. I needed to fire it between 1780°F (971°C) and 1800°F (982°C) for 35 minutes. According to my firing profile, on “High” the kiln would reach 1784°F (973°C) in 30 minutes. I set the timer for 30 minutes and let it run. When the timer went off my kiln was right at 1784°F (973°C). I wrapped the piece in fiber blanket, placed it in the hot kiln, and waited for the kiln to recover back up to 1780. At that point I set my timer to 35 minutes and got down to the business of adjusting it to hold in range. Setting “5” fell below 1700°F (927°C). Setting “High” gets over 2000°F (1093°C); too high. So I set the kiln between the two, around 5.5.

It took me about 5 minutes of making very small adjustments to reach neutral buoyancy, drifting up and down between about 1785°F (974°C) and 1799°F (982°C). After that I was able to let it run. After firing I pulled the piece and quenched it. It came out perfectly!

I enameled this piece as well, and had no difficulty using the same kiln control methods as I had with the silver piece.

Firing Bronze Clay

Testing FASTFire BRONZclay introduced two new variables to the mix; Carbon firing and a slower ramp speed. I loaded up a pan of carbon with a pendant and a couple pairs of earrings. I also included a test strip, a practice I recommend whenever firing bronze clay.

Bronze clay can blister and/or fail to sinter properly if fired too fast. I used a setting half way between “4” and “5” to achieve a ramp speed of approximately 1500°F (816°C) in an hour. The settings are not precise; it ended up taking about 70 minutes to get to 1500°F (816°C). In this case slower is better, so that was fine. I turned the unit down to a little above “4”and set the timer for 1 hour. Again, it took me about 5 minutes to get it hovering between 1500°F (816°C) and 1510°F (821°C). Since this was a longer firing, I checked it periodically during the hold time to ensure it wasn’t drifting too far in one direction or the other, but I did not have to stand over it constantly.

After the firing was finished I turned the unit off and let the bronze cool in the carbon. Everything came out fine. There was no blistering or signs of being over fired, and my test strip bent 90° without a problem showing the batch was fully sintered.

Any carbon fired metal clay would work as well. It’s simply a matter of adjusting the unit to deliver the correct ramping and hold temperature.

Glass Fusing

Ramping up the complexity again, my next test was glass fusing, which requires multiple phases. I chose to use a fairly complex firing schedule to push the capabilities of the kiln.

  1. Slow ramp to 1000°F (538°C)
  2. Full ramp to fusing temp of 1550°F (843°C) and hold for 5 minutes
  3. Slow cool down to 1000°F (538°C)
  4. Annealing hold at between 950°F (510°C) and 1000°F (538°C) for 10 minutes
  5. Cool down to below 300°F (149°C)

I started by setting the kiln on “Med” and setting a timer for 40 minutes. That got me a nice slow ramp to 1000°F. Next I turned it to “High” for 10 minutes which brought it to 1550°F (843°C). I adjusted the dial back down to around 4.5 and made micro adjustments to keep it at 1550°F (843°C) for 5 minutes. The next phase was a slow cool down. I turned the unit down to “1” until it dropped to 1000°F (538°C). I inched almost back up to “2” and held it at just under 1000°F (538°C) for 10 minutes for annealing. After 10 minutes I shut the unit off and allowed it to cool with the door closed until it was below 300°F (149°C).

Yes, this was more kiln tending than punching in a multiphase program on my SC2, but I was also able to successfully fuse and anneal glass in a kiln costing almost $500 less. I was making small cabochons for setting in silver, but theoretically you could make a piece approaching 3” x 4” using the same methods.

My final test for the dial controlled kiln was setting my glass cabs in Art Clay Silver, and of course, it came out as well as everything else.

I hope the next time you’re at a garage sale or browsing used equipment on the internet you won’t be intimidated by a dial controlled kiln. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder why you ever hesitated!

Romancing the Customer

This article was first published in Metal Clay Artist Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 1; 2010. 

Romancing the Customer: A tip for selling art jewelry
By Pam East

Selling a piece of art jewelry is an act of romance.  To be worth spending the money, the customer must love the piece, and feel the piece is giving them something in return.   It’s not just a purchase, it’s a relationship; and it’s your job as the creator to provide the introduction.

We all have a few pieces of jewelry that have special meaning for us.  Your engagement ring will bring up memories of how your husband proposed to you. A funky pair of earrings bought at a flea market in Mexico will remind you of a fun trip you took over Spring Break.  A faded cameo brooch will bring to mind the beloved grandmother who gave it to you.    The intrinsic value of these items is completely irrelevant when compared to their value as mementos of our life’s story.   The more detailed and personal these stories are, the more we treasure the physical reminders.    Sharing these stories gives us great pleasure and is an elemental way in which we connect and bond with each other.

One of the ways you can enhance the value of your work, and improve your sales, is to offer not just the jewelry, but the story that goes with it as well. When your customer buys the piece, they are also buying the privilege of telling the story that goes with it.  It’s “added value” at its very best. 

So what makes a good story?  First, let’s define what a story isn’t.  It isn’t something fake you make up to manipulate a customer.  Whether they are conscious of it or not, people can sense an act. At their heart, the stories you tell must be true. 

One story might be how the piece was made. I think jewelry artists fall back on this one most often when asked about their work, and while that may be of great interest to the customer, it’s probably the least effective with regards to making the work personal.   The “how” of a piece will usually apply to all your work relatively equally.  It doesn’t make one piece more special than any of the others, nor does it set your work apart from other artists using the same methods.  I’m not suggesting this is a bad way to talk to customers. Any story, even one about how a piece was made, is far better than no story.  Talking to your customers about your work in any way will make it more personal and create a connection.  But there are other ways of taking it a step or two further; ways of making specific pieces stand out and increase their desirability. 

Does the piece itself tell a story?   I made an enamel pendant with an alien flying a space ship over a planet.  A clear story is built right into the piece itself.  When I talk to people about the piece, I tell them it’s “Flerg, the space alien, hot rodding around the universe in his sporty red space ship”.  I talk about the various adventures Flerg has had along the way to this piece, and what might be in store for him down the road.  

The representation of Flerg is very literal of course, but there are other ways to let a piece tell a story.   An intricate piece of stone set in a piece might bring to mind a desert landscape or peaceful mountain valleys.  Let your customer know what you see in a piece and what your thought processes were when you designed a setting around it.. Ask them what they see in it.  Anything that draws them into the story and makes them a participant.

Is there a story about how the design was developed?   For example, one of my favorite pieces is my Chinese Poetry Box

I tell my customers about how the idea evolved over time.  I began making box pendants about 4 years ago, but never felt they were fully realized as a concept.  There was nothing in the box.  The idea to put tiny books inside the boxes came a few years later, but I still wasn’t sure what the books should contain.  More recently, while looking for examples of Chinese calligraphy for a different project, I ran across a website devoted to ancient Chinese poetry.  After reading several samples from the Tang dynasty, the complete design concept was born.  My box has an image on the front inspired by the imagery of my chosen poem, the poem itself is inscribed, in Chinese, on the inside of the lid, and the tiny book contains the English translation.   The story of how all the elements of the poem come together in the piece not only makes it feel special and unique, it also reveals something of the process of design development, which can be very mysterious to non-artists.  This conversation will increase the perceived value of the piece.

There are countless stories, each as unique as the artists who create them.  Maybe you acquired the materials in a unique way, such as traveling to distant lands to collect special stones, or maybe a serendipitous studio accident led you down a new design avenue

Another question, of course, is when and where to tell the story.  If you are a production artist, it’s unlikely you will have a story for every piece you make.   Reserve your story telling efforts to the high-end “showcase” pieces.  Even if the customer can not afford these pieces, it will create a personal connection and make them want to take home a memento of the encounter, possibly in the form of one of your less expensive pieces. It will also increase the chances of that customer talking to others about you and your work, and coming back at a later date for the higher end piece.  

If you’re displaying your work at an art show or trunk show, where you are physically present with your work, story telling is no problem.  But if you sell your work through galleries or boutiques, or other venues where you are not present, it becomes a bit more of a challenge.  Write up an artist statement, print it out on nice paper, and sign each copy by hand.  This can be included with each piece sold. You can take it one step further by preparing a special artist statement for your showcase pieces that include “the story”.   For my Chinese Poetry Box, I not only have a special signed statement that includes the story, I did a quick sketch of one of the design elements at the bottom of the page.   Handing out artist statements is a benefit both for you and the stores selling your work.  Casual buyers can be cultivated into collectors and repeat customers.

If you sell over the internet, consider including a version of the story along with the product description.  Yes, people want to know what the materials are and how big it is, but what makes them want to by this piece rather than that piece?  What makes one more interesting than the other?  That’s where the story can have an influence.

Go out there and tell the stories!

Pricing your work

 

When students ask me about pricing their work, most of them want a simple formula that involves multiplying the cost of their materials by some magic number.   Unfortuantely, this just doesn't work.  

The problem with using some multiplier of material costs for your pricing formula is that it does not take labor into account at all.   How do you differentiate between a quick pair of earrings that took you 5 mintues to make and an intricate hinged box that took hours or days?   When I work in copper, it actually takes me significantly longer to make the piece, but the material costs are a fraction of the costs when I use Silver.   How do you compensate for that?

Remember, if you are going to make money at this, you have to cover things like material waste, inventory, electricity,  advertising, travel costs and a whole host of other costs that do not factor directly into your pricing formula.   

Here is an alternate formula that might help.  This is just one variation of a complicated exercise.  I know others who do it differently.  Either way, it will at least give you some ideas to think about. 

(Materials x 1.1) + (Labor x Hours) = Cost
Cost x 2 = Wholesale
Wholesale x 2 = Retail 

The "1.1" in the above formula increases your material cost by 10% in order to cover waste.   

There are a number of areas in this formula that can be adjusted to account for things like experience and reputation. 

The first line is where you would look at your own experience level.   You can not charge the customer for learning curve.  So if it takes an experienced artisan 10 minutes to make something and it takes a beginner 2 hours to make the same thing, that does not mean the beginner can charge more.   You have to set the hours to what it should reasonably take once you're practiced at it.  Also, you should not be charging as much per hour as an experienced person. 

The second line of the forumla is where reputation comes into play.  Someone who is known and respected can increase the multiplier accordingly.  "Cost x 2" might increase  to "x 2.5" or "x 3" to increase the wholesale price.  How much is charged per hour might also be a factor of name recognition.

Other factors that come into play are things like location.   Where you are selling your jewelry is going to affect how much you can charge for it.  You simply can not command as high a price in rural Georgia as you can in New York City.   This can be adjusted in the hourly rate and in the multiplier in the second line of the formula.  Although, Wholesale  should never drop any lower than "Cost x 2" or you'll go broke.  

So let's say you go through this exercise and you feel all your numbers are accurate and appropriate.   Your end Retail price on a piece comes out to $50.   Take a look around.  If $50 is lower than the going price based on your selling venue, reputation and/or experience, then by all means, adjust the formula to raise your price to something more appropriate.   On the other hand, if $50 is way too high you have a different problem.  If you're applied the formula honestly and fairly, you should NEVER lower your price to match others.   If you do you will lose money and go broke.   You have identified a product you can not make for sale.  Usually labor is the biggest culprit.  Look for alternate designs that can be made faster and/or more efficiently.   Find pieces that, when you plug in the formula, come out to something you can sell, and then you'll actually make money at your work. 

Here is something else to think about.  Your work should never, ever, be sold to the end consumer for less than Retail.   This is true if you are selling it through a gallery or if your selling it directly to the consumer at a craft show or on etsy.    I know some people think they can offer better prices by selling direct to consumer and eliminating the last line of the formula, but in the long run you're shooting yourself in the foot.    

Let's say you're at a craft show and you're selling your work for your wholesale price instead of your retail price.  A customer comes up, falls in love with your work, and says "I want to carry your work in my gallery!  What's your wholesale price?"   If you're already selling at wholesale, you have no place to go.  If you discount any further you won't be covering all your expenses.  The gallery owner isn't going to want to buy at your craft show price and then mark it up from there.  Why should their customers buy from them if they can get the same thing from you for a lower price?

Also, don't forget that you have to cover your hidden expenses as well as the obvious materials and labor costs.  If you're selling at a craft show you also have booth fees, travel costs, the cost of having to spend time sitting in a booth selling things instead of sitting in your studio making things, as well as a host of other expenses incurred when selling directly to the consumer.   These are the costs that are covered by the difference between wholesale and retail.   

There are, of course, whole books and courses on the topic of pricing.  This article provides only a simplified over-view, but hopefully it will give you a place to start.  

 

Firing & Enameling Art Clay Copper

Aida Chemical has recently introduced Copper Clay to their product line up.   Of course for me, the first question was "Can I enamel it?"   The answer is yes, but there are some additional steps you need to take to ensure a good result.

Enamel on Art Clay Copper

Firing Art Clay Copper is easy compared to other brands, although it does have it's own quirks.   No carbon, no fuss, no mess.  It can be done in an SC kiln very successfully.  

The following instructions are a very basic overview of the process.  For in-depth instructions, with photographic illustrations, please see my two part article in Metal Clay Artist Magazine, Vol #1, Issue #4 and Vol #2, Issue #1.

FIRING ART CLAY COPPER

  1. Prepare your kiln by placing four small kiln posts (1" to 2") in the kiln and pre-heating it to 1780F (971C).  Put a piece of fiber paper on the fiber kiln shelf, but do not put shelf in at this time.
  2. Once the kiln has reached 1780F (971C), place the dry Art Clay Copper pieces face down on the fiber paper.  Use a pair of very long tweezers or pliers, and a heat glove, to place the entire shelf in the kiln on the kiln posts.
  3. Fire the pieces for 30 minutes.
  4. When the firing is complete, use the long tweezers or pliers and the heat glove to remove the shelf from the kiln and very quickly dump the contents off the shelf and into a bucket of cold water.  The faster you get the pieces from the kiln to the water, the less fire scale will form.
  5. After quenching, place the pieces in heated pickle such as Sparex for 15 minutes to an hour depending on how much scale formed.  When the black scale has turned to a brownish color, it will brush off easily.   Only use copper tongs in your pickle, and rinse your pieces in clean water.
  6. Use a wire brush with soap and water to brush your pieces.

I fire my pieces face down, because less fire scale forms on the front of the piece that way.   I use the fiber paper to prevent the piece from sticking to the kiln shelf.  I like to place the pieces on the fiber paper on the kiln shelf outside of the kiln to reduce the amount of time the kiln is open.  By having them set up on the shelf and then transferring it into the kiln, you can put all your pieces in at one time very quickly.  The kiln posts make it easier to take the shelf in and out.  Likewise, I remove all the pieces at one time by taking the whole shelf out and dumping the pieces off into the quenching bucket rather than pulling the pieces out one by one.  By doing it this way, you greatly increase the speed with which you get all the pieces quenched.  If you take them out one by one, the first piece may not have much fire scale, but by the time you remove the last piece it will have cooled too much and there will be a lot.

PREPARING THE METAL FOR ENAMELING

  1. Simmer piece in ammonia solution (1 cup water to 1/2 cup ammonia) for five minutes.  I do this on my kitchen stove.   You can also put the mixture in an ultrasonic cleaner if you have one, rather than simmering on the stove top.  I tried the stovetop method to help out the folks who don't have as much equipment and it worked just fine.  Rinse well when through.
  2. Tumble the piece for a minimum of 2 hours.  Longer is fine.  NOTE that tumbling comes AFTER neutralizing the acid. You want to neutralize the acid while the pores of the metal are fully open.   Tumbling burnishes the surface and closes off the pores.
  3. Clean the piece with either ammonia and a glass brush, or PennyBrite and a glass brush.   If you've just taken the piece out of the tumber and it's bright and shiny, you probably don't need to use PennyBrite. Ammonia will work fine to remove any finger oils, dust, soaps or other impurities.   If the piece has been sitting around and has darkened, you may need the PennyBrite to clean off the oxidation.
  4. Rinse Well. After cleaning water should sheet, not bead, on the piece.  If the water is beading there are still surface oils. This can inhibit how the enamels adhere to the piece.  If you have trouble getting it to sheet, try spitting on the peice and rinsing it again.  Spit breaks down just about anything.
  5. Dry the piece with a clean paper towel.

Enameling

  1. Pre-Heat kiln to 1550F degrees.
  2. Apply counter enamel.  I use Thompson Liquid Counter Enamel and oversift it with 80 mesh enamel.  Then spray with a light mist of klyr-fire to set it.  This will keep it from dropping off when you turn the piece over to work on the front.  Set the piece on a trivet to keep from knocking off the counter enamel.
  3. Front: If you are using transparent enamels, the first layer should be either clear or a very pale color.  Medium to dark colors will turn very dark directly on copper.  A light flux is needed to start with.   I genearlly use 2020 Clear for unleaded enamels, and N1 for leaded.   If you are using opaque enamels it doesn't matter so much what you start with.  Either sift or wetpack as your application calls for.  (for more information on applying enamels, see my book Enameling on Metal Clay
  4. Fire the piece for 1.5 to 2 minutes.  For this first layer, the enamel not only needs to fully fuse, the copper under the enamel should appear clean and bright.  If the copper under the enamel appears dark or reddish, you have not fired it long enough.  Eventually, the oxides that make it dark will absorb into the enamel leaving it bright copper color underneath. 
  5. After pulling the piece out, let it cool completely.   Clean it with hot water, a toothbrush, and PennyBrite.  DO NOT return it to the pickle! It WILL soak in and get under the enamel.  And it's not necessary.  You can get enough of the firescale off with the PennyBrite, and you avoid the risk of destroying your enamel with the pickle.   
  6. Reduce the temperature of the kiln to 1475F.  The high temp is only needed for the first layer of enamel. After that it does better if you working in the more normal firing range for enamels. 
  7. Repeat the enameling steps until you have achieved the effect you were after.   Finish as desired.   Final bits of firescale can be removed with pickle at this point, but ONLY if the piece is NOT going back into the kiln.   The piece can be tumbled to bring the metal up to a shine without harming the enamel.
  8. You can inhibit the rate of oxidation on exposed portions of the copper by applying a thin coat of Renaissance Wax.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Unlike sheet copper, Metal clay may have air trapped inside that must escape.  The thicker the piece, the more air to be expressed.  If this happens, it can cause bubbles in your enamel. The only way for the air to be released is through a "gassing out" process.  You will see bubbles forming in your enamel and coming to the surface.  If you pull the piece out too soon, these bubbles will be trapped in the glass and show up as pits or holes that have to be filled.  If you just leave it in the kiln a bit longer (just another 15 or 30 seconds) the bubbles will come to the surface, pop, and the enamel will fill in behind them.   Watch the enamel fusing if at all possible and wait until the bubbling seems mostly overwith before pulling the piece.   If your enamel fuses completely and does NOT bubble, then you may not have an issue with gassing out on that piece.   This process can repeat through the first couple of layers, but should subside on the final layers.   Eventually there just isn't that much air still in the metal. 

 

Care and Feeding of your Paragon SC Kiln

 

Last year I had the opportunity to attend a kiln maintenance seminar at Paragon Industries.  While much of the information presented was far beyond anything you or I will ever use, there were plenty of pearls that were very enlightening and useful for the home kiln user.   Just knowing what is normal can ease a lot of apprehension about things that actually make no difference in the kiln operation. Hopefully this will save you a lot of unnecessary stress and worry.

To quote John Hohenshelt, President of Paragon Industries, "A kiln is a box that gets hot."  Its needs are fairly simple.  It requires a way to get hot (heat source), a way to contain the heat and a way to control the heat.  For an SC ceramic fiber kiln that translates to electric elements which are embedded within an insulating ceramic fiber muffle and a computer controller.

These types of kilns are intended for home use and are wired for regular 120v household power.  Ceramic fiber heats much more quickly than fire brick, making it much more economical to use.  A typical metal clay firing costs just pennies.   They are also available with a variety of door options, such as windows which facilitate enameling and glass fusing, and bead doors for lampworkers.

How difficult are they to use?

Operation of the controller is push-button simple. Basically, you are only controlling three things; how fast the kiln gets hot, what temperature it reaches, and how long it holds at that temperature before shutting off.

The first step of the program is called the "Ramp Speed" and refers to how fast the kiln gets hot.  Full speed is approximately 1800 degrees per hour.  For most applications you will want the kiln to get hot as fast as it can, but if your firing has inclusions such as ceramics or cork clay, you may need to slow it down a bit.  Too fast a firing can cause ceramics to break and cork to burn off too quickly.  You can slow the kiln down by reducing the ramp speed.  For example, a rate of 1200 to 1500 degrees per hour is generally sufficient for ensuring the safety of firing metal clay with small ceramics elements or cork supports.

The second step of the program is the temperature at which you want to fire.  Metal clay fires anywhere from 1110 to 1650 depending on the brand and formula of clay being used.  Enamels fuse between 1400 and 1500.  These are just a couple of examples of temperatures you might be using.  You'll need to check what temperature to use for your specific application.

The third step is the hold time.  How long do you want the kiln to continue firing once it reaches the desired temperature?  For metal clay this will be anywhere from five minutes to two hours. 

The door is loose! What do I do?

One of the most common misunderstandings is thinking the door should create a tight seal with the body of the kiln.  Not true.  While the kiln door does hold in heat, by design it does not create a tight seal.  The insulating material of your kiln will expand as the kiln heats and contract as the kiln cools.  The amount of this expansion will vary depending on how hot you are firing your kiln.  This expanding material has to have somewhere to go, so the door is designed to have a certain amount of play to accommodate the changing conditions.  If it were tight, as people often expect, the door would actually end up cracking or possibly even breaking when the insulation expands on heating.  The result of all this is you may see the light of the heat around the door during firing.  This is normal and should not be a cause for concern.

What about lost heat from the gap around the door? 

The short answer is, this isn't a problem. Don't worry about it.  The long answer is a bit more complex.  Most of us are familiar with convection heat.  Heat travels with the movement of air molecules, the hotter molecules moving up and the cooler down. This is a good enough explanation for things like stoves and hair dryers, but physics is a funny thing and the behavior of heat changes as temperatures get higher.  You know that hot air rises, but did you also know that air expands as it is heated?  That means as it heats, there is more and more room between the air molecules.  By the time you get to about 1100 F there is so much room between the molecules that, in fact, there is virtually no air left in the kiln at all.  So if there are no air molecules moving around to transfer the heat, what is causing the temperature in the kiln to continue to rise?  What has happened is that we have moved from the world of convective heat to the world of "radiant" or "line of sight" heat.  Air movement no longer plays any part.  If I put my hand near that gap in the door, yes, I will feel heat; but it has no bearing on the firing going on inside the kiln.  I am not "losing" any heat because my firing does not depend on air movement but rather on line-of-sight from the elements.  When you open your kiln the temperature drops not because hot air is escaping your kiln, but rather cool air from the room is entering your kiln. As long as the pieces in your kiln are exposed to the element heat then they are firing properly. 

The ceramic muffle in my kiln is cracked!

Your ceramic muffle may have had small cracks on arrival or it may develop them over time and use.  Minor cracks in ceramic fiber are another area where people often worry needlessly.  They do not affect the operation of the kiln.  As the kiln heats and the fiber expands, these small cracks will tighten up in any case.  Unless pieces are falling out, or the elements have become exposed, the cracks are merely cosmetic and do not affect the kiln operation at all.  If it appears that pieces of the muffle may fall out or the elements become exposed, then you can contact your kiln manufacturer for a filler material that can be easily applied to repair these minor issues.

Remember, a kiln is a tool and will show normal wear over time.  Just as your rusty old hammer continues to work just fine, as long as your kiln is firing normally, you should not let these minor cosmetic issues concern you.

There is black stuff on my kiln shelf and/or on the walls/roof of my kiln.

This is normally caused by burnout materials such as cork or wood clay, paper or other materials that are intended to burn up during firing. Usually these items burn out completely, but occasionally they may leave a residue.  You should remove the vent plug from the top of your kiln when burning out materials. If you don't, you may end up with black marks around the door on the face of the kiln.  This is cosmetic discoloration only and doesn't affect the kiln operation.

To remove black marks from the inside of the kiln, take everything but the shelf out of the kiln and fire it to 1600 for 30 minutes.  At this point the ceramic fiber muffle and shelf should be white again.  If it is not then your kiln may not be firing completely.  If this happens you may need to contact your kiln manufacturer for additional help, but I will tell you now, that it's very rare and it is unlikely you will ever have this problem.

My kiln won't come on!

First, is it plugged in?  If so, is there power coming from the outlet?  Try plugging in something you know works such as a radio.  If that won't come on either, then the problem is the outlet, not the kiln.  If the outlet works then the next thing to check is the kiln's fuse.  The fuse is located on the back of the kiln near the power cord. Unplug the kiln and remove the fuse by pressing on the fuse holder and turning counter clockwise half a turn.  Fuses are cheap.  Take it to the hardware store and they can get you another like it.  Once you have replaced the fuse, try powering up the kiln again.  If you know the outlet and the fuse are good and it still won't come on, then it may be time to contact your manufacturer for additional help.

What's a thermocouple and why do I need to know?

The thermocouple is the little wire poking in from the back of your kiln and it senses the temperature inside the kiln. You need to know enough about it so that you don't accidentally interfere with its operation.  The thermocouple needs to extend half an inch or so into the kiln.  If it gets mashed back into the muffle then the muffle, doing its insulating job, will prevent the thermocouple from getting an accurate reading.  You tell the computer to fire to 1400; the thermocouple, sitting insulated back inside the muffle is only getting a reading of 500 degrees and tells the computer to give it more heat.  Before you know it, the kiln is at 2000 and you've got a puddle of melted silver.  So make sure you don't smack the thermocouple with a shelf or anything else when taking stuff in and out of your kiln.  Likewise, don't have anything touching or blocking it from getting an accurate reading during firing.  If you set up a shelf directly in front of the thermocouple or have a piece sitting too close to it, this can act as a heat sink pulling heat away from the thermocouple and giving the computer inaccurate readings to work with.  Picture half and orange sitting over the thermocouple and keep that area clear of anything during firing.

I got an error message or I've reached a point where I need help.  Now what?

BEFORE you call your distributor, manufacturer or kiln repair professional, write down the following information.  They will need it to help you.

  • Error message, if any.
  • Temperature when error occurred if possible
  • From the data-plate on outside of kiln on the right-hand side.
  • Serial number S/N
  • Part number P/N

Reaching this point is very unusual though.  These ceramic fiber kilns are very reliable, hard working kilns and should provide you with years of maintenance free use.  Hopefully knowing a bit more about how they work will help you get even more use and enjoyment from your kiln!

Pam East is an authorized Paragon distributor.  Please contact Pam for all your kiln needs and questions.

(A slightly expanded version of this article with photographs will be appearing in a future issue of Art Jewelry Magazine. I will make an announcement when the issue date is determined.)

What happened to Pinzart?

If you are reading this, you likely went to the Pinzart website and found yourself here instead. You may be scratching your head and wondering "Where did Pinzart go?"

Alas, all good things must eventually come to an end.  After 10 years in business the increase in competition combined with the downturn in the economy finally got the best of us. And, to be perfectly honest, I think Pinzart stepping out of the tool and supply game is going to turn out to be a good thing for everyone.

As an artist, writer and teacher, running an inventory based business was not the best use of my time. There are dozens of terrific companies who can supply the materials for metal clay and enameling. With the closure of Pinzart I will now have more time to devote to teaching workshops, writing books and articles, and creating one-of-a-kind art jewelry pieces. These are the things that have always given me the greatest satisfaction, and I'm delighted that I will now be able to pursue these activities full time.  

As a convenience for my students, I am still offering a few of the products that were available on the Pinzart website. I'm still a distributor for Art Clay Silver and Paragon Kilns, and I'm still producing my Graduated Slat Sets. And of course, I'm still selling my books and videos. You can find these items in the catalog section of my new website.

If you are looking for a more extensive selection of metal clay tools and/or enameling tools and supplies, check out the resources section of this site. There you'll find links to wonderful companies that will be happy to supply everything you need.

Please check back here often for news, updates, class schedules and more. I will be launching a new newsletter soon as well, and I know you won't want to miss out on that!

Thank you for all your loyal patronage over the years. I  was very sad to close Pinzart, but I'm still very much a part of the enameling and metal clay communities and I know we will be seeing a lot of each other in the years to come!

Pam East

 

Blog Archives:

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Working with Dial Controlled Kilns
11/28/2014 Today there are several models of kilns on the market still using dial controllers, and they are much more affordable than their computer controlled cousins. A willingness to learn how to use the dial also opens up the possibility of picking up a used kiln at a bargain price. For the budget minded artist, these finds can be a godsend.
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Care and Feeding of your Paragon SC Kiln
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What happened to Pinzart?
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