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What are Pottery Kilns?

Diane Goettel
Updated May 23, 2024
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A pottery kiln, which is also referred to as a ceramic kiln, is a chamber that is used to harden pottery by heating it at a high temperatures. There are a specific types of kilns that are used for many different purposes. Depending on their type, kilns can be used to cure recently felled lumber, turn wood into charcoal, dry food products, and cremate human or animal remains. Pottery kilns, however, are used specifically for the purpose of manufacturing ceramics.

Pottery kilns are still used today by manufacturers as well as independent artisans. Modern kilns have become quite sophisticated and can be calibrated to meet very specific firing temperatures. We know, however, that pottery kilns have been used in one form or another for thousands of years. Of course, the first kilns were much cruder that those available today. These ancient kilns were simply made of large holes in the earth in which a large fire was built. Pottery was then placed inside of the fire for curing. Freestanding kilns with chimneys and other forms of controlling temperature and the finished product came later.

In pottery kilns, high temperatures are applied to the formed pottery clay. This heat permanently alters the chemical makeup of the clay so that it takes a permanent shape that can only be altered by breaking the finished product. The final look of a piece of fired pottery is dependent on the molding that the potter applied to the clay before placing it in the pottery kiln, any glazes that are applied to it, and the temperature within the kiln. Depending on the type of clay that is used, the application of any glazes, and the heat within the kiln, pottery can have a number of different type of finished looks. When pottery is placed in pottery kilns for heating, it is known as “firing” the pottery.

Unfired clay is a very malleable substance. The actual particles of clay are porous and very fine. When pottery is fired in a kiln, the particles melt together, creating a stronger substance that is less porous. The fact, the actual clay material shrinks slightly in size when it is fired. Although fired clay is much stronger than the raw substance, it is generally formed into rather large, thick objects because it is somewhat brittle. Most sturdy pottery, such as vases and dishes, is rather heavy. There are many types of pottery kilns, but the basic principles of firing clay remains the same in all of them.

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By SZapper — On Mar 14, 2012

I think the transformation of clay in kilns for pottery is just amazing. You start out with a really flexible substance, and then you end up with something that is extremely hard and inflexible!

I remember doing ceramics in art when I was in elementary school, and the process almost seemed like magic! It was hard to believe the projects that came out of the kiln were the same ones that went into it!

Although, I have to wonder how people came up with the process. I feel like it must have happened by accident!

By starrynight — On Mar 13, 2012

@Azuza - It really is amazing. And hey, if you don't have access to an electric pottery kiln, maybe you could build a fire pit in your yard and fire a project that way!

In all seriousness, that's probably not a good idea unless you have a lot of land. However, if you just want to try basic ceramics on your own at home, I'm pretty sure there is some kind of clay you can fire by baking it in the oven. I remember using it when I was a kid!

I'm sure it's not as good as firing clay in a real kiln, but at least you can do it at home!

By Azuza — On Mar 13, 2012

It's amazing how far pottery kilns have come. They went from being a simple pit in the ground to complicated electronic pottery kilns!

I took ceramics in college, and we had a pretty complicated kiln. Regular ceramics students didn't operate it, you would just leave you pottery in the firing room and the graduate students or professors would operate the kiln.

I know they used different temperatures for different types of clay though. There was a specific spot to leave projects made for each type of clay, so they could fire them in batches.

By gravois — On Mar 13, 2012

How hard is it to find used pottery kilns for sale? I am setting up an elementary school and I would love for our art department to have a pottery kiln. I know that my school growing up had one and my kid's school did too. I think it is an important part of the art curriculum and parents love to put that stuff on their mantel.

We probably only need a small pottery kiln and I am hoping that we can find one that is used but in good condition. Is there a marketplace for used art equipment like this?

By ZsaZsa56 — On Mar 12, 2012

Is there any way to improvise a ceramic pottery kiln at home? Maybe with an oven or a fire pit or something like that?

I would love to be able to fire things in my home because I don't have access to a kiln anywhere. I know that there are some older forms of ceramics that used alternatives to kilns. Maybe I could learn from their methods.

By backdraft — On Mar 11, 2012

Having your own pottery kiln can be an expensive extravagance, but there are lots of opportunities to rent space in kilns operated by larger pottery operations.

I have a friend who runs a kind of clay collective that is dedicated to promoting ceramics in all its forms. They have a large kiln and they do a firing three times weekly. People can play a small fee based on the size of their items and get them fired professionally. It is a great resource and is a big help to the amateur potters.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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