Electric Soda Kiln

Jared Zehmer's studio in Seagrove, NC.

Jared Zehmer's studio in Seagrove, NC.

So the name for this blog post is partially misleading.  The nature of this converted electric kiln, constructed and fired by Jared Zehmer, is fairly simple and straight forward.  With experimentation and a few tests, this transformed electric kiln yields some pretty amazing results!  Jared has converted several old electric kilns into gas fired reduction kilns.  One was of particular interest to me, his soda kiln.  Over the years, he's collected and experimented with various electric kiln "shells" (basically just the body of the kiln--no actual electrical components, elements and all removed) and played around with various kit burner systems, sizes, and placements to mimic reduction firing but on a smaller more manageable scale.  He's attempted this kind of firing with the introduction of soda once before and invited me and other soda enthusiasts;  STARworks resident artists Katie Maloney and Christina Bendo to join him in firing his "electric soda".  I've documented the process below.  I'm pleased with the results of the firing and I hope to fire this kind of kiln again.  I'm even considering making one for myself considering how quick of a turnover this firing process has! Thanks for the invitation to fire, Jarad!

Results from "electric soda" firing. February 2017. This gem glistened!

The Ultimate Kiln

Arguably, the most exciting part of the clay process is firing.  Partly because it's like Christmas every time the kiln is opened, and also because I think each of us is a closet pyromaniac that gets unreasonably excited when firing atmospheric kilns.  I, for one, love the complete involvement in the firing while simultaneously giving up a large part of control to the "kiln gods", crossing your fingers and hope you're pots are "the chosen ones", blessed with beautiful surfaces.  

I've been fortunate enough, in my relatively short ceramic career thus far, to be involved in many atmospheric kiln firings.  First, at Juniata College, I participated in firing the historic wood kiln built by Jack Troy, as well as our trusty soda kiln (which quickly became my favorite).  I spent a few weeks at Watershed Center for Ceramics Arts in Newcastle, Maine and had the opportunity with fellow Juniata students to fire their salt kiln.  

               The UAF Waste oil/Soda Kiln!

Now, as a student at UAF, I've been a part of many many more atmospheric firings, which contribute to the luscious surfaces of my work.  Here, as far as atmospheric kilns go, there a lot of options; we have two gas kilns, an anagama, a fast fire wood kiln, salt kiln, and my personal favorite and newest addition, the waste oil soda kiln! 

Waste oil stacked up in front of the salt kiln. awaiting it's destiny to fuel our soda kiln!  It takes about six gallons of waste oil to fire

This kiln is killer! Not only does it give the juicy and nubile surfaces typical of a soda kiln, it's fired sustainably with veggie oil donated by the Faribanks Princess Lodge Restaurant.  The kiln has a pretty ingenious design.  

The kiln itself is designed to fire from two primary fuel sources.  First wood, to get the kiln hot enough, and then converted to waste oil, mid-firing, to get to temperature (about 2400 degrees). 

Bringing new meaning to pumping oil in Alaska! 

First, we have to screen the oil and pump it into the large yellow barrel that's located behind the stack.  The barrel is double walled, for a few reasons; including the ability to install a heater so the oil doesn't solidify and can flow easily into the kiln in October..yes that's right things are freezing up as early as October!  

Since the oil doesn't combust until the temperature reaches 621 degrees F, we have to begin the firing with wood.  It's important to wait until we get to at least to about 1200 degrees F before we pull out the grates (of course, along with the grates comes a lot of ash!) so to prevent too much heat loss we need to go above and beyond!

Now we're cooking with oil! The oil is gravity fed from the barrel behind the stack, and comes down into tubes that are inserted into holes in the side of the kiln.  The tubes are angled so that they extend into the firebox.  The oil drips down onto the plates, and once they've heated up (about ten minutes or so) the oil combusts!

Christmas! Unloading the kiln, as always is the most exciting!

We change one fire box at a time and in about an hour, we will have successfully switched to solely firing with the waste oil! There are globe valves that control the rate of oil flow.  The key is to ensure that the flow is low, slow, and steady.  (Yes, we do get the occasional french fry or spice clump, but that's why we screen!) The firing takes anywhere from 8-12 hours, but with good company, and great pizza from the pizza oven next door, time flies by!