When I took my first ceramics class, I convinced my instructors to teach me how to fire electric kilns on my own—back when you had to make cone packs and manually turn up the kiln every hour. I thought I was pretty cool checking the kiln, looking through the peep holes at the color, and deciding when I should turn up the dials. On one occasion, I had been firing a bisque for a good part of the day. I went to check on it and not only was it black inside, but it had also cooled off significantly. I immediately went to my instructor and let her know that the kiln was clearly broken. After a very quick visual inspection, she said to me, “your timer ran out, so the kiln shut off.” Oh.
Later that evening, there was a visiting artist lecture by a respected ceramic artist. In his talk, he discussed the cause and effects of firing gas versus electric kilns. At one point he made the comment, “Any monkey off the street can fire an electric kiln.” Instantly embarrassed, I turned to my instructors and there they sat with big grins on their faces staring back at me. Many nicknames ensued.
Despite that early firing mishap, my insatiable appetite for learning everything about ceramics has stuck with me over the years and has had a helpful long-term effect on my studio practice and my career.
Pottery Making Illustrated recently redesigned its website in a continued effort to help its readers whet their appetites with all things ceramic. We added some great new features, including our entire 18-year back-issue archive (https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/pottery-making-illustrated/full-archive.) We scanned every page of every issue we have ever published and made it available as a subscription. Browsing through the downloadable PDFs is like getting lost in a huge library full of ceramic tips and techniques. And, while getting lost in what you love can be quite enjoyable, the value is in utilizing the archive to learn something new about ceramics that you can use in the studio.
Consider this issue: The focus is handbuilding and we feature Ingrid’s Bathe’s porcelain paper-clay cake stand (from the archive, you could read Rosette Gault’s Paper Clay: A Primer, Fall 1999), Gary Jackson’s thrown, slab built, and stamped wall sculptures (explore Message on a Bottle, by Frank James Fisher, Jul/Aug 2010), Kate Maury’s sprig-built small mugs (check out Paul Andrew Wandless’ Rubber Latex Sprig Molds, Sept/Oct 2013), Nancy Gallagher’s embossed house-number tiles (learn Laura Reutter’s Flat Tiles the Easy Way, May/Jun 2006), Paul Eshelman’s soup bowls with finger handles (study Jonathan Kaplan’s Basic Mold Making Terms, May/Jun 2008), and Jeni Hansen Gard’s pinched breadbox with a Danish rugbrød bread recipe (try Keith Phillips’ Cloche de Beurre, Sept/Oct 2010, to make an accompanying French butter dish). These are just a few suggestions. You can easily curate your own studio lessons from the hundreds of available options in the archive. Plus, you get to browse two free articles a month, even if you’re not a subscriber.
And, if you want to know a bit more about firing electric kilns, try The Degrees of Kiln Firing, Winter 2000 or Electric Kilns 101, Jul/Aug 2003, or Safety and Preventive Maintenance for Electric Kilns by Mike Swauger, Jul/Aug 2004. I’ve read all three—better late than never.