The fact that I am firing at all today does show that I have a working electric kiln again, in fact both are now "clothed and in their right minds" as the Good Book would say! The kiln that has a new contactor is cooling down after a regular stoneware firing that it did two days ago with the help of the controller, and the smaller manually controlled electric kiln is the one doing the crystalline glaze firing, its second since changing the elements.
There was a frost overnight and Laura excitedly called my attention to an icicle that had grown on the rim of a bucket that had been left under the garden hose. Dripping at a rate of one drip every two seconds or so the water had frozen into an stalagmite that was about 4 inches high!
Firing crystalline glazed pots is different to other firings. There are two very important targets to fire to, the first is the peak temperature, currently I am firing to Orton Cone 9, and this is followed by a lower temperature that is likely to be around 1100 Celsius (2012F) which may be maintained for several hours to grow the crystals.
In this blog post I will touch on the first of those two temperatures, the peak temperature. I will say more about the second important temperature, the one where the crystals have a chance to grow, in a separate post.
Several things determine how many crystals grow on the pot that is fired in the kiln, here are some of them:
1) Clay body used to make the pot
2) the glaze recipe
3) glaze thickness
4) the peak temperature of the firing
5) how quickly the kiln fired to temperature
6) how long the kiln is held at peak temperature
The first three items are taken care of before the pot goes in the kiln!
1) The clay body needs to be low in iron, fine textured, and mature at a temperature appropriate to the glaze, some crystalline glaze potters would go for a clay body that matures 2 cones above that of the glaze, because the alkaline crystalline glaze is an aggressive flux. Really the choice is between a porcelain body, or white stoneware. A coarse texture will "irritate" the glaze enough to cause numerous unwanted small crystals to form over the course of the firing. A crystalline glaze is highly caustic and will attack the clay body when at high temperature, some clay formulations may leach out flux or alumina and have a detrimental effect on the ability to make crystals. You really have to experiment to see what will work.
2) The glaze recipe. The majority of crystalline glaze recipes that are in popular use are based on glaze frits. High sodium Frit 3110 is often used. Frit based crystalline glaze recipes are generally rather simple. A cone 9 - 10 glaze base
Frit 3110 50
Zinc Oxide 25
is where many recipes begin, and if you look at a few dozen of them, you will detect that most are variations on this.
|This is an example of a very simple glaze that is based on the 50:25:25 recipe above.|
1 - 3 percent of Titanium dioxide or Rutile may be added to a crystalline glaze base recipe to help stimulate crystal growth. Larger amounts can make a glaze opaque.
|Titanium dioxide in this glaze gives cream coloured crystals on a cold white background.|
|Rutile as an opacifier gave shell-like orange, pink and cream colour.|
Zinc oxide may be as low as 20 percent or as high as 30 percent, this figure is one that can be adjusted to control crystal growth on different clay bodies and for different temperatures.
Just to confuse things further..... the various metal oxides that can be added to the crystalline glaze base to give an attractive palette of colours have an effect on how fluid the glaze is. Copper and cobalt may make the glaze more fluid, where as nickel could have the opposite effect.
|Nickel oxide has the peculiar ability to give blue crystals with an orange background in a crystalline glaze.|
Silica also can appear to be as low as 14 percent in some recipes, but be aware that silica can be supplemented by adding china clay, bentonite, talc, frit, feldspar and so on, so the silica percentage in the recipe might not tell the whole story, you really need to see the glaze formula to understand what is in it more clearly. Someone wrote that silica is like "water" in which the crystals form, and you need enough of it for that to happen. I thought that was a rather nice analogy.
There are other ways of making crystalline glazes. I also enjoy crystalline glazes that use feldspar to supply the primary flux instead of relying on a glaze frit, and there are some that work well, if a little temperamentally.
|These complex crystals were grown in a feldspar based glaze.|
3) Glaze thickness influences crystal growth. Too thin gives "nowhere" for the crystals to grow, and they are too much affected by the clay body so you get thousands of them.
|One and two coats of glaze on this sample. See how rough the glaze looks on the lower left of the photo where it is too thin. There are thousands of small crystals here.|
Too thick can yield too few crystals on a vertical surface or a mass of coarse "sand paper" in a pool in the bottom of a bowl where the three dimensional crystals have grown strongly upward as well as outward.
"Just right", will allow for good sized crystals to grow surrounded by some space.
|Cobalt blue coloured crystals on a pale background.|
I mostly brush on crystalline glazes (I have sprayed them and also dipped and poured them in the past). I apply at least three or four thick coats on the top third of the pot tapering to two coats near the foot.
|Brushing a glaze, use a large soft brush that holds lots of glaze.|
To apply with a brush I make my glaze with 1000 g of dry ingredients to 650 - 700 g of water.
4) The Peak Temperature of the firing, this is crucially important. Always use cones to determine this. Small variations, a mere 5 degrees or so, will make a noticeable difference in how many crystals cover the pot. If you fire at too low a temperature there will be far too many crystals that might even feel rough or dry. If you fire too high you will be left with few if any crystals. Just right, is a matter of taste.
|Large crystals with plenty of space around them.|
Large crystals can look very impressive if they are surrounded by plenty of "empty" glaze, but crystals that cover a pot can also be spectacular.
|Crystals covering a vase and looking spectacular!|
5) How quickly the kiln fires. In my previous post I mentioned how important it was to have elements in good condition when firing crystalline glazes. In spite of accurately firing to cones, cone 9 reached rapidly will give a different result to cone 9 that has been reached slowly. It may be that the aggressive nature of the alkaline glaze has something to do with this, as a long while spent at high temperature gives more opportunity for glaze to interface with clay body. What ever the reason, it gets harder to grow nice crystals if the kiln reaches temperature too slowly. I suspect that this is especially the case with frit based glazes that go into a fluid state much earlier in the firing than a feldspar based glaze.
6) How long the kiln is held at peak temperature. It may seem counter intuitive to hold the kiln at peak temperature after being in such a rush to get there, but a hold here can help fine tune how many crystals remain on the pot. What is happening here is that surplus glaze is flowing off the pot, (yes you did remember to fire with a glaze catching bowl!?) and also more of the zinc is going into solution.
|Glaze run off into the catching bowl.|
A simple Glaze and Schedule
Well, after all that, my head is buzzing, and you may be asleep or have run away! For those who have stayed the distance I hope this little introduction does show some of the many variables and complexities involved in firing this sort of glaze. Those determined to give it a go should definitely have a try, and the following recipe will give you something to play with at cone 9 - 10
50 Frit 3110
25 Zinc oxide
3 Titanium dioxide
A simple firing schedule would be
Fire to cone 9 in 8 or 9 hours
On again when kiln is at about 1100 Celsius (2012F)
Hold for 3 hours
Use porcelain or a smooth white stoneware.
Protect kiln shelves, take note of my previous post where I have written about glaze catching bowls and rings.
Apply the glaze thickly.
Record your firing hourly, or more frequently, on graph paper.
Well I am nine hours into my firing as I finish this episode of the blog. We hit peak temperature an hour ago, and now I am half an hour into the long hold at around 1100 Celsius (2012F) where crystals will have the time to grow to a good size. You can generally count on an average of about 10mm per hour of crystal growth at this temperature, and I will aim to grow these for 4 and a half hours.
Bye for now!