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Salt Firing Glaze

Salt firing dates back to 15th century Germany, where potters discovered that throwing quantities of common salt in the kiln when it reached high temperatures caused a chemical reaction with the clay, forming an attractive natural glaze.

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Salt firing is a two-stage process. The first step is the bisque firing, in which leatherhard stoneware items which is a variety of wheel thrown and hand-built vases, bottles, plates, lidded jars, bowls, teapots, tea caddies, mugs, sake sets, planters, lamps and or ceramics which are placed in an electric kiln and brought to a temperature of 1800 degrees F. When cooled, slips which are coatings of liquified clay, are applied along with brushwork or other decorations. Each ceramic piece needs to be placed on wads of coated clay to prevent it from fusing to the kiln shelves. Then the pots are fired again in the salt kiln, to a temperature of over 2350 degrees. Because salt-vapors are extremely caustic and will eat away at metal and non-refractory brick, a special kiln is needed for firing salt-glazed ware. Over the course of many firings, the interior chamber of a salt kiln builds up a layer of residual salt glaze and chemical oxides that can affect each subsequent firing. When a kiln is used for salt glazing, it can not be used for anything else, because the chemicals seep into the firebrick and will affect the firing and glazing of future loads. Usually a older used kiln is used for this purpose.

Salt-firing is a labor-intensive process and one that is full of variables. When to add the salt, how much salt to add, the placement of ware inside the kiln, the presence of coloring oxides within the clay body, the temperature to which the kiln is fired, how long the kiln is cooled --- all of these affect the final results and ultimate success or failure of a salt firing.

Salt Kiln full and ready to fire

Salting begins when the temperature reaches approximately 2100 degrees. About two pounds of dampened salt is put into the kiln at a time. It is put into the either by lifting the lid and throwing it in or from a tin trough put into the top peep hole and the salt poured in trough and shaken down into the kiln. The salt immediately vaporizes. The lid or peep hole is closed down for several minutes to keep the sodium vapors inside the kiln, forcing them to react with the silica in the clay, thus forming the glaze.

Then the lid or peep hole is opened for several minutes while the kiln atmosphere clears.
The cycle is repeated eight to ten times over roughly a two hour period, until the quality of the glaze is right. During the procedure, small clay test rings about the size and shape of napkin rings are withdrawn from three spy ports, revealing the amount of glaze build-up. After salting, the kiln is brought to a temperature of over 2350 degrees. The whole firing lasts 14 to 15 hours and it takes three days for the kiln to cool down enough to be opened.

The natural warm brown color and satiny gloss that forms on the outside comes exclusively from the action of salt vapors on the clay surface. No glaze is used, black stripes can be made by brushing on a black pigment in a solution of liquid clay and water.

Salt Kiln finished

Salt firing can be extremely unpredictable, and failures occur in every kiln load. The unpredictability is what the potters find so rewarding, even though the process is relatively expensive in terms of materials and labor, but resulting in one of a kind pieces. Aside from the natural warm browns that firing with salt produces, unexpected colors and marks often appear on pots as if by magic, sometimes with striking results. It is these and other effects—gifts from the kiln gods—that make salt firing so endlessly compelling.

Here are some examples of what a salt fired glaze looks like when a colored glaze is applied before the salt firing, no two are ever alike.

Finished Saltware

Because salt-glazed ceramics are fired to stoneware temperatures in the Cone 10 2381 degrees Fahrenheit range and have a non-toxic, salt-glazed surface, they are extremely durable and may be used for food and liquids. Decorative pieces may be displayed outdoors but should not be left out in freezing conditions. All salt-glazed pieces are dishwasher safe.

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