How to Choose a Pottery Kiln


Choosing a pottery kiln

So, you’re ready to purchase a kiln for ceramics - congratulations! Owning your own kiln is exciting, and opens up a world of possibilities for your creativity. But how do you make sure you pick the right kiln?

Here are a few questions to help you choose not only the best kiln for you now, but also for the future.

Electric kilns take a large amount of electricity, and often need special circuits put in. If you’re planning on purchasing an electric kiln, have an electrician check out the existing electrical hookups where your kiln will be located.

What are amps?
Amps are the unit of measure for electrical current in your home or building. The maximum power (Watts) capacity of your kiln is theoretically equal to Amps x Voltage.

For an electric kiln, you’ll need a breaker that is about 7 to 10 amps higher than what is listed on the kiln you are considering.

If you have a 40 amp outlet and 40 amp breaker, and the ceramic kiln you’re considering is rated for less than 30-33 amps, you’ll be in good shape. For safety, never attempt to increase the current (amps) capacity of an outlet receptacle or plug without consulting an electrician.

Here's an example: the small version (18" deep) of our 18” pottery kiln requires a 30 amp breaker, because it uses 22 amps to run (22 + 7 = 29). By contrast, our 12” pottery kiln only needs a 20 amp circuit for the small version, and a 25 amp circuit for the large version, because they use 12 amps and 19 amps, respectively (12 + 7 = 19). Good to know if you only have a 20 amp circuit in your home, and don't want to add another.

Anything less than 5 amps tolerance can result in your breaker overheating and tripping once your kiln gets to its maximum amp draw. For example, if your breaker and plug are rated for 30 amps and your kiln is rated for 28 amps, we recommend contacting an electrician to make upgrades to your breaker, wiring, and outlet plug.

If you’d prefer not to spend the money to update your amperage, make sure you select a kiln that will work with your current breaker, wiring, and outlet plug.

What are volts?
“Volts” is another unit of measure for electricity. Most home kilns require a 240 volt power source (like the power source for your dryer). While our 12” Top Loading Electric Pottery Kiln comes in a 120V option, most electric kilns do not, so your choices may be limited if you don’t have - and aren’t willing to put - in a 240 volt circuit.

Many schools and other commercial facilities have 208 Volt power. Double check before you purchase a kiln that you are buying the right voltage.

What is a phase?
“Phase” refers to the way the electrical current is delivered in your building. You don’t need to worry about it if you’re buying a kiln for your home; you’ll want single phase, which is the standard wiring for domestic houses. Easy! But some commercial applications have a 3 phase configuration; if you are buying a kiln for an industrial property or school, it’s best to check with your electrician about the power supply.

What kind of plug?
Kilns come with a wide variety of plugs to match their electrical requirements. At the very least you’ll need a ground (the third, rounded hole in the receptacle), but it’s more likely you’ll need a specialized receptacle as well. Check the specifications on the kiln to see if it matches the receptacle in your wall; if it doesn’t, it probably means that you’ll need to swap out the receptacle and possibly the circuit behind it.

Usually, the type of receptacle indicates the capacity of the cable that runs back to your breaker panel, but not always - we recommend calling in a professional electrician.

Let’s make this easy for you: if you’re a beginner or intermediate potter, or have never owned a kiln before, you should get an electric kiln. They are easier to use, don’t require as much babysitting, are generally simpler to install, and don’t require as much space buffer around them for safety. They also don’t give the fire marshal hives the way gas kilns are prone to do.

Basically, gas kilns are not plug ‘n play the way electric kilns are. You need to be an experienced potter, have taken a class, or been shown how to use one. You also need to keep an eye on a gas firing at all times. Oh, and you may need a special high-pressure gas line installed, if you don't already have one.

So why would you get a gas kiln? Gas kilns are the tippy-top best if you’re planning on routinely firing to cone 10, for translucent porcelains and stonewares, for instance. They are also necessary if you want to do reduction firing, as electric kilns don’t allow you to remove the oxygen from the environment. Very experienced potters often prefer gas kilns - though many of them have a second electric kiln as well!

The most important size consideration - other than that it actually fits in your pottery studio - is that it feels comfortable to your height. Avoid acquiring a kiln with a floor that is not within your easy reach! This is an important consideration, because studio ergonomics will make a huge difference to your body over time. Loading and unloading 25-50lbs or more for each firing is laborious physical activity.

If you’re on the shorter side, a stout two ring kiln, such as our 18” Top-Loading Electric Pottery Kiln or our 23” Top-Loading Electric Pottery Kiln, will save your lower back from unnecessary work. We generally recommend two ring kilns for people under 6 feet (two-ring kilns measure an interior depth of 18”), and three rings kilns (with an interior depth of 27”) only for really tall people or if you absolutely need the space for your work. Remember that you’ll want to fill your kiln pretty full before you fire it, so keep in mind your speed of production.

Do a quick measurement, and make sure the kiln you’re looking at will fit - with the lid open - in the place you’re planning to put it!  Remember that it gets really hot, and needs a buffer of at least a foot (12 inches) on all sides. Our kilns also have a 6 foot cord, and so must be positioned within 6 feet of the outlet plug. For gas kilns, you’ll need even more buffer.

Next, consider the size of your work. If you make small pieces, a smaller kiln will work fine for you, and you will be able to fill it more quickly. If you make larger pieces, you’ll probably need a larger kiln.

If you plan on making larger works in the future, however, you may want to consider purchasing a bigger ceramic kiln than you need for your current work; that way you have the capacity to outgrow your current work without being forced to upgrade your kiln. Just make sure you’ll be able to fill the kiln fast enough now to keep from getting frustrated.

As we mentioned above, you want to make sure you’ll be able to fill your kiln in a reasonable amount of time. In general, beginner potters will take a really long time to fill up a larger kiln. Keep in mind your speed of production, and don’t get a kiln that will out-strip what you can do.

Pretty much all potters prefer top-loading kilns, because you can efficiently stack them full. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a front-loading pottery kiln at all!

Price depends on size, of course. For a small personal kiln, expect to pay between $1200 to $2200.

As for what makes a kiln high-quality, look for well insulated walls, such as 3” firebrick, so that it can get up to temperature faster and stay at temperature better. Also, look for a digital controller, since they are easier to use than manual kilns.

Ask yourself how much time you want to spend babysitting your firing. If you prefer the old-school method of hands-on firing, you may not feel that you need a digital controller.

Also, a digital controller is a computer that is reading a temp from a thermocouple. This means that you can sometimes get readings that don’t accurately reflect the heat work of the kiln if you've loaded your kiln too loosely. Cones tell you that it got to the temp you wanted. (Of course, you can prevent bad readings by packing your kiln correctly).

That said, digital controllers make it much easier to fire your kiln, and allow you to step away from the firing. Some now even come with mobile phone integration so you can monitor and control your kiln from your phone! They’re also much easier for a less-that expert potter to use.

Since you can still monitor your kiln the old way, even if you have a digital controller, there’s pretty much no downside to getting a kiln with one - and a lot of upside!

Yup! At the very least, you’ll want kiln shelves, posts, and kiln wash, which keeps stuff from sticking to the inside of the kiln.

Check out our kiln shelves, kiln shelf kits, and kiln wash.

Basic Kiln Parts - Front

How to Operate your Kiln

Plugging In Your Kiln

Features of a Seattle Pottery Supply Electric Kiln

Want more help choosing a ceramics kiln?

Just ask!

As with any major purchase, the more you know, the better your decision will be. If you have any questions about how to select which kiln will work the best for you, just ask one of the Seattle Pottery Supply team members for help. We're all potters ourselves, and love nothing more than helping others that share our love of the art form. Feel free to call us at 888.915.1196 or reach out by email to at any time.