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Everything You Need to Know About Controlling Your Kiln

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Scott Shannon

A Complete History of Kilns

For millennia, humans have been using kilns to fire pottery, ceramic, glass, brick, limestone, grain, metal objects, and other materials. It’s not hyperbole to say that the history of kilns is the history of civilization. Dating back to the rise of agriculture in the Neolithic Age, humans have been using kilns to create the objects they need to support their community – from baking breads and cereals, to creating containers for grain and waters, crafting blades, knives, and tools, and creating fertilizer, mortar, art, and ornamental objects.

Throughout the past 10,000 years, the kiln has undergone many iterations and advancements, resulting in the modern industrial and at home kilns we use today. Today, we’ll be looking at the rich history of kilns from around the globe!

The Early History of the Kilns: 8000 – 6000 BC

The first kilns date back to approximately 8000 BC. Originating in the Near East, early kilns were pit fire kilns – consisting of holes or trenches dug into the earth where wares were placed and then surrounded and covered by wood or other combustible material. While this design was thermally inefficient, unstable, and unpredictable, the insulation from the earth allowed pottery to reach high enough temperatures to fire at least some of the time.

These early pit fire kilns were often temporary structures – and we only know they existed based on the remains of pit fired pottery dating back to this time period. However, the earliest kilns were prone to failed firings and fired pottery was often brittle.

A pit fire kiln.
The pit fire kiln was the earliest iteration of the kiln.

The First Known Kiln: 6000 BC

The earliest known surviving kiln dates back to 6000 BC at the Yarim Tepe site in modern day Iraq. This kiln, which still utilized an earthen firing chamber, represented a major advancement in kiln technology. The kiln was double-chambered, with a clay grate placed over the firing chamber for stacking wares – and its remaining walls suggest that it was dome-shaped at the top to create an updraft and prevent thermal loss (a design also known as a beehive kiln).

In other parts of Mesopotamia, the design of chambered kilns continued to evolve over the next few millennia to be more thermodynamically efficient, allowing for greater volumes of pottery to be fired at higher temperatures.

Early Advancements in Kiln Technology: 3000 – 300 BC

By approximately 3000 – 2500 BC, the ancient Egyptians had begun using vented chambers that allowed wares to be fired while keeping them completely separate from the fuel source. These kilns were built vertically, with an open fire at the bottom that could be stoked to regulate temperature. This design allowed the fire to receive more oxygen while still remaining controlled and thermodynamically efficient.

By the 18th Dynasty (1550 – 1292 BC), the Egyptians had begun firing glazes for pottery and creating early glasswork to imitate precious stones such as turquoise.

An example of ancient Egyptian ceramic glaze.
Ancient Egyptians pioneered the use of glasswork and ceramic glazes.

The ancient Greeks (3000 BC – 300 BC) expanded on the design of Mesopotamian kilns, primarily favoring beehive constructions. Greek kilns were built partially into the earth, with an underground firing chamber. They used clay, and later brick, to construct additional chambers for piling vases and smoke collection.

Ancient Grecian pottery.
Examples of ancient Grecian pottery.

The Rise of Industrial Kilns: 1600 BC – 500 AD

The Romans (625 BC – 476 AD) refined Greek kiln design, adding air flow piping to keep smoke from coloring the fired products, as well as chimneys to improve draft. Improved building materials such as brick and concrete allowed the Romans to build large-scale industrial kilns that were capable of firing up to 40,000 ceramic vessels at a time! The Romans used these industrial kilns to create the clay tile they used throughout their empire.

The remains of an ancient Roman industrial kiln in Morgantina.
The remnants of an ancient Roman industrial kiln in Morgantina, Italy.

The Romans are also attributed with the creation of lime kilns, which they introduced to Britain. Burning limestone was used to create mortar and concrete, allowing for the creation of the famous structures of the Roman Empire. (Later, this technology was used for construction during the Middle Ages – and then to create fertilizer during the 18th century).

In Great Britain, early examples of climbing kilns have been found from during the time of Roman occupation. Climbing kilns (or tunnel kilns) were long, multichambered kilns built into hillsides. A fire would be lit at the bottom and, since heat rises, the temperature of the kiln would increase with greater regularity, allowing for greater quantities of pottery to be fired.

Meanwhile, across the world, the Chinese had already perfected the art of climbing kilns. “Dragon kilns” as they were known in China, first began appearing during the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BC). By the Common Era, “dragon kilns” were widespread throughout China, sometimes reaching up to 60 meters long and capable of consecutively firing 25,000 pieces. Chinese “dragon kilns” were extremely well designed and capable of reaching up to 1400° C in order to fire stoneware and porcelain.

An example of ancient Chinese porcelain (c. 14th- 11th centuries BC)
By c. 1400 – 1100 BC, ancient Chinese kiln technology was advanced enough to fire porcelain.

An Increase in Efficiency and New Techniques: 400 AD – 1700 AD

The Japanese further refined Chinese kiln construction beginning in the 5th Century, creating the famous Anagama and Noborigama kilns. Over the next millennium, Japanese kilns evolved to become extremely thermodynamically efficient. This efficiency allowed the Japanese to later craft the ornate, sophisticated porcelain pieces the country became famous for – the lineage of using traditional techniques in Japan for firing porcelain and ceramics is still alive today!

A climbing kiln in Kyushu Island, Japan
A climbing kiln in Kyushu Island, Japan.

In Europe, throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods, kilns continued to be an important part of day-to-day life. By the Renaissance, potters had begun using muffle kilns (or reduction kilns) for second or third firings, allowing for the application of additional glazes and majolica. These additional firings allowed for the creation of lusterware, which has iridescent metal glazes and was highly valued during that time period. (However, it’s worth noting that this technique had already been discovered almost 800 years earlier – with lusterware first appearing in modern day Iraq in the early 9th century).

Kilns During the Industrial Revolution: 1700 AD – 1900 AD

As with many industries and manufacturing processes, the Industrial Revolution had a major impact on kiln design. Coal (or anthracite) replaced wood burning and charcoal as the primary fuel source for kilns and ovens. In England, bottle kilns, famous for their bottle-shaped flutes, became commonplace. Despite their inefficiency, bottle kilns were widely used into the mid-20th century.

Bottle kilns in Stoke-on-Trent, England
Named for their distinctive bottle-like shape, bottle kilns were widely used for industrial processes in England during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

During this time period, industrial kilns grew in scale – with large factories capable of mass-producing ceramics and other fired goods.

The Rise of the Modern Kilns: 1900 AD – Present

During the Industrial Age, coal-burning kilns were slowly phased out for gas kilns and electric kilns – and the modern kiln was born! Compared to prior kilns, gas kilns and electric kilns were extremely efficient and capable of reaching high temperatures. These new fuel sources and advancements in technology allowed kilns to become extremely big and extremely small – from industrial kilns that are hundreds of yards long to hobby kilns that are about the size of a toaster oven!

Although early modern kilns were all manually controlled, the use of gas and electricity allowed for far more control and precision in regulating kiln temperature, which allowed for more complex firing processes such as those needed for glasswork.

In the 1950s, the kiln sitter was invented, which allowed for kilns to automatically shutoff once they reached a specified temperature.

The Automatic Kiln Controller Revolution: 1986 – Present

The Digital Age brought with it the invention of the automatic kiln controller, which could be programmed in advance to carry out entire firing schedules without user input. While early automatic controllers were complicated and difficult to operate, they still significantly streamlined the firing process.

In 2015, SDS Industries revolutionized the automatic kiln controller industry with the release of the TAP Kiln Controller – the first commercially available consumer kiln controller to utilize an intuitive, graphical user interface. Using touchscreen technology, the TAP Kiln Controller allows users to easily operate their kiln and create, edit and save an unlimited number of firing schedules and steps. Additionally, the TAP Controller allows users to quickly check the status of their kilns with easy-to-read indicators and push notifications to their mobile devices.

User Interface from a TAP Digital Kiln Controller
SDS Industries released the TAP Kiln Controller in 2015.

In 2017, SDS Industries released the first iteration of the TAP Kiln Control Mobile App, which allowed users to remotely monitor and control their kiln from their mobile device – another major leap forward for the kiln control industry. Since then, SDS Industries has continued to be at forefront of kiln control innovation with updates to their mobile app, the release of TAP II Controllers with built-in Wi-Fi integration, as well as the upcoming releases of TAP Monitor, TAP & Go, and TAP Micro.

Enjoy Most Advanced, User-Friendly Automatic Kiln Controllers

The TAP and TAP II Controllers by SDS Industries are the most advanced, precise, and easy-to-use automatic kiln controllers on the market today. With responsive touchscreen controls, an intuitive graphical UI, and integration with the TAP Kiln Controller Mobile App, TAP Kiln Controllers can pair with any relay-controlled kiln or oven.

We invite you to explore our selection of automatic kiln controllers, standalones, and conversion kits on our online store. You can also purchase TAP Digital Controllers or TAP-Controlled Kilns and Heat Treat Ovens through one of the following distributors:

CTA for TAP Digital Kiln Controllers

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