Governing Oxidation and Reduction Atmospheres When Firing Pottery

Smiling mature woman placing pottery vase in kiln in studio
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There are many factors to consider when it comes to firing your pottery in a kiln. The terms oxidation and reduction refer to how much oxygen is in the kiln's atmosphere while the kiln is firing. An oxidation atmosphere has plenty of oxygen for the fuel to burn.

A reduction atmosphere occurs when the amount of available oxygen is reduced. This may not sound like things that will affect your pottery, but it can. The oxidation process, for example, can alter the color of the glazes or paint...MORE you've chosen to use. The reduction process, when oxygen is leeched out of your kiln atmosphere and pottery, can change the texture of your clay. Learn what's going on in your kiln before you fire your next project. 

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    Basics of Oxidation

    Female potter at work in studio
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    When heated sufficiently, many substances oxidize if there is free oxygen available. Volatile portions of compounds and molecules break free and the free oxygen then attaches to the remaining material, forming oxides. This process is called oxidation.

    In firing a pottery kiln, the materials will normally convert to their oxide forms. For example, when copper carbonate is fired, the carbon will detach and burn off. As soon as the copper-carbon bond is broken, available oxygen will rush in and attach to the copper, forming copper oxide.

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    Neutral Atmospheres

    When a kiln is not in reduction, and there is enough oxygen for efficient fuel consumption but not an abundance of oxygen, the kiln can be considered to be in a neutral atmosphere. Electric kiln firings are generally considered to have either a neutral or slightly oxidizing atmosphere.

    Many potters question if there is any such thing as a truly neutral atmosphere. Their main point is that there is enough oxygen in the kiln so that the glaze and clay body materials oxidize.

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    Fire requires oxygen to burn. When there is a lack of oxygen, the fuel does not burn completely and the kiln atmosphere becomes filled with free carbon. The free carbon atoms will aggressively grab up any oxygen atoms they can find.

    Carbon atoms are so oxygen-hungry that they are able to break molecular bonds. The carbon literally robs the clay and glaze materials of their oxygen.

    When the carbon reduces the amount of oxygen in the clay and glaze molecules, the colors and textures of the clays and glazes can change. These changes can sometimes be quite dramatic.

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    Oxidation and Reduction in Terms of Firing Schedules

    Electric kilns are naturally in an oxidation or neutral atmosphere. With fuel-burning kilns, however, care must be taken to ensure that the kiln does not go into reduction until the latter part of the firing, usually the last half hour to the last hour and a half.

    A kiln entering reduction at too low a temperature can result in clay and glaze defects, including bloating and carbon scoring.