by Marc Ward
Clay Times Sept. 1997 & March 2004
I was goofing off this month as my column deadline approached and departed. Everyone needs a summer vacation.....right? Well, I was looking at a few hours left before I needed to email my column into our ever patient editor, Polly Beach, when two customers called with much the same problem/question and gave me this months subject. This is really a subject about business, but usually surfaces when discussing kilns. It goes something like this; "I was wanting to be economical and save money so I......".
Being economical and avoiding capital outlay are two different animals. The two calls I got today concerned folks who were given or bought kilns or bricks at very low prices and now want to use them. The first call was from a potter in Hawaii that salvaged hard brick out of an old crematorium. (don't think about what that glaze buildup is). Anyway, propane is very expensive in Hawaii and like all potters she doesn't want to spend as much on a firing as I indicated she probably would. The firing cost for a 25 cubic foot kiln was going to be in the $60.00 to $70.00 range. Pretty steep! When I told her that the 1 inch of fiber, attached to the inside face, that she thought was going to cure all her problems, might give her a $5.00 to $7.00 dollar savings, she was bummed. All of a sudden, these cheap bricks were looking pretty expensive. Now, she was going to be firing once a month, so the cost of the fiber she needed would take her two to three years to recoup. Then she would start saving the $5.00 to $7.00 a firing. If she were a production potter making a living from this kiln and firing twice a week, the formula would look a whole lot different. Firing twice a week and adding TWO inches of fiber would give you payback in 4 months or so and then you would save $10.00 to $15.00 per firing. Not being a production potter and firing the kiln infrequently was going to drive up operating costs because of economically priced bricks. Someone that fires often would be better off buying fiber or soft brick to build their kiln. Yes, your capital outlay is greater, but your firing cost is less, payback sooner, and long term operating expenses much less. In this case, as with many, greater initial capital outlay means a more economical operation. Hey, I know...stuff is expensive. Many potters don't have the bucks to get started with. I know that I didn't way back when. But, weighing capital outlay and operating expenses is a direction every person in business needs to strive for. If you don't, you might not make it in the long run.
The other caller today, bought a small, used updraft kiln for next to nothing. They were excited till they talked to me. (Being the Grinch is not my favorite professional function). They explained the kiln had been setting outside, in a very wet climate, for years. It had gone through a couple of freeze/thaw cycles, but they felt it looked in good enough shape. When soft brick has been exposed to saturation plus freezing, it's structure is toasted, messed up, hosed, finished, deep sixed.....you get the idea. Once the water is driven from the brick during the first firing, it will begin to crumble. This is not cool. No matter what you put on the top shelf will have pieces of brick in the glaze. Plus, the useful life of the kiln is severely limited. Lost work, a short kiln life, frustration, these will be the results of a "good deal".
OK, it's cliché time....."Penny wise and Pound foolish". "It's the cheap person that spends the most". "Save now, Pay later". Next time you're presented with a "good deal", take the time to analyze just how good a deal you're going to get in the long run. It could mean the life of your business or hobby at most and saving some money in the long run at least.
Here’s an article you might not enjoy reading….
OK, after almost 8 years of columns, one resorts to cheap literary tricks like the above example to get people interested. But, you really might not like what I’ve got to say this month.
You’re reading this in March. In the winter when I’m writing this (January), I’m starting to get calls from potters who are planning their new kiln. More production, an experimental kiln, a first hobby kiln, it’s time to think about your spring projects and getting your ducks in a row. Winter is the time to plan the new kiln when you’re flush with holiday capital or a new year’s resolve. One of the most often heard statements I hear goes something like this; “I want to build something that’s going to be efficient”. Being the curmudgeon that I am, I usually follow with, “what do you mean by efficient?”
I’m not trying to be cute by asking that question. You see, everyone has a different concept of the word efficient. Do they mean getting a kiln built as cheaply as possible? Do they mean getting a kiln that fires with the least amount of fuel. Do they mean a kiln that fires with the least amount of fuel cost? (different than the least amount of fuel). Or, do they mean a kiln that fires pieces with the least amount of fuel or fuel cost per piece of ware? All these ideas are very different.
I’ve come to realize that most, but not all, folks mean they want to get the show on the road for the least amount of bucks. This has nothing to do with efficiency. This is about startup costs. Now comes the part I warned you about….
People who make pottery or ceramic art (the difference between those two has been coved ad nauseum for decades) are some of the biggest energy hogs on the planet. Ouch! Efficiency has nothing to do with it. Now, those that fire with scrap wood, used oil, or the like, are not included in this category. But, firing a gas kiln or an electric kiln, uses a bunch of energy per piece of ware. A huge amount actually, compared with the rest of the world’s usage. So, is this a guilt trip? No, I don’t want to make it that. After all, I’m not going to condemn my line of work, which is selling burners to folks that have kilns. What I want to do is make folks aware of the fact that our pursuit of firing pieces of handmade clay is a very large user of energy. Our whole lifestyle in a Western culture is one of vast consumption.
Guilt? No, I choose to view it more in the vane of real thankfulness for all the riches that Western Society has bestowed on us. But, with thankfulness and riches come some responsibilities.
Are we going to have cone 10 reduction pottery on the landscape in 20 years… in 50 years? I have no idea. Will some new, vast energy source be discovered? Will public tastes outweigh the increasing costs of energy used to produce hand made clay pieces? Will some of the planet’s more dubious endeavors be channeled into more benign pursuits that free up stretched resources? I have no idea. Will recycling your bottles & cans make up the difference? Probably not, but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt. Will potters be doing the same things in 2035 that they are doing now? Funny thing is, many potters are doing the same thing now that many of us did in 1975. Maybe its time to start thinking of being efficient.
Is cone 6 reduction that much inferior to cone 10? Does a soft brick kiln that is soda fired produce work that is that much less desirable than a hard brick salt kiln? I’m not knocking any certain type of pottery, but it may be time to start planning for a different approach… one that may be a little more efficient. Should you give up the work you love doing or the work that has supported you and your family? I’m not suggesting that, but the next time (and it usually happens at some point) you start thinking about going off in a new direction with new forms, new surfaces, new kilns…. You might want to think about a more efficient process. A process that uses less energy per piece.