Zinc Things



I got a lot of responses after my last post, where I made the claim that using zinc is hard on elements. I had some really interesting discussions with both John Britt and John Tilton on this subject, and I thought I’d share some of that info with you guys. Of particular interest was a tidbit from Britt where he mentioned that firing a zinc sample in oxidation leaves it unmelted (as the melting temp is 3500) while the zinc sample in reduction almost entirely goes away. Heres a fired sample from our glaze calc class, fired in cone 10 reduction. It was a thumbnail sized lump when it went in.

Zinc Oxide

Zinc Oxide

To make a long story short, the juries out on whether or not zinc directly reduces the life of kiln elements. What’s most likely is that it’s a combination of complex volatilizing compounds released during the firing coupled with high temperatures (especially if there are programmed holds). An often overlooked variable is water. It could very likely be that the extremely hard water at my current and previous studios is the culprit. If you’ve ever looked closely at old workhorse kilns, some of the deposits near the lids and spy ports are similar to calcite deposits. Its not hard to imagine Calcium and Flouride attacking the elements.

Another variable to consider is that the kilns that I’ve had access to for my entire career have been heavily used community kilns. At research universities there’s a huge range of clays and glazes that go through kilns. I’ve also heard that barium, cobalt, and copper are also hard on elements. Given all these extra variables, I suppose the only real way to quantify if and how much zinc affects elements would be to fire two brand new kilns side by side for a 100 or so firings and then compare. Let me know if you have two brand new kilns you need me to test. I’ll be happy to help you out!

On a related note, John Tilton had some great info on kiln elements. I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing the info – it seems very useful. From an email from Tilton:

The zinc thing is somewhat solved by using heavier elements. I have 11 gauge KA1s in my newest L&L, and after 104 firings they are still standing nicely. 12 gauge seems to give about 200 firings, and 13 gauge 80. Normal elements, the 16 gauge or so, give between 18 and 35 firings, not worth using. I also fire only one or two pots at a time so the total zinc load per firing is probably less than if you stacked tightly.

So it looks like 11 gauge might be the sweet spot, though they do require length to be resistant enough, and maybe that translates into coils of larger diameter.

Finally, I’ll leave you with the Material description from Digital Fire. I highly recommend consulting digital fire for material descriptions, and if you have the means, purchase access to the software. So worth it. From

Zinc Oxide

Pure Source Of Zinc

Formula: ZnO
Alternate Names: ZnO, Zincite

Oxide Analysis Formula
ZnO 100.00% 1.000
Oxide Weight 81.40
Formula Weight 81.40
Enter the formula and formula weight directly into the Insight MDT dialog (since it records materials as formulas).
Enter the analysis into an Insight recipe and enter the LOI using Override Calculated LOI (in the Calc menu). It will calculate the formula.
DENS – Density (Specific Gravity) 5.6

Zinc oxide is a fluffy white to yellow white powder having a very fine physical particle size (99.9% should pass a 325 mesh screen). It is made using one of two processes that produce different densities. The French process vaporizes and oxidizes zinc metal, the American process smelts a coal/zinc sulfide mix and oxidizes the zinc fumes.

Ceramic grades are calcined, they have a larger particle size and much lower surface area (e.g. 3 square meters per gram vs. less than 1; however 99.9% still passes 325 mesh). Calcined grades are said to produce less glaze surface defect problems (although many ceramists have used the raw grades for many years without serious issues). You can calcine zinc on your own in a bisque kiln, fire it at around 815C. Calcined zinc tends to rehydrate from atmospheric water (and get lumpy in the process, calcining a mix of zinc and kaolin produces a more workable powder). Alot of zinc is used in crystalline glazes (typically 25%), because these have no clay content, they bring out the best and worst of both the calcined and raw materials. The raw zinc suspends glazes much better (the calcined settles out much more). The raw zinc takes more water, but since the glaze can thin out over time it is better to add less than needed at mixing time and mix thoroughly. The raw zinc screens better (although it can be a challenge to get either slurry through an 80 mesh screen).

Zinc oxide is soluble in strong alkalies and acids.

It can be an active flux in smaller amounts. It generally promotes crystalline effects and matteness/softness in greater amounts. If too much is used the glaze surface can become dry and the heavily crystalline surface can present problems with cutlery marking. Other surface defects like pitting, pinholing, blistering and crawling can also occur (because its fine particle size contributes to glaze shrinkage during drying and it pulls the glaze together during fusion).

Zinc oxide is thermally stable on its own to high temperatures, however in glazes it readily dissolves and acts as a flux. Zinc oxide sublimes at 1800C but it reduces to Zn metal in reduction firing and then boils at around 900C (either causing glaze defects or volatilizing into the atmosphere; note that electric kilns with poor ventilation can have local reduction).

While it might seem that zinc would not be useful in reduction glazes, when zincless and zinc containing glazes are compared it is often clear that there is an effect (e.g. earlier melting). Thus some zinc has either remained or it has acted as a catalyst.

The use of zinc in standard glazes is limited by its price, its hostility to the development of certain colors and its tendency to make glazes more leachable in acids (although zinc itself is not considered a hazardous substance).

Zinc oxide is used in glass, frits, enamels and ferrites. Zinc oxide is also used in large quantities in the rubber and paint industries; in insulated wire, lubricants, and advanced ceramics.    Credit: Tony Hansen

Thanks to Tony, and John Tilton. Also a special thanks to John Britt for the feedback on my last post; the clarification on Feldspar (I was mistaking K200 for Minspar 200 – ignorant to the fact that K200 has been out of production for 20 years!) I’ve since edited my post on Cone 6 with this info.


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