Constructing your own raku kiln certainly isn't rocket science, but there are several rules you need to follow to remain safe and have a good firing experience. There are also many good sources on the Internet aside from mine for constructing this type of kiln so you might also give those a try. Some of them are free, others are not, but all basically tell the same story about Ceramic Fiber Blanket - It is hazardous to breath. Please make sure and wear a proper dust mask when constructing this kiln to prevent the fibers from injuring your lungs and eyes. Okay, I'll get off my soap-box now.
THIS TYPE OF KILN IS DANGEROUS TO OPERATE :
If you decide to follow these plans you do so at your own risk! Fire only out doors in well ventilated area as galvanized zinc coating on this type of trashcan can be harmful if vaporized.
I actually started out my ceramics career with a dislike for low-fire wares. I mean, if it's not functional, what good is it, right? I then had the amazing pleasure to experience my first raku firing workshop and it changed the way I felt about ceramics forever. I was very successful with my first raku firings. I quickly learned that it was much easier for me to obtain the wonderful colors and crazing that I loved so much in other people's pottery using the raku technique. While it's true, raku vessels are inappropriate for long-term storage of liquids, they are generally fine for a multitude of dry goods. After all, a terracotta flowerpot can be submerged in water for a long period of time with no ill effects. If, however, you plug the hole and fill the flowerpot with liquid so it can hold your favorite flowers, the water will eventually begin to seep out of the clay body. The actual piece of ceramic is unaffected by this, (unless you let it freeze). Why am I spending so much time talking about what Raku can't be used for? I just don't want you to get it into your head that you can start making oil lamps and wine bottles out of raku. It just shouldn't be done. Raku is a wonderful, semi-functional art form but stoneware it is not!
Most raku ceramics fire to around ^06 - ^04 or somewhere around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Now I'm getting to the fun part! It's very easy to manufacture your own raku kiln out of a standard steel trash can or 55gal. oil drum. The secret, my friend, is “Ceramic Fiber Blanket”. There are many brands of this refractory blanket on the market: Fiberfrax® , Kaowool®, Isofrax®, etc. And it can be obtained many places, but I suggest you start your quest by checking out eBay first. Most brands of CFB can withstand extended periods of more than 2000 deg. Fahrenheit. This material, by itself, is basically your kiln, the trashcan is just used to hold the material in place. You can use lots of different supports for the fire blanket. Anything like heavy hardware cloth, fencing or chicken wire that can be molded to shape and can withstand some heat. CFB usually comes in ½” – 2 ” thickness and you need to make sure it's of 8 pound density. Also it would be good if it was at least 24” wide.
Once you have your CFB you'll need a propane source, (the 20lb bottle from your barbecue grill will work just fine) and a high pressure regulator, (the regulator usually comes with a hose). Now that you have the parts for the kiln and the fuel to power it, you'll need a way to get the fire into the kiln. The first thing I used was a 'weed burner' that you can obtain from a home improvement store for about forty to sixty dollars. This worked fine but it was difficult to adjust the output and I had to modify the port to get enough gas into the kiln. I then purchased a ‘Ward MR750' venturi burner. I got mine at my local ceramic distributor, but they are also available on the web at (www.wardburner.com). This only cost me thirty five dollars and made a world of difference. These burners have a way for you to adjust the amount of oxygen going into the kiln so you can keep the atmosphere inside the kiln stable.
Now you need to put your kiln together. There are several methods to do this, so let's look at a few. If you make a kiln that can be lifted off the base entirely, you'll have a much easier time getting your pieces off the base and into the post-reduction quicker. On the other hand, if you make a top-loading raku kiln you can remove the top without the pieces cooling too quickly – this allows you to take a little time to unload your kiln. Both ideas work well but for the sake of time and money, we're going to be building the “all-in-one” kiln that can be lifted from it's base completely. I think its easier to build and it has fewer overall parts.
First off, put your trash can upside down and cut a hole about 4.5-5” in diameter or about one inch wider around than the burner you plan to use in the side. You'll probably need a drill and pair of tin-snips to get this done. Make sure the hole is about 1.5 – 2” above the bottom (top) of the kiln so you'll have space to keep some CFB under the hole. If you are having a hard time making it nice and round, just cut the hole square. It really doesn't matter about the shape. The lip at the top (bottom) is great for drilling into and adding handles so you can lift the kiln off of your pieces (this is an absolute must, by-the-way!).
Next, do the same thing to the top (bottom) of your kiln but make this hole a little smaller, about 4” in diameter. Now it's time to attach your ‘CFB' to the inside of your kiln. If you could only find ½” thick blanket, you'll have to use the old, “Ceramic button” trick to get the blanket to stay attached to the can. With ½” blanket you'll also have to wrap the inside of the can twice which won't let you use an adhesive very easily. If you were lucky enough to get a hold of 1 or 2 inch fiber blanket, you could conceivably use ‘Sodium Silicate' or ‘Liquid Glass Solution' to hold it in place. This method can backfire, however, and you may find yourself doing the ceramic button technique anyway after a few firings.
You'll need to use the top of your Trashcan as a template to trace around 2 layers of CFB to make a circle to place inside the kiln for it's ceiling. This ceiling has to stay in place somehow so let's stick with the ceramic button technique for now. Make yourself about 25 -30 little disk out of high-fire clay, all about 1.5 inches in diameter and bisque fire them. You could place an ‘Ear' or tab behind the disk and put a hole through it. This way when you pass the 'High Temperature Wire' through the tab and use it to attach the CFB to the inside of your kiln, it won't be directly exposed to the flames (See Photos). You might want to fire a few extra, just in case.
You'll have to punch holes in the side of the trash can wherever you are going to place a button and tie the wire in a way that the button pulls the blanket to the inner wall of the kiln. Make sure none of the original surface of the trash can will be seen on the inside of the kiln. You're almost done. Now all you have to do is neatly cut the blanket away flush with the large holes you made in the trashcan and you're finished. If you ended up like me, you'll have about ¼” or so of the bottom of the inside of your kiln that didn't quite get covered by the fiber blanket. What I do is place 2 layers of the CFB down on my base and put the kiln down on that. The pillowing action of the trashcan rim against the layers of blanket seal the kiln nicely.
In these pictures, I've added a few extras like handles on the top of the kiln, (you'll need those if you want to lift the thing off your pottery). I had an old pyrometer lying around, so I went ahead and attached that too. The snowy white substance around the bottom hole is Sodium Silicate to help hold the fiber blanket to the edge of the hole. I later found that this wasn't necessary at all and a big mess. You can see in the above photo the 2 layers of fire blanket on top of the concrete blocks. This is important to seal the bottom of the kiln and to prevent the concrete blocks from shattering due to the intense heat.