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The Ghost in the Machine . . . and of Christmas

Things break at the most inopportune times.


One week into December, with a Christmas job in the kiln and two on the bench waiting, GZZZT! I blew a lid element. I actually didn't know it until I was on my way back into the shop and heard the insistent BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP of the kiln through the closed door. Sure enough, "FTH," or kilnspeak for "Failure to Heat" flashed on screen. I knew right then "bleep" was the correct word. I turned the kiln off and went back into the house with a sigh.


Really, though, this sort of malfunction has only happened once before, and that was over six years ago and about eight months after I'd bought this used Jen-Ken kiln. I knew the previous owner had fired ceramics in it--and it is made for both glass and ceramics--but the very high heat of ceramic firing is tough on heating elements. So I chalked that first fried element up to previous hellfire and brimstone work.


This one? Hmmm. Maybe it was just "time," that ghostly, invisible, arbitrary, and contrary division of reality. But what a bad time. I had to cancel three Christmas jobs and order parts. Would they make it, or be as lost as a Southwest Airlines on-time flight? One more box for the Christmas rush to get tossed across a room and crushed under the weight of 1,ooo other boxes. Thank goodness the contents aren't really breakable. I ordered everything I could possibly need except for the 4 lower elements, which still looked fine, and $256 later, the deed was done.


Days later, I came to the Post Office counter with my yellow slip, a meager offering for such an important box as this. Lo and behold! The reverred box was plopped on the counter, and I left rejoicing. Somewhere off in the distance, I heard silver bells. I called my friend, Henry, who came over a few days later to help me.


Replacing a lid element isn't that bad: unplug the kiln, remove the control box, loosen the wire connectors, and slide the busted element out of the groove verrry carefully. Vaccuum the groove. Slide the new element into the groove, say some prayers over it and finagle the long tail through the tiny exit hole to the connector. (This part I passed to Henry because it takes the strength of an ox. Not calling him an ox, mind you.) While I vacuumed the groove again, he cut the excess off, reconnected the two wires (lead wire and element tail) with the screw inside the connector, and then put the box back onto the kiln. We were ready . . . .


. . . . until we weren't. The heldover job I started again the next day proved me wrong and the ghost right. The poor kiln was still working hard as a preacher at Mardi Gras to get up to temp, even with a bright orange new outer lid element. The lower elements appeared to be AWOL. I could see my bank acount starting to smoke.


So the following day, Henry installed one of the three new relays I'd bought. The next time I fired up the kiln, everybody was playing together nicely. Bingo! Ghost temporarily banished.


So I've spent a little time catching up and also thinking about all the things that can--but usually don't--go wrong in the course of any one project. Here's a short list:


Bad glass scores and breaks

Bubbles between glass layers

Devitrification (a crusty buildup)

Thermal shock from heating or cooling too fast

Unplanned color reactions between glasses

Too much heat overall on the work

Too little heat (sometimes this can be fixed)

Stuck relays (on or off--ON being a fire hazard)

Power failures

Miscaluclations of glass volume

Miscalculations in a firing schedule

Accidentally mixing two incompatible glasses

Kiln software malfunctions

Brick dust or debris falling onto the job


Just looking at this list, it's a wonder we get anything done right the first time. And that's not accounting for the ghost.


But so far, it still feels good to finally be moving forward (backward) forward again. I have to say that I really regretted the end of the holiday season this year, even after a month of hearing "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer."

I had the blanks cut and fired for the two Christmas plates here ready to go in the Fall. And now that I finally was able to finish them in the last couple of days, the ghost of Christmas past paid me a visit. It felt a little weird, but now, I'm seeing it as a bit of poetic synergy for me--a little extra Holiday after the fact. Heck, it's still the 12 Days of Christmas, isn't it?


On second thought, I guess I'll call these two serving plates "The Ghost of Christmas Future."

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