Kilns are thermally insulated chambers, or ovens, in which controlled temperature regimes are produced. They are used to harden, burn or dry materials. Specific uses include:
Clay consists of fine-grained particles, that are relatively weak and porous. Clay is combined with other minerals to create a workable clay body. Part of the firing process includes sintering. This process heats the clay until the particles partially melt and flow together, creating a strong, single mass, composed of a glassy phase interspersed with pores and crystalline material. Through firing, the pores are reduced in size, causing the material to shrink slightly. This crystalline material is a matrix of predominantly silicon and aluminium oxides, and is very hard and strong, although usually somewhat brittle.
Intermittent – The ware to be fired, is loaded into the kiln. The kiln is sealed and the internal temperature increased according to a schedule. After the firing process is completed, both the kiln and ware are cooled.
Continuous, or sometimes called Tunnel. These are long structures in which only the central portion is directly heated. From the cool entrance, ware is slowly transported through the kiln, and its temperature is increased steadily as it approaches the central, hottest part of the kiln. From there, its transportation continues and the temperature is reduced until it exits the kiln at near room temperature. A specialty type of kiln, common in tableware and tile manufacture, is the Roller-hearth Kiln, in which ware placed on bats is carried through the kiln on rollers.
Kiln technology is very old. The development of the kiln from a simple earthen trench filled with pots and fuel, pit firing, to modern methods happened in stages. One improvement was to build a firing chamber around pots with baffles and a stoking hole, this allowed heat to be conserved and used more efficiently. The use of a chimney stack improves the air flow or draw of the kiln, thus burning the fuel more completely. Early examples of kilns found in the United Kingdom include those made for the making of roof-tiles during the Roman occupation. These kilns were built up the side of a slope, such that a fire could be lit at the bottom and the heat would rise up into the kiln.
Conventional wood dry kilns are either package-type (sideloader) or track-type (tram) construction. Most hardwood lumber kilns are sideloader kilns in which fork trucks are used to load lumber packages into the kiln. Most softwood lumber kilns are track types in which lumber packages are loaded on kiln/track cars for loading the kiln.
Modern high-temperature, high-air-velocity conventional kilns can typically dry 1 inch thick green lumber in 10 hours down to a moisture content of 18%. However, 1 inch thick green Red Oak requires about 28 days to dry down to a moisture content of 8%.
Heat is typically introduced via steam running through fin/tube heat exchangers controlled by on/off pneumatic valves. Less common are proportional pneumatic valves or even various electrical actuators. Humidity is removed via a system of vents, the specific layout of which are usually particular to a given manufacturer. In general, cool dry air is introduced at one end of the kiln while warm moist air is expelled at the other. Hardwood conventional kilns also require the introduction of humidity via either steam spray or cold water misting systems to keep the relative humidity inside the kiln from dropping too low during the drying cycle. Fan directions are typically reversed periodically to ensure even drying of larger kiln charges.
Most softwood lumber kilns operate below 240 °F temperature. Hardwood lumber kiln drying schedules typically keep the dry bulb temperature below 180 °F. Difficult-to-dry species might not exceed 140 degrees F.
Dehumidification kilns are very similar to conventional kilns in basic construction. Drying times are usually comparable. Heat is primarily supplied by an integral dehumidification unit which also serves to remove humidity. Auxiliary heat is often provided early in the schedule where the heat required may exceed the heat generated by the DH unit.
Solar kilns are conventional kilns, typically built by hobbyists to keep initial investment costs low. Heat is provided via solar radiation, while internal air circulation is typically passive.
Newer wood drying technologies have included the use of reduced atmospheric pressure to attempt to speed up the drying process. A variety of vacuum technologies exist, varying primarily in the method heat is introduced into the wood charge. Hot water platten vacuum kilns use aluminum heating plates with the water circulating within as the heat source, and typically operate at significantly reduced absolute pressure. Discontinuous and SSV (super-heated steam) use atmosphere to introduce heat into the kiln charge. Discontinuous technology allows the entire kiln charge to come up to full atmospheric pressure, the air in the chamber is then heated, and finally vacuum is pulled. SSV run at partial atmospheres (typically around 1/3 of full atmospheric pressure) in a hybrid of vacuum and conventional kiln technology (SSV kilns are significantly more popular in Europe where the locally harvested wood is easier to dry versus species found in North America). RF/V (radio frequency + vacuum) kilns use microwave radiation to heat the kiln charge, and typically have the highest operating cost due to the heat of vaporization being provided by electricity rather than local fossil fuel or waste wood sources.
Valid economic studies of different wood drying technologies are based on the total energy, capital, insurance/risk, environmental impacts, labor, maintenance, and product degrade costs for the task of removing water from the wood fiber. These costs (which can be a significant part of the entire plant costs)involve the differential impact of the presence of drying equipment in a specific plant. An example of this is that every piece of equipment (in a lumber manufacturing plant) from the green trimmer to the infeed system at the planer mill is the "drying system". Since thousands of different types of wood products manufacturing plants exist around the globe, and may be integrated (lumber, plywood, paper, etc.) or stand alone (lumber only), the true costs of the drying system can only be determined when comparing the total plant costs and risks with and without drying.
The total (harmful) air emissions produced by wood kilns, including their heat source, can be significant. Typically, the higher the temperature the kiln operates at, the larger amount of emissions are produced (per pound of water removed). This is especially true in the drying of thin veneers and high-temperature drying of softwoods.
For pottery kilns of middle Europe see:
Andreas Heege, Töpferöfen - Pottery kilns - Four de potiers. Die Erforschung frühmittelalterlicher bis neuzeitlicher Töpferöfen (6.-20. Jh.) in Belgien, den Niederlanden, Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz. Basler Hefte zur Archäologie 4. Basel 2007 (2008).