POTTERY PRODUCTION PRACTICES: A Family Affair
L&L Kiln Mfg. Inc. has been active in the pottery industry for over 60 years. From its modest beginnings in 1945, through times of market growth and contraction over the years, the company has persevered and continues to expand. Editor-in-chief Susan Sutton recently chatted with Steve Lewicki, L&L’s president, regarding the company’s past, present and future.
What can you tell us about the founding of L&L?“The company was founded in 1945 by my father and a partner that he’d met when he was working in a shipyard during WWII. During the war, my mother made little ceramic items for gifts. I don’t know how she fired them, but my father said he could probably do a better job. That’s how it got started.
“There really wasn’t a hobby ceramic industry back then to speak of. I think it was probably pretty slim pickings in the ’40s and ’50s. In the late ’50s, they started to become reasonably successful, and they started doing industrial designs as well. My father was the engineer of the two partners, and the other fellow did most of the sales and marketing. My father did a lot of industrial design work in the late ’50s, including some things for the space program.
“My father’s partner wasn’t interested in that part of the business, so he split the kiln business off as a separate company. In the mid-’60s, things really started to take off when the barrel kilns were introduced, the typical round top-loaders. By the ’70s, they were doing something like 100 kilns a week when the whole hobby ceramics thing started happening.”
How did you become involved with the company?“When my brother, Gregory, and I got out of college, we actually went into the industrial furnace side, which is called L&L Special Furnace Co. Inc. My brother and I took that over and developed that parallel to the kiln company, which we had nothing to do with.
“In about 1983 or so, my father’s partner got sick and my father, at age 70, decided to buy him out and continue operating the company. It was actually one of his most creative times, designing all kinds of new models. My mother, of course, was horrified. On the other hand, she was the better of the business people. She really ran the place, very successfully, for about 10 years.
“My brother and I bought the company when my father was about 80, in 1995, and we decided to continue with it. By that time, it had shrunk quite a bit. We moved it closer to our company and actually ran it out of there for about five years while we built it up again. In 2000, we moved to a larger rented space, and this past year we moved to a new facility that we own. We’ve doubled our space; it’s 28,000 square feet. We’re using it comfortably, with a lot of elbow room. We could easily expand our production here by 100% without it being an issue.
“Like my father, my brother has kind of an engineer personality. L&L Special Furnace does amazing aerospace work. They make very high-precision furnaces that they sell to NASA and some of the big aerospace companies. I did all the sales there for years, but when the kiln company became larger it was impossible to do both things. The two companies are jointly owned but really run very separately. It’s almost impossible to think about one when you’re thinking about the other one.”
How has the market changed over L&L's history?“In the ’60s and ’70s, it was very much oriented around the hobby market, almost like the paint-your-own-pottery thing today. That was a huge market that just really died off. Then in the early ’80s, the production potters and the serious art potters started to come into their own. Not that those people weren’t always there, but a lot more people were coming out of schools and out of the art programs.
“Our products have always been strong in that particular market, so when the hobby side of things died down, we had a core group of people that knew and liked our product. For at least 10 years, and to some extent before that, it was all word of mouth.”
Have customers' expectations evolved over time?“One of the things that has changed is that people expect better uniformity and precision. Automatic controls have certainly helped tremendously with that. We really championed three-zone control from the start. We adopted it as soon as it became available technically, and we paid the price to do that. Early adoption is always painful, but it’s proven to be a boon. Clearly, in the past eight years or so, most of the kilns sold are automatic kilns.
“A lot of different issues go along with automatic kilns vs. manual kilns. The whole company has to adapt to that mindset. More technical support issues come up, and we have risen to that occasion. We have a very good technical support department. Ten or 15 years ago, technical support issues were very simple. Now it’s a lot more complicated, and you have to be more sophisticated about supporting that level of technology.”
What are your main products today?“Easy Fire kilns, which are the typical barrel kilns used by ceramic hobbyists, schools and some industry, represent about 80% of our total sales. We also make a number of different customizable kilns based on our standard products. They can be larger or include special features like lifting devices, and so on. We’ve found some niche markets. For instance, we can produce a square/rectangular kiln for tile making.
“We also offer front-loading kilns, which is a little bit unusual in the marketplace because they’re very difficult to make. We’ve got 60 years of experience making front-loading kilns, though, so for us it comes naturally. We offer them for two basic reasons. One, they’re better insulated. Typically, our current design is 7 in. of insulation, which is a little bit unusual compared to the barrel kilns. The other reason is that, for a lot of people, front-loaders are easier to load. That’s not always true, since it depends on how you’re doing it, but most people find it’s easier to load a front-loading kiln. They’re much more expensive, and it’s still a specialty product, but it’s something that’s nice if you can afford it.
“Our biggest competitive feature is our element holders. My father developed them in the late ’50s, so they’ve been part of our product for most of the time we’ve been in business. In the primary design of any of the kilns made for this market, everybody’s using a type of refractory material that is very lightweight and very fragile. It does not have a lot of compressive strength to it. The problem arises when you have to somehow attach an element to it, or support an element in it. The most common way of doing it is simply by routing out the firebrick, putting in a little slot, and laying the element in there.
“That design will be perfectly fine if nothing goes wrong, but the problem is, it’s not particularly resistant to things going wrong. If you hit it with a shelf when you’re loading, it can easily break and is difficult to repair. It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult.
“We extrude hard ceramic out of a cordierite material, so it’s similar to what kiln shelves are made from. It’s a very hard material. We take a special tool to route out the firebrick and then slide the ceramic piece in there as an insert, and the element sits in there. The advantage is if you bang into it, it doesn’t break. It can break, but the likelihood is much reduced. If you do break it, or if you get glaze on it or something, you can replace it fairly easily and still end up with a perfect kiln interior.
“I’ve seen some of our 30-year-old kilns that look perfect on the inside, while the outside is completely rusted. The inside is perfect. It’s a really nice feature. Being able to offer something like that at not a very large premium is really the key to what we have to offer.
“My brother and I have also evolved those designs tremendously. For example, we ran into a particular challenge with crystalline glaze potters, who seem to be doing everything possible to destroy elements in the kiln. We came up with a new variation that allows us to use much bigger elements-and more element-in the kiln so the design characteristics of the kiln are maximized. In these very high-stress environments, we are able to offer some really interesting designs. At this point, we’re just doing it on a case-by-case basis.”
What do you see as the main challenges for the future?“Every time you move it’s certainly a challenge. Fortunately, I feel like we are where we’re going to be, at least for the rest of my lifetime. Moving isn’t just transporting equipment. The whole organization evolves and changes. In our last move, everybody who was with us stayed, so that was a good thing.
“We’ve grown in the last year, added new people and reorganized things along different lines. The reorganization issue has been tremendous, and I think we’ve successfully navigated those seas. What the future challenges are going to be, I don’t know, but I suspect growing the market is really the most important thing.”
For more information regarding L&L Kiln Mfg. Inc., contact the company at 505 Sharptown Rd., Swedesboro, NJ 08085; (856) 294-0077; fax (856) 294-0070; e-mail email@example.com; or visit www.hotkilns.com.