A key process in the making of Lladró pieces is when each piece is fired in the kiln. Back in the day, the Lladró brothers had to rebuild their kiln a few times, because it cracked and crumbled during the first firing attempts. Workers in the workshop would previously stand by the kilns after they had finished firing and pray, as the artists would say that it is in the kiln where the pieces are brought to life and where their artistry is judged. The results of kiln firing, even now, are difficult and unpredictable.
Lladró’s Single Firing Process
Most porcelain pieces need two or three firing rounds (more in the next section below) , to fully decorate and glaze the pieces to achieve the desired aesthetic. Where Lladró does it differently is via their high temperature single firing method.
Vincente Lladró, the youngest brother of the trio, looked over the firing technique from the very beginning. The brothers first painted and decorated their porcelain pieces in the traditional method, applying colours on pieces of fired porcelain, white canvases that were semi-set and were to be fired in the kiln one or more times in the kiln at low temperates to set colours and glazes. The result was great but the Lladró brothers really wanted to achieve softer, delicate pastel colours and this type of firing wasn’t able to achieve the aesthetic results the brothers wanted to highlight their sculptures. They spared no pain in experimentation and research, as if the temperature or the firing time is not set right, the result is a low quality porcelain with obvious porous textures. Pieces can also come out looking blistered or be completely disfigured in the kiln.
When the Lladró brothers pioneered the high temperature single firing method, the results were phenomenal, the colours were finally soft and delicate, showing grace and gentleness that they wouldn’t be able to achieve otherwise, to juxtapose with porcelain, a material that is known for its hardness and strength.
There is one major problem in using the high temperature single firing method, as when pieces are sent into the kiln in their final form, they either come out perfect or have to be destroyed completely. There is no turning back. In the traditional firing process, as there are a few stages in production, the risk is reduced and pieces with minor defects can either be withdrawn, or fixed. But the results were nothing that the Lladró brothers have seen in porcelain , and they decided to use this method in all their porcelain pieces moving forward.
In the kiln, the porcelain paste reduces in size due to loss of water. Lladró artisans have to ensure that as each piece shrinks, the piece does not warp or gets damaged in the process. Lladró also has a team that specialises in making porcelain supports to support pieces in the kiln, to ensure that the piece is balanced and stays upright during the firing process. No other material can be used for these supports other than porcelain, as the support system has to shrink at the same rate as the porcelain sculpture is.
Lladró artisans spend years studying individual firing times and temperatures for each piece, to reduce breakages based on the structure and size of each piece. Larger pieces like Cinderella’s Arrival take hours just to place correctly in the kiln. Pieces with complicated colour and glaze combinations or metallic lustres also requires special care to ensure that the pieces come out perfect.
It took the Lladró brothers years to perfect the high temperature single firing method. Even today, the firing method is still a risky process and one that is very delicate. Each sculpture and piece is different, and requires different temperature and times to achieve the covetable Lladró pieces.
The Traditional Firing Process for Porcelain Pieces
Traditionally there are a few steps of firing before a piece of porcelain is completed. Bisque or Biscuit Firing is when the clay reaches 950 celsius, dehydrating the clay to a ceramic material. The Bisque Firing continues until the kiln reaches approximately 1,300ºC. At this temperature, the porcelain would have sintered, transformed to a point where it is less fragile, whilst being porous enough for the next process. After this process, the kiln is turned off and the long cooling process starts, a delicate process of slowly bringing down the temperature inside the kiln to avoid breaking the porcelain that is common with rapid temperature changes.
This is where the fun part starts - the porcelain is then decorated in paint, colours, and glazes. All introduces a new layer of sensitivity and complexity, and the combination of factors impacts the final result. Glazes often require multiple coats and a lot of patience to get them just right. When the piece is fully decorated and is dry, the Glaze Firing process starts, where the porcelain is heated to maturity. The glazed item is carefully loaded into the kiln, as it must not touch other porcelain pieces or the glazes will melt together, fusing the two different pieces permanently. The kiln is heated slowly to a desired temperature to seal the clay and glazes to maturity, as it causes a big change in the clay and glaze, not just setting the surface decoration, but also transforming the porcelain pieces from a soft fragile piece to one that is hard as stone and impermeable to water and time.
Any metallic lustre using 18k gold, platinum or silver, is done after the entire process above, giving the porcelain an appearance of an object of silver, gold or copper. Similar to enamels, a mixture is applied to the porcelain and fired in a specialised enamel kiln, sealing the thin film of gold, platinum or silver onto the porcelain piece. This is also a fascinating process, but one for another day.