There is nothing quite like the shine of a new kiln, or the quiet, steady hum of a new wheel right out of the box. When you get your first piece of new equipment, it brings a sense of joy to your studio. But NEW is pricey, and we don’t always have that much money to work with at the moment. But how do you know what to look for? How much is it really worth? You have your budget in mind. You’ve found the piece of equipment that you are looking for, whether on ebay, craigslist, in the paper, at an estate sale, whatever. Now begin the questions:
Is this piece of equipment going to do what I need it to do? First off, a few caveats. It sounds silly to mention it, but it really is an important question. There really is no point, for example, in spending ANY amount of money on a kiln that only does low-fire, if I NEED it to do cone 6. Get the model number, or better yet, a picture of the information plate. Then look online or call your supplier and ask for the spec sheet (if one exists). Make sure it will do what you need it to do, or just walk away.
Facebook is fun, and Facebook is great, but Facebook is NOT your friend. There are a LOT of groups on Facebook devoted to our field. In many of them, you can get some fantastic information. You can certainly get LOADS of advice about almost anything. The problem when getting advice on equipment is that people are only qualified to speak to their experience. When Mary says she has used XX brand kiln for 30 years, you have NO IDEA how she uses her kiln. She is almost guaranteed to fire differently than you do, and use different clay and glazes. In addition, for every Mary that exists, there will be a Joe who HATES brand XX, and has had nothing but problems. The sheer weight of the advice can be overwhelming. Take all of it with a grain of salt, and do more research. Speak with an actual kiln technician, a live person at your local supplier, or the manufacturer.
Ask questions of the seller. When did they purchase it? How has it been used? When was it last serviced? By whom, and what was done? How, and where has it been stored? These are all questions that the seller ought to be able to answer. The less information the seller has, the less value they can reasonably put on the thing they are selling. Remember also, “It worked the last time we used it” doesn’t mean it worked well, or that it will work now. The seller is getting rid of it for a reason…ask why. Write down the seller’s name (or the name of the person who was using the equipment). If you have a local supplier, follow-up with them and ask if they know anything about the equipment. Maybe they serviced it last.
Test the equipment!!! In the case of a wheel, slab roller, or pug mill, this is pretty easy. Just plug it in and turn it on, or turn the crank. Make sure it works and isn’t letting off strange smells, or VERY loud noises. In the case of a kiln, you should ALSO be allowed to turn it on. To put it in perspective, you wouldn’t buy a used car without driving it first, right? Sometimes you can’t turn it on, though. Maybe they just moved and don’t have the outlet in the new place. Maybe they inherited their grandmother’s kiln. Not being able to turn it on before you buy it doesn’t mean that its a bad deal, just that it has a lower value since you now have to guess that it works.
Do a visual inspection. A lot can be told about a piece of equipment simply by looking at it…provided you know what to look for.
- Turn the wheel head, and look at it while it spins. Is it wobbling? Is it out of center?
- Does it make a grinding, squeaking, thumping, or chirping noise?
- Is the foot pedal action smooth? Does the wheel stop when the foot pedal is in the stop position? Does the head spin smoothly when the wheel is set to a low speed?
- Are there cracks in the tabletop or metal legs?
- Are the cords and splash pan in good condition
- Is the manufacturer still in business…can I get parts?
For Slab Rollers:
- Turn the crank, do the rollers spin smoothly?
- Adjust the thickness. Is that adjustment smooth?
- Is the table top cracked, gouged, or chipped?
- Are there cables? Are they Freyed?
- Is the Canvas in good condition?
- Do the switches turn without grinding?
- Are the bricks in good condition (no yellowing, hardening, splitting, or excessive chipping or cracking)
- If the kiln has a metal bottom, is it rusted out?
- Is the sheet metal relatively clean and in good shape
- Is the lid and/or floor cracked
- Is the kiln sitter rod bent? Broken?
- Is the thermocouple bent? Broken?
- Look at the end of the power cord…Is it in good shape?
- Open up the control panel, are the wires crispy? Are there mud dauber nests?
- Does it smell like ammonia?
- Are the elements all in their grooves, or are they hanging out?
- Is the manufacturer still in business…can I get parts?
These are the kinds of things to look for. After looking at the equipment, take the model number and serial number and do your research. Find out how much the expected repairs will cost. How much will it cost to get it home? All of these factor into the actual value of the kiln. The seller will want to get as much out of the item as they can, but most aren’t out to take you for a ride. Call your local supplier, or your repair technician, and ask their advice as well.
But how much should I spend? What’s a fair price? Ah, finally the million-dollar question. Each piece of equipment will have a different value, depending on how it has been used and taken care of. There simply is NO “Kelly Blue Book” value for ceramic studio equipment. That said, I use the following formula for everything EXCEPT wheels:
Never pay more than 1/2 of what a new one costs, after shipping and known repairs, if it is more than 10 years old. If less than 10 years old, never pay more than 2/3.
For wheels, its a little different. Wheels tend to hold their value longer. That said, they still do depreciate with time.
Never pay more than 2/3 (including shipping and known repairs) of what a new wheel of the same brand and model costs.
I hope that this helps you ask the right questions, and know what to look for when you are looking at used equipment. As always, you may feel free to call us here at Bracker’s Good Earth Clays, and we can help answer any more questions you have about used equipment.