Firing schedules or programs are the means of controlling the temperature rises, soaks and falls to accommodate the needs of the glass. They consist of a number of segments –or steps - each of which includes: rate of temperature rise, target temperature, and soak time. They vary according to the thickness of the glass and the forming and annealing needs of the glass. Read and understand the Bullseye Technical Note on the way glass behaves at different temperatures. This will give you a good understanding of what happens to the glass at the different temperature ranges and will help you design a suitable schedule for what you want to achieve.
To assist in visualising what the numbers in a kiln programmer do, you can graph the temperature changes indicated by the numbers in the controller. Visualised from the start of the schedule, it appears as a mountain with a steep cliff on the left rising to a ledge. There is then a steeper rise to the top where there is a small plateau. The mountain then has a very steep face on the right, falling to a broad ledge a bit lower than the one on the left. There is a long shallow slope to the right of the ledge that leads to a much steeper drop to the level again. This is the shape – with variations - that you are attempting to achieve in each program/schedule.
The variations have to do with the type of glass being used and thickness of the glass. These variations determine the amount of heat and the speed with which it is put into the glass. It sets the points at which any soaks are introduced to allow the glass and associated moulds or kiln furniture to equalise in heat or to allow air to ease from between sheets of glass. It sets the top temperature and determines the length of soak at that temperature. It controls the temperature fall to the annealing soak - to equalize the temperature throughout the glass. It then controls the rate of fall to anneal the glass – removing the stress and follows up with the fall to room temperature.
A description of each of these stages includes the heat rises and any soaks required, the temperature fall, annealing soak and cool, and the cool to room temperature.
Initial heating rise
In the simplest form, the initial heating is a relatively slow rise to a point about 50C above the annealing point. This allows the glass to gain heat without thermal shock. The initial heating may be achieved in several segments, depending on what you are doing. A thick piece, or one fired many times, might be taken up in a number of stages - initially very slowly (with or without soaks - also known as holds), and then at more rapid increases. A 6mm piece being slumped into a simple curve mould would need only one segment to the top temperature.
Another example of variations required would be a 6mm piece suspended over a cylindrical mould for a drape. My experience has shown that there is a requirement for multiple segments. This starts with an initial rise of 50C/hr to 100C with a 10min soak, then 100C/hr to 250C, 10 mins, then 150C/hr to 500C, with 10mins and finally 200C/hr to forming temperature - in the region of 630C - 677C with an appropriate soak to achieve the effect desired - peeking is required to determine the length of this soak. The point being that some circumstances require much more complicated arrangements. Here it is because the mould drains the heat away from the centre of the glass while the edges heat up.
Final heating rise
Above the annealing plus 50C temperature is when the rise can be much faster up to the working/top temperature. This speed should not be as fast as possible, because it has a number of drawbacks. The speed of this rise is influenced by the amount of heat work you wish to put into the glass. This in turn will influence the top temperature and length of soak at that point.
You most often want to insert a bubble squeeze in this rise to avoid large bubbles due to trapped air.
The cooling phases are several: fast drop to annealing soak, annealing cool, cool to room temperature.
Once the soak at top temperature is finished the requirement is to cool the glass and kiln as fast as the kiln will allow. This is to avoid the devitrification that can occur in the range of 650C to 760C.
This soak at the annealing point is to allow the glass to reach the same temperature throughout from side to side and top to bottom. The length of this soak will depend on the thickness of the glass. More information on annealing is here.
The slow steady cool from the annealing point to about 55C below the annealing point is where the annealing of the glass is done. What is required is a gradual, but steady decline in temperature to allow the glass to reduce in temperature evenly throughout its thickness. This even reduction in temperature should continue to the strain point and slightly below. So this phase must not be done quickly. For a 6mm piece 80C/hour is usually adequate. More on the annealing phase is available here.
Cooling to room temperature
Cooling to room temperature should be done at an even rate, although faster than the annealing cool. Too fast a cool below the strain point can cause thermal shock and therefore breakage. Typically the cool to room temperature from the strain point can be two to three times faster than the annealing cool. It is a good idea to control this cool to at least 100C. If your kiln cools more slowly than this, it will not be using any electricity, but it does protect against too rapid cooling if you open the lid or door.