Changing Kiln Elements

Dear Calamity Jane,
You are an evil hearted woman.
Affectionately yours,
Rat City Studios

Kiln name plaque by Rickie Barnett

By Canne Holladay

Artist's Website

Replacing Kiln Elements:

In the weeks leading up to NCECA, with many a deadline upon us, our biggest kiln, Calamity Jane, burned up her elements. Deb quickly assessed the situation and ordered new parts from the local pottery supply store. I had the pleasure of working on this project, and with the help of the wonderful techs at Skutt we got Calamity Jane up and running again, though not without some headaches…

My day started with a quick trip to pick up the new elements. I arrived back at the studio and the first order of business was making a call to Skutt for some advice about how to tackle this project. The techs at Skutt are very careful to be sure they know exactly what the situation is before advising about the service, and we truly would have been up to our necks without their help. During my first phone call to Skutt I learned a number of things.

1) Skutt has an instructional PDF on their resource page about how to place and pin new elements.
And there are helpful YouTube Videos available as well!

2) It would be advisable to take a photo of how everything is connected in the power wiring prior to disconnecting anything.
3) This may go without saying, but the power should be off before starting any electrical work.
4) Double check that the building’s power supply corresponds to the kiln’s wiring voltage to ensure that the kiln is running on the appropriate power and the correct elements are installed.
5) Needle nose pliers are ideal for removing and placing pins.
6) Fire the kiln empty one time after replacing the elements up to Cone 04 to seal the coils and
protect their life expectancy.
7) Vacuum the element grooves after removal of old coils and after replacing new coils to clear out debris.
8) All elements are not created equal. There are specific types of coils for different areas in the kiln.

It was during this conversation that I learned that Calamity Jane needed two top/bottom elements, two intermediate elements, and three center elements. Well, we only had two center elements (strike one), so I call the store to investigate, only to find that their “kiln guy” was out to lunch… apparently for the next three hours.

Tools that are helpful for changing the elements...

Tools that are helpful for changing the elements...

Wiring documentation is critical for proper reconnection. Take pictures!

Wiring documentation is critical for proper reconnection. Take pictures!

Canne Holladay removing element pins with pliers.

Canne Holladay removing element pins with pliers.

Meanwhile, I busied myself with disconnecting pigtails from the bus bars, removing the pins (oh so many pins) and old elements. I kept all of the parts I removed until the job was done, knowing that some would be reused and some discarded. In some areas where the elements were set in place I found it helpful to use a propane torch to heat the coils and stretch them in order to pull them out of the groove without destroying the brick. Another move that helped was to clip the element from the pigtail at the bend inside the kiln to avoid forcing the coil straight out of the groove when pulling out the pigtail and certainly damaging the brick at this termination. All in all, this process took about five hours.

When I finally got hold of the “kiln guy” he seemed a little confused about which kiln we were working on (strike two), but in the spirit of customer service assured us that we could come right on down to pick up the missing element. So I made my second trip of the day to the store to pick up the missing element, arriving back to the studio just before the end of the business day, and feeling determined to finish this
project before heading home for the night. I gave the kiln a thorough vacuuming in all the grooves to clean out any crumblies left behind. I inserted the first pigtail, starting at the bottom element, and work the coils into the grooves. But wait, this element is too long. A whole foot too long. I tried to pin areas to see if it wasn’t sitting in the grooves tightly enough, but no, it wouldn’t fit (strike three). The sun had gone down, Deb had gone to a meeting, and all sources of external support (i.e. Skutt) were closed for the day.

Take your time when pulling out old elements so you don't damage the kiln's soft brick wall!

I waited on a decision from Deb, and the next morning we called the techs at Skutt again and learned just how long the coils should be. Then, one by one, we measured, each element falling right at ten inches too long (For our kiln the elements need to be 187"). At this point we were feeling confident that the elements prepared for us were made based on specs for the wrong kiln. We made the third trip to the local store to return the elements (which was, surprisingly, the easiest step in the whole process). When we got back to the studio Deb made the call to Skutt to order the new elements, which arrived the very next day!

This time the installation is a breeze. Every coil fit just the way it should and while it took another five hours to place the coils, pin them in place, and reconnect the pigtails to the bus bars, the process is smooth as a knife cutting through room temperature butter. We ran the test firing and then we were back up and running just in time to hit all the deadlines! Hurray!

Learn from us. Identify your problem and use your manufacturer’s resources to learn about the solution from the start. Ordering elements immediately seemed like the best idea to get the ball rolling, but we initially sacrificed the manufacturer made parts for speed.  This resulted in more problem solving due to poorly fitting elements. We can’t express our gratitude to Skutt enough for how helpful they were in providing patient and specific advice throughout the whole project.

Deborah Schwartzkopf

Rat City Studios is the workspace of Deborah Schwartzkopf, Seattle based studio potter and instructor. Her mission is to engage and build community through clay – one person, one neighborhood, and one experience at a time. In service to this pursuit, she offers studio assistant positions for emerging artists, connects people through social events, instructs classes and workshops, and maintains a lively career in the ceramic arts!