No matter how careful you are with your kiln, the odds are that you will eventually chip part of the brick wall, or an element may run out of the groove. If the elements are needing to be replaced, then it is easy enough to change the brick at the same time. What should you do if your elements aren’t ready to be changed yet?…Or if the kiln is really old and not really worth the effort to change the brick?…What if the chip isn’t really that bad, and you have the piece that came out? This month’s Tech Tip Tuesday is about creative and proper uses for the humble element pin.
What is an element pin?
Quite simply, an element pin is a short piece of iron-chrome-aluminum metal alloy; often the same wire that is used to make up your elements. This accounts for how it is able to withstand repeated heatings to kiln temperatures, and how it can be in contact with your elements without causing an electrical problem. The vast majority of hobbby-sized electric kilns in North America use pins to hold the elements in place. The most notable exceptions are kilns made by L&L (which use a ceramic holder which they pioneered), Cone Art (whose element grooves are cut to hold the element snugly), and some Paragon models (those with a deep or v-shaped groove).
Choosing an Element Pin
These pins come in many shapes and lengths: Straight, U-Shaped, Hook, Wire that you must cut yourself.
There are really 3 important factors about element pins to consider: wire gauge, length, and material. The rules for deciding these factors are easy to remember too:
- Use the thickest wire gauge that will do the job. The wire that pins are made from can deform when it gets hot. Don’t use a really thin wire and expect it to hold an element in place.
- The pin should NOT be so long that it goes all the way through the brick. This is because element pins are conductive. If it is touching the metal case, a thermocouple, or even bridging the gap between two different elements, it will conduct electricity and can potentially cause a nasty shock.
- ONLY USE WIRE THAT IS MADE FOR THIS PURPOSE. Regular wire will either melt (causing a big expensive mess to repair), or can cause all kinds of other problems. Simply put, you cannot buy wire that is suitable for pinning elements from the hardware or home improvement store. Get it from your kiln distributor.
How do I pin an element?
Ah, the One-Million dollar question. Many of you may be familiar with element pins that have come out of the brick. Likely these weren’t put in correctly in the first place. Putting in element pins is not hard. The brick itself is soft enough that you simply push the pin into the brick using a pair of thin-nosed pliers. When pinning elements, you want to make sure the pin sits on TOP of the element wire, but holds the element to the bottom of the groove. Put the pin in at an angle to increase the holding strength of the pin.
What are some other uses for element pins?
On the repair side, I tend to use element pins a lot. If an element groove-front is missing, you can make a “fence” out of element pins instead of replacing the brick. This is quite useful on older kilns that may not really be worth the money to replace the brick – or on kilns where the elements are not ready to be replaced yet. You want to use as few pins as possible, yet still get the job done. Every 3/4″ ought to do it. I’ve even made a successful fence out of one pin as the gap was very small.
If a big chip is out of a brick, and you still have the chunk, you can use element pins like nails to put the piece back in place. I like this better than kiln cement as it is not nearly as messy and, when done right, holds the piece quite well. The secret is to “toenail” the chunk back in place. “Toenailing” is simply where you change the angle of every other pin so it is going into the brick a different direction. Be careful, though. If the chunk you are pinning back is too small, the act of driving the pin through it can cause it to break further. If a chunk is too small to pin back in place, it usually doesn’t need to be pinned back in at all. Just build a fence and move on.
Is there a time where you MUST pin an element?
Yep. If you have an element that has run out of its groove, is dangling down and is in danger of touching another element, or crawling across the floor of your kiln, it needs to be pinned to make it immobile. The element REALLY ought to be replaced or put back in its groove, but sometimes you need to get that firing done while your elements are en-route. Use your judgement, and err on the side of safety. Elements belong in their grooves. If you need help, don’t hesitate to contact me for further assistance.