Jacob's Ladder Sculpture From Found Materials




About: I am a kinetic sculptor who works from found materials.
This sculpture is the first product from my artists residency at the San Francisco Dump. Having been a found object kinetic sculptor for many years now I was very pleased to have this opportunity. One of the first things that I found during my time there was an old broken neon sign. I recalled my good friend CTP explaining to me that this was the only vital ingredient in a Jacob's Ladder, so I set out to make one. As an artist I was not going to be satisfied with this project without a fair amount of needless details and diversions. Hopefully this instructable will provide insight into the actual "how to" of a Jacob's Ladder, as well as a peek into my creative process. For more examples of my work, please visit www.nemogould.com.
I should at this point stress the dangerous nature of this project. Though very simple in principle, we are still dealing with very high voltage here. Kids, don't try this at home!

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Step 1: Gathering Materials

In my case this involved spending some time up to my knees in San Francisco's garbage. Others might consider second hand stores or garage sales.

Step 2: What You Need

The essential ingredient that I alluded to is the power transformer from a neon sign. I was fortunate to also find a collection of old volt meters, switches and lights that will be (unnecessarily) included in the design.

Step 3: Composition

In addition to the transformer, you will need something clear to cover the electrodes to keep things safe. I am told that it is best to use something that is open on both ends. I found an old cover for a candle stick called a "hurricane". After some digging around, a vintage vacuum cleaner presented itself as a good fit with the hurricane, and a night stand was selected as a base.

Step 4: Assembly

I find whenever making anything that has to stand on its own, that it is best to work from the ground up. So, resisting the urge to start making sparks fly right away, I began by constructing the base.
The center drawer support rail was removed from the night stand to make room for the guts, and the old varnish was stripped away using Jasco paint and epoxy remover (nasty stuff, gloves and goggles mandatory).

Step 5: Drilling Holes / Wood Treatment

The top of the night stand is drilled to allow for bolts to attach the vacuum cleaner, and the sides are drilled for ventilation (and as an excuse to use some cool aluminum mesh that I found). Once all the wood work was done, I used some wood stain and then Polyurethane to seal the surface, and make it look nicer.

Step 6: Metal Work.

This step was not necessary for the project to be successful, but it is an integral part of my art process. I felt that the vacuum cleaner parts, still looked too much like vacuum cleaner parts. This was due largely to the presence of all the holes where bolts and rivets used to be. In addition, the surface was pretty nasty from oxidation and neglect. I use 3M abrasive wheels in a pedestal mounted buffing machine to quickly bring old aluminum back to life. This makes everything look much better, and is also necessary for good welds. A tig welding machine was then used to fill in any holes that were not part of the final design.

Step 7: Wiring

So, the only thing that makes a Jacob's Ladder function is exposing the two leads from the transformer to each other across a small gap (about one inch). This is also where all the potential danger lies. These are very high voltage wires, about 10,000 volts in this case. Do not allow them to touch each other, or any part of you!
These wires are attached to the ends of your electrodes. Any long skinny metal thing will do, I used salad tongs. The electrodes are attached to a non conductive base (plywood with a thick rubber mat on top). The trick is to place them just far enough apart that a strong arc forms between them, and that they taper away from each other at a rate sufficient to allow the arc to climb up until the gap is too great and it breaks.
The neon transformer was fastened inside the night stand and the leads were run up inside the vacuum cleaner base to make this arrangement work. I then used a foot pedal (sorry no photo) to act as the main switch. It is important that you place the switch in the input power line, and not the output one!
I wanted to use some of those cool old meters and switches as well so I decided to make an instrument panel from an aluminum baking tray. A small wall transformer was used to make one of the meters work, as well as a green indicator light.
I find that it is always best to build your electrical circuits with test leads first before committing to more permanent connections.

Step 8: Finished!

Finally, three lengths of all-thread are used to sandwich the glass hurricane between the two vacuum cleaner halves. I fashioned some crude gaskets out of a rubber floor mat to minimize stress on the glass.
Overall I was very happy with the outcome of this project. The effect of a Jacob's Ladder may be simple, but it still never fails to capture the imagination. I felt that by enhancing the presentation of this effect, an already good thing was made a even better.
If you would like to see more of my sculptures, please visit www.nemogould.com

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    33 Discussions


    10 years ago on Step 8

    I am glad you included the hurricane for safety. Nice welds; very clean looking. I can tell you care about your creations. I looked at the slideshow on your website. Very creative!

    2 replies

    Reply 10 years ago on Step 8

    Hey thanks! I just finished up my second jacob's ladder project here in case you missed it.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    The Psychos-O-Matic is freaking rad! Nice work on both projects! I've been wanting to encase my Jacob's ladder in something for safety. I was thinking about some kind of hurricane glass as well. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Lord Skudley

    9 years ago on Step 7

    This is all great and looks good, but a schematic showing what wire goes where would be very helpful!


    12 years ago on Introduction

    i would love 2 make a simpler one of thease but i cant ever find a neon sign transformer in atlanta i mean ud think that they would just b lyin around somwhere with a broken sing but nooooo anf the ones from criags and ebay r a total sham the shipping is half the price and i dont wanna pay 40+ dollars 4 somthin that should b abuntan in a city

    6 replies

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I find the best place is paris on ponce, right by the whole foods and home depot. It's at the top of the hill, and inside, there is a whole bunch of junk and things that they'll sell to you at a reasonable price. Just make sure to check out the WHOLE store, and not just one spot. It's perfect for this type of thing.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    if you get a old computer screen they provide enough to volts for a ladder check the site this has been posted before


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I don't think you should be worried about working with a flyback transformer if you can't even use basic grammar. . .


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    You can also use an OBT (oil burner (ignition) transformer). They tend to be a lower voltage than an NST (neon sign transformer) so you might have to make do with a smaller jacob's ladder. Mine on the other hand is just as powerful as an NST, it is a OBT that generates 15kV at 40mA rms. It is a danfoss and I got it for about £12 on ebay. AlexHalford


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I got my neon transformer of ebay for under $20 with shipping you just got to wait around for a good deal.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    I got excited because I thought it was an idea I had about making a machine to just keep doing one of those olde fashioned jacob's ladders.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    im looking for transformers on ebay, and i dont know what hte difference, if they will both work, between a neon tech model 210AI (it says its electric neon transformer) and a franceformer ??

    1 reply

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    First of all, go to a sign shop and ask, they're probably throwing some lame but not totally dead ones away. Second, France always made the best neon transformers. If you get an old Franceformer you're lucky. Third, be careful people. Please, if you get one over 30mA be extra careful. 30mA gives you a good little jolt. Anything over this is really pushing it. I've been bit by 120mA and thought I was done for. Go for voltage over amperage.