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Electric ones use a conductive heating element in the base that heats the container of food that is set on it. Other types of food warming trays (commercial) use hot water to keep food trays warm. Finally there are warming trays like chafing dishes that use an open flame with a fuel canister like sterno to directly heat the food tray.
I have a west bend crockery cooker, model 84316. It was given as a gift. My wife has tried to use it 3 times and each time the outside becomes to hot to touch, while the contents of the removable crock gets only luke warm. I also noticed the bottom of the cooker has turned brown from excess heat, looks like a possible fire hazzard. Does anyone have this problem, is there a recall on this product.
You might consider buying a whole new base considering the problem you are having purely as a "safety issue". Temperature controls can be serious safety hazards. If it's not stable best if you replace the base. You can buy one at West Bends link for half the price of a new one.
Or you can also try this first. At some time in its use you might have gotten food oil in the control. Take the knob off and spray a commerically available "electronic contact cleaner" along the shaft and into the control pot. Turn the shaft back and forth several times as you do this. Depending on how dirty it is you may have to spray it quit a bit before it is cleaned out. I don't believe the base is emmerasble in water so don't do that.
***This is only a temporary fix and not the best one. ***
The time and money you will spend fixing it if you can even find the replacement part is probably more than buying a replacement base.