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by Janelle Hyatt, Wire-Sculpture.com

Jewelry Resource for
May 15, 2013

How is Wire Made?

The term "wire wrapping" is a bit like "suntan."

When you get a suntan (soon, people!), you show off your bronzed skin — it’s all about the tan. As for the sun’s role? Well, it’s there somewhere.

So it is with wire wrapping. Who, really, thinks about the wire? (OK, except for you home metallurgists getting ready to email me.) When someone admires your beautifully wrapped pendent, they’re not thinking: "Where did that wire come from?"

It seems that wire, like the sun, is taken for granted. So, we wanted to correct that oversight, give appreciation where it’s due.

After a bit of research, I’ve gained more respect for the lowly paper clip, and particularly for the fine wire we carry here at Wire-Sculpture. I’ve also learned that I can make (someday!) my own wire — yep, I didn’t know that was even possible.

How Wire was Made – In the Beginning

OK, a little bit of mandatory history. Wire was made as early as Egypt’s 2nd Dynasty, about 2600 BC. Its purpose? Jewelry and chains, of course. The ancient Egyptians pounded metal into sheets, then sliced it into strips. These strips were twisted or rolled, producing what is, effectively, wire with a seam. The Etruscans, a culture absorbed by ancient Romans, created short lengths of wire with anvil, fire, and hammer.

Draw Plates Changed the Game

These two methods of wire-making were the most advanced technology until medieval times, when an English craftsman came up with idea of physically pulling metal through a small hole in a die, called a drawplate. This method, called wire drawing, is the process still used today. Unlike ancient Egyptians, medieval people used wire for practical things, like brushes for carding wool. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that wire started to appear again in frivolities like brooches or necklaces.

Now Wire Mills are Highly Mechanized

Wire-making, like everything, has evolved into a highly mechanized industry. However, other than the fact that electricity has replaced sheet brute strength, wire making still follows the basic steps it did centuries ago. Strips of metal are pounded or rolled into shape, then pulled through a hole — like a funnel — in a cast-iron or diamond drawplate. The diameter of the wire is reduced, at the same time it is elongated. By continuing to pull the wire through increasingly smaller openings in the drawplate, the wire becomes thinner and thinner.

While round is the most common shape, wire mills have specialty draw plates that shape the wire into half-round and square shapes, too. The wire is reduced in increments of about 1/10th of a millimeter. The final hole size determines the diameter, or gauge, of the wire.

To get the wire into the die in the first place, its end is filed or pounded to a point. Pincers of some kind are attached to the wire, which is pulled through using a winch or tension pulley. Here’s where the brute strength came in: Before Thomas Edison, grunting and sweating laborers cranked and pulled, effectively compressing the metal by force alone as it funneled through the die. This is still repeated in many home metal shops. And yes, I am talking about the grunting and sweating.

Wire Hardness

As you know, working with metal hardens it. You’ve probably taken a hammer to your jewelry so it doesn’t bend out of shape. But here’s what is interesting: The temper of the wire is directly related to this drawing process. Wire hardness is measured using a scale of 0 to 4. Historically, the softest wire, a number 0, was pulled through the die one time. A hardness of 2, two times. Each time it was pulled through the drawplate, it would become stiffer.  Wire at hardness 4 would have been pulled through the die five or more times.

Today, those numbers don’t correspond with the number of times the wire is drawn through a drawplate. Instead, jewelry wire is sold as dead soft, half-hard, or full hard. Dead soft wire is manufactured with a hardness of 0, half-hard has a hardness of 2, and fully hardened wire is 4. Now, I understand more clearly what those numbers mean.

Copper wire, like the jewelry wire we sell, goes through as many as 10 or more sets of drawplates. Every few sets, the copper has to be annealed, or heated, to soften it before it continues its process through successively smaller dies. Telephone wire is drawn up to 20 times — but it goes in hot.

These centuries-old steps are carried out today in the workshops of individual artisans, who use primarily silver and gold. Here’s a link to a fascinating step-by-step look at one craftsman’s wire making.

And now that I have a greater appreciation for wire, it’s time to go outside and get a suntan!

Bonus Video: How Electrical Wire’s Made

Check out this video we found – it’s about electrical wire, but the basic process is the same for making jewelry wire up until the stranding machine. Too neat!

 

Resources & Futher Reading

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