Twisting Wire into Pleasing Shapes
EVERY NOW and then I read that every man should have a hobby, but his hobby should be completely divorced from his regular work. I agree with the first part of that statement, but, in my case, at least, I must disagree with the second.
My hobby—stainless steel wire sculpture of both utilitarian and novelty pieces—grew out of my work. You see, I am a research engineer with the Baltimore Works of Armco Steel Corporation. I was fortunate enough to participate in the development of a new process for polishing intricate shaped articles fabricated from stainless steel and in designing and setting into operation the first commercial electropolishing unit in the country. In electropolishing, by the use of certain chemicals and electric current, you can give a high luster to stainless steels without the need for conventional polishing and buffing.
My hobby of wire sculpture—that is, twisting stainless steel wire into various things, useful or ornamental—dates back quite a few years. It has been a very satisfactory one because of its basic simplicity. Nothing more is required than whatever time you wish to devote to it, a coil of stainless wire, a pair of pliers, and whatever idea you may have at the moment. The first piece of wire I ever twisted into a gadget happened to be a simple kitchen device. One day during my early married days when my wife was studying cooking and buying all sorts of kitchen aids, she showed me her latest purchase—what she thought was a clever cake tester. I took one look at the simple pieces of wire with a loop on one end and a tapered point on the other and asked her what she paid for it. She said ten cents. Cheap enough, but it started me off. I hustled down to my basement workshop, such as it was, and fifteen minutes later I came up with three of the gadgets. My wife smiled approvingly and gave one to her mother and another to a friend. She has the third one to this day, whether for sentiment or use, I don't know. Within a matter of days I was making more cake testers for friends and relatives, and my wire-twisting avocation was underway.
You know how wives are. From then on just about everything that needed mending, adding to, reinforcing, or even inventing, she'd ask if it couldn't be done with wire. Surprisingly enough, often it could. If it worked well or looked good, the always present friends came in on the run. It wasn't long before my hobby had reached the point where my wife was wearing stainless wire "bracelets and earrings and I was sporting a wire tie clasp. Good looking, too.
ALONG ABOUT this time the electropolishing of stainless steel had developed to the stage where it was a simple matter to turn any piece of this metal into a thing of gleaming beauty with the process. Now I could twist wire into complicated shapes and polish it readily. Of course, this is not altogether necessary because stainless steel wire can be bought with a bright finish and by careful fabrication you can prevent the need for electropolishing. Should you still want to electropolish your work, a small, simple unit can be rigged up cheaply and easily. For polishing small pieces such as wire names, tie clasps and jewelry, use a stainless steel or other suitable pan, a six-volt auto battery and the necessary electrical connections and chemicals. Electropolishing is the opposite of electroplating. The work is the anode or positive terminal. The container is the cathode, the negative terminal, and must be made from a material that will conduct current to complete the circuit.
There are many electrolytes (solutions) that can be used. Most of these are patented processes on which information can be obtained from a public library, trade magazines or supplied by the writer. The simplest of these is seventy-five per cent concentrated phosphoric acid, and gives excellent results.
The pan is filled with the solution to the desired depth and connection made to the negative side of the battery. Then the work is connected by a suitable lead to the positive side of the battery and carefully placed in the solution so as not to touch the pan. This completes the circuit and the polishing action begins, which is evident by heavy gasing. The work is generally held in a horizontal position about one inch away from the bottom of the pan. A two to five-minute cycle is usually sufficient, after which the work is removed and rinsed. When the acid solution is heated to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit, the reaction is faster. To prevent the work from touching the pan, glass rods, glass cloth, strips of Bakelite, or some other nonconducting material that will not be attacked by the acid, may be placed on the bottom. The work is generally held by two contacts—this supports it and insures more uniform distribution of current.
ONE DAY, for a change of pace, I tried twisting a name and it turned out well. Then I twisted my wife's name (don't take me too literally on that), mounted it on a piece of polished wood, and presented it as a surprise gift on her birthday. She was very proud of it and displayed it in our living room for years. It attracted much attention from everybody who visited our home.
That year at Christmas it was personalized name plates for most of our friends and relatives. As a consequence, I got more orders for them than I could possibly fill. It is quite an art to twist a piece of stainless steel wire into an attractive, well-rounded-out name, and it takes a good deal of persistence to master it, but it can be done as my work has shown. I usually twist only four or five at a sitting because it's a little hard on the fingers.
The first thing to do is to cut a piece of wire. This causes some concern as how long to make it. It is very discouraging to work on a name and find out you cut too short a length. Many names I have made required over four feet of wire. Usually I use 1/16-inch wire but smaller or larger can be used. The larger the wire the tougher to bend, although it makes a larger name sign. The 1/16-inch wire with capital letters about one inch high and other letters 3/8 to ½ inch makes a good balanced name plate.
When starting, practice first with a short length and make some simple letters or short names. It is necessary to set your style and height of letters first. Then you can easily judge the length required for the names. Some capital letters such as an M or W require about a six-inch length. Also start with a cut length. It is easier than working from a small coil.
The next step is to write the name on paper using a continuous line without lifting the pencil. This may require some thought. You must decide how to make certain letters and be in position to start the next letter.
To begin, leave about four inches of wire before starting the first letter. This is used to fasten the finished name to the base. Grip the wire firmly with pliers and form the letter. I have found it most comfortable to work the letters upside down and form them from the back. A right handed person naturally will find himself forming the letters upside down from the back side and working from right to left. After the first letter start the second and proceed the same way. Even spacing and even-height letters make the job well balanced and attractive. When finished, fold the ends in the back and fasten to the base plate of your choosing. You can dispense with electropolishing by using a bright finish wire, but more care is necessary to prevent scratching.
Uniformity makes the individual letters stand out and should be maintained. Always bend in the same direction wherever there is a choice. The exception to this rule is with a small "f" which is preceded by a "b," "o" or "v" it must be bent to the back. A few illustrations may help to show how some letters are made.
Some of the lower case letters are made like this:
MY NAME plates created quite a stir. Here was a gift that was unique, unlikely to be duplicated, and completely personal. Soon I was a customer of my own company, buying stainless steel wire to fill requests from friends, friends of friends, and friends of their friends. One of our salesmen asked me to make up several wire names for some of his special accounts. These went over so big that I couldn't keep up with my orders. I had to turn down more than I could fill. I charged $2 for a stainless name plate including a metal base.
One of my more interesting jobs was making wire names for an important banquet in New York where the guests were from all over the world. That was really a dilly—there wasn't a pronounceable name in the lot. Another request was for a very large sign to be used in display. Up to then the name plates I had been making were about a half-inch high by four inches long made from 1/16-inch wire. This one was for letters eight inches high and, when completed, was five feet long! Naturally I was somewhat dubious about the outcome of this "giant," but all's well that ends well and it did end well and looked quite impressive. But it was some job working with only a pair of pliers and a vise to hold and bend the quarter-inch diameter wire.
From wire name plates to simple gadgets and ornaments that was the way it went. My wife bubbles with ideas, most of them of an impossible nature, at least to me. Almost everyone I meet who sees one of my pieces comes up with an idea of his own. I have made and mounted on bases such diverse figures as golfers, bowlers, boxers, tennis players and trumpet and trombone players. I have made frames to hold odd shapes of glasses and vases, climbing supports for potted plants, picture hangers, cake baker frames, coat hangers for doll dresses, egg holders for dyeing Easter eggs, poultry needles, spears and holders for outdoor barbecuing, mended dog chains and—well, you complete the list—about anything you could do practically with stainless steel wire. It's been a lot of fun with as much profit as one would want from a hobby. Especially satisfying have been the many compliments on my handiwork. To paraphrase the poet: "Breathes there the man with soul so dead who wouldn't let praise go a bit to his head?"
THE ATHLETIC figures are made like this:
Two sizes of wire are used, 1/16 and 1/32 inch. Tightly coil about 5 inches of 1/32 inch wire on a nail using a brace. (Figure 1) Cut into four equal parts, two for arms and two for legs. Stretch each to 3 inches. Tightly coil another length about 1½ inches long on a ¼ inch diameter dowel (Figure 2) for body and neck. Do not stretch. Bend a piece of 1/16-inch wire as shown in Figure 3. Place in vise near middle and put another 10 inch length wire just below the loop. (Figure 4.) Twist to tighten the arms in, using a ½-inch dowel, holding the arm piece about three to four finished loops from the head. This forms the neck part. (Figure 5.) Straighten legs at hip and slip larger 1½-inch spring over. Twist part past the arms—to form the neck. (Figure 6.) Shape hip and slip small springs on and form feet. Do same to arms and shape to action pose. (Figure 7.) The head may be either full face or an angle. Fasten to a base. Most any type of action pose can be made.
Practice makes perfect and wire sculpture takes a lot of practice. Regardless of how the first one looks, the hobbyist will be proud of his effort. It is something new and different and well worth the effort.
WIRE SCULPTURE has been a pleasurable and profitable hobby for me. I have not needed a special merchandising plan or sales program because one sale—let's say, to a friend—led to another and multiplied as they went. My company has bought names plates in lots for banquets and other occasions. Our salesmen buy them for individual customers as Christmas and other gifts. Mine is a hobby and not a part time job.
What to charge for your wire figure work is something you will want to work out for yourself after you have attained the skill and competence you have been striving for. Equipment and material costs are relatively little. Your time and creative ability plus a reasonable profit are the biggest part of it. Then, too, human nature being what it is, what you charge a friend may be somewhat different from what you charge a mere acquaintance or somebody you have not known. But it won't be too difficult for you to arrive at fair and profitable prices when you have had some experience.
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.