Have you ever looked at the coiled innards of an electric kiln? Those small but mighty elements so many ceramic artists rely upon are made from high-temperature resistance wire, able to repeatedly withstand temperatures of up to cone 10, and sometimes higher. Nichrome (an alloy of iron, nickel, and chromium) and Kanthal (an alloy of iron, chromium, and aluminum) are the most common high-resistance wires we find used for kiln-heating elements. However, these wires come in many gauges, and can be used for many different applications within ceramic processes. In fact, we commonly see nichrome or Kanthal used in commercial kiln stilts, jewelry trees (for firing beads), and as an aesthetic enhancement in many artists’ work.
In my practice, I often use nichrome wire to add feet and attachments to my handbuilt pots. There are a few crucial characteristics of nichrome that require respect of the material, but as soon as you’re able to learn its idiosyncrasies, you can use it to add a completely different textural, sculptural, and functional element to your pieces.
Working with Nichrome Wire
You can work with nichrome wire before it is fired as you would with any other wire. I use a strong pair of needle-nose pliers to bend and cut the wire. Nichrome attachments should be added to your pieces at a soft leather-hard stage. Because clay shrinks and this wire does not, you want to be sure you’re not damaging or cracking your pieces as you insert the wire pieces. There is a delicate balance in ensuring the walls of your work are thick enough to hold in place and not crack around the wire, but thin enough (especially if you are using the wire as feet) that the wire will not bend under the weight of the piece. Nichrome, when heated, becomes very pliable and will flex and warp under too much weight. The hotter it gets, the more it will warp. On the other hand, if the piece is too thin, the wire will break through the clay walls.
For my cup feet, I use 15-gauge wire, as I find it the most structurally sound and easiest with which to work in my pieces. With needle-nose pliers, I twist the wire into a loop that mimics the elements inside a kiln (1). I’ve noticed this arced shape and the doubled-up loops provide more support and structural stability as feet that the piece will rest on. An arch also works, but I encourage everyone to safely experiment with their own shapes and ideas. Whichever shape you choose, leave at least ½ inch of straight wire on each end to insert into the piece when making feet (2); having long prongs inside the wall of the piece prevents warping.
Measure and mark the bottom of the mug to evenly distribute the wire feet around the base and into the walls (3). Supporting the clay both inside and out between your fingers, gently press the nichrome wire into the wall (4). Smooth the marks made by the impressions. Use a small level to level the rim, and gently press down on the piece to eliminate a wobbly base. Allow the piece to rest upside down for about 30 minutes so the clay firms up around the wire feet before flipping it over (5).
Additionally, the wire can be bent into shapes that are attached to make knobs (6), handles, ornaments, earrings, and wall-hanging loops. For earrings, I’ll often use very thin and delicate 22- to 24-gauge nichrome wire. If I want to suspend these lightweight earrings or ornaments after I glaze them, I hang them on very thick bead bars—nichrome, structural-grade wires that bend very little in the firing. In this way, on all my pieces, I can prevent the sharp marks that are left from stilts.
Nichrome, after it is fired, will build up an oxidized coating on the outside of the wire, turning it from bright silver to a more tarnished/black metallic color (just like kiln elements change color after their first firing). Sometimes, if I want to manipulate the wire after it has already been fired, it can be heated with a torch to red hot and bent with sturdy needle-nose pliers again. Safety gear like goggles and heat-resistant welder’s gloves are essential in this cold-working of the wire, and unfortunately it often results in the ceramic breaking due to thermal shock if the piece is too close to the part of the wire you’re heating. However, this technique offers you even more aesthetic freedom in how you use nichrome and Kanthal wire.
Working with nichrome wire has brought playfulness and lift to my pieces, and gives them a different structural and material feel from an all-clay piece. It also allows me to glaze the entire surface of my work without having to worry about the marks of stilts sticking to the work. I love the surprise and delight people get from seeing the finished pots, with their quirky feet and bright bottoms.
If you’re interested in trying this in your own work, I’d suggest you also look at examples by other contemporary artists working with high-temperature resistance wire, including Chandra DeBuse, who tested high-temperature wires to find one that was also magnetic; Jen Allen in sculptural and earring pieces; Stephen Heywood in architectural pieces; and Sandy Simon, Sunshine Cobb, and Lorna Meaden, who each use it for elements on vessel forms.
Sadie Winter grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, immersed in DIY art practices and influenced by the ingenuity of outsider art. Sadie has attended work-study programs at Penland School of Craft, interned at Anderson Ranch Arts Center, worked and interned at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, and currently teaches and works in Laramie Wyoming’s 7th Street Studio, making objects with care, thoughtfulness, and a sense of humor. Learn more at www.sadiewinter.com.