Martz Memories by Stanley Lee                                                                          Tale #6

Master-teacher as a source     Kanthal wire


By the time I enrolled in Karl Martz’s ceramics class in 1956, all kinds of new materials and equipment were being advertised.  It was hard to distinguish between the useful products and the junk.  A good teacher kept watch on the advertisements and helped us evaluate.  Our master-teacher kept watch.


     War-time electric kilns used heating elements made from nichrome wire.  With repeated use, the elements burnt out, for the wire coils softened.  These coils also expanded, and sometimes fell out of their supporting grooves in the kiln walls.  The kiln manufacturers kept supplies of replacements on hand but it became bothersome to change elements.  However, a Swedish company developed an iron-based element material which they sold as Kanthal wire.  After the war, they opened a distribution center in the U.S., advertised their presence, and offered the wire for sale.  Our teacher obtained a quantity of the wire for us to examine, and we could use some, if we saw a need. 


     One big advantage of the Kanthal product over the nichrome wire became apparent.  Instead of softening and coil expanding with repeated use, the wire hardened.  In an experiment  I made staples with Kanthal wire and used them to pin back into place the parts of nichrome elements which had fallen out of their grooves.  The idea worked, and some elements enjoyed a longer life.  The success gave me another idea. 


     Ceramic glazed beads, for bracelets and necklaces, were in vogue.  However, to get the beads glaze-coated and ready for firing in the kiln posed problems.  A bead that touched the kiln shelf during firing, stuck, and was lost.  Furthermore, the task of removing the fired bead meant delays with time wasted until the kiln-shelf was cleaned.  Such delays were unpopular.  Students tried stringing beads on short lengths of old nichrome wire.  The wire was bent at right-angles, and then pressed into a piece of insulating brick to provide support.  Frequently, the already softened wire would sag enough to allow the glaze to touch other beads, or even melt onto the brick surface.  Bead makers were frustrated.  Laborious techniques to keep beads from sticking seemed to be the only ones available.  The use of Kanthal wire came to mind.  I substituted Kanthal in place of the old nichrome.  It worked, and I was able to get three rows of glaze-coated beads onto one piece of insulating brick.  The bead makers were happy again. 


     That is not quite the end of the Kanthal wire story.  Several years later, when I wanted to replace elements on an old and “discarded” electric kiln I remembered Karl’s introduction to Kanthal.  I found their corporation had a distribution center in Bethel, Connecticut.  I ordered wire and coiled a new top element.   At the time, I really needed a kiln that would allow me to bisque fire plate forms of twenty-four inches in diameter, but my “inherited “ kiln was too small.  However, my studio was next door to a firebrick company, so I bought insulating bricks from them, and I enlarged the area of the top of the kiln.   Next I coiled the Kanthal wire on a drill rod, to serve as a home–made element.  My new coil was supported in grooves cut into the insulating bricks, which was a standard practice.  In this way I had made a larger firing area, and made a new top shelf area of sufficient size to bisque fire my large plates.  Once more, Kanthal wire had come to the rescue!