Wire is an integral part of most jewelry and fine gold or silver wire has been used to make ornaments for thousands of years. Wire is also the basis for most findings like earwires or pins. One of the first things early people created was string, and the concept of wire may have been based on that. Since wire does not occur naturally, how did early people create it?
Wire starts out as ore that is melted and refined to remove impurities. Then it is poured into a mold to create an ingot or lump of raw metal. Next this lump has to be hammered into a flat strip. The process of hammering makes the metal hard and brittle (work hardening). The next step is to soften the metal. This is done by heating the strip to a soft red color (annealing) and allowing it to cool slowly. Annealing allows the metal to reform its internal crystal structure, making the metal workable again.
Next the metal is folded lengthwise, in halves or in thirds, this is where the process starts to get complicated. After the metal is folded, it must be annealed again before the twisting process begins. This is where making wire is similar to making string. Twisting individual fibers into a string creates a strong flexible yarn and twisting the folded metal into a single cord has the same effect. Round wire is easy to work with and will take any fold or bend it is given. As the metal is twisted it is work hardened creating the round form we are accustomed to seeing.
The work hardened twisted wire is then annealed again. The process of hammer, anneal, fold, and twist can be repeated over and over again until the wire has been worked down to the required thickness. Each time the metal is hammered it gets thinner and longer. If the wire becomes too long the metal smith will cut it and work with a shorter piece, saving the remainder for another project.
This was the method used before hardened steel tools were available. With the advent of steel, metal smiths created draw plates. These are steel plates that have been punched to create a series of holes of ever decreasing diameter. The draw plate is held in a secure brace. The ingot is filed to a point on one end and then pulled through the smallest hole in which it fits. Then the ingot is then pulled or drawn through a series of smaller and smaller holes.
After two or three such drawing, the wire is work hardened and needs to be annealed once more before it can be drawn again. In this manner wire can be drawn to any desired diameter. An advantage to using draw plates is that the process is faster. Also the holes in the plate can be made in many shapes; triangular, square, or even star shaped wire can be drawn from the appropriate plates. Rectangular or square wire, produced by drawing, is much more difficult to work with and will not always take the fold or bend it is given, but the wide variety of shapes possible makes it an important factor in design.
The modern method of wire making is completely automated from pouring the ingot to the final draw. Artists can now buy wire from a supplier in any shape, size or hardness desired, ready for immediate use.