‘I can make it’

. . . says the artisan who can make just about anything out of sheets of copper

Karl Kienhau hammered a design into copper in a mold. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

When the fountain in front of the sprawling Badger Meter plant in Milwaukee tipped over, Karl Kienhau told his bosses not to worry—he could make a better one.

“I’m very mechanical, so I think I can do anything,” he said with a laugh. “Give me a picture, I can make it.”

Kienhau figured out that the fountain failed because it was made of mild steel, so he built its replacement of stainless steel. He had never worked with that material before, but no matter, the fountain was a resounding success that has stood for years.

The Belgium resident, now 83, was working as an electrician at Badger in the 1960s when he took on the fountain project. He retired 20 years ago, but his “I can make it” ethic is still going strong.

Now he works mainly   with copper, creating everything from the bowls, vases and jewelry he sells at the Port Washington farmers market to large metal sculptures like the towering fabrication in the foyer of the Port Exploreum.

He started with copper in 1985 after his mother broke her hip. She had to sell her chickens, so he made her a weather vane with a rooster on it.

He read articles on how to work with the metal, but Kienhau has relied mostly on an aptitude for metal working. “I was probably born to do this,” he said.

In his basement shop, Kienhau creates wooden molds for some pieces, such as famous buildings that are pounded into copper plates.

“That room is full of molds,” he said.

Some pieces people request. Others, Kienhau said, are “dreams” that he comes up with himself. He is working on a globe-shaped piece 12 feet in diameter that will have pinwheels or fans that whirl.

“It will revolve and look different as it turns,” he said.

He buys roofing copper from Ryerson steel of Milwaukee, buying 500 pounds of 4 by 5-foot sheets at a time.

He has worked with wood and other non-ferrous metals such as bronze but prefers copper.

“It’s so forgiving. You can move it and bend it,” he said. “It’s so versatile.”

Kienhau colors his copper pieces with a torch, a process that ensures that each of his pieces is one of a kind. He couldn’t mass produce them even if he tried.

“I can get the same design but not the same colors,” he said. “There are so many ifs I couldn’t tell anybody how to do it.”

Choosing the colors is the easy part. The copper handles that: “I don’t get the colors I want. I accept the colors that are there.”

Despite spending years in artistic metalworking that helped support a wife and five children, Kienhau is still figuring things out.

“Every time I do it I learn another way,” he said.

Most of the smaller pieces take about a day to complete, but Kienhau said, “It’s not work to me.”

His home and yard are filled with his metal masterpieces. He is working on a copper tombstone for his wife, who died in April.

His career took him and his family to another state before returning to Port Washington and then Belgium.

After completing the Badger Meter fountain, Kienhau bought his own welding machine that could handle stainless steel or bronze.

He eventually moved to Florida and ran a fountain business. One of his best-known creations produced the dancing waters display at the old Cypress Gardens.

Kienhau also made fountains for shopping malls across the country.

Other famous pieces include the Kenosha Veterans Memorial fountain and his favorite, the Stumpf Belvedere dome at the Green Bay Botanical Gardens.

“I can feel good when I look at it,” he said.

The one closest to home is the lighted sculpture in the Port Exploreum. Local yacht designer Bill Prince designed it and Kienhau built it.

Kienhau said he got the job because he threw in a lift to move elements of the sculpture up and down for cleaning.

Kienhau used aluminum because its lightweight accommodated the movability feature. He attached veneer to each piece.

The structure took six months with much of the work done in a back room of the museum while it was under construction.

The lighting feature complicated the project. “It was a big relief when she worked all right,” Kienhau said.

For more information, visit www.kwkcopper.com.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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