Getting Started – things you need to know
by Helen Goga
Making jewellery from wire is really about learning how to control your wire and to manage your pliers. Everything after that is simply a study of what the wire will and will not do, and that can change from gauge to gauge or by switching from one type of wire to another. The fun part is, with just a few basic tools, you can create countless pieces of beautiful jewellery and then change the way each piece looks by modifying its design.
To begin, you must have the right tools. Choosing your own will come from experience and personal preference. (Should you wish to learn how to critique pliers before you purchase them, read the sample article, Tools, tools, tools posted this site or on www.wirejeweler.com.
The three basic pliers required are: round-nose pliers, flat-nose pliers and flush cutters.
Add to these: a chamois cloth (or jeweller’s cloth), ruler, protractor (from a chemistry set), masking tape, felt-tip pen, file, caliper, pocket knife, mandrel (without groove) and pin vise. These items are all affordable and some can be purchased from your local store but, for the right type and for better quality, it is recommended that you pick up the pliers, file, caliper and pin vise from a bead or jewellery-craft store.
There are also specialty pliers that make your job a little easier. Of these, here are some favourites: regular and large-sized 3-step combination pliers (one jaw is flat while the other has three uniform rounded steps); chain-nose pliers because of the same inner flat surface as flat-nose pliers but with the added benefit of a tapered jaw; combination chain/round-nose pliers because the opposing flat surface of the chain-nose jaw will help you control the wire as well as avoiding pressure marks while forming loops or circles; bail-making pliers (one 7mm cylinder and one 9mm cylinder) for shaping two or more wires at the same time.
Once you have your flat-nose (and chain-nose) pliers picked out, file off all sharp edges to avoid tool marks.
It is also important to note that, though you normally use pliers for leverage and ‘brute strength’, when making jewellery from wire, you need apply only enough pressure on the handle of your pliers to hold on to the wire. (Whatever pressure is being applied to the handle will be magnified on the tip of pliers by 10, 20, 30 times, etc.) If you apply too much pressure, you will end up with a tool mark on the wire even before you get started.
Making jewellery from wire does not require the use of solder, torches or acids. It is simply the ability to strategically manipulate the wire in such a way that you can make a beautiful ring/earrings/bangle/necklace/bracelet — whatever you can think of. And it's fun!
Contrary to what you might have thought, you control the wire by using your non-dominant hand — the hand that holds on to the wire — and through finger positioning. The best results are achieved when you remember to hold on to the wire as close as possible to the jaws of the pliers. While holding on to the wire, you will either turn the handles of the pliers — thus forcing the jaw(s) to shape the wire — or you can use your fingers to shape the wire around the jaw(s) to get the desired outcome. And, sometimes you do both.
Your wire will come loosely coiled and will remember holding that shape. This is evident when you let out a short piece of it — let’s say a foot or two. A chamois (or jeweller’s cloth) is used to straighten it. Simply hold the coil in your non-dominant hand, with the protruding end between your finger and thumb. Use your dominant hand to hold the chamois between your first two fingers and thumb. Place the cloth onto the loose end right next to the coil and draw the cloth along the wire towards its end. As you draw the cloth — with a firm touch without bending the wire — work against the curve in the wire. Repeat several times until that portion of the wire is straight. Beginners should start with really short pieces — anywhere from six to eight inches.
The longer the wire, the harder it is to control. Learning to straighten your wire is the first step in this process; you will also learn to feel the temper of the wire and recognize how that will change as you work.
You can order wire that is tempered from soft to spring hard, soft being 0 and the grades of hardness being 1#, 2#, 3#, 4#, etc. But at 4# hard, you are already at spring-hard wire. You should also know that, as you work the wire, you will work-harden it. This means that you can change it simply by straightening it and manipulating it into the shape desired. The more you work it — and the smaller circumference you form — the quicker it becomes hard. So you can take a wire which is 0 and change it to 1# hard, 2# hard, 3# hard and, if you were to work it even more (all the way up to 4# hard), you could break it. That’s why wire-art jewellers do not buy wire that is harder than 2# hard (otherwise known as half-hard).
Wire sizes range from 30 gauge through 10 gauge. The higher the gauge number, the thinner the wire. Wire is very versatile and, depending on the project, gauges can be substituted by either going up or down a size. Generally, the thinner gauges (28 and 30) are perfect for knitting, the mid ranges (20 to 22) work well for bezel settings, bindings, necklaces, chains and ear wires, while the thicker gauges (10 through 18 as well as 20) lend themselves nicely to work in jump rings. Wire is ordered by specific gauge sizes that are measured in inches or millimetres. Here’s a handy chart to help you understand each size.
Understanding that wire hardens as you work explains the two different techniques used to twist wire.
To twist a length of soft wire, straighten it and place about 1/4-inch of one end into a pin vise. Sit on the edge of your chair and hold the other end of the wire with your flat-nose pliers. Extend your leg (which leg you extend depends on whether you are right- or left-handed. I’m right-handed, so I extend my right leg.) Using the extended leg, put the pin vise on the top of your thigh and place your fingertips on the vise.
While keeping the wire straight and moving the two tools together in the same direction, roll the pin vise under your palm down the length of your thigh.
Lift both tools up — at the same time — and return the vise to the top of your thigh; repeat several times until you have the degree of twist desired.
The wire will twist evenly along its entire length. (In effect, you have taken a soft wire and worked it to about a half-hard wire.)
However, twisting a 2# (half-) hard wire requires a different technique. Beginning at one end, slide your pin vise along the length of the wire, stopping about two inches from the other end. Tighten the vise and hold the tip of the (small) end with your flat-nose pliers. Twist the section between the tools by turning the vise until you achieve the degree of twist desired. Open the vise and slide it back along the wire about 1-1/2-inches, tighten the vise and then move the pliers over on top of the last few twists in the wire. Again, turn the vise until you have the same degree of twist between the two tools. Repeat this process along the entire length of the wire. Be careful not to over-twist the wire, as it may work-harden to spring hard and break.
Precious Metal (Scraps)
When working with any of the wires made from precious metals, keep your scraps in a container, because the precious-metal content can be sold back to your supplier for either a credit on your next order or a cash payment. This way you can give yourself permission to use the better-quality wire. But, before sending them your scraps, check with your supplier about weight requirements.
Tumbling & Polishing
Once your jewellery is ready, it can be tumbled to clean, work-harden and even (if necessary) remove small scratches or tool marks, making your pieces smooth, shiny and wearable. Depending on the tumbler, your pieces will either be rolled, rubbed, or vibrated.
There are quite a number of light affordable tumblers ideal for smaller items such as earrings. The best person to talk to about each product is your supplier. He will also advise you of the appropriate medium (such as stainless-steel shot) to use with each tumbler.
I use a rotary tumbler that requires stainless-steel shot and burnishing compound. Burnishing compound is a low-foaming detergent concentrate that should be diluted (to a two-per-cent solution) with water before use. (In other words, two parts burnishing fluid to 98 parts water.)
By way of an overview, the tumbler is filled halfway full of stainless-steel mixed shot and then enough water (that is mixed with burnishing compound) to cover the jewellery and the shot. (The tumbler should never be filled past three-quarters full.)
Tumble your pieces long enough to clean, polish and work-harden. That can be as much as three or four hours, or as little as an hour.
Bench block and hammer
Hammering wire not only flattens but work-hardens it, adding an esthetic accent to your finished piece and confidence that your piece will wear well.
Visor or Reading Glasses
Your work will not be its best if you cannot see well!
With a large selection of excellent magnifiers available, remember to pick what best meets your needs and personal preferences.
As you critique them, keep in mind that you should be working in a natural position with a comfortable posture while holding your work about 12 inches in front of you. This will help you avoid arm fatigue and sore back muscles.
Like everything else you may do, the more often you do it, the better at it you become. So, go ahead and give yourself permission to practise and to make mistakes. Some of the most beautiful designs originated from a happy mistake!