The Talk about Tools

by Sandra Lupo, Metalsmith, Jewelry Designer and Instructor,
Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and Beads®

So what's the deal on steel?

Even if you're familiar with using jewelry-making tools, these often associated terms may not be familiar to you: hardened steel, forged steel, tempered tool steel and carbon-hardened steel. In general, these terms relate to the treatment and forming of the steel that was used to make the tool. Steel used in tool making is hardened by annealing, cooling and then tempering. Annealing is the process of heating the metal to alter the molecular structure, eliminating any stress, making it more ductile or able to be manipulated. Cooling is usually done slowly where steel is concerned and tempering is done by applying heat at a lower temperature than annealing, to eliminate brittleness and achieve just the right amount of hardness for the tool's maximum performance. Fine quality tools made of corrosion-resistant stainless steel are subject to the same manufacturing processes to ensure strength.

EURO TOOL® Stainless Steel Looping Pliers Lindstrom® Professional-Guality Carbon/Chrome Ball-Bearing Grade Steel Long Chain-Nose Pliers Groovy Stainless Steel Chain-Nose Pliers by Wolf Tools®

Lap joint, box joint, rivet joint, screw joint--what do we need to know?

One major difference between economy and better quality tools lies in the joint construction. Scissors are constructed using a lap joint; the two layers are joined where they overlap at the pivot point. Pliers can also fit this type. Look for lap joint pliers that are reinforced with set screws that can be adjusted. Set screws will prevent the jaws of the pliers from closing past a certain distance which is a benefit in protecting the material you are working with as well as protecting the jaws so they don't hit one another.

With box joint construction, the jaws are forged to sit into each other and then they are riveted in position. This feature keeps joints from loosening and offers more stability over time and usage. Some tools are manufactured as box joint with lap joint screws. Consider longevity when choosing your very first or your fourth pair of pliers.

To spring or not to spring?

Springs are inserted into the handles of some pliers for your control of the tool. There may be one stainless steel leaf or two, a spring coil or an adjustable spring device that sits between the handles, allowing for a custom tension, as with Lindstrom's® Bio-Spring®. All spring mechanisms can be manually removed if the user prefers. Springs can move or break over time but replacements are usually available in the better quality tools.

OHM Bent Chain-Nose Pliers

Lindstrom Curved Chain-Nose Pliers

When to buy heavyweight pliers?

You'll understand the need for heavyweight pliers when you are trying to shape thick gauge wire with lightweight pliers and have little success. Keep your application in mind and match the tool to the metal thickness for best results. Tool manufacturers may recommend a range of wire gauges for certain tools in their labeling. It's a good idea to seek out those numbers if they're not readily available.

Lindstrom® EX Series Pliers Set

How about those ergonomic handles?

Treating yourself to ergonomically designed tools is not only a treat, it is a necessity. With repetitive tasks there is a strong need for comfort in the handles. Whether hands are small or large, there is a tool length that is right for every size. An average woman's hand might need a modestly long handle that ranges from 5" to 6". For larger hands, choose handles with longer lengths. Look to reduce the pressure of the handle-end when pressing into the palm. Travel size pliers are good in a pinch, but not for long-term use and not for repetitive work.

OmTara™ Crimping Pliers
Cushioning is also a comfort factor. It's hard to decide which type is better, spongy soft handles or molded plastic grips. Since there is an industry-wide conscious effort to offer ergonomically designed tools, we the end-users must keep ergonomics in our decision-making mix and seek out what is most comfortable for the task at hand.

Round-Nose Pliers With ''Cushion-Grip'' Handles

In a classroom situation, look around at the various pliers sets instructors and students use. Ask to handle a pair. What does the owner like about these pliers? Do the pliers meet her/his comfort needs? Are they used often? How old are the pliers? This may very well help narrow the field.

Wubbers™ Looping Pliers For Wireworking

In summary, as you progress as a jewelry maker, you may be handling these tools every day. Step up to special wireworking tools such as forming pliers when you find the needs you have are no longer satisfied with the standard round-, chain- or flat-nose pliers. There is a great assortment, with a tool for every application, and they are a joy to work with.

OHM Curved Chain-Nose Pliers

Owning tools--how to take care of them and make them your own.

There will be a breaking-in period regardless of the quality of the tools you own. Keep your tools well maintained, that is, keep them clean of debris on their jaws. Take down just the sharp edges with abrasive media such as a pen eraser, a rotary tool rubber wheel or with a series of polishing paper grits that will also remove scratches and nicks. This is called "dressing" your pliers.

When in a class, mark your tools with your initials. Keep a permanent marker in your toolkit or use a rotary tool bur attachment or etching pen and you'll never have to re-mark. Place etched initials on the flat side of the tool near its joint. When you pack up to leave class, you and others can identify your tools with ease.

Rotary Grinding and Polishing Set
Rotary Tool Accessories Kit

Keep a WD-40® pen handy and use as a light lubricant for the joints of your tools when they are not moving smoothly. If your tools will sit idle while you are on vacation, or you live in a humid climate, apply a heavier 3-in-1 type oil (found at your local hardware store) or a general purpose lubricant, suitable for tools as recommended by the manufacturer, then store your tools in a plastic bag to help prevent rust from forming on the steel.

These are just a few ways to make your tool purchase an informed decision and especially your own.