by Leslie, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and Beads®
Wire is an integral component to jewelry. Whether you're wire-wrapping, creating coils, weaving or any other technique, the right wire choice will make your life easier. But, how do you know which wire to choose? In this article, learn about how hardness, gauge and more can affect your end result.
Discover the basics of beading wire and how to select the right wire for your projects. Patti will teach you the meaning of dead-soft, half-hard and full-hard and the benefits of each, along with the different gauges and shapes.
Dead-soft means it's easy to bend and can be manipulated easily without tools. That's it. These metals do not form hard or shape angles and will not hold shape well. It is good though for wire weaving, coils and spirals or wrapping around a harder base. Dead-soft can be work hardened as long as the core is changed, but it has limits. Hammering and other methods will work harden the outer layers to a small degree, but it does not alter the core and so the wire remains soft. Some metals, such as aluminum, are always soft and therefore not always labeled with a specific hardness.
Full-hard is the exact opposite of dead-soft. This wire is difficult to bend and can be a bit brittle if bent too far. Full-hard wire retains its shape exceptionally well. Full-hard metal wire or sheet is often used as a frame or base. It is possible to soften full-hard metal by the process of annealing. Annealing means to make metal more flexible by heating and then cooling in a gradual process that reduces risks of cracking, warping and breaking.
Half-hard is the sweet spot between the previous two tempers. This wire is fairly easy to bend, but it will retain its shape afterward. This particular hardness is the most commonly used wire for wire-wrapping, ear wires, jump rings and hard angles. Half-hard metals can be made softer or work hardened to a full-hard temper.
The above descriptors are how all metal hardness is described. The problem with this is that not all metals are created equal. Dead-soft sterling silver will not necessarily feel and work the same as dead-soft 14Kt gold. This is important to keep in mind when choosing the right metal for the right job. When making your own ear wires, dead-soft fine silver is a poor choice. It won't hold its shape and you'll work harden with little results. What this all means is, consider which metal alloy you're using, not just the hardness. Textured wire in the same metal also gains a slight edge on hardness, giving it a bit more rigidity when designing. This also applies to color-coated wire as opposed to base materials, such as how raw copper Zebra Wire™ will be slightly softer in temper if compared to colored Zebra Wire with layered enamel coatings.
As far as base metals are concerned, the following lists softest to hardest in terms of dead-soft, half-hard and full-hard. Notice how the lists change a little bit.
Softest to hardest: Dead-soft
Rich low brass
14Kt yellow gold
Softest to hardest: Half-hard
Rich low brass
14Kt yellow gold
Softest to hardest: Full-hard
Rich low brass
14Kt yellow gold
To help you select the best wire for your task at hand, our jewelry designers weighed in on how some of the wires available at Fire Mountain Gems feel when working with them.
Softest to Hardest:
Aluminum and dead-soft copper
Dead-soft sterling silver
MICROWrap™ nylon-coated stainless steel
Zebra Wire™ raw copper
Sterling Silver-Filled dead-soft
Half-hard sterling silver and gold-filled
Wrapit Nickel and Bronze
Sterling Silver-Filled half-hard
Full-hard sterling silver, sterling silver-filled and gold-filled
Half-hard stainless steel
Specifically aluminum, softest to hardest:
Flat ribbon aluminum
Textured ribbon aluminum
Textured round aluminum
Note: Especially when just beginning, it is best to choose a softer metal, as even just unspooling begins to work harden.
For a full list of the available wire materials, shop our Wire landing page.
Now, I mentioned work hardening a few times. But what does it really mean? As you work with metal, the more you manipulate it, the more rigid it will become. This process results in work hardening. On a more scientific level, you have moved the metal's molecules closer together. It is best to work harden as much as possible before shaping, since it can become increasingly difficult to work harden after your piece is finished. While working on your piece, check the hardness often so your metal doesn't become too brittle and break.
Ways to specifically work harden include:
Pulling wire straight with nylon-jaw pliers or polishing cloth
Tumbling with steel shot
Hammer with a rubber mallet or jewelry hammer on a steel block
Coiling and uncoiling
Pulling through draw plates
To soften up metal, you loosen the molecules up through the process of annealing. As explained in the full-hard section above, annealing is a process of heating and cooling resulting in more flexible wire. When annealing, metal oxidizes extremely quickly and a pickling solution is used to clean the metal to pristine quality again. Tammy Honaman shares the necessary tools and explanations in the tutorial ''Annealing Metal''. Hammering is common also when forming ear wires, and all wires are safe to hammer, even filled.
Wire shapes aren't just for looking pretty, as certain shapes are best used in certain techniques. Round is the most commonly used shape in general jewelry-making. Half-round is a favorite for creating ring shanks and wire-wrapping since there is a flat edge that will lie flat against skin, square wire frames, cabochons, etc. With four flat sides, square wire is used in bundling and can be used similarly to round wire.
The gauge of wire is determined by the thickness. Ear wires, head pins, jump rings and other findings are all measured by this gauge system. Often, the most confusing aspect about gauge is the smaller the gauge number, the thicker the metal is. The bigger the gauge number, the smaller the metal thickness is. For example, an 18-gauge (1mm) wire is twice as thick as a 24-gauge (0.5mm) wire.
The above chart depicts standard North American wire gauges, but this is not a worldwide measuring system. In other parts of the world, wire and metal sheet are labeled by their metric measurement. We have another handy chart to help with conversion so you get the right wire size.
As with any jewelry-making technique, there are special tools you'll want to consider using when working with wire. A tried and true set of pliers is a must. There are specific ''Non-Marring Wire-Wrapping Pliers'' discussed at length by Tammy Honaman, and these pliers are considered essential for wire-working. If you prefer to stick with your favorite set of regular pliers, Tool Magic® is an easy-to-use rubber coating you dip your pliers in to prevent against marring and other unsightly marks on your jewelry designs.
Draw plates and a sturdy set of tongs are tools you'll want around for not only work hardening, as discussed above, but also to ensure a tight, professional finish to wire weaving such as Viking Knit. With varying hole sizes, each draw plate allows you to customize your woven wire piece.
If you are looking instead to make your own components out of wire, then our range of coiling and wire jig sets are for you. WigJig®, Thing-A-Ma-Jig and Artistic Wire® allow you to place pegs into a grid for consistently making loops, links and other figures out of wire.
And, with all the wire tutorials you could ask for, as well as wire how-to videos with basic to advanced techniques, you're ready to start learning or advancing your wire techniques.
Lastly, this article covered mostly cold connections for wire, but soldering is exciting to try as well. For all the information you could possibly want on this hot technique, read the article ''The Differences Between Soft and Hard Soldering'' with tools, tips, which wire to use with which solder (like silver solder for silver-filled wire), instructions and more.