Monthly Archives: October 2012

Chain Maille — Tools and Other Supplies

I've covered rings used for maille in two other posts (You've Got Maille and Rings and Chain Maille) so let's talk about the tools that you need for this craft.  In spite of how complex maille looks from the outside, the tools are quite simple.

Like, a pair of pliers.

OK, so there may be a few more, but most are things you'd use for any sort of jewelry -- good magnification, good lighting for example.  The only other tools I use regularly are twist ties, a straight piece of wire and Tool Magic.  That's it!

Plying the Trade -- Pliers 101

Pliers used in chain maille. Clockwise from left - bent nose, chain nose, chain nose and flat nose. The white tips on the bent nose and one of the chain nose is tool dip.

These are the most expensive of the tools and supplies (outside of the rings themselves).  While you want a good pair of pliers (and by that I mean two sets), you don't have to run out and buy the top-of-the-line at first.  Save those for when you are sure you want to keep chaining!

There are three main types of pliers used for the jewelry side of chain maille.

  • Bent nose:  These are chain nose with a bend in them.  The chain part gets into tight places, while the bent part can act as a flat nose.
  • Flat nose:  These are what they sound like, pliers with flat jaws and noses.  They are the most common plier type used in chain maille, as they give the most grip on the ring surface when opening and closing.
  • Chain nose:  These are like the flat pliers, but the nose comes to a tip, instead of being squared.  While they might not give quite as much of a grip on the ring surface, they are great for tiny rings and tight places.

In any case, you want pliers with a smooth jaw -- definitely no ribs or teeth (like in the so-called alligator jaws).  If you find a pair of pliers that is great in all other respects but the jaws are kind of rough, that's easy enough to fix.  You need super-fine sandpaper, like what you find at an auto-parts store (think sanding metal on a car).  Then sand away until you have a nice, smooth jaw surface.

Left to right - bent, chain and flat nose pliers, side view.

I'm probably an anomaly in that I work only with chain nose and bent nose pliers.  In fact, I had to hunt up some old tools before I could find a pair of flat-nose pliers for the photo!  And while I do have some Lindstrom pliers (yep, expensive), I also have some inexpensive pliers that I got from a craft store -- the less than $10 kind.  They may not last for decades, but they seem to last a fair amount of time before the springs wear out.

My suggestion -- go to a craft store or Amazon and get a few inexpensive pairs of pliers -- flat nose, chain nose and bent nose.  See what works for you best.  Then, if you want to, you can upgrade the kind(s) that you use most often.

Other Supplies

Something that I had never used until recently is a tool dip.  It is a substance that you dip the tips of your pliers into, and when dry provides a rubbery coating to the jaws.  A popular brand is Tool Magic, but there are others around as well.

When I worked entirely in sterling silver, I never worried much about small scratches that my tools would make on the rings.  When I tumbled them after finishing the work, the tumbling took off the scratches.

Now that I work a lot with the colored wires (enameled and anodized), I can't tumble my work -- it would take off the color.  I was going nuts with scratching off the color until I broke down and got some Tool Magic from the craft store.  Now I can't live without it.  🙂

Note:  This is where inexpensive pliers come in handy.  I don't dip my Lindstrom pliers into the dip but since it takes a few hours to dry once dipped, having an extra set of pliers comes in handy.  So I have like 5 inexpensive pliers -- I work with two at any given time, and the rest are dipped and dried or in the process of drying.

I will say that the Tool Magic doesn't last a real long time before it starts wearing off the pliers -- maybe 3 or 4 hours.  So that's why I always have extra pairs ready.  But once it starts coming off, you just peel the rest of it away (very easy) and then re-dip and let dry.  A small jar lasts around 100 or so dips. If you can't find it locally, here is some Tool Magic online.

That's tool dip.  I also used twist ties and a small piece of straight wire (maybe 2 or so inches long).

The twist ties (you can substitute a fine wire if you've run out of twist ties) help you to have something to grab onto when starting a chain, and hold the first few rings in place.  Entirely optional but useful.

Same for the piece of straight wire.  Mine is a piece of 20 gauge copper wire, and it's used to poke into rings to open (or hold open) a spot for my next ring to pass through.  Being straight, you can maneuver it a little easier than a curved ring.  But like I said -- optional.

More info to come!  Meanwhile, I have been slowly adding to my Gallery photos, so stop on by...

Rings and Chain Maille

Without rings, there is no chain maille.  Period.  But with rings, a whole universe of patterns open up.  Well, as long as you know what you have and what you need!  After all, it's not just how it's cut (which was a topic in You've Got Maille), but its size, material and aspect ratio.

Who knew that such a little ring could cause so much debate (because debate there is).  But since we're talking jewelry here, I'll keep the debate at a minimum.  So let's discuss the easier of the two issues first -- material.

What Are Rings Made Of?

Traditionally, rings are made from a metal of some sort.  Today sees rings made from rubber/neoprene and also from beads.  To make it a little easier (and since the non-traditional materials have their own issues), I'll stick to the metals.

There are two main classes of metals in chain maille, roughly defined as "precious" and "everything else".

The precious category has the usual suspects -- silver and gold -- as well as niobium and titanium.  I suppose we could put platinum in this category, but I've only heard tell of a platinum jump ring once...and it was beyond expensive!  And although it might seem obvious, I'll mention that gold-filled and the newer silver-filled jump rings also fall into this category.

Everything else is really everything else.  Steel is the mainstay of those who make armor maille, with aluminum a close second.  For jewelry the main metals are copper (which includes enameled copper) and aluminum (including anodized aluminum).  Not to say that you couldn't make jewelry with stainless steel (it's actually pretty popular), but that it's not something to begin with when learning maille.  Steel is a tough material to work with (literally and figuratively), so why make it any harder on yourself at first?

Brass is also fairly popular, especially "red brass" (which has less of a bright yellow tone than regular brass).  It's a stiffer metal than copper, but nothing like the challenge of steel.  Bronze is also used, and it's also fairly stiff.

Gauging Your Wire

If you've worked with jewelry, you're likely aware of something called a wire gauge, which is just a measurement of how thick or thin a wire is.

However...there are at least two sets of standards for measuring wire!  The two that are the most common are the American Wire Gauge (AWG) and Standard Wire Gauge (SWG).  It's important that you know how your rings were measured (which standard) because they are not the same at anything below 20 gauge.

The three most common gauges of jewelry jump rings are 16, 18 and 20.  For reference, AWG 16g is about 1.2mm, 18g is around 1mm and 20g is roughly .8mm.  If you see rings marked as 18g and 1.2mm, it's a dead give-away you are looking at rings based on the SWG measurements.

It's really important that you know your wire gauge, because it has a direct bearing on something called aspect ratio, which is key for working chain maille.

Aspect Ratio, Chain Maille and You

Aspect ratio is a little confusing at first.  In a nutshell, it is the relationship between the gauge of the wire and the inner diameter of the ring (yes, I know -- I just introduced another term).

Different chain maille patterns require different aspect ratios (ARs) to work well.  For example, an AR of 3.4 is great for the most popular maille chain -- Byzantine.  But if you want to make the related Box chain, you'll want to bump up the ratio some to around 3.8.  Or else you will drive yourself nuts trying to squeeze in those rings...

I wrote up a (free) ebook on AR that you can use to understand more about AR -- it discusses wire gauge, sizes and of course, AR.   There's also a handy-dandy chart you can use to figure out which rings fit into which AR.

One more thing I want to mention. When you are buying jump rings for maille, make sure you know what the diameter (inner or outer) you're looking at.

I'll use 18 gauge rings for an example.  Say you're thinking about buying some rings and you see that they measure 6mm.  But which diameter does that 6mm refer to?

For example, if the outer diameter (OD) is 6mm, then the inner diameter has to be less, because you have to take into account the thickness of the wire.  If the ring has an OD = 6mm, then its ID will be around 4mm.  (18g wire is around 1mm thick).  18g wire with an ID = 4mm gives an AR of around 3.9.

On the other hand, if 6mm is the ID, then the AR for the 18g ring is around 5.8.  Big difference in a little ring!  A maille pattern that worked well with 3.9 (example, Box) flat out wouldn't work using rings with a 5.8 AR.

That's about it for the moment....but look for more maille posts soon on the tools and supplies you'll need (not a lot, I promise!).

Chain Maille How-To (Or, “You’ve Got Maille”)

I'm doing a chain maille series, with chain maille how-to tutorials.  If you like wire jewelry, are into steampunk or renaissance looks, then this ancient form of weaving with metal may just "suit" you (pardon the pun).  [The pun being that chain maille (also known as chain mail or chainmaille) was originally created to be used as armor.]

A Little About Maille

I did mention that this technique was weaving with metal.  More specifically, it is weaving with metal rings.  Today we who make jewelry know these as the unassuming jump rings.  And depending on how you look at it, they've either come a long way or have come full-circle (I guess I can't get away from the puns today!).

So maille has been around for several centuries, and although it was replaced by suits of armor for protecting the warriors, it's found a resurgence in the last few decades.

For example -- divers who work with sharks and butchers who work with cutting objects both can wear a fine-mesh maille.  And then there are the folks who are into the Renaissance or Steampunk areas.  But, this wonderful material has made it into the mainstream jewelry market (and about time, too).

All that being said, let's start with the supplies you will need; rings first, then in a separate post I'll cover the remaining tools (pliers, etc.)

With This Ring, I Thee Weave

So let's get started by talking about the materials you need, and specifically about jump rings, as they are not all created equally.  First, let's discuss how the jump ring is made; more specifically, how it is cut.

Jump rings are made by coiling a piece of wire around a mandrel.  This coil is then removed from the mandrel and cut, forming individual jump rings.  So far, so good.  But the way that coil is cut yields different results.

There are three main ways a coil can get made into the jump rings:

  • Wire Cutter
  • Machine
  • Saw

If you use a wire cutter, the ends of the rings will have a noticeable "pinched" look.  This is because the wire cutter basically pinches the wire in the process of cutting.  This pinch makes it impossible to completely close a jump ring with an invisible closure.

A little better is a machine cut.  A little more uniform than the pinch, but not as nice and flush as the saw cut.  Machine-cut rings are great for practicing new weaves  before you try them in a more expensive material.

Saw cut are the cream of the jump rings.  They are cut so that the ends of the rings are flush on both sides, and a really good saw cut uses a fine-gauge saw, so as to create a small a gap as possible.  This gap created when sawing the ring is called a kerf.  The smaller the kerf, the more invisible a seam when closing the ring.

Here's a photo of wire cutter (left) and machine cut (right).  I didn't have any darker color wire when I was doing the wire-cutter-cut example (sorry 'bout that), so the brass makes it a little tough to tell the extent of the pinch.

As you might guess, saw-cut rings are more expensive than either of the other two, but  if you're planning to make some special jewelry with your rings, definitely go with the saw-cut.

I'll stop here for the moment.  There are some other things you need to know about jump rings, but I've made that a separate post because it's a little more technical -- all about the dreaded term "aspect ratio".  So here you go-- more about rings and maille.

See you over there!