Advanced Chain Maille Techniques from Karen Karon: Modifying Tools and Using Tiny Scales

Welcome and huge thanks to our special guest blogger today, chain maille guru Karen Karon! Karen is the author of the five-star-rated Chain Maille Jewelry Workshop: Techniques and Projects for Weaving with Wire and the hot new sequel, Advanced Chain Maille Jewelry Workshop: Weaving with Rings and Scale Maille.

In Pursuit of Tiny Scales, Part 1

By Karen Karon

Scale maille pieces are fascinating to look at, and people love to touch them. I really enjoy making them and seeing the reaction they elicit from others. Until very recently, scales came in only two sizes, both a bit large to use for small jewelry applications like earrings. I wanted smaller scales for jewelry but they were not available, so I decided to learn how to make them myself. Here is the story of my 2+ year odyssey in pursuit of tiny scales.

In 2012, I enrolled in Jayne Redman’s 3-day workshop at Metalwerx to learn how to make blanking dies to cut multiple shapes. On the second day of class, I became ill and had to leave. I was unable to return the next day to finish my die. I was very disappointed. In 2014 (2 years later!), the class was offered again, so I enrolled. The class was wonderful. Jayne was an excellent teacher. I finished my die! In fact, I made two–one that cut tiny scales and one that cut slightly tinier scales.

handmade chain maille tiny scales by Karen Karon

Here’s a picture of my tiny scales, test run in copper next to a standard “small” scale. Look at them (kind of sad). They need filing along the edges, they need shaping and doming, they need polishing and holes. . .  That’s a lot of very time-consuming work. I could do it, but did I really want to? To have enough scales for pieces I was envisioning, I’d need to make hundreds or even thousands of them. Where would I find the time? I want to spend my time designing jewelry, not repeatedly making scale after scale after scale. My bubble was burst, but something wonderful did come out of the experience.

Modifying Tools for Specific Chain Maille Tasks

I learned a lot of great techniques that I could apply in my work. My favorite part of the workshop was learning how Jayne modifies tools for specific purposes. She showed us how she drilled and filed and ground down tools for specific uses. She also demonstrated how to fashion simple tools using Aquaplast thermoplastic pellets.

While watching Jayne use her modified tools, I was reminded of a set of pliers I had purchased because they looked like they would work well for micro maille. They were small flat-nose pliers (I prefer flat nose to chain nose, even for micro maille) with jaws that were shorter and narrower than my regular flat-nose pliers. The handles were also shorter and narrower. When I tried them at home, I found that the jaws, although shorter and narrower, were still a bit thick, so they did not fit well into the tiny spaces in micro weaves. Also, the short narrow handles were very uncomfortable to work with. Oh well. They had ended up in a dusty corner in one of my toolboxes.

But after watching Jayne modify her pliers, I ran home during the lunch break to retrieve those small pliers. I used a flex shaft and a heatless grinding wheel on the outer jaws of the pliers to make them thin. I wore safety glasses and a dust mask; it took a while. Then I used the Aquaplast pellets to fashion longer and thicker handles. Here’s a picture. I know that they look funny, but they really work!

thermoplastic modified micro pliers for chain maille

Encouraged by this, I decided to fix a small problem I was having with my most often used pair of flat-nose pliers. The foam on the handles provides a nice cushion but gave me sweaty palms. Being a crocheter, I used crochet cotton thread to make a pair of “plier cozies” for my pliers (check out the photo below). Now I can make maille in comfort.

crochet cozies for pliers

What does all of this have to do with the pursuit of tiny scales? Well, if not for that pursuit, I’d still have two pairs of small pliers gathering dust in a toolbox and I’d still be dealing with sweaty palms! Thankfully, The Ring Lord very recently started to manufacture tiny scales–HOORAY! They did not exist when I was working on Advanced Chain Maille Jewelry Workshop, so the scale projects included in the book are for larger pieces. Part 2 of this blog is a tutorial for a pair of earrings using the new tiny scales.

Thank you, Tammy, for inviting me to be a guest blogger!

–Karen

Ready to put your skills and customized pliers to the test? Whether you like traditional chain maille jewelry projects, incorporating scales into your designs, or both, we’ve got super value kits for you! You can make four pairs of fashionable handmade earrings designed by Karen Karon with the Tiny Scales Earrings kit. The Captivating Crystals kit by Michelle Brennan allows you to make three sparkling bracelets–or you can combine the supplies to make one necklace, your choice! It’s a great value either way.

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