Jewelry Tools Are Your Friends: Choosing and Caring for Your Pliers

I love it when it’s “bonus time” at the makeup counter. You almost always get free lipstick (a girl can’t go anywhere in the South without lipstick!) and free moisturizer of some sort in a little container just right for keeping in your purse or for travel, plus some other freebies that are always fun to try or share. My favorite part about bonus time, however, is the little zippered bag.

I don’t need a new makeup bag a couple of times a year, but I love those little bags for other reasons, especially jewelry studio and craft room reasons. Whenever I’m traveling with a stringing or wire jewelry project, I bring all my pliers in one of those little bags. I can get by with about five pairs of pliers, but there’s eight in the bag: round-nose pliers, short- and long-jaw needle-nose pliers, short- and long-jaw chain-nose pliers, nylon-covered pliers, and two different wire cutters. While you’re familiar with what all of those jewelry tools are (read more here if not), a refresher on how to care for them is always a good idea.

Textured wires and metal components are becoming more and more common in traditional wire jewelry making, as more wire workers expand their skills into metalsmithing and vice versa. So, here’s a unique look at pliers from a metalsmith’s perspective more than a wireworker’s perspective, excerpted from the “Basic Pliers” article by Liz Kuhns, from a back issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine:

The basic set of pliers for jewelry manufacturing and the first to acquire when setting up a new work bench, would be flat-nose pliers, round/flat-nose pliers, half-round/flat-nose pliers, and chain-nose pliers.

Almost all jewelry-making techniques can be executed with these four pliers. These tools are not only suitable for fabricating, repairing, and other types of bench work, but also for finer, more delicate work, such as bead stringing. This is a suitable set for hobbyists, craftspeople, and students.

A silversmith’s work can only be as good as the condition of his/her tools. It stands to reason, then, that tools should not be regarded lightly. Great care should be taken in choosing your purchase and in maintaining their condition.

Observing tolerance. Choose your tools for the specific reason they were made and never use them beyond their tolerance level. In other words, do not use your pliers in situations that require more pressure than the tool can handle.

Comfortable handling. Hold the pliers in your hand and feel how it fits into your palm. This should be comfortable to the size of your hands. A person with big hands will find it awkward working with short-handled pliers. An option to consider is tools with plastic-dipped handles. These can provide comfortable work for hours.

Tension springs. Most pliers are designed with a double- or single-leaf tension spring. There are pliers available without springs; however, excellent training goes a long way in the proper handling of such tools. For those unfamiliar with the correct way to hold springless pliers, springs will add ergonomic comfort and resistance control to their pliers.

Precision tips. Ensure that the jaws of the pliers meet precisely and evenly, and grip and hold an object securely. Some pliers are designed with parallel-action jaws. Such pliers will continue to hold an object, even a round one, securely under increasing pressure without letting it slip forwards. Another design is of pliers with one smooth steel jaw and one flat nylon-covered jaw. This is an additional precaution for avoiding marring metal when forming, however, it is not essential.

Jaw length. Short-nosed pliers are more suitable to working on a small scale. Long-nosed pliers are more suitable to bending silver sheet, as the longer the nose, the greater the reach and the longer the bend.

Tip size. Pliers come in different tip sizes. Consider the slimline fine-tipped pliers for delicate, detailed work that cannot be done with the heavier, wider tip size more suitable to fabricating and repairing.

Pliers metal. There are two options available, stainless steel and hardened tool steel pliers. Stainless steel is rust resistant, offering a reasonable bench life. However, the surface condition of the nose has to be monitored and maintained as needed as it will eventually start showing nicks. Stainless steel pliers cannot be forged.

Hardened tool steel is the preferred metal for pliers as it is the hardest, strongest, and longest-lasting material for pliers. These pliers are forged for durability. Work done with these pliers requires less finishing as the nose is not prone to nicking with normal use, therefore producing cleaner work. A major drawback, though, is that the hardened tool steel pliers are prone to rusting. However, taking good care of your pliers, not exposing them to moisture, keeping them lubricated, and wiping them occasionally with a rust inhibitor like Cosmoline or WD-40, can deal with this problem.

Tips on caring for your tools: Before using brand new tools for the first time, a good precaution is to prepare the tools first. This is done by using a fine sanding stick to soften the edges of the pliers’ nose. A second step is to shine up the surface of the nose that will be making contact with the jewelry metal. The reason for these two important steps is to ensure that new tools do not accidentally leave marks on the silver during the fabrication process. –Liz Kuhn, G.G.

Get your pliers and other jewelry tools cleaned up and lubricated because you’re going to need them: the new 2011 Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry collection CD is waiting for you to download it in the Jewelry Making Daily Shop! Dozens of projects for wire wrapping, texturing, and stamping will inspire you to put your pliers, hammers, stamps, and other jewelry tools to the test!

About the author: Liz Kuhns, G.G., is a professional gemologist, jewelry designer, and photojournalist living in Door County, Wisconsin.

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