Making Great Wire Rivets: Cold Connections with Helen Driggs

Riveting and Other Cold Connections
by Helen Driggs 

The Ultimate Rivet-Creating Pliers
I love cold connections. Don’t get me wrong–soldering totally rocks–but I often choose rivets even when I could solder because they can make punctuation-like emphasis on a piece (the other editors will laugh because punctuation is not my strong suit). The very visible nature of rivets can give an industrial feel to a strong geometric or hard-edged functional design. Or, they can be invisible if you hammer them flush and make them out of the same metal as the parent sheet.

I rivet all of the time, because I teach a regular cold connections workshop. It seems the simple wire rivet is the one that can send a student over the edge because of how difficult it is to hold a tiny wire firmly while you whack one end to mushroom it out. Can you say blood blisters? Because I feel for my students, I’m always on the lookout for tools to make any task easier, so they can succeed at learning and want to come back for more. I adore Mr. Crescent–which is what I call my Klein Tools 9-inch Journeyman High-Leverage Side-Cutting Pliers. Worth the investment, sturdy, well made in America, straight sided, dependable, low-maintenance, strong, available, easy to hold, and toothy–they’re every rivet girl’s dream!

Cold Connections How-To: Make Great Wire Rivets
If you haven’t used wire rivets much, or you’ve been frustrated by them in the past, this might help you. Here’s how I make them, almost every day, with Mr. Crescent.

1. I stick to rivet wire in the range of say 18-gauge wire down to 12 for the easiest time of it. Use calipers to measure the wire you intend to use for the rivet, and then find a drill bit that is the exact size or just a bit smaller in diameter. If you go with a smaller drill bit, you’ll have to file out the drilled holes with a round needle file until the wire just fits through them.
2. Whack a divot on the top sheet of metal (or whatever you are drilling through) where the rivet goes, and use the drill bit to create a hole there. It’s important to go through the top layer of material only, and then dry-fit the piece to ensure all of the layers are in the correct position before you drill the next layer down.
3. Use a Sharpie to transfer the position to the next layer down, divot, and drill. Keep going with the mark, divot, and drill process until you go through all the layers of the piece.
4. Cut about an inch of the rivet wire. File one end perpendicular so it is a nice, flat circle. Take care with this step and don’t blow it off because the appearance of your rivet head will be determined by how nicely you file. Anneal the wire if it is hard, and pickle it clean. Grab the ultimate riveting pliers in your nondominant hand and hold the wire so about 1/16″ of the filed end extends beyond those all-important flat sides of the pliers. Grab the riveting hammer in your dominant hand. Go to the vise or anvil.
5. Lay the pliers flat (I told you those flat sides were important!) on the vise jaws with the 1/16″ tail of wire up and the long end hanging down in the chasm. Or, hold the pliers over the block end of an anvil so the long end of the wire hangs down freely. Use the cross peen of the hammer to upset the entire wire end in parallel strikes at an even distance apart. Your goal is precision, not brute force or speed.
6. Turn the wire 90°, verifying it still extends about 1/16″ beyond the jaws of the pliers. Again, hammer evenly spaced parallel strikes across the entire rivet head. You should have hammered a nice, even grid.
7. Test fit the rivet. The hammered head should not pass through the hole. If it does, go back to the pliers and hammer again with the cross peen for another pass until it is flattened enough not to go through.
8. To determine where to cut the other side of the rivet, I insert it into the piece, squeeze the layers together firmly with my left thumb and forefinger, and make a mark with a fine-point Sharpie about 1/16″ past the point where the wire passes through the metal on the bottom of the piece (about the thickness of that Sharpie nib). I take everything apart and saw just outside of the marked line.
9. I reassemble the layers, insert the rivet, and peen the back in the same way as I formed the head of the rivet for the front: parallel strokes all the way across, turn 90°, repeat. This is tough when the piece is small or curved, so use whatever you can to support the rivet and the piece as you work. Tip: Try coins, small bits of steel, washers, mandrels, ball daps, whatever.
10. Once the rivet will not escape from the hole, verify the positions of all the layers and then switch to the flat face of the rivet hammer. Planish the rivet on both sides in small stages, alternating between the front and back of the work. You want those rivet heads to be round, so take your time and be gentle. Planish until the layers of the piece won’t budge.

Keep going until all of your rivets are done. The good thing is that once you’ve secured your first rivet, you can drill through all the layers at one time for every rivet after that.

Mr. Crescent makes riveting a piece of cake, right?

For more masterful step-by-step instruction for riveting as well as other cold connections and other jewelry-making techniques, get a digital or print subscription to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine!

(First published in Helen’s Flashcard newsletter, July 21, 2009.)

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