Ode to My Ruined Wire Cutters: Found-Object Metals Tips for Jewelry-Making Tools

 
Thanks to my beloved Stuller flush cutters, I first really felt the difference between fine and average jewelry-making tools.

Forgive me if I get a little emotional, but the pain is still just a little too intense. I recently ruined my favorite jewelry-making tool ever–a tool so great that it made me aware of the difference between really good jewelry-making tools and average ones–and I'm sharing my tale of woe to help ensure none of you ever suffers a loss like mine. Sigh.

Okay, I'm being a little dramatic, but just a little. Every time I sit down at my jewelry bench to make a piece of jewelry, I inevitably reach for my ruined wire cutters and feel the sting of loss all over again. It was all so innocent–I was just dismantling a piece of vintage jewelry, a beaded earring, and I reached for my beloved wire cutters to snip the wires the beads were strung on, like I'd done so many times. Being the super snippers that they were, it was usually a quick snap. But this time, when I pressed the handles of the wire cutters on the wires, I didn't hear that distinctive "snap!" that I normally hear when cutters snip through wire.

 
Now when the blades are closed, the perfectly round holes glare at me like the ugly, snaggly teeth of a bad jack-o'-lantern.

I didn't realize what was (wasn't) happening, because I adjusted the tool slightly and did it again.

When I realized it still wasn't cutting, I looked at the sharp little blades on my cutters and gasped.

There were four–not one or two, but FOUR–jagged marks bent into the blades of my cutters. When I closed the blades together, the perfectly round holes glared back at me like the ugly, snaggly teeth of a hacked-on jack-o'-lantern. I was stunned.

It simply hadn't occurred to me that my super-duper wire cutters couldn't cut whatever I tried to cut. (They were from Stuller, after all!) I know vintage costume jewelry can be made of just about anything, but whatever that wire was that I was trying to cut was apparently harder than the steel of my cutters.

Harder than steel? How can that be?

Jewelry Metals Primer
Common metals in jewelry making can be classified as base and precious metals. Base metals and base-metal alloys (alloys are essentially metal blends) include aluminum, brass, bronze, copper, iron, steel, nickel, niobium, titanium, zinc, and pewter, plus well-known alloys such as stainless steel or anodized aluminum. Platinum, rhodium, gold, palladium, and silver are precious metals used in jewelry making. Precious alloys that you are probably familiar with include the colored golds (including white) and sterling silver.

Titanium is essentially the strongest metal used to make jewelry today, but it's very lightweight, which can be deceiving. Rhodium, a metal in the platinum group, is stronger than titanium but also more rare and expensive; it also has poor malleability (ability to be molded and formed; gold is very malleable) and a high melting point, making it a poor choice for jewelry making on its own. As such, it's usually only used as a thin "flash" coating on sterling silver to prevent tarnish and sometimes on white gold jewelry to improve appearance. Platinum is a more common and very durable choice but can feel quite heavy to the wearer and is considerably more expensive than titanium.

The Mohs Hardness Scale and Scratch Tests
In 1812, an Austrian mineralogist named Friedrich Mohs created the Mohs hardness scale to rank materials in order of hardness. He chose ten minerals that were readily available at the time to create his scale; however, other materials (from fingernails to glass to iron and steel) can also have hardness ratings. In this case, hardness is measured by a material's ability to be scratched by another material. The materials with lower numbers are "softer" than (or can be scratched by) the materials with higher numbers.

The Mohs scale is relative; diamond, which is a 10 and at the top of the Mohs original scale, is four times harder than corundum (sapphire), only one spot under it at 9, and corundum is twice as hard as topaz, ranked just one step below at 8.

While more modern and scientific methods exist today to measure a material's hardness, the Mohs scale is familiar to many jewelry makers and is a good basis for quick comparison of metals. This chart will give you an idea of how the common minerals on the Mohs scale compare to metals and other found objects you might use in jewelry making (such as shells, glass, and old skeleton keys) and other common materials–as well as the metals that your jewelry-making tools are made of and how they all compare. 

Mohs
hardness
ranking
original mineral on
the Mohs scale
jewelry-making and tool metals and other found objects
(approximate Mohs ranking)
1

talc

tin, graphite, lead (1-1/2)
2 gypsum plaster of paris, fingernails (2-1/2), bronze (copper + tin) (1-1/2 to 3), mica (2-1/2 to 3)
3 calcite 2-1/2 to 3: aluminum, zinc, jet, gold and silver, seashells, copper pennies and precious metal coins, dentin (in teeth), brass (copper + zinc) (3-4), marble (3-4) 
4 fluorite iron, nickel, platinum (4 to 4-1/2), steel (4 to 4-1/2)
5 apatite human bones, tooth enamel, knife blades (5 to 5-1/2), window-pane glass (5-1/2), obsidian (volcanic glass)
6 orthoclase other glasses (6-7), silicon (6-7), pyrite (6-7)
7 quartz hardened steel file (7-8), unglazed porcelain streak plate, tungsten, emery boards (7-9)
8 topaz also beryl (emerald and aquamarine), steel (iron + carbon) (7-1/2 to 9)
9 *corundum (ruby and sapphire) tungsten carbide (9 to 9-1/2), titanium carbide (9 to 9-1/2)
10 **diamond
* twice as hard as topaz, ** four times as hard as corundum

Note that some items can span rankings, such as skeleton keys, which can be made of iron, steel, brass, bronze, and various other metals and alloys. So how do you know what your metal is?

Metal Magnet Test
One way to get some idea of what you're working with when making jewelry with found metal objects is to test them with a magnet. Iron, cobalt, nickel, and their alloys (such as steel) are ferromagnetic (strongly magnetic). So if the material you're working with is drawn to a standard household magnet, it's probably iron, nickel, or steel, and you'll know to use heavy-duty tools with it instead of your better jewelry-making tools.

If you have a strong enough magnet (industrial strength), you'll see that silver and gold are diamagnetic, meaning they are slightly repelled from a strong magnet, and titanium, platinum, and aluminum are weakly magnetic or paramagnetic to very strong magnets.

 

Jewelry Making with Found Objects
Now that you're armed with a little information to help you prevent ruining your beloved jewelry-making tools like I did, check out Candie Cooper's fun DVD, Remixed Media: Transforming Metal Found Objects for Your Jewelry. It's full of tips and techniques for creating truly one-of-a-kind metal jewelry using found objects such as old keys, silverware, and other metal bits and pieces–my favorites! You'll learn about fabricating metal, texturing and finishing metals, etching and applying patinas–and then learn to put it all together with cold-connection techniques.

If you love found-object jewelry making as much as I do, you'll love this DVD. I incorporate old watch parts, silverware, keys, furniture hardware, buttons, and pieces of deconstructed old costume jewelry into my found-object jewelry projects. I love digging through old bins of whatever in antique stores for new finds. What do you like to use in your found-object jewelry-making projects?

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