Tool of the Week: The Marvelous Mandrel

Cool Tool: The Mandrel

Whether you’re an experienced metalsmith or just beginning your jewelry-making journey, one of the most useful tools you can have on your bench is a set of mandrels. A good mandrel can help you form perfect shapes every time. In the July 2011 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, Helen Driggs presented a definitive look at mandrels. To follow is an excerpt from Helen’s column, “Cool Tools & Hip Tips: Bracelet, Ring, and Favorite Mandrels.”

After you’ve mastered your basic bench tools, the hunt for a mandrel is usually the next order of business. There is a simple reason for this: arms, necks, ankles, fingers, and even toes! are round, and sheet or other metal stock isn’t.

When you want to take flat stock or sheet to a 3D jewelry form, you need something to shape it against. Enter metal forming. Enter the mandrel.

Metal forming is fundamental jewelry-making skill, and using a mandrel is the easiest of the metal forming processes. You will be amazed at how far you can move a piece of well-annealed metal against a mandrel. I’ve sized a heavy man’s ring up two full sizes with nothing more than determination, a round mandrel, and a rawhide mallet.

Bracelet Mandrels

There are two shape options for bracelet mandrels: oval and round. Usually, oval mandrels are for cuffs, and round mandrels are for bangles. Both shapes come stepped or tapered, and both are available in wood, steel, and/or plastic.

Some bracelet mandrels include a tang, or metal tab, to secure them in a vise while you’re hammering. I prefer a mandrel with a tang because it leaves both my hands free when I am forming.

Stepped mandrels are accurate for sizing, and you don’t have to flip your work to prevent an unintentional taper in the piece. The consistent size of each step guarantees that the metal will be perpendicular to the opening for the wrist. This is helpful if you are adding stone settings. For a very wide cuff or gauntlet, choose a tapered oval mandrel and because your arm is tapered from wrist to elbow, a wide cuff will be more comfortable to wear if it tapers.

Ring Mandrels

There are several types of ring mandrels: tapered, grooved, flat sided, rounded square, and stepped. Many of them come with incised calibration lines for accurate sizing. Most people start with a plain, round tapered mandrel because most people start making plain round band rings.

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Other Handy Mandrels

It is always a good idea to have an assortment of mandrels in the shop. Here are some of my favorites.

Hoop earring mandrel: A nice, tapered cone mandrel is great for all kinds of forms, not just hoop earrings. You can create cones, funnels, hoops, bands, and Mobius strips with this handy mandrel.

Bezel mandrels: I keep an assortment of these in several shapes: oval, round, triangle, and square. My absolute favorite is the tiny, tapered round bezel mandrel from Italy. I can make perfect 5mm bezels with it, and I love it.

Jump ring mandrels: These are basic, round, hardened tool rod steel in a variety of sizes. I keep these around the shop not only for coiling jump rings, but also for supporting metal tubing as I rivet, drill, or otherwise manipulate it. You can find tool rod in many shapes and metals at the hardware store.

Hammer and Mandrel Combos

While mandrels are usually wood, plastic, or metal, the hammers or other striking tools you use with them also vary in material and may be metal, wood, hide, or plastic. Usually the mandrel metal is steel, but there are aluminum ring mandrels, too. If you are forming a ring and not just sizing, stick to steel. Aluminum is very soft, and you can dent it with a misplaced hammer strike.
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Figuring out which combination of hammer and mandrel to use to get the result you want is easy, if you remember these guidelines: steel + steel = quickly stretch or compress metal; steel + wood, plastic, or hide = slowly stretch or compress metal.

To get the complete version of this column and much more tool news from Helen, check out the digital compilation, Cool Tools & Hip Tips, Vol. 2.