Wire Potpourri: Wire Jewelry Making Q&A with Jewelry Expert Connie Fox

We all have questions–even if we’ve been doing metalwork or wire jewelry making or whatever medium or technique for awhile, we forget things and we encounter situations that are new to us. I’ve been making bezels for years now, but I don’t do it very often, so last week I was trying to figure out why a particularly large bezel kept warping before I got it soldered onto my backplate. I have to admit I was too stubborn and frustrated–ok, maybe a little embarrassed–to ask a knowledgeable metalsmith friend what the problem might be. It was too simple!

Fortunately, just two days later, I read a tip in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine about how easy it is to deform our bezels when we move them with our fingers; using tweezers is a better option. Well, of course it is.

Simple tips like that can make or break your day (or week!). If only I’d asked an industry friend, I could’ve saved myself so much frustration and time. Don’t be afraid to ask! Here are some common questions Connie’s students ask, along with Connie’s expert answers about wire and wire jewelry making, excerpted from her article “Wire Potpourri” in the Fall 2009 issue of Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry.

wire jewelry making

Q: I have noticed when I ball the end of my sterling wire, the ball is pitted and not evenly formed. Am I doing something wrong?

A: No, this happens to me too. You can sometimes reheat the ball to even out the surface and improve the shape. The easiest way to circumvent these problems, however, is to use Argentium sterling silver for wire jewelry making. If forms balls beautifully–smooth and nicely shaped.

Q: I am using 16-gauge wire to make rivets, and I notice that even though I am drilling with the same #55 drill bit, sometimes the hole is a perfect fit and other times it is too big. How do I prevent this problem?

A: Not all wire is consistently milled as you are finding out. For example, if you check different batches of 20-gauge wire on a B&S gauge, it can read 19-, 20-, or 21-gauge. This size differential can be distressing for riveters. To avoid this problem, I determine the drill bit size by using a twist drill gauge. Insert the wire into the hole that provides the tightest fit. Even then, you may notice that one hole is a little loose and the other one is too small. When this occurs, I suggest drilling with the smaller bit, and reaming it out with a diamond tip reamer until you achieve the exact fit you want. It takes a little more time, but you won’t be struggling with wire that is swimming in its hole.

Q: I recently inherited quite a collection of sterling wire. Some of the wire is hard, but I much prefer using dead soft for wire jewelry making. How can I make the wire soft?

A: There are a couple of methods. For wire 14-gauge and heavier, you can use a torch to anneal it. If you have not used a torch before, seek out instruction from someone experienced in using one. You can use a small tank of propane or MAPP gas from the home improvement center if you don’t have access to a professional torch set up. Wrap your wire into a coil, and bind it together with steel binding wire. Make a few marks with a permanent pen on the wire. Heat the wire evenly until the ink marks turn ghost-like.

If you want to anneal wire 16-gauge and smaller, the best way to do it is in a kiln. Coil the wire and secure the coil with steel binding wire; make sure your coil is small enough to fit in the kiln. Heat the kiln to 1400° F; place the wire in the kiln for about 10 minutes.

In both instances, you will have to pickle the wire to remove oxides. You should be able to purchase pickle at major jewelry supply houses; ask for instructions including safety precautions. I know this sounds like a bit of a hassle, but, with the current cost of sterling and your preference for using dead-soft wire, it will be worth the effort.

Q: I have had pretty much the same style of wire jewelry making for the last several years, and I need to bust out of my comfort zone. Do you have any suggestions?

A: I think every jewelry designer faces this dilemma periodically. Once you have mastered particular skills, boredom can set in. So, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Continue with your “old familiar style,” but make it more complex. Research wire jewelry looking for new techniques, then adapt the techniques so that they are truly your own. I often take a standard wire element, like the spiral, and see how many different things I can do with it. This approach may challenge you and provide new directions for your designs.
  2. Consider making all of the elements in your designs. For example, if you use beads, take on the challenge of creating your own beads (glass, metal clay, polymer, etc). Or, if you like to use stones in your work, develop lapidary skills. This will certainly push you right out of your comfort zone!
  3. Take a side-step into a whole new venture in jewelry making. Metalsmithing will keep you interested for years to come, and sheet metal can be beautifully incorporated into your wire work, or it can stand alone. Cold connecting is another method that might interest you. Your choices are limitless.
Wiggle Cuff by Stephanie Riger, Fall 2009 Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry

Wiggle Cuff by Stephanie Riger, Fall 2009 Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry

Q: With the economic downturn, I just can’t afford to do all of my wire  jewelry making with sterling. I am thinking of using nickel silver or silver-plated wire to cut costs. Do you recommend these options or do you have any other suggestions?

A: You may already know this, but, I want to make sure you realize nickel silver has no silver in it. It is an alloy made up of nickel, copper and zinc. Also called German silver, it is known to produce allergic reactions in a fair number of people. Some statistics suggest 1 in 10 women are allergic to direct contact of nickel silver to their skin. It is such a problem the European Union has banned the use of nickel silver in jewelry. Keeping this mind, if you are making jewelry for yourself or for people you know to be free of allergic reactions, it is a reasonably good color match to sterling (nickel silver is more gray) and it is affordable. You can purchase nickel silver in dead soft wire.

Silver-plated wire can be used in wire jewelry making where the surface comes in very little contact with skin or clothing. Why? The silver plating is very thin and with continued use the plating wears off. Thus, you might consider using silver plated wire in earrings. Bracelets and even necklaces may face too much abrasion for silver plated wire to be a viable option.

A major cost in wire jewelry making is your time. Thus, I am not sure you would save enough money to make either of these alternatives worthwhile. Do you really want to spend your time making something that could create allergic reactions or wear off? Another option is to make jewelry with copper or brass mixed with silver to reduce costs. While copper can turn some people’s skin green, it can be coated with Renaissance Wax to limit these reactions. —Connie


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