Wire Jewelry Making: Choosing the Right Gauge and Type of Wire for Wire Weaving and More
Sarah Thompson’s much-anticipated new wire jewelry-making book Fine Art Wire Weaving is finally in stock! Here’s a sneak-peek at some of the beautiful and inspiring wire-weaving jewelry-making projects in the book as well as an excerpt about choosing the right gauge and type of wire for your projects.
Wire comes in a wide range of sizes, shapes, hardnesses, and metals. You can create beautiful work with all types of wire, but working with the right wire will cut down on frustration and result in a more beautifully finished piece.
When it comes to wire, I like to keep it simple. Instead of having round, half-round, and square wire on hand, I choose to work only with round wire. Round wire is very versatile. If I want a flat surface, I hammer it. If I need a section to be a half-round, I file it. I sort my wire gauges into three categories: heavy, medium, and small. Use heavy (14- to 20-gauge) wire to provide structure for bases; it can be shaped, woven, and layered together to create a complex design. Use medium (22- to 26-gauge) wire to add beads into the finished forms, create head pins and links, and wrap briolettes–essentially, everything pertaining to embellishments. Use small (28-gauge and smaller) wire to weave and sew the base wires together, adding stability, strength, cohesiveness, and texture to the design.
Because many designs require extreme shaping, the wire must have certain qualities. First, how soft is it? I want the softest, most malleable wire possible. Just because a wire is labeled “dead-soft” doesn’t mean it’s as soft as I would like. There’s a difference in wire malleability among manufacturers. Second, how quickly does it harden and get brittle? This is particularly important with the smaller gauges because the more you work with wire, the harder it gets. This is called work-hardened. You want to weave without having the wire break every time it gets a kink and to shape heavy-gauge wires with ease. Other qualities include whether the wire can be annealed (heated with a flame so it becomes soft and malleable), hammered, or oxidized, and how nicely the end balls up when torched.
Also known as pure silver or .999 silver, this is my wire of choice. It’s the most malleable, easily shaped into intricate designs. It can be reshaped if needed and anneals wonderfully. Fine silver does not get as brittle as sterling silver does, so the 28-gauge wire won’t break as frequently when used. The finished weave also compacts better with less spring to it. Fine silver melts easily, creating smooth balls on the tips of the wire. The best part is that the wire doesn’t need to be pickled after torching. Having young children at home, I prefer to avoid caustic chemicals. This wire is also slow to oxidize, so it won’t require frequent polishing.
I rarely use sterling silver. Once you start working with this wire, it quickly starts to harden, making it difficult to finish intricate, three-dimensional shaping. It also means more breakage while weaving. It’s difficult to reshape after a mistake. It doesn’t torch as easily as fine silver does; the balls on the end of the wire tend to be slightly pitted. After torching, you’ll have to pickle the wire to remove the firescale. Sterling silver can be annealed, but this will darken the wire and can be cumbersome to do when the wires are woven together. You can weave with 28-gauge wire, but the weave tends to spring up and doesn’t compact nicely. I use it for base wires when I want a structurally sound base such as a bracelet. I also try to keep my design simpler when using sterling silver. Also, the copper content in sterling silver means it oxidizes much more quickly than fine silver does.
This newer form of sterling silver does not oxidize as quickly as traditional sterling silver. Although it is possible to anneal this wire, it needs to be heated and cooled just right or it becomes very brittle. It also becomes brittle to the point that it will break if heated too long or hammered. It doesn’t form nice round balls when heated, but curls onto itself. Even the dead-soft wire hardens quickly, making it difficult to shape into complex designs. All of these qualities make this wire difficult to work with.
I prefer working with dead-soft copper wire rather than sterling silver. However, not all dead-soft copper is equal. Make sure it is raw and uncoated without any antitarnish coating, or it will not oxidize. I buy my copper in ¼- to 1-pound (114 to 454g) spools. I have found most copper wire sold in smaller packages tends to be harder and more difficult to use. If you’re struggling with your copper wire, try a different source. You can torch copper and create balls on the tips of the wire, but the balls are pitted. You also have to pickle the wire after torching to remove the firescale. Copper can be annealed just like fine silver and sterling silver, and it oxidizes really quickly. Craft Wire
Craft wire tends to break frequently. I would use this wire for weaving only if I wanted to add a vibrant color in the weaving sections added to my design. If this is your only option for copper wire, be sure to choose “bare copper” if you want to oxidize your pieces. “Natural copper” has an antitarnish coating, which prevents it from oxidizing.
Plated or Filled Wire
This wire limits your design possibilities. It cannot be hammered, and the ends cannot be melted. The plating can rub off when polishing, revealing the copper core. I make an exception for gold-filled wire because of the price of gold. —Sarah
In addition to 20 fresh new wire-weaving jewelry projects, you’ll learn great techniques you can use in your own designs, such as how to make faceted ball ends on wire, how to create a checkerboard effect using two colors of wire, and troubleshooting. Get Sarah Thompson’s new wire-weaving book Fine Art Wire Weaving in print or digital format, hot off the presses!
Which type of wire do you like to use most in your wire weaving and other wire jewelry-making projects? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!