Wire, wire, wire – I love wire! It’s a fun medium and one’s imagination is the limit of what can be done with wire. In this blog, we will delve into the depths of wire. I will go over all the fascinating things that can be made with wire, how it’s made, the types of metal, shapes, tempers, and gauges.
Why do I absolutely love this medium: wire? You can do anything with it! The only limitation to wire is your imagination. You can create:
- Jump rings and split rings
- Headpins, eye pins
- Ear Wires: French hooks, Shepard or fishhooks, kidney latches, posts, hoops, etc.
- Bead cages, spirals, etc.
- Rings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches…
- Wire wrapping components, wire weaving, etc.
- Sculptures and so much more!
How Wire Is Made
Wire dates back to Ancient Rome around the year 2000 B.C. where gold nuggets were pounded into sheets. These sheets were then cut into strips, and the strips were twisted together and rolled, becoming wire. Egyptians took wire strips and passed them through stone beads, much like a draw plate.
A draw plate can be made of steel, wood or even plastic with a series of holes of various precise-sized diameters. By passing the metal strip through the hole on a draw plate (also called a die plate), the metal strip becomes round or a wire. The wire is drawn through the different holes to achieve the optimal size or gauge.
The first wire mill was built in Tintern, Great Britain in 1568 by the founders: Company of Mineral and Battery Works. In the wire mills, a solid metal cylinder or rod is passed through draw plates until the desired diameter is achieved. The more times a wire is passed through a draw plate, the stiffer or more brittle the wire becomes.
Annealing is the heating of metal or in this case, wire, to an orange glow and then cooled at room temperature or quenched in water. The heating of the metal alters the physical properties: increasing ductility and reducing its hardness making it more workable.
In this video, the man starts with a silver ingot and melts it until it’s liquid and pours it into a mold. Then rolls it in his rolling mill into a piece of wire and then heats it up again to soften the silver and next puts it in a drawing plate until he gets his desired thickness or gauge. Voila – he has his wire!
There are two differing types of gauge measurement systems: American Wire Gauge or AWG and Standard Wire Gauge or SWG. The AWG is also referred to as Brown and Sharpe, or B & S, and is used in America and Canada. The SWG is Britain’s measuring system. Europe uses the actual diameter of wire in millimeters for its measuring system.
AWG: the higher the number, the smaller the wire is in diameter. For instance, 30 gauge is like thread and 2 gauge is the thickness of a pencil. In my experience of jewelry-making, I have never used anything bigger than 10 gauge, or smaller than 30 gauge.
Tempers or Hardness
Wire hardness was first measured by how many times it was drawn through a draw plate, from 0-4.
Today, there are three types of wire hardness: Dead Soft, Half-Hard and Full Hard. Dead Soft is a 0, Half-Hard is a 2, and Full Hard is a 4; note that these numbers have nothing to do with how many times the wire was drawn through a draw plate.
Dead Soft wire is extremely pliable. You can bend it with your fingers when using 20 gauge or smaller diameter wire. 18 gauge and above, you will need to use tools to manipulate this wire.
Full Hard wire is the least pliable. It is extremely difficult to work with unless it is annealed. Steel wire is often 3/4 hard or full hard.
Half-Hard wire, of course, is between the two extremes. Half-Hard wire can be manipulated with your fingers and/or tools and also keeps its shape.
The shapes of wire refers to the cut end of the wire: round, square and half-round.
Round wire is the most common shape. Square wire is used in all applications that round wire is used but has an aesthetic appeal to it. Half-round wire is between round and square. One side is round, and the other side is flat. Half-round wire is used to wrap other wires together and to form a bezel for a stone.
Which shape to use? Half-round is less expensive than round or square, but it is flimsier. If you will be using this shape to wrap wires together, I’d suggest 18-16ga wire. Round wire is definitely easier to wrap around components than is square wire, but square wire definitely looks cool.
What shape is best? It depends on your preference and the project you’ll be working on. All About Jewelry Wire is a great site.
Types of Metal
Wire comes in every metal imaginable. It comes in base metals and precious metals. Here are just some of the many types of jewelry wire…
In Latin, cuprum, means Ore of Cyprus, where it was first found. Copper is very inexpensive and is perfect for both practicing wraps and also for its rich warm color. It is a conductor for both heat and electricity, resistant to corrosion, and very malleable and ductile. It’s also used in alloys: brass is copper with zinc, and bronze is copper with tin. Copper is also the core choice for Silver Filled; whereas brass is the core choice for Gold Filled.
Jewelry Wire – Copper
Artistic Wire, as the image above states, is permanently colored copper wire. This brand is a bit pricier than Zebra Wire, but the gold and silver look more like the real deal. What colors are available for Artistic Wire? Every color you could possibly ever imagine! The colors of the rainbow, along with all the shades in between, plus there’s bronze, gunmetal, platinum look-a-like and as I mentioned above – the gold looks like gold filled, not brass, and silver looks like sterling silver, not a dull silver color.
Zebra Wire is also color coated copper wire in red, orange, green (light and emerald), sapphire blue, amethyst purple, magenta, brown, black and silver. The gold is raw brass, and the copper is natural. There’s two different silver colors now – one looks like sterling, and the other is a dull gray color.
Para wire is also a type of jewelry wire that comes in a variety of colors. Para wire is a lot like Artistic Wire, but in my opinion, it’s better. The silver colored copper wire has more silver on it. You can use steel wool and the silver color stays in.
You can purchase Artistic Wire, Zebra Wire, and Para Wire online, and Artistic Wire is also sold in most craft stores.
Silver Filled wire has a 5% or 10% layer of sterling silver mechanically bonded to its copper core. Unlike silver plate, which has a microscopic layer of sterling silver electrically charged to a brass core, Silver Filled wire is more like sterling silver than silver plate.
Silver Filled wire has similar properties to sterling silver: it can be cleaned with steel wool, hammered, polished, tumbled, oxidized and soldered without having to worry about the silver chipping or rubbing off. And like sterling silver, it does oxidize (tarnish.)
Silver Filled is marked as 5%, 95/5, 1/20, 0.925/5 or for 10% as 90/10, 1/10, 0.925/10 depending on the manufacturer. When buying Silver Filled wire, look for a copper core, rather than a brass core because when you cut the wire – the copper won’t show, whereas the brass will.
I remember when Silver Filled first came out, I thought of it more like silver plate than sterling silver. I definitely had doubts about it and wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend money on a less inferior product to sterling silver. Now, Silver Filled is a lot less expensive than sterling silver, and I did finally purchase some. Wow! I’m hooked! And today, you can buy Silver Filled in more than just wire!
Sterling Silver vs Argentium Silver
Before I tell you about Argentium, I need to discuss silver in general. Fine silver is 99.9% pure silver, but it’s very soft. Sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver, along with 7.5% copper. It’s because of the copper content that sterling silver oxidizes or tarnishes to a dull gray over time.
In 1990 a research project by Peter Johns at the Art Design Research Institute (ARDI), School of Art and Design at Middlesex University in the U.K. looked into adding germanium oxide (GeO2) to metal alloys and voilà – hello Argentium Silver!
So what is Argentium Silver? The chemical composition is 92.5% silver, 5.5% copper and 1% germanium oxide. This 1% of GeO2:
- Eliminates firescale
- Highly resistant to tarnish
- Precipitation hardening and simple-heat hardening properties
- Increases ductility
- Increases thermal and electrical resistance (making alloys suitable for welding and laser forming)
- Environmental advantages associated with not having to remove or plate over firescale
How does germanium oxide work? The Transmission Electronic Microscope (TEM) has shown that a transparent layer of GeO2 is formed on the surface of Argentium Silver alloys when exposed to oxygen, and this layer gives the Argentium its protection against both tarnish and firestain, plus it’s self-regenerating. It means that when the Argentium Silver is bumped or rubbed – the germanium oxide quickly regenerates on to the Argentium. How cool is that?!
Argentium Silver is a little more costly than sterling silver, but to not have to worry about tarnish – it’s worth it!
Gold Filled or Rolled Gold
Gold Filled or Rolled Gold is very similar in construction to silver filled – the FTC states that for any Gold Filled item to be called as such, must contain 1/20th or 5% of its weight in solid gold, or 5%. Then the karat amount of gold is used: 12Kt or 12/20, 14Kt or 14/20. The usual core for gold filled or gold plate is brass.
What about gold plated? Gold plated is 0.05% or less gold on its surface. Gold plate is not the same as Gold Filled, which is not the same as gold.
Because Gold Filled is a unique metal, one cannot refer to it as “gold” even for short-hand because “gold” refers to solid gold, therefore always refer to Gold Filled as “gold filled or rolled gold.” The same goes for gold plated items.
Longevity of gold plate, Gold Filled and solid gold:
- Gold plate lasts about one year
- Gold filled lasts 5-30 years, depending on the care
- Real gold lasts a lifetime
There is also RGP (Rolled Gold Plate) or HGE (Heavy Electroplated Gold) vs Gold Plate Have you ever seen 18Kt gold plated earrings, and wondered what this is? It’s simply gold plate with a little more gold around the core. The FTC says that in order for a product to be considered as “gold overlay” or RGP, it must contain less than 5% solid gold. But what does this mean if gold plate has 0.05%? Does the RGP have 4.9% or does it have 1%? There is no regulation that this product need contain the correct percentage of gold, just that it has more gold than gold plate, and less gold than Gold Filled.
As far as working with Gold Filled – I’ve never worked with solid gold, and I don’t do any soldering, but I do love Gold Filled and NOW there’s rose gold filled, too. All that you can do with silver filled, you can do with Gold Filled. As far as soldering goes, there is no “gold filled solder”, but Rio Grande sells a solder that matches the color for Gold Filled.
Vermeil – What is this? Vermeil (pronounced as Ver-May) isn’t sold as wire, but I thought I’d throw this in too just to let you know what it is. Vermeil is gold plating over sterling silver. How much gold plating? Again, there are no regulations stating how much gold needs to be added to the gold plating. I do not recommend this product because it’s more expensive than sterling silver and when the gold plating rubs off, you’re left with sterling silver.
Steel is making a comeback – there is so much steel on the market nowadays. You can get steel wire, chain, headpins, ball pins and more!
Steel wire is 3/4 hard. You can anneal it, but make sure you don’t quench it in water. Steel needs to be cooled at room temperature only. Due to its hardness, it is not recommended for wire wrapping, but you can make beautiful bracelets and necklaces from steel wire!
Niobium is a soft grey, ductile transitional metal that is highly malleable, extremely slow to work-harden and is lightweight. This metal can also be anodized. At room temperature, Niobium has a thin oxide layer that adheres to the surface of the metal (much like the way germanium oxide adheres to Argentium) and is self-regenerating. This oxide layer protects Niobium from corrosion and also protects the wearer from reactions to the metal, hence Niobium is hypoallergenic.
Niobium looks a lot like platinum in its natural color before anodization. When Niobium is anodized – it can be rainbow in color:
This image shows what Niobium looks like compared to Titanium and Sterling Silver plus the color range.
Be very careful when working with anodized Niobium as the color can come off rather easily. Use tools dipped in Tool Magic or use nylon-coated pliers.
Where To Purchase
Rio Grande has a vast selection of metals to choose from. Unfortunately, they don’t offer anodized niobium any more. But if you search for this on Google, you will find this type of wire elsewhere. Fire Mountain Gems offers quite a lot of metals too, and they carry anodized niobium.