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PHOTO (above): Chainmail Peter Pan Collar by Richard Ayres
Do you sell your own handmade jewelry making the same pieces as everyone else? What if I told you that you can make a very unique brand of jewelry that most people overlook? Chain mail, also known as maille, chainmail, or chainmaille makes some lovely and unique jewelry (bracelets, necklaces, rings, and earrings), clothing (bikini tops, belts, shirts, and ties), art, and much, much more. The rings used vary from the very small to quite large in stainless steel, aluminum, sterling silver, copper, bronze, and even gold. Chainmail has more uses than just armor. In a few simple steps, I’ll show you the basics to getting started and hopefully giving your handmade jewelry a unique and eye catching twist.
The Building Blocks of Chainmail – Rings
Rings are primarily made of metal but can be found in plastic or rubber. A ring, or in the jewelry industry a jump ring, is a loop of wire bent to form a ring and usually butted together, not soldered. Wire is wrapped around a mandrel, a long metal rod, into a coil. The coil is removed and rings are individually cut off.
The four basic parts of a ring are:
- Gauge – diameter of wire used to make a ring. There are two main systems, SWG and AWG.
- Inside Diameter (ID) – distance across the inside of a ring not including its gauge
- Aspect Ratio (AR) – the ID divided by the gauge, both in decimal form (e.g. .25″ instead of 1/4″)
- Cut – type of cut produced when a ring is cut off a coil.
If you need a 1/4″ ring that’s 16 gauge in the SWG system, the preferred method to specify the ring is 1/4″ – 16 SWG. This gives you all the information you need to describe the ring to others or when purchasing rings.
Most people use this method to some degree whether they specify the gauge first or last or specify the gauge as a decimal in inches or millimeters. Be careful because a lot of people and web sites don’t specify the gauge system or if they use decimals, they don’t always specify if it’s in inches or millimeters. It’s best to purchase a cheap caliper and measure the wire’s thickness yourself and then lookup the appropriate gauge in decimal form.
Gauge is the thickness of a piece of wire. The smaller the gauge number, the thicker the wire. There are two main gauge measurements; British Imperial Standard (SWG) and American or Brown and Sharp (AWG).
Inside diameter (ID) is measured on the inside of a ring from side to side when closed. The gauge of the wire is not part of the ID. If a project calls for a 1/4″ ring it means that the inside diameter of the ring, when measured across, is about 1/4″. About because most metals when coiled on a mandrel and then removed “spring” back slightly widening the ID. The ring size is taken from the diameter of the mandrel used to coil the wire to make the rings and not the actual diameter after spring-back.
Aspect ratio is the ratio of the ID divided by the gauge, in decimal form. Make sure both the inner diameter and gauge are in decimal form and both are specified in either inches or millimeters. This becomes a “dimensionless” number. It gives you a number that represents the gauge compared to the inside diameter which helps determine how to size up or down rings for a given project that was done in another ring size.
Cut is the type produced on the ring when it’s cut from a coil. The pinch cut looks like, ><. It’s usually produced from hand tools such as a wire cutter. The shear cut produces a diagonal slice, //, but the ends don’t match up perfectly and sometimes the rings become deformed during the cutting process. A machine cut is made by a machine that’s made to coil and cut rings automatically. The saw cut is made by a saw that cuts rings off. Saw cuts produce the best closure of rings. Closure is the act of twisting the ends of a ring together to close a ring.
Most rings are metal and come in a vast selection including aluminum, stainless steel, gold or silver, titanium, and more. Your choice of ring material will depend upon your budget, the project you’re making, and availability. Bright aluminum is easy to work with but sterling silver is a great metal to use for bracelets, necklaces, or anklets. It has a nice weight and shine to it and being a precious metal sells well as chainmail jewelry.
Tools of the Trade – Pliers
The only tools you’ll need to weave rings are a pair of pliers. You’ll hold one in each hand to open and close rings along with weaving them into your project. The size and type of pliers depend on your preference, the size of the rings you’re using, the project, and the metal of the rings. Pliers come in a variety of types; flat nosed, flat angled nose, linesman, and others.
Each type serves a different purpose in chain-mailing. Flat nosed are good for rings that should be scratched as little as possible like silver or gold. Linesman pliers are great for beginners as they have teeth that help hold rings but can also scratch them. Flat angled nose pliers work well for small rings when making jewelry. Pliers also come in different sizes. For 1/4″ or larger ID rings, you might want to use a 6″ or 8″ pair of pliers but for smaller rings used in jewelry making, 4″ hobby pliers work well.
Buy or Make your Own Rings?
To purchase or make your own has always been a hot topic. Making your own rings can be much cheaper but you have to buy the wire, coil it, and cut off each ring. This takes time and effort and often requires you to build your own coiling “jig”.
Purchasing pre-cut rings is more expensive but it gives you the luxury to start chain-mailing immediately without the bother or time of making and cutting your own rings. I highly recommend you start out purchasing rings if you’re new to the craft.
Why? First, you can start immediately and most of us, when finding a new hobby, want to start quickly. And second, if you find that chain-mailing is not for you, you haven’t wasted your time, effort, or money making your own rings before you even get started mailing.
There are many places on the internet where you can purchase rings. Three places I highly recommend are:
- The Ring Lord – bar none, they have the largest selection of ring sizes, materials, cut types, and supplies than anyone else.
- SpiderChain Jewelry – Spiderchain has an amazing selection of precious metal saw-cut rings in sterling silver, gold fill, niobium, and others.
- The Mithral Armoury – they carry a smaller selection of metals and rings but they have an affordable selection of bright aluminum rings. Bright aluminum rings barely tarnish, are light, cheap, and a good choice for beginners and even for lower-priced jewelry.
Weaves – The Key to Chainmail
Weaves are the basic building blocks of chainmail. There are several different primary families; European, Japanese, Persian, and Hybrid are just a few. The easiest to learn for a beginner is known as European 4-in-1.If you’ve seen chainmail before, it was probably a variation of a European weave.
European 4-in-1 Weave
4-in-1 means every ring in the pattern goes through four other rings. If the ring you’re adding goes through two rings on the existing pattern then it must also go through two new rings – one ring through a total of four others. If the ring you’re adding goes through three rings on the existing pattern then it must also go through one new ring – again, one ring through four others.
It’s best to use this weave as a starting point to learn how to chainmail. It’s a great, versatile, and simple weave for beginners and you can still make some nice bracelets and necklaces with this weave. After that you can jump into a little more advanced weaves like Byzantine, Half Persian 4-in-1, and Full Persian. All make wonderful bracelets and necklaces.
Half Persian 4-in-1
Byzantine with Hematite beads
A very wide variety of jewelry can be made from smaller rings in many different chainmail weaves. Knowing the parts of a ring, the tools you need, where to buy or make your own rings, and which weave to start with is half the battle getting started chain-mailing.
A good source of pictures or 3D images on how to weave Euro 4-in-1 and any weave is invaluable. Start with this simple weave and you can add a wide variety of new jewelry to what you’re already making bring a new and fresh looking to your jewelry.
By Jeff Baker, Author of ‘Chainmail Made Easy: Beginner’s Guide in 7 Easy Steps‘. The book will teach you the history of chainmail, different rings used and the kinds of metals, how to open and close rings correctly, tools used and different kinds, an overview of the family of chainmail weaves, how to weave 7 of the more common simpler weaves shown in 3D graphics, resources for purchasing rings and tools and 3 Starter Projects: Women’s Choker Necklace, a Men’s Flat Bracelet, and a Pouch or Dice Bag.