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Wire Jewelry 101
Jewelry making wire gives you endless choices in creativity! Still, it's easier to get started once you know a few basic tips and terms that will help you determine what type of wire to use for your jewelry projects. Learn about different shapes, gauges, and materials of craft wire. Find full tutorials, jewelry projects, and supplies too.
The gauge of a piece of wire is a measurement of its width (diameter). Gauge is often abbreviated as "ga", thus 20 gauge = 20ga. There are two main gauge systems used to determine wire size for crafters and artisans. American Wire Gauge is typically (but not always) the way jewelry wire is measured in the United States and Canada. Standard Wire Gauge (SWG) is typically (but not always) the measurement system used in Great Britain. Most other European countries measure wire size in millimeters.
Gauge numbers work the opposite of how you'd expect. The larger the gauge, the smaller the wire's diameter. This is because the numbers were originally determined from how many times a piece of wire had to pass through a draw plate before it was done being sized. The more times through the plate, the thinner the wire.
32-28 gauge are extremely thin. They are typically used for intricate wire work like weaving, crochet, and Viking knit.
26-24 gauge are good sizes for stringing pearls and beads with small holes. 26ga also works well for Viking knit.
22-20 gauge are good all-purpose, versatile wire sizes, thin enough to be able to string on most beads. If you use half-hard wire (or work-harden softer wire), these gauges are also sturdy enough to hold their shape for making handmade chain, ear wires, eye pins, jump rings, and lightweight clasps. 20ga works well for bracelet and necklace wire.
18-16 gauge work well for making sturdy clasps and jump rings (see about wire hardness for more info). They're also great as necklace and bracelet wire. Solid (not plated or filled) wire in these gauges is commonly used to make rivets. 18ga makes good ear wires too. Depending on the metal, 16ga gauge may be difficult to bend.
14 gauge is primarily used to create thick, extra-strength components such as clasps, rings, cuff bracelets and bangle bracelets. It can also be used to create frames for resin and mixed media projects, as well as structural support for many styles of jewelry. Solid 14ga wire can be used to make rivets. Depending on the metal, this gauge may be difficult to bend. 14 gauge wire is often only available in dead soft temper.
12 gauge is popular for rings, neck collars, bangle bracelets and cuff bracelets. It is usually only available in dead soft, and may require heavy-duty wire cutters or a jeweler's saw.
10 gauge is also a good weight for bangle bracelets and cuff bracelets. It is usually only available in dead soft, and generally requires heavy-duty jewelry tools for both cutting and shaping.
The shape of a wire refers to what you see when you look at a cross section of it (i.e. the cut end).
Round wire is the most common wire shape, and is the standard shape used in most wire working.
Square wire is sometimes chosen for purely aesthetic reasons, since the corners of square wire lend a different look to finished jewelry. It also has a practical advantage when you want to place several pieces of wire flush against each other. The flat sides of square wire will lay flush in a way that round wire can't. This makes square wire preferable in banding designs. Also, you can use a pin vise to twist square wire, for a sparkling effect.
Half round wire is typically used to connect several adjacent pieces of square wire. The flat side of the half-round wire is placed against the square wires, and the rounded side remains exposed in the finished design. This is called banding.
Twisted (aka fancy) wire is used to provide textural and aesthetic qualities to wire work. It can be formed from round wires or square wires. You can buy ready-made twisted wire, or make your own with a pin vise or Beadalon® wire twister. When making your own, keep in mind that your finished fancy wire will be a thicker gauge than the individual wires you start with.
You have many choices regarding what metals your jewelry making wire is made of, including precious metal wires and base metal wires. Options include solid metal wire, filled (overlay) wire, plated wire, enamel-coated colored wire, and anodized wire.
Silver Fill & Gold Fill Wire are also called overlay. They're created by using heat and pressure to apply a thick layer of precious metal to a base of less costly metal. Use these when you're making upper-end designs but need something more economical than solid precious metal wire. Fill/overlay is typically considered precious metal, despite not being solid, because the precious metal surface is hundreds of times thicker than a plating (see illustration).
Silver Plate & Gold Plate Wire give you colors that match precious metal components without the added cost. The disadvantage of plated wire is that when it's over-manipulated, the plating can crack and chip, revealing the base metal underneath. As a result, plated wire is best used for designs that do not require extensive bending and wrapping.
Enamel-coated wire offers a rainbow of permanent colors that won't chip or crack. Artistic Wire® is one of the leading brands. It's made from copper wire covered with a permanent colored enamel coating. The silver plated colors have a layer of pure silver between the copper wire and the final, permanent enamel layer. This adds a brilliant, high shine to silver plated colors. Artistic Wire is considered dead soft. Although the finish will not chip or crack, take care to avoid scraping through the colored layer. Many wire workers use nylon jaw pliers, or coat their tool tips with Tool Magic.
Anodized wire offers bright colors that are created in a chemical bath. Because the colors are not plated, they are more durable than plated colors. However, care should be taken to avoid scratching through the anodized layer. Many wire workers use nylon jaw pliers, or coat their tool tips with Tool Magic.
Memory wire offers several sizes of wire coils that retain their round or oval shape (like the classic springy Slinky toy). It works great for making beaded wine charms, rings, multistrand bracelets and chokers. Flat memory wire works well as a foundation for lashing beads onto it.
Bullion (aka French wire) is a delicate, tightly coiled wire that's used to cover and protect the end loops of bead cord on necklaces and bracelets. It's available in fine, medium, heavy, and extra heavy. Choose from sterling silver and base metal options.
Sometimes you have the option of choosing "dead soft" wire or "half hard" wire. As the names suggest, dead soft wire is extremely easy to bend, even with your hands. Half hard wire offers some resistance when you try to bend it. The advantage of dead soft wire is that it's easy to shape. The advantage of half hard wire is that once you've shaped it, it retains its shape better.
The more you work with a piece of wire, the more it will naturally harden. This is called work hardening the wire. When you've achieved the shape you want, you may be able to hammer the wire to harden it. Using a ball-peen hammer will give the wire a dappled texture, using a chasing hammer can nicely flatten it, and carefully using a nylon or rawhide hammer can harden it without altering the shape.
Whether to buy half hard or dead soft is often a matter of personal preference. Nevertheless, here are a few general guidelines to help you get started:
Dead soft works well to make flowing curves and spirals.
Half hard creates good sharp angles.
Dead soft is typically used for wire weaving and wire wrapping, including wrapped cabochons and "sculpted" wire jewelry.
Half hard is good for making components that need to hold their shape (ear wires, clasps, jump rings, necklace foundations, bracelet forms, etc.).
Gold-fill and silver-fill wire are generally harder than dead soft sterling silver or fine silver wire, and are often closer to half hard.
Scale of Hardness for Beadalon® Brand Wire
When in doubt, choose dead soft wire. Wire becomes more stiff and brittle the more you work with it. This is called work hardening. If you accidentally buy wire that is too malleable for your intended purpose, you can work harden it yourself with a nylon-head hammer, a Wire Whacker, a draw plate, or a tumbler. To re-soften wire that's too stiff for your intended purpose, you need to anneal it (heat it, then gradually cool it) - a more complicated process.