7 Tips for Using Steel Wire in Your Jewelry Designs

Hundredth Monkey

Does this ever happen to you? You wake up and feel the sudden need to start adding, say, starbursts to your designs. So you do. But then the weird thing is you start noticing starbursts everywhere. In other people’s beadwork . . . on T-shirts . . . wrapping paper . . . on the sides of buses . . . It’s like your great idea blossomed with everyone else overnight! We were talking about this phenomenon in a class I was teaching in Michigan recently and one of the students, Pam Nichols, said, “Well, it’s just the Hundredth Monkey thing, right?”

What? Hundredth monkey? Pam told the Cliff Notes version of Ken Keyes, Jr. story on how once 99 monkeys learn a behavior, the 100th monkey will just “know” it without having to be taught. Pam is right–this “collective unconscious” influence happens to artists all the time! 

My most recent “hundredth monkey” experience was with steel wire. My friend Brenda Schweder suggested I try it out. So I picked some up at local hardware store and made a necklace, thinking I was on the serious cutting edge. But then I started seeing steel wire used everywhere, including on this very website! Denise Peck’s Cool Waters Bracelet and Raku Waves both use steel wire to create wonderful chunky links, spiraling charms, and a rustic clasp. When you think about it, almost any simple project using heavy-gauge wire could be done up in steel wire. Wouldn’t Catch of the Day by Linda Jones look great with a hefty steel wire frame for the fish? Or how about incorporating steel wire as the base for Linda “Sorcie” Smith’s Freewheeling Pendant? Just check out the wirework projects in the store and let your imagination go.

7 Tips on Using Steel Wire

Steel wire isn’t anything new, of course, but it may be new to your jewelry-making studio. It’s actually a nice material to add to your jewelry to get that weathered look that’s become so popular these days. Here are a handful of tips to get you started:

1.  Find steel wire at your local hardware store. The natural kind is used for twisting rebar together—it’s dark brown and about 18-gauge. The shiny galvanized type, which doesn’t rust as easily, is available in more gauge choices.

2.  This stuff is tough and will destroy your fine wire cutters, so only use heavy-duty wire cutters to cut it. Smooth cut ends with a metal needle file.

3.  Bend steel wire with garage-grade pliers or use your previously trashed set of jewelry-making tools. Metal rods and wooden dowels work well for forming nice, even bends. 

4.  When bending this wire go slowly, especially with the thick gauges. A bend made in the thick stuff is just about impossible to un-bend unless your name is Hercules.

5.  Hammering steel wire is quite therapeutic, but make sure to hammer on a steel block.

6.  Wear safety goggles and keep bandages nearby when working with this type of wire.

7.  Steel wire is obviously not for people with metal allergies! And even if you’re not allergic, it’s a good idea to coat even the galvanized type with acrylic spray or another clear shield product to protect your piece from rusting after you’ve finished it.

Have you tried using steel wire yet? Any tips? Or do you have a “hundredth monkey” story to share? Please do so on the website!

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Beading Daily Blog, Wire Jewelry
Michelle M.

About Michelle M.

I was the founding editor of Beading Daily (2007-2009) and my now a freelance designer/writer/editor.  My designs have been published in Stringing, Step by Step Beads, Jewelry Gifts for the Holidays, Creative Jewelry, Beadwork, and other magazines. I enjoy stringing, bead embroidery, wirework, metal work, mixed media, beadweaving—pretty much anything that involves beads or jewelry.  I also enjoy exploring new crafts like pottery and felting.  I write a personal blog if you want to see more of my work. 16+ Free Beading Projects: A list of the free projects I created for Beading Daily. Contact Info If you have a question regarding Beading Daily, please contact customer service at beadingdaily@interweave.com or the current editor, Kristal Wick. If you'd like to contact me, you'll find my info on my website:  www.michellemach.com.  You can also follow me on Twitter at:  http://twitter.com/beadsandbooks Pictured here is a pair of earrings I made for the Spring 2010 issue of Stringing in an attempt to get over my fear of designing with the color orange!

32 thoughts on “7 Tips for Using Steel Wire in Your Jewelry Designs

  1. I have experimented with the darkened steel wire and I love the look – but I was horrified by the rusting when the jewelry came into contact with water. Most of my wirework involves tight wraps of smaller-gauge wire. Have you had success spraying wraps to protect them? If so, do you just make sure that you spray very lightly?

  2. Chris-Yes, the rusting part is a pain, but many artists like that, too! You will be able to avoid some general rusting by adding a couple light coats of clear acrylic spray like Krylon, but this stuff is definitely not for the swimming pool… Good luck! Jean

  3. I love blackened steel/iron wire and have used it a few times in both jewellery and other wirework with beads. Love the look. Over here (Sweden) it’s often used in so called luffarslöjd or trådtjack, wirework traditionally made by vagabond who made both utility tools and decorative items to earn money for food but also to avoid the “bum laws”, which meant imprisonment for vagrants without a job.

    I love blacksmith jewellery too and there are some nice thor’s hammers, trollkors and other viking age inspired pendants I’d love to buy. I once saw this jewellery artist on Etsy, who makes lovely jewellery using blackened steel wire with drops of silver on it. Megan Auman I believe her name is. (She uses Johnson’s Paste Wax on her jewellery to protect it.)

  4. How bizzare………hundreth monkey for sure!

    I was at Ace Hardware this morning loading up on Steel wire. I’ve been meaning to buy it ever since I purchased a book by Stephanie Lee, titled Semi Precious Salvage.

  5. This is so ironic! My dad was a veterinarian & used stainless steel wire in surgeries. When he died, I got this handmade wire holder with 8 different gauges on it – from very fine to “You’re going to use THAT to close an incision?” Must have been for elephants, however I don’t recall seeing any elephants when I went on call with him. Now maybe I can use some of this wire for something besides incisions!! Thanks!

  6. I always thought I was ahead of my times and many times would showcase a new design at a local craft show only to find it the rage a year later!! I used metal and steel wire back in the mid 1990’s when money was short and I wanted to make some new wire designs. The rusting eventually turned me off as I didn’t think of sealing it. I sold a few pieces (was in Michigan at the time), but it was never a big hit. Once again, ahead of my time? And I used copper wire too, but it’s a bit soft for what I was doing. Now I use a lot of copper accents for the antique look.

  7. I’ve been using annealed steel wire for quite some time in my jewelry with much success! When I use it, I run the piece through fine sandpaper to remove a bit of the black coating. After I finish a piece, if I don’t want it to rust, I take a cotton ball dampened with one of my favorite essential oils and rub the piece down. I find that keeps the rust at bay and the oil treatment only needs to be redone every 9 months or so. The spray makes me rash out like crazy, but the steel doesn’t.

    Here’s a piece from earlier this year where I used steel wire

    Monkey indeed!

  8. Hundredth monkey! I’m glad to know there’s a name for it, and that I’m not the only one.

    After months of encouragement (pressure? coercion?) from someone to enter a beaded piece in a contest for the first time, I was finally building up my nerve. I sketched some ideas, and described what I had in mind to my non-beading husband and sister. I stocked up on supplies, stitched samples, but wasn’t quite getting the look I was after. I knew that I’d really need to hustle to start and finish my “unique” creation in time for the impending deadline. But I was up to the challenge and beginning to feel sort of excited.

    Then, about a week later (~3 weeks to deadline) my husband was bringing in the mail which included the newest issue of a beading magazine I subscribe to. He held up the cover and said, “Well, it looks like you’ll need to come up with another idea fast for that contest.” I was stunned, deflated, and to be completely honest a little bit relieved.

    It was EERY how much that cover photo resembled the image I’d been trying to articulate to my family, and planned to convey in beads. For a moment it seemed as if the idea had been inexplicably downloaded from my brain, and stitched up by someone else! Of course I knew that was impossible…those magazine covers are planned months in advance ; )

  9. I have been using stainless steel binding wire purchased for other purposes to create light, airy chains and earrings using semi-precious and faux stones. So far I haven’t seen anything quite like them, but then, i doubt most people use medecine bottles and bead vials as mandrels. I have experienced that hundreth monkey syndrome though. I began making the simple wire wrap rings over four years ago, before they began appearing in every jewelry magazine. When I completed the bridal wreath necklace featured in your wedding gallery a year or so back, it wasn’t long before I began seeing pieces in the same nature appearing as winners in jewelry catalogue contests.

    Renaissance Wax was recommended to me as a sealer for metals that tend to turn or rust. It was developed for use in museums to preserve articles on display. I searched quite a while before I found it. Hair spray is also recommended as a sealer, but it doesn’t have the staying power of other methods.

  10. I too have had the Hundredth money syndrome hit me a few times, it’s like bead weavers are able to fine the same path in their designs. I was so elated when I had figured out how to make a square bead out of square beads, They were purple and lime green, I showed my beading partner, and she wasn’t so impressed. But a few days later there it was in a magazine. The same exact square beads made into a bracelet. I try so hard to have my own style, and use my own imagination, but I guess some of us think alike, so we bead alike. It’s the darnedest thing!!!

  11. This may sound funny but It is that way in Christian circles too. A message seems to be released in spirit and suddenly everybody knows it whether you heard the same minister or not. I am a minister but I love to bead and make jewelry. I find myself thinking on God’s creative works often as I am also an artist. There is a verse in the bible that states “there is nothing new under the sun”. I believe this to be true.

    Also years ago I made and sold exclusive wedding gowns and veils (pre walmart showrooms like David’s bridals). I designed a silk sheath with a pointed peplum, detachable train and handbeaded lace. I was a very small busness with refferals only. One year later I found a duplicate of my design appeared in a bridal magazine for twice the price! How did my design show up there? That remains a mystery. Perhaps it is God who shares the creativity among all his creatiove children. Even when they do not know it.

  12. My hundreth monkey happens to be steel wire! I bought a roll of it in the welding supply at a farm store. The stuff is really a bear to wok with , but i can imagine a lot of cool things can be done with it.

  13. I have been creating whumsical chains, light and airy in design, using the stainless steel binding wire I purchased for other uses. So far I haven’t seen anything that approached it. Most people don’t use medecine bottles and bead vials to as mandrels. I have experie

  14. What Jean didn’t tell all of you is that her piece (One Small Favour) above is a shoe-in for my upcoming book gallery! Iron Wire Jewelry (working title, Lark Books) will be out in the Fall of 2010.

    A couple more tips I can share (without giving the whole book away):
    – steel/iron wire should be cleaned before finishing it. Simply rub the piece with a brass or steel brush (get them at your local hardware store) or fine steel wool.
    – finish your pieces with wax to avoid rusting. I use a micro-crystalline wax called Renaissance Wax (Vintaj is one internet source for this), which I apply with a rag.

    Also, I’ve not worked with galvanized wire as yet, but I bet that rebar/iron wire (already annealed — that’s why it is black, ’cause it has a carbon coating from being kiln fired) is a LOT easier to work. It’s dead soft and not so ‘boingy.’

    Of course, I think this is a great topic, Jean! Thanks for spreading the word!


  15. I have been using annealed steel wire for about 12 years now. I have sold at least a hundred pieces made with it. I have never had a problem. I like to use 20 or 19 gauge wire. One of my most popular pieces is ” Antique Lace” Come see it at: http://www.aileensart.com

  16. Being a bird owner as well as a wire wrapper, I’ve read lots of posts about how galvanized wire is toxic to birds if they ingest it and also the release of toxic substances when it becomes wet. As with most things, there are two sides to any debate. Some say it’s ok others say not. However, I to err on the side of safety and do not use galvanized wire in my designs. There are so may other great alternatives that I don’t want to chance it.

    Also if you plan to use a torch on it, don’t.
    As part of the Toxic Substance Control Act (Public Law
    94-469 – galvanized wire is one of the things that has to be reported on because of it’s release of zinc particles.

    I found this info in – http://www.h-b.com/images/msds/MillGalvanizedSteelWire.pdf
    which is a Material Safety Data Sheet on Galvanized Steel Wire from Hohmann & Barnard, Inc.
    NOTE: Steel products in their usual physical form do not pose any health hazards.
    However, when subjected to welding, burning, grinding, cutting, abrasive blasting,
    heat treatment, pickling, or similar operations, potentially hazardous fumes or dust
    may be emitted. …. Special attention should be directed to the zinc
    coating which could be a significant source of zinc oxide fumes or dusts during
    welding or similar activities

    Do your own research and make your own informed decision. And by all means, if you use it in your designs, disclose that to your buyers.

  17. I bought but haven’t yet used, _aluminum_ wire at a hardware store. Any ideas on using it?

    My monkey story has to do with knitting so I won’t tell it here but I have a warning – many times I’ve thought I was being brilliant, then in looking over an old magazine/book in my collection – there it was! Maybe I really invented it again, but… 🙂

  18. I have never had a problem with galvanized steel rusting, even when it came into contact with water, but when it is against skin , thats when it really seems to darken, also gets a strange look if your skin is sweating. I have tryed using differant chemicals on it to lighten it back up but everything made it worse, I did discover that letting it sit in lemon juice will turn it very black, I like that look, but I have not yet tested it to see if the black will come off on your skin. After reading BrendaP’s comment I will have to do some research on the toxic fumes. I made a ring with stainless steel wire and wore it 24/7 for over 5 months to see how it would hold up in water etc, no problems what so ever (except for being hard to bend) I now use stainless in a lot of my jewelry pieces. I have tryed the aluminum wire also, it is so light you have to be careful twisting and bending it breaks to easily.

  19. One of my teachers suggested using Renaissance wax to protect copper and brass jewelry. It is expensive, but a little goes a long way. Hair spray can be a less expensive choice but it doesn’t last as long as Renaissance or floor wax.

  20. I too love working with rebar/tie wire. An alternative to Renaissance wax is to coat the wire with clear acrylic, i.e. Future Floor Wax,or equivalent. I learn to use it working with polymer clay friends and it seemed a natural transition. It’s clear, simple to dip or coat a piece and let it dry. This holds the rust at bay and adds just a slight sheen. I still would avoid wearing iron wire jewelry in the shower, but the acrylic coating keeps the Midwest humidity from causing rusty gunk where it isn’t wanted.

  21. I have just discovered this type of wire. Deryn Mentock of Something Sublime is a master at using it. She suggested the Rennaissance Wax as well…just wish it were more readily available and a bit less expensive. I have used it to make clasps and to wire wrap stones and I find that the patina that the galvanized steel dark annealed has is quite nice. I use a sanding pad to remove some of the black finish. It blends much nicer with vintage finds than sterling does, even with a liver of sulpher patina. I like the look when it is hammered too.
    Since the subject was the 100th monkey, I find that the comment on too much wire coverage rather funny! Perhaps this is the 100th monkey Jean speaks of! I think it is great to learn new tricks and techniques. I am glad that you are giving it a more thorough coverage by branching out into the galvanized steel and aluminum (I have never heard of).
    Thanks for everyone sharing their great tips!
    Enjoy the day!
    Tesori Trovati Jewelry

  22. Hi all, I purchases a metal polish, by or called Wenzal (sp)I haven’t had time to try it yet, very reasonably priced, and can be used on silver, copper, brass. Has anyone else used this? It was mentioned in a forum I read afew monthes ago. thanks Wanda

  23. hi everyone
    im new to jewellerymaking , im recently using silver plated wire , but i want to try different wire e.g.annealed steel wire, galvanized or the stainless steel.

    if possible can anyone tell me where can i buy these wires from for cheap
    thank you

  24. pooja18,
    Not sure if you’ve had the question answered, but you can find dark/black annealed steel wire at Ace hardware. Mine didn’t have the gauge I wanted, so I ordered on line.It’s very inexpensive and shippibng doesn’t kill you since it’s pretty lightweight.

  25. Love all the tips and suggestions here~ I just bought a tutorial on Etsy for making steel bangles and am so happy to find this post!!

    QUESTION~ Aside from the steel wire and the garage style cutters, what are the ‘tools’ shown this photo? What is the wooden dish for? I’m new to this so any help is appreciated.

    Thanks! {Donna}

  26. Because a roll of this wire is so cheap, I use it to practice with and I use it to make bead covered hangers for hanging baskets, really so much you can do with it

  27. That isn’t a wooden dish. It’s the bottom of an old sad iron (without it’s handle) that can be sued as a steel bench block to hammer on.
    FYI – steel is galvanized so it won’t rust but anything galvanized has zinc in it. You don’t want to heat up either of those materials without appropriate ventilation, facilities and lung protection because the toxic fumes are serious. It’s called Metal Fume Fever and you can get the shakes, brain and lung damage. Blacksmith’s have died from this.
    Stainless steel fumes can give off chromium which is also extremely serious business as well.

  28. That isn’t a wooden dish. It’s the bottom of an old sad iron (without it’s handle) that can be sued as a steel bench block to hammer on.
    FYI – steel is galvanized so it won’t rust but anything galvanized has zinc in it. You don’t want to heat up either of those materials without appropriate ventilation, facilities and lung protection because the toxic fumes are serious. It’s called Metal Fume Fever and you can get the shakes, brain and lung damage. Blacksmith’s have died from this.
    Stainless steel fumes can give off chromium which is also extremely serious business as well.