How to Choose the Right Wire Gauge

Oct 19, 2009

Denise Peck

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A Quick Guide to Wire Gauge and Hardness
Chances are, if you've been making jewelry for a while, you're feeling ready to expand your skills. For many beaders and stringers, that means moving into the realm of wire. But I know wire can feel a little daunting—I vividly recall my first class. You bend it which way? But remember when you first started with seed beads and you thought, no way am I going to work with those tiny things! Or when you started stringing and you thought, I really don’t understand how these crimps work. It’s just a matter of diving in and getting familiar with the materials and tools.  The two things most critical to jewelry making with wire are the gauges and the hardness.

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Wire gauge tool Spacer 10x10 pixels Wire gauge
Gauge refers to the thickness or diameter of the wire. The smaller the number the thicker the wire.  For instance, to bend thick wire into a bangle, you might use 4 gauge, which is a little over ¼” thick. But if you want to knit with wire, you might use 28- or 30-gauge, which are almost like thread. Use a wire gauge tool by slipping the wire in a notch to determine the gauge.

Here are some common wire jewelry-making components and the best wire gauges to use:

  • 12g-14g – heavier clasps
  • 12g-18g – links, medium clasps
  • 16g-20g – jump rings
  • 18g-22g – ear wires, simple loops
  • 20g-24g – coils, wrapped loops
  • 24g-30g – knitting.

Wire hardness
The hardness of the wire refers to the malleability. Hardness also differs by material. Sterling is harder than copper. Brass and bronze tend to be stiffer than both copper and sterling. When you’re working with very fine gauges, hardness is a bit irrelevant, since fine gauge wires are so thin they’re ultimately pliable.

But if you work with thicker gauges, you want to choose the hardness most appropriate for the work you’re doing. For instance, if you want to make ear wires, you know they should have some stiffness and spring to them. But if you’re coiling wire, you want that wire to be soft enough to easily wrap around whatever you’re using as a mandrel.

  • Full hard: fully tempered, very hard and stiff. There is rarely a call for full hard in jewelry making
  • Half hard:  softer than full hard, but still holds some shape. Good for ear wires or hooks. 
  • Dead soft: very soft, no spring, very pliable. Best for bending, coiling, hammering, and manipulating the wire a lot.

Work hardening your wire
All metal becomes stiffer when you work with it–that’s called work hardening. Any sort of manipulation of the wire changes the molecular structure of it, causing it to become harder and more brittle. The only way you can return the wire to its softer state is to heat it, which you can do if you have a torch or a kiln. But you can always harden soft wire by hammering, either with a metal hammer to flatten and texture, or with a rawhide mallet, to maintain the roundness but temper, or harden, the metal.

You can use work hardening to your advantage when you’re making jewelry. When you start with soft wire and want to make a few jump rings by coiling the wire around a mandrel, the coiling will work harden the metal and make your jump rings stronger.

Buying Wire
When you buy craft wire, it’s primarily copper with a colored coating of some type. Consequently it’s quite soft and easy to work with. Craft wire does not come in different degrees of hardness. But when you buy silver or copper wire from jewelry suppliers, you should specify the hardness you want.

Start here!
In Step by Step Wire Jewelry magazine, every project comes with a wire and materials list, so you’re never left guessing when you purchase your supplies.

And now, as Step by Step Wire Jewelry celebrates its 5-year anniversary, you can get the very Best of Step by Step Wire Jewelry in a special 148 page compilation of the editors’ and readers’ top 25 favorite projects, including Lisa Niven Kelly's "Entangled Wire Bezel" and Katrina Meyer's "Arrow" Bracelet. If you’ve always wanted to take the leap into wire jewelry making, this is the perfect issue for you!

Is there a wire gauge you find indispensible? Share your tips and comments below!

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Entangled wire bezel
Arrow Bracelet


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Comments

Guadalupe@3 wrote
on Oct 22, 2009 9:44 AM
Thank you sooo much for this information.
on Oct 22, 2009 1:13 PM
I try to make sure I nerver run out of 18 or 20g sterling wire. The 20g is substantial enough to hold curves but delicate enough to use for long, elegant earring wire. It also does well in a wrapped loop. The 18g is great for clasps and for using as a core wire in projects involving coils. It's also a great weight for jump rings. whereas the 20g is a little too flimsy for this. If I've used deadsoft wire for jump rings, as a precaution I open the ring and then twist it to open position in the other direction once or twice. Coiling the wire around the mandrel provides some work hardening, but this technique ensures that the jump ring will never open unexpectedly. I would never use jumprings for linking or for hanging a pendant on a chain unless I make sure it is strong enough to stay closed. That way, I know my jewelry won't come apart or even worse, become lost because of a weak jump ring.
Robin@137 wrote
on Oct 23, 2009 9:04 AM
This is a great article! I'm having trouble finding a wire gauge like the one depicted in the article - any ideas?
on Nov 14, 2011 12:56 PM

I want to start making my own clasps for loom beaded bracelets.  Which gauge wire would be the best to make a strong clasp?  

on Apr 7, 2012 12:32 PM

I have used 24 gauge wire to make chainmaille, but I don't recommend it except for very tight weaves with little rings. The wire just isn't strong enough to withstand much pressure, and the rings may pull open. 22 gauge is as thin as I like to go. Most commonly, I use 20 gauge or heavier.

When choosing the wire gauge for making chainmaille jewelry, we also need to consider the desired Aspect Ratio (the ratio between the wire gauge and the inner diameter of the ring). The AR determines how dense and tight the rings will be. A lower AR makes a tighter weave, and a lower AR makes a looser weave.

For example, if I want to make a byzantine chain with an AR of 3.7 and an inner diameter of 3 mm, I need to select the right wire gauge. In this case, I have to use a 20 gauge wire: 3mm / 3.7 AR = 0.81mm (0.81mm = 20 ga)

Once I know what AR I need for a certain weave, I can change the gauge and ring inner diameter to make a chain of the same proportions.

For example, if I want to make the same chain with approximately the same proportions, but using 4mm inner diameter rings, I'll need an 18 gauge wire: 4mm / 3.7 AR =  1.08mm (1.08 is closer to 18 gauge than 17 gauge in diameter. 18 gauge wire is 1.02 mm, just a hair thinner than the 1.08 I need, so the chain will be slightly looser, but not enough to make a difference.)

The point is that the choice of gauge often depends on the ring size and desired aspect ratio. I got tired of doing the math myself, so I built an Excel spreadsheet calculator. (You can get it here: chainofbeauty.wordpress.com/chainmaille-resources )

If I know the gauge and inner diameter, it gives me the AR.

If I know the inner diameter and AR, it tells me what gauge to use.

And if I know the gauge and AR, it tells me what size ring to make.

Chainmaille is lots of fun. I hope this helps people choose the wire gauge they need.

on Apr 21, 2012 8:24 AM

Thanks so much for this. It's the first time I've found all this information in one place!