What kind of wire?!?
When a new wire wrapper begins a journey of learning about wire, one of the sources of confusion is in types and tempers of wire. For the majority of us, when just starting out, we go to our local hobby or craft store and pick up whatever is on the shelf. Usually, that's aluminum wire. It's certainly cost effective, as you can't get wire much cheaper than that. However, there are problems that come along with it. Work hardening it to a brittle state is not the least of these. But in order to talk about that, we have to first understand what work hardening even is. Wires that are sold for crafting purposes have a certain level of malleability. This means that they are flexible and shapeable within a tolerance. The tolerance will depend upon the type of metal the wire is made from. But how does work hardening really work? I'm glad you asked! Without going into the scientific explanation of how particles are arranged in metal, suffice it to say that the more you bend your wire, the harder (and more brittle) it becomes. Think for a moment in terms of foil. You pull it off the roll, and crumple it up. You can lay it on the counter and smooth it with your hand until it's flat, but you'll always be able to see where the metal was crumpled. It will never quite be the same as it was when it was first pulled off the roll. Well, wire works the same way. The more you move, bend, shape, touch, and smooth your wire, the harder it becomes. At a certain point, it's going to snap off because the metal can only tolerate so much stress. Wire breaks, and this is often the reason why that piece you're working with will suddenly come off in your hand, or fall to the floor. Aluminum will not take a lot of work hardening before it becomes brittle and snaps. This is problem number one with craft wire. The other problem is that it tends not to hold its shape very well. If you're trying to construct a solid piece of jewelry, the last thing you want is for it to bend and collapse. Obviously, there are many factors that attribute to this, but lack of stability of your materials is a problem. Because this is an introductory article I won't go into using heat sources to anneal wire, let us just assume for the time being that what you have is what you have. Most beginners don't want to get involved with torches and such, so let's take a look at what wires are most common for our art form and would be readily and reasonably available. Let's also assume you have gotten past your first few projects and now are beginning to get serious about your wire game. If this is the case you've already experienced the why-nots of aluminum wires. What's next? Copper, for one. Copper is super malleable and fairly forgiving as wire goes. It's also cost-effective, especially for the new student. You will find, essentially, two types of copper wire. One is coated copper, also called tarnish resistant. What this means is that it has a clear sealer applied to the surface of the metal to stop the natural aging progression of oxidation on the wire. I know lots of people love this type of wire. I do not. If you are skilled at not damaging the clear sealer on the wire, you'll do alright. But, know in advance that anywhere you put a tiny tool mark or scratch that coating, the wire is going to darken in that area. So if you're not careful your work will be full of spots where the oxidation has occurred. You may not see this for a long while, depending on the conditions in which the piece is kept. I prefer to avoid this possibility.
The other type of copper wire is bare, or raw, copper. This means that you're getting 99.5% (give or take) pure copper. Does it tarnish? You bet. So does grandma's good silver. Most metals with copper content will tarnish eventually, but it's very easy to maintain once you learn how. (More about that in another article.) There are other base metal wires available, such as brass and bronze. They fall in line with copper when it comes to expense and types, but they are far less common in wire wrapping, especially in the United States. I would encourage you to research these options as well as stainless steel, as you'll see they are mentioned in groups and messaged boards often.
They have their own unique traits, and a certain look about them, but the problem with these wires comes in the form of temper, which will be discussed later in this article. For this reason I do not recommend them for the beginning wrapper, especially if that wrapper is interested in learning to weave, as they are difficult to wrangle and do not like to behave. The next type of wire is silver. Silver can be broken into a couple categories, such as sterling, fine and argentium. For our purposes here, I'll be referring to sterling silver as it is the most cost effective and common type. Silver tarnishes as well, and the rate of tarnish is related to the type of silver in question. In my own work, since I force a patina on nearly every piece I make, the issue of tarnishing is essentially eliminated.
Silver is something that most people are fairly familiar with as it has been used in jewelry making for quite a long time and is rather popular. You will also see options for silver plated and silver filled wire. I do not recommend either of these, as pure silver wire can easily be recycled, or turned in for scrap. Filled and plated wires can not, so whatever scrap you have left at the end of a project, or after a failed project, is rendered essentially useless. The cost difference from silver to silver filled may seem drastic, until you consider what dollar value you may recover from scrap. Then, we come to gold and platinum. If you are seeking out precious metal wire in these categories, it is safe to assume you are well versed in wire and do not need help. Since the cost is ever-climbing, you should be confident in your ability and ready for the challenges that gold will bring. I wish you much success! Now, about that temper! The temper of wire simply refers to how hard, or soft, it is as it comes off the roll. The typical grades of temper you will see are dead soft and half hard. Some sources also offer full hard wire. Dead soft wire is the most malleable wire you can get. Because I do a lot of weaving in my work, dead soft wire is my preference in almost all cases. Initially, I was inclined to purchase my copper wire in both dead soft and half hard tempers, just to have it available. As it turns out, over time I realized that it isn't so difficult to harden wire to just the temper I need, and I cut down on my wire variants by purchasing almost every size in only dead soft. You can work harden your wire by running it through nylon jaw pliers, twisting it with your hands or a drill, or tapping it with a rawhide mallet.
Remember back in the beginning I said that work hardening is often the reason wire breaks. The only good way to understand wire temper is to play around with it and see how it behaves. You will come to know by the feel of the wire when it is stiff enough to hold a shape, and when it is becoming too brittle. I suggest ordering copper wire from a source like RioGrande.com and taking some time to really experiment with it. Having a few sizes at your disposal will help you to gain an understanding of how wire really works. The first two sizes I always recommend for anyone interested in learning weaving are 20ga round and 28ga round. They are the most common combination of wires for weaving, and will serve you well when you are learning. If you are able to afford more options, then I suggest adding 18ga and 22ga. They will still work well with a 28ga weaving wire and will give you some more interesting options and combinations. I have seen lots of people recommend to a new weaver that they weave with larger wires, but in my opinion this is actually more difficult as it takes more hand strength to work with larger wire. You will also find that your hands fatigue more quickly. Is it possible to weave with 24ga wire? Sure. I don't enjoy it as much though. Consider what your desired result is. Look at tutorials, both free and paid, and see what wire is most often recommended by the artists you are drawn to. Once you have some experience with copper wire, then you may want to step up to silver. You will find that sterling silver is slightly less malleable than copper, but when you have a good control of tension and some hours of practice under your belt, it is easy enough to overcome. Fine silver is very malleable and is often said to be a dream to weave with. However, it does not take patina the same way as sterling will and that is something to consider if you choose to work with it. The same temper varieties are available in silver as they are for copper, and the characteristics essentially are the same. When it comes to the temper of other base metal wires, I must stress that dead soft copper is not the same as dead soft brass or bronze. You should not order these expecting a similar hardness of wire (as I once did) because you will find that dead soft brass is significantly LESS soft than dead soft copper. This means that the tendency for the wire to spring back and fight you every step of the way should not be underestimated. Tiny weaving wires are less problematic than larger gauges but overall the experience is the same. Your hands will tire more quickly and you will find that getting the wire to stay in place is quite a bit more challenging. Stainless steel wire presents the same type of problem. I know there are artists out there who swear by stainless wire because it makes their jewelry essentially non-reactive and somewhat allergy safe, however I must commend them because for me, weaving with stainless wire was a lot like trying to wrap a slinky around a bowling ball and I don't care to try it a second time. If your journey leads you down this path, my advice is to seek out someone who has specific experience with stainless wire and beg them for help. You might get lucky. I don't need to tell you that I am not that person! Whatever wire you choose to work with, you will find a very supportive community of wire artists willing to help you and offer loads of tips and advice. Step one, though, is always the same. Figure out what types of designs you are drawn to most, so you can tell others what you would like to make. You will get better help by far once you figure out where you would like to go! Best of luck, and check back often for new tips and ideas!