Choosing the right jewelry wire for a specific project can be confusing. Especially if you’re new to wire weaving. I get it. I’ve been there, and I’ve made all the mistakes. And then some. There are so many specialty wires on the market today that it’s easy to become overwhelmed.
I tend to rank jewelry wire in three different categories:
- Solid jewelry wire
- Filled jewelry wire
- Plated or anodized craft wire
Two other types of common jewelry wire are beading wire and memory wire. Let’s look at each of these types. I’ll discuss their pros and cons along with when (and when not) to use them. But first, let’s define some of the terms with which jewelry wire is described.
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Temper and Hardness
You’ll often hear the terms ‘temper’ and ‘hardness used interchangeably in reference to jewelry wire. Temper refers to the degree of hardness of metal while hardness covers a range of tempers.
You can purchase wire in three different tempers: hard, half-hard, and dead soft.
Hard Jewelry Wire
Hard jewelry wire is very stiff and springy. It’s difficult to form, but it will also retain its shape really well once it is formed. One example of hard wire that you’ve likely encountered along your jewelry making journey is memory wire. Generally, you don’t want to purchase hard wire for wire weaving unless you have a very specific structure in mind that requires a high degree of strength and shape retention.
Half-Hard Jewelry Wire
Half-hard wire works well for most structural elements of wire woven jewelry. I use half-hard wire exclusively for core wires and clasps in my jewelry. This wire will continue to harden while you work with it. That process is called work hardening.
Whenever you straighten a piece of wire with your fingers or with a tool like nylon jaw pliers, it will harden a little bit more. Hammering also work hardens jewelry wire. That’s partly why I use hammering in so much of my work. It not only adds depth and dimension to a piece, but it also adds strength and durability. Twisting is another good means of hardening wire. Because I use all of these methods in the course of creating my jewelry, most pieces are sufficiently hardened by the time they’re finished.
Dead Soft Jewelry Wire
Dead soft wire is the most malleable of the three wire tempers available on the market. I use dead soft wire exclusively for weaving. As with half-hard wire, a dead soft wire will work harden as you use it. That’s why your weaving wire will sometimes break unexpectedly in the middle of a weave.
All metals have a breaking point, which is why it’s important to become very familiar with whatever alloy you choose to work with. As you get to know your chosen wire, you’ll learn to feel when the wire is nearing its breaking point. You can only harden wire up to that point, and then it quickly becomes brittle. Overworked jewelry wire will break under the slightest pressure.
You can use this fact to your advantage, as I do when I want to remove excess weaving wire. Trimming weaving wire with wire cutters often leaves a sharp point just above the surface of your weave. Those points are sometimes difficult to tuck in with a tool if they’re in a very tight space. Breaking the weaving wire, on the other hand, leaves that point either flush with or just below the surface of your weave. This is why I recommend breaking your weaving wire instead of trimming it in my tutorials.
Annealing Jewelry Wire
Here’s another potential area for confusion for new wire weavers. You take a piece of 16ga half-hard wire and ball the end of the wire up with your torch. But now your wire is super soft and bendy on the end with the ball. The rest of the wire is noticeably softer as well. What happened? You just annealed your half-hard wire and returned it to a dead soft temper.
Annealing is a technical metallurgical process that can either soften or harden a metal, depending on how (and for how long) you apply heat. For our purposes, however, think of annealing as a means to soften hard metals.
By heating jewelry wire with a torch to the point where the wire glows red, you essentially return the wire to its softest and most malleable form. In order to use that annealed wire as a structural element, such as a core wire for weaving, you’ll need to work harden it back up to a more rigid temper. You can do that by continuously drawing it through your fingers or your nylon jaw pliers until it re-hardens. Or you can hammer it with a rubber or rawhide mallet. Twisting the wire also hardens it.
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Solid Jewelry Wire
This is the only type of jewelry wire that I use. As the word ‘solid’ suggests, this type of wire consists of a single metal with no alternative metal plating or enamel coating on the surface of the wire. There are several different solid jewelry wires available on the market, though most of them are not readily available at your local craft store.
The best place to buy solid jewelry wire is from a specialty supplier such as Rio Grande or Metalliferous. Both of these sources carry a wide assortment of solid jewelry wires that will meet virtually every wire weaver’s needs. Metalliferous often has better prices, but one reason I prefer Rio Grande is that they usually list the alloy contents of their metals in their product descriptions.
I discuss each type of solid jewelry wire that’s currently on the market in the following section. If you’d like a quick reference for which wires are suitable for my wire weaving tutorials, refer to the solid wire chart in the conclusion of this post.
Base Metal Jewelry Wire
Base metals are common metal alloys like copper, tin, or zinc. Silver and gold, because of their scarcity, are considered precious metals.
This is a tricky metal to put into a nice neat little box. Brass jewelry wire is also called Jeweler’s Brass, Red Brass, or Nu Gold. I’m not a fan of yellow metals, so I don’t use brass wire for my jewelry. It will technically work for most of my designs, however, so give it a shot if you want to achieve a look that’s similar to gold, or if you want an antiqued brass finish.
The trouble I have with brass is that there are multiple alloy formulas all marketed as brass. This makes it very difficult to predict how hard the wire will be or how it will respond to heat.
I’ve never tried to ball brass wire with a torch, but because most brass (Jewelers Brass in particular) contains zinc, I suspect it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to coax into a ball with a butane micro torch. It’s also likely to form fire scale.
Keep that in mind if you want to try using brass wire for my tutorials. It should work fine for something like my Chalice Necklace, for instance, but I don’t recommend it for my Twig Earrings. Also be aware that although you can buy half-hard and dead soft brass wire, it will feel very different than half-hard and dead soft copper wire.
Because of the zinc content, brass wire is naturally harder and springier than copper. So, it will take more physical effort to form it and to get a nice tight weave. Jeweler’s Brass does have a color very similar to 14K yellow gold, though. If that color appeals to you, give it a try and let me know how it turns out. I’d love to see your work as well as learn from your experience with brass wire.
The difference between bronze and brass isn’t always clear. Like brass, bronze wire consists of an alloy blend of copper and another material like tin, aluminum or even silicone. Also like brass, it’s difficult to predict how a bronze wire will behave. And without knowing the exact alloy contents of your bronze wire, it’s also possible to contaminate your tools and pickle with iron. This can cause discoloring on your silver wire if you use the same tools and pickle pot for both metals. This is because some aluminum alloys contain small traces of iron.
Because brass and bronze wires are so hard to nail down in terms of their exact alloy blends, I steer clear of these two metals. You’re welcome to try them, though, if you like the look of yellow metals. Bronze wire has an appealing antiqued gold look to it that I actually like. It will be a harder wire to work with, though, and it’s unlikely to ball up nicely with a micro torch. It will probably build up a heavy fire scale, and (if it contains silicone), it may also smoke when heated. I don’t recommend this wire for any of my tutorials that require the use of a torch. It should work fine, though, for something like my Chalice Earrings or my Lyonesse Pendant tutorials.
This is my favorite metal. I rarely work with anything but copper. It’s not always the easiest metal to work with, though. Torch balled ends pit, and the wire will spit at you while you’re creating those balls. That’s a little unnerving when you’re new to using a torch. It also builds up an unpleasant fire scale, which has to be removed through an equally unpleasant pickling process. I don’t love these inescapable qualities of copper. Still, I’m drawn to this metal. Like a moth to a flame.
I like the way it feels on my skin. I love the color of bright new copper, and I like to watch it mellow to a warm brown tone as it oxidizes over time. It’s more interesting than silver or gold, in my opinion. I’m also more comfortable working with copper than I am with any other metal. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that I have a lot more experience with copper than with any other metal. Or maybe it’s just my metal. Maybe it has something to do with conductance or frequency resonance. I don’t know, but it’s always my first choice — to create with and to wear.
Copper is also one of just two pure metal alloys on this list. The other one is fine silver. Perhaps the purity has something to do with my attraction to it because I also enjoy working with fine silver. That attraction doesn’t seem to be based on any sort of rational thought process. It’s clearly an emotional attachment, and that I can’t explain.
Copper wire is harder than fine silver but softer than sterling silver. I don’t care to work with sterling silver for that reason, and that’s perhaps why I make silver jewelry so infrequently. As for fine silver, it’s simply not strong enough for certain structural applications, so I find myself having to keep too many different silver wires on hand to make my jewelry in silver.
Copper is, by far, the most predictable, versatile, and functional wire I’ve found for the style of jewelry that I make. Whenever I stray from copper, I inevitably come back to it because it works better (for me) than any other metal I’ve tried.
The point I want you to take away from this is to choose the metal that you love most. The one you like to create with as well as wear. That’s the one that will be your metal, and you’ll learn to adapt to or work around any physical limitations, such as oxidizing, fire scale, or difficulty with torch balling.
Also called Nickel Silver or German Silver, this wire doesn’t contain any actual silver. Nickel wire typically consists of some proprietary blend of copper, nickel, and zinc. Nickel jewelry wire can be an affordable alternative to silver, but keep in mind that many people are allergic to nickel. That’s why you often see “nickel free” printed on commercial jewelry packaging.
Nickel wire will be harder than copper. It should be comparable in hardness to bronze and brass wires. And it will behave much like bronze and brass wires, too. It should work fine for any Door 44 Studios tutorial that doesn’t require using a torch, though you may find that even the dead soft temper is too springy for wire weaving. It’s unlikely to ball up nicely for my Twig series tutorials. Zinc doesn’t play well with fire, so any metal that contains zinc is going to be difficult to coax into a pretty ball.
Stainless Steel Wire
Stainless Steel jewelry wire is another potential substitute for silver. The nice thing about stainless steel is that it doesn’t oxidize like the other base metals we’ve discussed so far. It’s also a preferred metal for masculine jewelry. Stainless steel wire is difficult to work with, though. It’s awfully hard on your hands.
I once made a couple of 16ga and 18 ga stainless steel chainmail pot scrubbers for a friend with a large collection of cast iron cookware. Those scrubbers work wonders for cleaning cast iron pans, and they’re virtually indestructible. But I swore I’d never make another one after completing that custom order. My hands were stiff and sore for days following that project.
I’ve never tried to weave with fine gauge stainless steel wire but based on my past experience with this metal, I seriously doubt that it will be easy to achieve a neat and clean weave with it. Even dead-soft stainless steel wire is springy. Springy wire wants to retain its original shape, so getting it to conform to a different shape will always be difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. I’ve seen a lot of attractive stainless steel chainmail jewelry, but I can’t think of a single wire weaver who uses it.
Silver Jewelry Wire
There are three types of silver jewelry wire on the market today. Sterling Silver, Fine Silver, and Argentium silver which is a proprietary silver alloy made with reclaimed silver. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each type of silver jewelry wire.
Sterling Silver Wire
Sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver. Hence the designation, 925 Silver. The remaining 7.5% consists of other metals. This is usually copper, but it could also contain other metals including zinc. Because of that small percentage of other metal alloys, sterling silver behaves much like copper when heated. When forming balls, it will pit and spit, and it develops a thin, but hard, fire scale that you’ll need to remove with a pickle bath.
Sterling silver will also tarnish naturally. This isn’t necessarily a disadvantage if, like me, you tend to prefer an antiqued finish. I patina all of my copper and silver jewelry. So, I don’t mind the tendency to tarnish. What I do find difficult with this wire is its hardness. Even dead soft sterling silver is a hard and springy wire. This makes sterling silver unsuitable to use as weaving wire. It’s very difficult to achieve a tight and neat weave with small gauge sterling silver, so I use fine silver wire for weaving as it’s much more pliable. The springiness of sterling silver wire can be an advantage from a purely structural standpoint, but it is more difficult to form than copper wire.
Here’s another problem I have with silver jewelry wire. When you use both sterling silver and fine silver in the same piece of jewelry, how do you determine the silver content? Many customers want to know the purity of silver and gold jewelry. That can be difficult to determine for a piece that uses both pure silver and a silver alloy.
Besides that complication, I also find silver wire tiresome to keep in stock. There are already enough factors to consider when designing jewelry. I don’t want to have to think about how many different gauges and types of silver wire I need to use in a piece as well.
I often use the weaving wire to support a bead by threading that wire through the bead multiple times. This works well with 28ga or even 30ga copper wire because it’s strong enough to support the weight of a bead. Fine silver isn’t strong enough, though, so I need to keep small gauge sterling silver wire on hand to use in those instances. This adds extra steps to my fabrication process and extra wire gauges to keep in stock in my very limited storage space.
These are obviously my own personal reasons for choosing copper over silver, but they’re also things you need to take into consideration. Think about what your goals are as a jewelry maker, and consider these factors as you decide which metal(s) you want to work with most.
Fine Silver Wire
This metal is 99.9% silver, so like copper, it’s a pure metal. Fine silver is kind of awesome to work with. It feels like butter in your hands, and it’s almost endlessly malleable. This wire also balls up beautifully with a torch. It doesn’t develop a fire scale, and it’s naturally resistant to tarnish. But even fully work hardened fine silver isn’t as hard as half-hard copper straight off of the spool. So it’s definitely not an appropriate metal to use for structural forms.
This is why most silver wire weavers use sterling silver for core wires and fine silver for weaving. I recommend that you do the same when making my designs in silver. I understand the appeal of silver jewelry, and I even enjoy wearing silver jewelry on occasion. But, personally? I don’t enjoy making silver jewelry.
Again, this is my personal preference. You may love working with silver wire, so don’t let me keep you from trying it. You should really work with as many metals as you can get your hands on before you decide which one(s) you want to focus on in your creative hobby or business.
I tend to look at the materials I choose in terms of ROI, and silver is a low ROI for me. It requires a larger investment in inventory and time, and I ultimately don’t get as much pleasure out of working with silver as I do when working with copper. That’s really what it boils down to for me.
Argentium Silver Wire
Argentium silver is a proprietary silver alloy that falls somewhere between sterling silver and fine silver in terms of purity. This is an unusually bright white silver that resists both tarnish and fire scale. It balls beautifully with a torch, much like fine silver. It’s also stronger than fine silver, but not as springy as sterling silver.
This is a metal that I’ve not worked with much. I’ve never tried using it for core wires, so I don’t know if it would be a suitable substitute for sterling silver in that regard. That may depend on which grade of Argentium wire you choose. There are two grades: 93.5% silver and 96% silver. The 935 grade Argentium is probably closer to sterling silver in terms of strength and hardness while the 96% is closer to fine silver in those same terms.
Argentium silver can also be heat hardened, so it may be a suitable substitute for sterling and fine silver if you have access to a kiln. I don’t have the space for a kiln presently, but knowing that Argentium can be hardened makes it an intriguing possibility that I plan to explore just as soon as I have a dedicated studio space.
Rio Grande provides some very useful resources on this metal. Start with this fact file, and then take a look at some of their other Argentium silver resources. Just go to their Resource Center and type ‘Argentium silver’ in the search bar.
Precious Metal Filled Jewelry Wire
Filled wires are an affordable alternative to solid precious metal wires. Silver filled wire can be a suitable alternative to sterling silver wire. You’ll also find several shades of gold filled wire. 14k gold filled wire seems to be the most common. You may have to shop around to find other grades.
This jewelry wire gets its name from the fact that the core of the wire is a different metal than the outer layer. So silver or gold filled wire is ‘filled’ with a base metal core (typically brass or copper). Filled wire differs from a plated wire in the thickness of the precious metal surface layer.
Filled wires come in at least two different grades: 1/10 and 1/20. These fractions reference the overall thickness of the precious metal layer. Hence, that layer is either 1/10th or 1/20th of the weight of the wire. 1/10 filled wire contains twice as much silver or gold as 1/20 filled wire. That means it costs more. But it’s also going to be more versatile because of the thicker layer of precious metal.
That said, I don’t recommend filled wire for my tutorials. You can lightly hammer and texture the body of filled wire. But paddling the ends will inevitably expose the base metal core. And that base metal will tarnish whereas the precious metal may not. This is the biggest problem that I see with using filled wire in my style of wire weaving. It will inevitably result in an uneven finish over time.
Plated or Anodized Craft Wire
Like filled wire, these wires have a base metal core that’s coated with a very thin layer of precious metal, metallic color coating or glass-based paint. The surface layers of these types of wire are much too thin and fragile for most wire weaving applications. Enamel coatings will crack and chip away while anodizing and plating can be easily scratched. These surface layers are so thin that the slightest scratch will expose the base metal and hammering will totally destroy the finish.
Wires that fall under this category will have terms like ‘tarnish resistant’ and ‘color’ (as in gold color or silver color) in their product descriptions and on packaging labels. Also, don’t be fooled by wires that say ‘bare copper’. If that wire is an unnatural copper color like hot pink or navy blue, it’s not bare. It’s either anodized or enameled.
All of these wires fall squarely under the craft wire category. As such, they’re not suitable for my style of wire weaving. You won’t be able to achieve satisfactory results for any of my designs using craft wire. I do know of some amazing wire weavers who use these types of wire successfully. So craft wire can be used for some styles of wire weaving. Just not my style.
This highly flexible wire isn’t a single wire at all. Beading wire consists of multiple strands of superfine wire twisted or braided together. The multi-strand wire is often encased in a plastic sheath. If you’ve ever seen aircraft cable at the hardware store, beading wire is basically a miniature version of that.
This wire is designed specifically for bead stringing, and it must be secured with crimp beads. It’s not suitable for wire weaving.
Memory wire gets its name from its ability to retain its shape. This is the hardest jewelry wire on the market. It’s made of spring hardened stainless steel, which is great for simple bead stringing projects but completely inappropriate for wire weaving. The only exception I can think of might be if you wanted to use a fine gauge weaving wire to wrap beads onto a memory wire core. That’s about the extent of what you can accomplish with this type of wire in a wire weaving context.
One other important thing to remember about memory wire is that it will destroy your wire cutters. You need special shears to cut memory wire. You’ll find them anywhere that sells memory wire, including your local bead shop, Wal-Mart and most big box craft stores.
This turned out to be a long article with a lot of information to absorb. Let me see if I can summarize it quickly. I put jewelry wire into three categories: solid jewelry wire, filled jewelry wire, and plated/anodized craft wire. Solid wire is the only type that’s suitable for the Door 44 style of wire weaving. The chart below lists the pros and cons for the various solid jewelry wires you’ll find on the market today. Solid wire is best purchased through a specialty supplier such as Rio Grande or Metalliferous.
Filled jewelry wire and plated or anodized craft wires are suitable for some styles of wire weaving where the cut ends of the wire are hidden.
Additionally, I discussed wire temper. Jewelry wire comes in three tempers: hard, half-hard, and dead soft. Temper can easily be changed through work hardening or annealing. Annealing can either harden or soften wire, depending on how (and for how long) heat is applied to the wire. Most wire weavers anneal wire in order to soften it, and they harden wire by working it.
Every type of wire has a breaking point. It’s important to be familiar with the kind of metal you’re working with so you know when you’re nearing that point. All wire will harden up to the breaking point, and then it immediately turns brittle. Overworked wire breaks easily. You can use this characteristic to your advantage when finishing off small gauge weaving wires.
Finally, there are two other kinds of wire used for making jewelry. Beading wire is a very flexible multi-strand wire, sometimes encased in a plastic sheath. Beading wire is used primarily for bead stringing and must be finished with crimp beads. Memory wire is a spring hardened stainless steel wire that is also used mainly for bead stringing. This is the hardest of all jewelry wires on the market today, and it requires special shears to cut it. Never cut memory wire with your regular wire cutters.
Now that you’re familiar with the different types of jewelry wire on the market, the next question is often, which wire gauges should I use?
I can help answer that question as well. Be sure to check out this post to learn which wire gauges are used for the three major categories of wire jewelry.
Thank you for joining me today. I hope you found some useful information in this post. If not, let me know what I can do better to serve you. If so, share this post with your fellow jewelry makers.
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Until next time, go make something beautiful!