Welcome back to All About Jewelry Wire! There are so many important factors to cover with regard to wire basics that I thought it best to break it up into smaller chunks. Yesterday we delved into different wire gauge measuring systems and how to be wary of gauge size discrepancies when shopping for your jewelry wire. I also included tons of great size and conversion charts which are a handy reference to have!
Today we’re going to cover what wire hardness means and how it can affect your jewelry designs. This will help you when shopping for jewelry wire and for knowing which wire to use for which projects. If you’re having trouble working with wire and are getting frustrated, it could be because you’re working with the wrong hardness of wire for what you’re trying to accomplish. This will help, so let’s dive in!
Jewelry wire is typically offered in three hardnesses: Dead Soft, Half Hard, and Full Hard. A metal’s hardness is basically a measure of how much it resists bending, so you can see how that is an important factor in making wire jewelry.
The first important thing to keep in mind is that these terms are relative to the particular metal or alloy which they are describing. So, dead soft sterling silver will not feel the same to work with as dead soft 14k white gold, for example. Also, not all wires, like artistic wire (craft wire) and aluminum wire, will be offered in different hardnesses – they are most often just soft.
‘Dead soft’ (or just ‘soft’) means the metal offers little or no resistance – it’s very easy to bend. Now that might sound like a good thing, but it actually can work against you in most cases. Dead soft wire doesn’t form hard angles- it’s nearly impossible to form a nice sharp bend. It doesn’t hold its shape very well, so it should not be used for anything structural, but you can use it to coil around another object or piece of wire. It is great for forming spirals and other soft bends, as long as they can be work hardened or are not structural. In my opinion, dead soft wire has limited use unless you plan to spend a lot of time work hardening it (more on that in a minute), but in most applications, it’s simply not possible to work harden the wire enough after the project is complete which means all your hard work will go to waste!
‘Full hard’ means there is a lot of resistance – it is very difficult to bend but any shape you can manage to form it into will be retained very well. However, it is also very brittle and has less workability before it will break – which means it is not forgiving at all if you make a mistake. Full hard wire will not be able to form spirals or many other tight shapes.
‘Half hard’ is like the Goldilocks wire – the perfect middle between the two. It is soft enough to bend easily but is hard enough to hold its shape afterwards. It can also be used for wrapping and coiling wire, as well as some structural work, depending on the gauge of the wire. Half hard wire is great for making ear wires, jump rings, hoop earrings, and other shapes. It will also retain a sharp bend very nicely and has a good ‘springiness’ factor, which is good for latched hoops, kidney earwires, and clasps, and it works great for making spirals. In some cases, half hard wire may require minimal work hardening but hardening half-hard wire is a breeze compared to dead soft wire!
Work Hardening Wire
‘Work hardening’ is the term used for a variety of techniques which serve to harden up softer metal.
Some ways to ‘work harden’ your metal include tumbling it with steel shot, hammering or pounding it with a rubber mallet against a steel bench block, twisting the wire, pulling it through a drawing plate or even pulling it through a polishing cloth. In fact, simply working with the wire and the process of wrapping or coiling it will tend to harden it up a bit as well.
As I mentioned before, the softer the wire, the more work hardening it will require to ensure it will retain its shape.
Read What is Work Hardening? for more info!
Half Hard Wire Wins my Vote
While in many cases, the hardness of jewelry wire is very much a personal preference and varies from project to project, I would just like to add that I have personally never used full hard wire. I have always found work hardening half-hard wire or using a larger gauge to be enough to achieve the strength I need for certain applications instead of buying another material.
Likewise, I never buy dead soft wire unless it’s my only option. For example, I have been unable to find half hard 14 gauge gold filled wire anywhere! But it turns out that that larger size in the dead soft is still not too soft to hold its shape and requires about as much work hardening as the half hard in smaller sizes, in my opinion.
I have never felt limited by using only half-hard wire – I’ve never found a situation where I couldn’t make the wire do what I wanted it to do, so if you’re just beginning, I would suggest half-hard wire is a great way to go across the board when you’re buying your first supplies. I highly recommend investing in a variety of different gauges rather than spend your money across several hardnesses of wire when it’s really not necessary. You can always branch out later if you feel like you’re missing something or want to explore further, but I am confident you won’t miss it when you’re just starting out!