Why do we need to work harden wire? Work hardening techniques allow us to deliberately change the temper of the wire that we want to work with and force it into a stronger state. In other words, we would work harden to give strength to soft metal to help it hold its shape. We can also use it to add springiness, as is helpful in a latched hoop earring or clasp.
What is Work Hardening?
This particular article covers methods for hardening jewelry wire without getting too much into the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of work hardening. If you’d like more information on what exactly work hardening is and how it works, read What is Work Hardening?.
Generally, though, jewelry wire is available in different levels of hardness, and different designs and applications would require different hardnesses of wire to make sure the finished piece can stand up to wear and tear. For more about wire hardness, read: Wire Hardness Explained.
Say you need half-hard wire for a particular project (like making ear wires), and you only have dead soft wire available. While it’s better to start with the right kind of wire, and less work for you, in a pinch you can simply harden up some of the wire you already have a little bit before you get started. Additionally, if you do start with half-hard wire but still don’t feel like your finished piece is sturdy enough, in some cases (like ear wires or hoop earrings, for example), you could harden the wire further to add more strength. Here are some ways you can do that:
Work Hardening Methods for Jewelry Wire
1.) Use nylon-jawed flat nosed pliers to pull the wire straight. Try to pull it from one end to the other so that the entire length of the wire is worked evenly. Repeat several times, checking the stiffness of the wire as you go. This technique works well on the finer wires (28g, 26g, 24g), but not so much on the thicker ones (20g, 18g, etc.).
These pliers are also GREAT for straightening out kinks!
2.) Pull the wire through a polishing cloth several times. This works the same way as the nylon-jawed pliers, but it’s slightly less effective: you will have to do more work with the polishing cloth as your fingers aren’t as strong as the pliers. Repeat several times, checking the stiffness of the wire as you go.
3.) Twist the wire. *This method is suggested for round wire – other shapes of wire will show the twist.
Use a pair of flat-nosed pliers on each end of the wire and twist in opposite directions while keeping the wire straight and taut. This works best for shorter lengths of wire.
You can also insert one end of the wire into a pin vise and create a loop at the other end to grip with a pair of pliers. Then simply twist the pin vise in one direction while holding the pliers still. For longer pieces of wire, either have a friend help you or use a stationary vise grip to hold one end of the wire as you twist the other.
CAUTION: Be sure to check the hardness of the wire frequently. If you twist too much the wire will snap! (For this reason, you should always wear eye protection when twisting wire)
There are more ways to work harden metal after you have done the work, though not in all cases, so try to plan ahead as much as possible. These methods work great for items like ear wires, hoop earrings, and other findings – like handmade wire frames and clasps. (Hammering is not suggested for 3 dimensional work besides ring bands):
4.) Bang the wire shape with a rawhide mallet (or rubber mallet) on top of a rubber bench block, or a metal jewelry hammer on top of a steel bench block. (This bench block has one side rubber and one side steel). For rings, use the rawhide/rubber mallet or the jewelry hammer while the ring is on a steel ring mandrel.
Using rawhide or rubber won’t change the shape of the metal or mar the surface, but it will compress those molecules and strengthen the metal nicely. Using a metal hammer WILL change the shape of the metal – it will flatten it out and can also add some texture to the surface, depending on your hammer.
NOTE: You can also use these methods to work harden a length of wire BEFORE you shape it.
5.) Tumble the finished piece in a rotary tumbler (rock tumbler) with steel shot. This method is great for hardening many pieces at once – like twenty pairs of earwires or a ton of handmade clasps. PLEASE read up on tumbling items with beads and stones – many stones will be damaged by the tumbling process. If in doubt, don’t do it!
• As you can see, there are a variety of ways you can work harden your metal or jewelry wire before and after a project.
Unfortunately, there are some instances where it is quite difficult to work harden a piece after it is complete. For example, if you were to create an intricately wire-wrapped or wire-woven pendant with a stone, using any of the above methods would indeed be very challenging.
My suggestion is to work harden as much as possible BEFORE you get started or at any point in the process where you can. In this case, that could mean creating the wire armature frame and work hardening that before wrapping it with the finer wire and adding the stone. The armature needs strength to hold the shape of the pendant, but the finer wire – your wrapping wire – can remain dead soft as long as it doesn’t need to hold any tension or hold shape on its own.
• The techniques and metal properties described above apply to non-ferrous metals like silver, gold, brass, and copper. Other metals may not behave the same way so you will want to do research on your particular material before working with it. My experience with aluminum wire, for example, is that it becomes brittle and will break more quickly instead of hardening up and becoming stronger like the other metals I just mentioned. Instead of trying to work harden aluminum wire, it is probably better to just start with a thicker gauge for the strength you need.
If you’re new to making wire jewelry, you will find the rest of this series All About Jewelry Wire very useful!