You are on page 1of 21

How to Make Chainmail

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate to the reader in a step-by-step
fashion how to construct butted chainmail. It will consider metal types, wire
and ring size considerations, tool selection and design, as well as all the
steps necessary to create chainmail from wire.

Making chainmail is not a difficult task. It does require a lot of time and
patience though.

Table of Contents

• Getting the Appropriate Tools
• Deciding on the Type and Size of Wire to Use
o Metal Types
o Wire Size
o Where to Get Wire
• Rings
o Ring Sizes
• Making Rings
o Mandrel Setup
o Mandrels
o Cutting Rings
o Cutting Tools
• Buying Rings
• Weaving Chainmail
o Speed Weaving
• Crafting a Chainmail Item
Getting the Appropriate Tools

Before you begin making chainmail, you will require some tools. The most
important tool for weaving will be pliers. You will need one or two pair of
pliers (usually two) to open and close rings. The type of pliers to use is
strictly based upon personal preference. A few of the more common types of
pliers to use for chainmailling are pictured below, and if you are new to
chainmail, you should try different types to find what is most comfortable
for you. I personally only use one pair of needlenosed pliers held backwards
for a lot of the weaving I do. Most chainmaillers however, use two pairs of
pliers for most weaving. You may find that pliers which work well with
certain ring types and sizes will not work well with others, and it is a good
idea to procure a collection of different plier types for different jobs.

If you are going to make your own rings you will require additional tools.
You will need some type of mandrel setup to make coils with, and a means
of cutting the rings (see Making Rings.)

Deciding on the Type and Size of Wire to Use

Chainmail is made out of metal rings, and these rings are made out of wire.
There are many types of metals and wire size options that can be used for
chainmail construction.
Metal Types

The following is a list of a few of the different metals that can be used in
chainmail:

Galvanized steel is probably the most popular type of wire used in chainmail
today. I highly recommend the use of this material for people first learning
how to make chainmail, especially if you're not sure this hobby is for you. It
is fairly inexpensive, easy to work with, and very easy to find. It is
commercially used for electric fences, which makes large quantities of it
findable at farm supply stores. When bought new, galvanized steel has a
very shiny, bright silver colour. If it is exposed to damp conditions and/or
oxygen for extended periods of time, it becomes a dull grey colour via
oxidization. The colour change is actually in the zinc coating on the metal
(which is used to make steel rust proof, via galvanization). This appearance
change can occur anywhere from immediately to slowly over a number of
years after the wire is manufactured, varying according to the environment
and conditions in which it is exposed. It will also start to smell a little bit
after awhile, and leave the smell on your skin if you touch it. Care must be
taken to prolong the healthy life of this metal, because once it turns dull
grey, it is virtually impossible to bring it back to the state it was in when it
was manufactured. Due to this fact, I rarely work with this metal anymore,
except in the case of custom work.

Stainless steel is a very popular material for chainmail. It costs more than
galvanized steel (usually at least 4-8 times the price, depending on the
source) but it doesn't oxidize or rust at all (except under extreme conditions).
Stainless steel is harder to work with and harder to cut than most other
materials. Stainless steel is good for making long-lasting chainmail items
that will be low maintenance. I have found the 304 alloy of stainless steel to
be nice to work with for most applications. I've also worked with the 308,
and 316 alloys, the latter of which is also sometimes referred to as surgical
steel, and is hypo-allergenic.
Aluminum is not terribly strong, but it is very light. Its weigh is about one
third of steel There are a vast number of alloys, which vary in colour from
dull grey to bright silver, and also vary in how prone they are to oxidization.
Many alloys of aluminum leave a silverish black metal film on your skin if
handled a lot (like if you make chainmail out of it, for example), but the
black (oxide) is easy to wash off. To wash the rub off from your skin, simply
use soap and water. You can clean aluminum chainmail items so that they
leave less rub off. To do this, you can use wash the item with soap and water
or some industrial cleaners like simple green. I have found the 5356 alloy of
aluminum (also called 'bright aluminum') to not leave very much black rub
off, albeit still a little bit. Even this alloy will still oxidize slightly over time.

Anodized Aluminum is aluminum that has been coloured via a process
called anodization. Brilliant colours like blue, green, red, orange, purple, etc.
can be achieved. This is good news for chainmaillers who want to add a little
colour (other than natural metal colours) to their projects. Anodizing
aluminum wire or rings is beyond the scope of this article for obvious
purposes, but there is much information available on the Internet. It is
apparently a tricky process involving dyes and electricity. Anodized
aluminum rings and wire can be purchased from a few online chainmail
suppliers.
Copper is a red metal which is very easy to work with and generally very
weak. It also gets easily marked up from pliers too. Copper tarnishes easily;
turns a dark brown - black colour, and can leave a person's skin green if they
handle it or wear it for extended periods of time. Copper can be cleaned in
lemon juice, or commercially available cleaners which restores its beautiful
appearance.

Bronze is anywhere from a golden/yellow to brownish colour depending on
the alloy. It is a fairly strong metal, and kind of expensive. The alloy of the
metal dictates certain attributes such as colour, strength, and resistance to
tarnishing/oxidization. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin.
Brass is a golden yellow colour. It is a bit weaker than bronze, but with
similar workability properties. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc.

Nickel Silver is a silvery coloured metal with a slight yellow tinge. It is
called nickel silver or "German silver", even though there is no silver in it. It
is actually an alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel, and has great resistance to
oxidization. Some people have shown allergic reactions to this metal,
moreso than other metal types due to the nickel content.
Silver is a great material for high end chainmail jewelry. There are different
grades of silver according the purity, which are measured by percent. Fine
silver is 99.9% pure, and sterling silver is 92.5% pure, for example. Silver is
a soft metal, and if the rings are found to not be strong enough for the
application, they can be soldered closed.

Dark Annealed Steel, a.k.a. tie rebar wire, mechanics wire, or stove pipe
wire, is annealed (softened) steel with a black carbon coating on it. It is
generally a low carbon steel in is softest form. It is a little bit weaker than
galvanized steel. The black coating does rub off eventually leaving a dark
grey colour. Annealed steel is very prone to rusting, but the rust can be kept
off it if you regularly maintain it. It is a farily inexpensive material,
sometimes cheaper than galvanized steel. It is good material for the
manufacture of riveted chainmail.

Titanium is stronger than most metals and fairly light (about half the weight
of steel), but is also much more expensive and not as easy to find as other
metals. Titanium is grey in colour but can be coloured through a process
called anodization. There are many different alloys of titanium.

Artistic Wire is enamel-coated copper wire that is available in several
different colours. It is generally used mostly for jewelry. It is usually found
in rather small wire sizes and is overall a very weak material.

Copper coated steel (CCS) is what the name implies, it is steel with a copper
coating to prevent it from rusting. Copper coated steel will rust, but not as
easily as bare steel, that is, until the copper wears off. This wire's appearance
is a bit darker than copper. I don't recommend the use of this material for
chainmail construction due to the fact that the copper does eventually wear
off.

There are also other types of wire that can be used in chainmail like gold,
gold fill, platinum, niobium, inconel, etc. The best thing to do is try using a
few different types of metal until you find one (or more) that best suits your
mailling needs. It is generally best to start out with galvanized steel if you
are a beginner because it is inexpensive, and easy to find. Afterwards, you
should seek out some of the more exotic metal types.
Wire Size

The thickness of wire is usually measured by a wire gauge system. To make
things even more complicated, there are different wire gauge systems used
for different types of metals. For example, copper-based metals are generally
measured using the Brown & Sharpe (AWG) wire gauge system, while steel
is generally measured using the standard wire gauge system (SWG). Some
wire suppliers will state the number of thousandths of an inch thick that the
wire is, for example 16 gauge wire is ".063" or 63 thousandths of an inch
using the standard wire gauge system. When shopping for, or ordering wire,
make sure you know what size you are getting.

The fact that there are different wire gauge systems is not a good thing for
chainmaillers. This has to do with the fact that when they communicate to
other chainmaillers, there can be confusion. To avoid confusion, it is best to
stick to one of the systems of actual measurement. Either the metric system
(using millimetres) or the imperial system (using decimal inches) can be
used for measuring wire size. As a general rule, you would use the same
system to measure wire size as you would use to measure ring size. This is
an important consideration when one wishes to consider the aspect ratio,
which is the ring inner diameter to wire size ratio.

The picture shows some common wire sizes and their measurement in
thousandths of an inch. This is a good representation of the typical wire sizes
I personally use, which generally lie in the .030" to .094" range (with
exceptions).

Theoretically, any wire size from .001" up could be used in chainmail.
However, a fairly standard listing of wire sizes used by the majority of
chainmaillers would be the .020" - .104" range. Smaller wire sizes are
generally used for jewelry, while the larger sizes are usually used for
armour. Any of the wire sizes can be used for artistic purposes.

Where to Get Wire

Wire can be found at hardware stores, department stores, welding supply
stores, army surplus stores, farm supply stores, elecrical supply stores, scrap
yards, as well as online wire and chainmail suppliers.

It is generally better to get wire on a spool if possible because you can easily
build a wire dispensing unit similar to this one:

Having your wire spooled will make it easier to wind coils which is
described later.

Rings

Rings are categorized by their size and metal type. Metal types were already
discussed, the following section will explain ring sizes.
Ring Sizes

Rings have two different measurements. Wire size has already been
discussed. The other measurement is the inner diameter (ID). This is usually
classified as the size of the mandrel on which the rings were made. Ring
inner diameters are measured in either fraction inches, or millimeters, same
as wire size.

Because of a thing called springback, the actual inner diameter of a
collection of rings of the same type will always be slightly larger than the
mandrel on which they were wound.

The ring sizes (inner diameters) I use range from 3/32" to 1/2". Ocassionally
I use rings that fall outside of this range for special purposes. The typical
range of ring sizes used by the majority of chainmaillers includes 1/16" to
1/2".
Common ring sizes: Some of the most common ring sizes used by
chainmaillers include:

• 1/8" ID, .035"
• 5/32" ID, .035"
• 3/16" ID, .048"
• 1/4" ID, .048"
• 1/4" ID, .063"
• 5/16" ID, .063"
• 3/8" ID, .063"
• 5/16" ID, .080"
• 3/8" ID, .080"

The wire sizes listed are all relative, due to the variance of sizes available,
and wire size tolerance from manufacturing.

Smaller rings are generally usually used for jewelry, larger rings for armour.
More advanced and artistic stuff like basketry and sculpture use a very wide
array of ring sizes.

Making Rings

Two specific tools are required to manufacture rings for chainmail use.
These include a mandrel setup, which is used to make coils, and a tool for
cutting the coils into rings.

Mandrel Setup

The mandrel setup is a tool which accommodates a mandrel. There are
basically two types of mandrel setups, the most basic style accomodates
hand winding. This is the type that will be demonstrated in this article. The
other style is the setup that accomodates power winding, which requires the
use of a drill or motor to wind the mandrels. To learn more about power
winding, see this article: Advanced Power Winding.

The mandrel holder can be easily constructed with one piece of 2x8 wood
about 16" - 24" long, and two pieces of 1x8 wood about 8" long. Screw the
1x8 boards to the 2x8 board, one on each end. Holes must be drilled in each
of the 1x8 pieces of wood. The holes must be large enough to fit the
mandrel, and also must line up properly with each other. Please observe the
below diagram:
It is a good idea to clamp or bolt the mandrel setup down to a workbench, or
a desk or table so that it doesn't move around when you are coiling wire.

Mandrels

A mandrel (or wrapping rod) is simply a metal dowel. The dowel must have
two bends in it to make a handle for hand winding. (A straight dowel is used
in the case of power winding). The picture below shows my collection of
mandrels for hand winding. To bend each of the larger dowels, I used a vice.
The smaller ones, I bent by hand. Only the largest size (1/2") does not have
bends in the handle because I found it too difficult to bend a piece of steel
this thick. Thus I use a pair of vice grips as the handle. Each of the dowels
(with the exception of the smallest few), have a small hole drilled near the
end opposite the handle. This hole is where you insert the first bit of wire to
hold it in place while winding. A few of my mandrels without a hole in them
have a slot in the end to hold the wire. With some mandrels I use a hose
clamp to hold the end of the wire, which is not terribly efficient, but it works
to some degree.
The mandrels pictured above are of the following sizes (from largest to
smallest): 1/2", 3/8", 11/32", 5/16", 9/32", 1/4", 7/32", 3/16", 11/64", 5/32",
9/64", 1/8", 7/64", 3/32".

The size of mandrel to use depends on the size of rings you are planning to
use in your chainmail. You can usually purchase metal dowels in 3 foot
lengths at hardware stores. I find that the best thing to use for a mandrel is a
galvanized steel rod, or a drill rod. It is not advisable to use a wooden dowel
as a mandrel, because over time the wood compresses; the resulting rings
become smaller and smaller, the more coils you wrap.

The following few pictures demonstrate starting to form wire into coils.
To make coils with this setup, you stick a short bit of wire into the hole in
the mandrel, grab the handle and wind the coil until you get to the end of
your piece of wire, or until you get to the end of your mandrel holder. You
will have to guide the wire onto the mandrel with one hand while the other
hand turns the mandrel. If you get to the end of your mandrel holder, cut off
the excess wire from the coil, as close as possible to the mandrel, so as to
waste less wire.

After this is complete, simply cut the wire just above where it is stuck into
the hole in the mandrel. Now slide the coil off the mandrel by pulling the
mandrel out of the mandrel holder.

Cutting Rings

After you wind a coil, it will have to be cut into rings. There are basically
three types of cuts qualities that can be achieved:

Flush cut rings provide the best quality chainmail, but flush cut rings come
at a premium. They take a lot of time to make, and/or cost more to make
than rings of a slightly lower quality. Tools you can use to make flush cut
rings include rotary cutters (such as a powered drill or motor with an arbor
and cutting wheel), or saws such as hack saws, and jewellers saws.
Shear cut rings provide high quality chainmail, and are easy to make. An
example of a tool that makes shear cut rings is aviation snips.

Pinch cut rings are easy to make and can make high quality chainmail, but
more care must be taken in closing each ring. The quality of pinch cut
chainmail rings can vary quite a lot. Some examples of tools which leave
pinch cuts on rings include: bolt cutters, end nippers, and side cutters.

Cutting Tools

The following section lists of a few tools that can be used to cut chainmail
rings, and some notes on the use of them:

Mini bolt cutters (shown above) are usually about eight inches long. They
can be used to pinch cut rings by stressing the metal until it breaks.
Alternatively, they can be used in a process called 'score and break', where
small indents are made on the top and bottom of the next ring on a coil and
then the ring is grasped and broken off the coil to produce a somewhat flat
cut. Either way, it is important to get a pair with one characteristic: When
closed, the blades should be lined up perfectly. Mini bolt cutters are machine
made (like most other tools), and the tolerance is sometimes poor with low
quality brands. If you purchase high end bolt cutters, this is not an issue.
One brand of exceptionally good mini bolt cutters is Knipex. 'Knipex cobolt
cutters' (pictured above) are German engineered, and are, in my opinion, the
best tool to use for cutting almost any chainmail rings above 7/64" ID, .035.
They are also available in a version with a spring on the handle.
Aviation snips (shown above) are great tools for cutting many types of
maille rings. They produce a shear cut, which is quite nice. They are very
easy to use also, and they can be used to cut rings very quickly. One
downfall to the use of aviation snips for cutting rings, is that the rings open
sideways a little bit, and take on a 'C' shape, which is not the typical way
rings are opened for maille construction. This adds another obstacle to
closing the rings, in that the ring ends must be pushed together two ways
when they are being closed. One of the most common types of aviation snips
is Wiss. If you live in Canada, you can get the Mastercraft brand (pictured
above) at your local Canadian Tire, which I have found to be better than
Wiss. There are also many other types, but again, stay away from cheap
ones. Aviation snips come in three configurations: right cut, left cut, and
straight cut. I personally have no use for the right cut ones (green handles),
but the left and straight cut types (red and yellow handles) both shear the
way I prefer. Aviation snips are ideal for cutting copper, brass, bronze,
nickel silver, and galvanized steel rings, as well as others. They are not good
for cutting stainless steel rings, and other harder metals, except in very small
wire sizes. Until I got my pair of knipex cobolt cutters, I used aviation snips
to cut the majority of my rings. Now I only use them to cut rings smaller
than those which the Knipex cobolts don't work well on: 7/64" and below.

Bolt cutters are like mini bolt cutters, but larger. They are good for cutting
rings made with thick wire. They come in sizes from 10" to 36" and larger.
But for chainmail rings, it is unlikely that using bolt cutters larger than 12"
would be technically feasible.

Side cutters and end nippers both make a pinch cut. They cut in the same
manner as mini bolt cutters, but there is less leverage so they are more
difficult to use, especially with the larger wire sizes. Side cutters or end
nippers are ideal for the score and break method of 'cutting' rings.
A rotary tool with a cut off wheel can be used to cut coils into rings with
flush cuts. There are special metal cutting blades you must get, which vary
from system to system.

A jewellers saw is a frame into which a blade is mounted. It is somewhat
similar to a hacksaw, albeit a bit smaller, with thinner blades, and the frame
is a different shape. It is a popular choice for cutting small rings of softer
metals for jewelry, and leaves flush cuts on the rings. It is a little bit time
consuming to cut rings in this fashion and the blades must be replaced
occasionally when they get dull. The blades dull faster when cutting harder
metals.

Hacksaw: A hacksaw works in the same fashion as a jewellers saw except it
is generally used to cut larger rings. Plus the kerf is larger because a
hacksaw blade is kind of thick. It is quite time consuming to use a hacksaw
to cut chainmail rings.

The bottom line is, you have to find something that you like and that suits
your needs. Some of the factors to consider include: cut quality, ease of use,
speed of ring cutting, and cost. As I mentioned before, I have found Knipex
Cobolt cutters to be the finest choice for almost all my chainmail ring
cutting needs.
Buying Rings

If cutting rings does not seem an ideal choice for your needs, rings can be
purchased. This limits you to the ring sizes, wire sizes, cut quality, and metal
availability of the rings sold by vendors. When you buy rings, you are
paying someone else to make your rings. Buying rings will save you the
time involved in manufacturing your own, with the tradeoff of increased
cost. Rings can be manufactured in either of two configurations: right-
handed rings, or left-handed rings. Once you learn to maille using rings of
one of these configurations, you will most likely not want to switch. I
personally use only right-handed rings, only because they are the rings that I
used when I learned to make chainmail, and I make almost all of my own
rings (exceptions being anodized aluminum, for example).

Weaving Chainmail
Weaving chainmail is an easy thing to do, it is just time consuming and
repetitive. All you really have to do is open a ring, join it onto the rings you
are linking it to, and close it. Good closures are important as it makes the
chainmail look good and makes it of better quality. It just takes a little
practice. One fairly important skill to develop is to try not to set down the
pliers too much while you are weaving as it slows down production
substantially.

There are many ways to close rings. Some like to use two pairs of standard,
or linesman pliers. Others like to use needlenose pliers. The way in which a
mailler uses pliers to open/close rings and weave chainmail is based on what
feels most comfortable and/or easiest.

One of the greatest things about weaving chainmail is that it can be done
almost anywhere. All you need is a supply of rings, your pliers, and a
surface of some sort on which to work.

Speed Weaving

There is a technique called 'speed weaving' that should be considered. Speed
weaving refers to the utilization of the closed rings to open rings ratio in
constructing chainmail, the purpose of which is to decrease overall weaving
time. The ratio of closed and open rings will vary, depending on the weave
being made. The reasoning behind this is that it can be easier to close a
bunch of rings and use them with opened rings while weaving to make it
seem like you are weaving faster, even though you did spend the time
closing those rings already. It works for some people, while others don't
fancy the idea. I generally speed weave whenever it seems beneficial to do
so.

Crafting a Chainmail Item

Great, I've got all this chainmail, now what do I do with it?

This is where the fun comes in. There are many different things that can be
made out of chainmail. Decide on what it is you want to make, and make it.
Start with something easy and small if you are a beginner. For example, a
pouch is a great first project. A shirt is generally not. There is really no end
in the possibility of what can be done with chainmail. Please check out The
Galleries and Weaves section of this website for some examples of what can
be done with this versatile material.

Related Interests