Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tools of the trade (or, What you need to create the magic)

Rings are only half of the equation when it comes to creating chainmaille products, the other thing that you need is the proper tools.  But what are those tools, and how do you know which tool is the right one for your particular situation?  By far the most important tool(s) in a chainmailler's arsenal (besides a strong back and the ability to swear like a sailor at times) are pliers.  Lots and lots of pliers...I have over a dozen pairs of pliers just for chainmaille.  Chain nose and bent nose and flat nose, oh my.  And each of these pliers has a time when they shine.  While I won't list particular brands or suppliers in this article (although I will give credit for images that I use), I feel that a quick overview of the uses of each variety of pliers is important.  Each type has a 'best used when' scenario, but ultimately it often comes down to personal preference.  And so, without further ado...  Welcome to the hardware store...

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Some general notes on pliers selection.  If you are going to be using your pliers for chainmaille (and why would you be reading this if that's not your plan), you must make sure that they do NOT have teeth.  The 'working edge' of the pliers must be smooth, either by manufacture or filed down after you purchase them.  Teeth will scratch your rings and create a wonderful cheese-grater like feeling to your jewelry that will not get you repeat customers.  In my experience, finding non-toothy pliers at your local hardware store is very difficult, and even some craft store pliers have sported a full set of canines.  So look closely before you buy.

Also, everyone's hand shape, size, and strength is different, so you may have to work for a while to find the pliers that fit you best.  What is one person's favorite brand may be another's carpel tunnel syndrome factory.  Assuming you take (highly recommended) stretch breaks while working, your pliers should not cause your hands to cramp or become painful or swollen.  If you have problems, they are probably not the pliers for you.  And don't let price be your guide, there are some very nice expensive pliers out there, but that doesn't mean they are guaranteed to fit you.

Flat Nose Pliers

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These are probably your most commonly used pliers type in chainmaille.  The wider, flat working surface allows for a great ability to grip the rings securely while also minimizing the chance of warping the rings.  Whether you are working with larger, thick-gauge rings or smaller rings, these pliers will quickly become your best friend.  However, the other types of pliers still have their times to shine!

Round Nose Pliers
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These types of pliers feature a working surface that is completely round.  As such, they are not really used for the standard chainmaille activity of opening and closing jump rings.  These pliers are actually used for creating loops (such as would be used to attach beads to your chainmaille) or if you want to create a (very) small number of rings yourself.  If you are truly interested in creating your own rings, you'll probably upgrade to a power drill and a host of other tools.  But these types of pliers are handy to have around if you decide you want to up the bling-factor of your jewelry by including beads or custom-made finishing touches.

Chain Nose Pliers
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Chain nose pliers are slightly similar to round-nose pliers in that they have a more rounded working surface and a pointed nose.  However, they have a flat interior surface that does allow for gripping the rings while you work with them.  These pliers are not really great for closing larger rings, but they are really handy if you have a tight working space that you cannot grip the rings with a flat-nose pair of pliers in each hand.  I will often use a single chain nose pliers with a flat nose pliers (or a bent nose) in my opposing hand when working with a very tight weave.

Bent Nose Pliers
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Take a chain nose pliers and bend the nose to a near-90 degree angle and you've got the traditional bent nose pliers.  These pliers, much like chain nose, have some difficulties closing rings without warping, but they have been a sanity-saver for me when working with micro-maille (very small jump rings) because the bent surface lets me grip the small rings much like a flat nose pliers without the large amount of surface area that is present in a flat nose pair.  The larger area of a flat nose, for me, often obscured the rings to the point it was difficult to tell if the ring closed completely. 

Other Useful Tool-Like Items
While pliers are probably your most useful and important tools for chainmaille, there are certainly some other things to have in your maille toolbox that can make your projects quicker, more durable, and/or less aggravating.

Jump Ring Tool
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I have never used a jump ring tool, so I cannot give a personal review of the usefulness of this tool.  However, I have heard some chainmaillers who love to have one of these handy, saying it makes working with their rings quicker and more comfortable.  This little tool is worn on your hand much like a jewelry ring and the slots are used to replace one of your pairs of pliers when opening and closing jump rings.  Myself, I like the primal feeling of dual-wielding pliers, but if you find juggling multiple pliers difficult, you may want to try this and see if you like it.

Bead Mat
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I LOVE these mats!  They were (as the name implies) created for beaders to help keep their beads from rolling away.  But they work fantastic for chainmaille as well, keeping your rings from sliding about and making it very easy to 'scoop' closed rings onto an open ring straight off the mat.  The felt-like surface keeps your rings steady without getting fuzzy or clinging to the rings.  You can buy these at pretty much any craft store, probably in the beading aisle or near the beading tools.

Tool Magic
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If you asked me what was probably the single most fantastic product that made my chainmaille life easier, it would be a difficult tos-up between my bead mat and Tool Magic.  This is a plastic-like paste that you dip the tips of your pliers in to coat the working surface.  After it dries, it not only makes you far less likely to scratch the surface of your rings, but also makes the rings easier to grip and makes the dreaded 'ring launch' much less likely to happen.  It can be difficult to find in some craft stores, but it is well worth the hunt.  It is also widely available from on-line jewelry supply sources.  Depending on how much you use your pliers and how 'aggressive' you work, you will have to re-dip your tools as the Tool Magic gets 'grungy', but the small jar will last for many, many dips.

Rock Tumbler
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This piece of power equipment is useful for shining up your rings and final creations.  By placing your rings in the tumbler with either sand or a fine-grain steel shot you can polish off any rough edges and create a like-new shine.  However, be careful if tumbling colored rings or jewelry including beads or crystals, as the tumbling may scratch the color coating or break the embellishments.

Although the tools of chainmaille may seem mundane, they are an important factor in your creative process that must not be overlooked.  If you want to be sure that you enjoy chainmaille for years and years injury-free, finding tools that are useful and comfortable for your hands is essential.  Do not fear the hardware, trial and error to find your favorite brand(s) will pay off in the long run.  And trust me, you can never have too many pliers...

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