Novice jewelry makers are often confused about the gauge, or thickness, of wire to buy, what shapes to use, and what it means when wires are listed as dead-soft, half-hard and full hard. This guide is designed to simplify the wire conundrum.
Jewelry wire comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and metals. While sterling silver and gold-filled (GF) are the most common; true gold wire is also available from 9k to 24k. Karat, of course, refers to the purity of the metal- the higher the karat weight, the purer the gold with 24k being the purest. Many jewelry makers also use copper, brass, steel, niobium wire and I've even seen small color-coated electrical wire used. For our purposes, we'll stick with precious metals- but you want to be aware of the options available for less expensive wire to practice with and combining metals when you've developed your own unique style.
Gold prices are hovering around $800 USD per ounce. Gold-filled, or rolled gold wire is running about $50 USD per ounce. That's a pretty vast difference, and gold-filled wire is usually an acceptable substitute among artisan jewelers and keeps pricing within the average buyer's range. Gold-filled wire is made of a tube of 14k-24k gold that is then filled with a secondary metal, usually brass. Because it's not "painted on" like gold plate, you very seldom lose the outer gold layer with normal wear. It also has a higher gold content than plate. I have a few vintage pieves from the early 1900's that still look brand new and require only the occasional polishing. GF wire is available in yellow gold, white gold and rose gold- but you may have to request white and rose gold from your supplier. The rule here is to let people know what you're selling: don't call it gold if it's gold-filled.
Wire gauge indicates the thickness of the wire, the smaller the number the thicker the wire.
I've seen sterling silver and GF wire as large as 12g; but I don't recommebd working with wire that thick. It takes a lot of hand strength and dexterity to work with wire and there's no point in cramping your hands too soon. 14g and 16g are sometimes used as neck wires for chokers and collars and as framing wire for cuff bracelets; but I've had just as much success with 18g wire and it's much easier to work. The standard sizes for jewelry making are 18g, 20g, 22g, 24g, 26g, 28g and 30g. The wire chart translates these standard gauges into mm.
I use 18g and 20g wires for earwires, hooks and clasps, headpins, neck wires on chokers and collars and for structural framing. They can be worked by hand and with basic jewelry tools (see my guides: Basic Wireworking and Tools of the Trade). 22g and 24g wires are good for wire-wrapped bezels, pendants, wrapping cabachons, and earwires/headpins. They are generally too malleable for structural elements. 26g-30g wire is very thin and flexible, used for coiling, weaving, crocheting and decorative purposes.
Metals get harder and stronger the more they're worked. Dead-soft is the most malleable, easily shaped by hand and least resistant. Dead-soft wire does not hold its shape well. Half-hard is the ideal in most instances, being easily worked but having better shape retention than dead-soft wire. Full-hard wire is the most rigid and inflexible, challenging to work by hand and unsuitable in most fine applications. It is, however, excellent in structural applications. Personally, I stick to half hard and dead soft tempers. You'll notice that less options are available as you get into smaller wires, with anything over 26g usually offered without options or temper notes- this is because the thinner wires are almost invariably dead soft and extremely malleable- making them ideal for weaving and crocheting.
Square, round, half-round: jewelry wire is available in several shapes, including twisted. I use all three of the basic shapes, preferring to twist my own wire (see my guide: Basic Wireworking.) Square and round wire are generally used based on preference and what you want for the end design, play with them until you know what you are most comfortable with. I find that half-round wire is excellent for wrapping cabachons and faceted stones as it has a flat side that lays against the surface of the stone.
Agate cabachon wrapped in 18g GF half-round wire, suspended from 20g GF drop wrapped in 28g GF wire. Necklace from Cierde website.
How to Buy
Jewelry wire is typically sold by length or by the ounce. Larger amounts are usually less expensive which is why I purchase by the ounce when possible. I've also seen wire sold by the gram or centimeter. See wire conversion cart for more info.