This is a guide to basic tools and materials in chainmail crafts.
Chainmail, chainmaille, maille, chain mail, however you choose to spell it...here is the art of weaving metal rings to make things...be it armor, jewelry, art, candle holders, just about anything. It usually involves: 1. Metal rings (metal wire & cutters or pre-made), 2. 2 pairs or pliers, 3. Some kind of weave design (instructions, patterns). 4. (optional) Additional supplies (beads, leather, findings). The first 3 areas are the main ones being reviewed here. A word of caution...Chainmail is VERY addictive.
There are 2 main kinds of rings - premade and homemade.
Premade - Pay attention to how the rings are made. Sawcut are generally good, but leave gaps which can be bad in real small rings. Parallel cut are my preferance, especially machine cut. The other thing to note is ring size. What guage (SWG or AWG guages), Outer Diameter or Inner diameter (OD & ID) are important to note. Also, what kind of rings - stainless steel is better than galvanized, aluminum is cheap and easy to work with, copper is pretty but tarnishes easily, fine silver is 99% and sterling is 92.5%, annodized aluminum is much stronger than enameled copper for color and far better for larger-guage projects, though enameled copper is easier to get & make rings with a good cut yourself and comes in a wider variety of colors (below, left), etc. Pay special attention to details. Chainmail rings search on ebay
Homemade involves wire (above left), something to wrap the wire on, OR pre-coiled wire (below) and cutters. The main advantage is that you have the ability to MAKE rings in the size you need, where premade you have only certain sizes & types.
Wire -- Pay close attention to guages. 16g AWG is not the same as 16g SWG, so be careful when changing suppliers and reading other people's directions. Look at the wire diameter. Internet sources provide tables to help with this.
Cutters -- Saw Cut is good, but expensive and/or takes a long time to make and leaves gaps and burrs. Hand cutters often leaves less burrs, but may not close perfectly. The best handcutters are parallel shear cutters. Wiss Aviation snips (larger wire, larger rings) and Xuron microshears (max 18g wire, can cut small rings the snips can't, but don't use on strong metals or larger than 18g, they can break) are the two I use -- both good quality for their uses. Xuron Micro Shears eBay search
<-- Copper Aluminum -->
Beginning, I'd suggest aluminum or copper. Later, stainless steel and titanium (annoyingly brittle, but strong) and the more expensive gold, silver, and nubonium may be good choices too.
Chainmail generally involves 1 pair of pliers in each hand, and most maillers are pretty particular about theirs. I too have my favorites.
Hard metals & big rings. Hard metals can get away with teeth, but I use toothless pliers on everything myself. I got a great deal on e-bay on some wide-nose pro series padded handle pliers that I use on everything big or harder. The wider-nose and padding are what make those my favorite harder-metal plier.
Softer metals. Thoothless is a MUST. Chain nose pliers, round nose pliers (esp if you work with beads...I'd suggest as additional pliers, not main pliers), bent-nose pliers (again, additional) and needlenose are all acceptable. I prefer chain nosed...many wire-jewelry sellers sell these - almost identical - with the company names printed on the side. They usually run $5-7 with discounts for quantity. I've bought from 2 or 3 sources...they really are near identical, and they are excellent for the job (Picture below).
Tiny tiny rings -- I'm told bent pliers help. I avoid rings less than 1/8" in diameter myself, but it's what I've heard. Again, go for toothless.
3. What to Make
A tough question for any beginner. My suggestion...start small. Sure, you want to make that armor shirt...but wouldn't it look better if you had some practice at the craft first? And besides...people jump into the big stuff & are likely to becom discouraged by their apparent lack of progress.
I you want to make an coif (armored headpiece), start with a dicebag or pouch. Still a significant project, several hours of work for someone who's been doing chainmail...BUT it teaches you the basic skills of coif making (expanding circles and standard European 4-1 strips & flat sections) without taxing your time or pocketbook as badly.
If the armor shirt is your goal, start with bracers (arm pieces). This will teach you the basic weave in a small, flat section. Move on to the hauberk (sp?, the neck piece) which will be a significantly larger project, but not as big as the shirt. This will teach you corners, shoulders, and most of all patience.
If jewelry is more your style, remember...smaller rings means less apparent progress & more weave time. Be not intimidated...jewelry is still my favorite too. Start with a bracelet...learn the weave. If that goes well, try a matching necklace or extend your bracelet to a handflower or slave bracelet. Get ideas from other people's pictures & projects. Use your imagination & creativity...that's what the jewelry making is about. Then...you can tackle that headpiece that you REALLY wanted to make.
From there, you're technique will continue to improve (as will, likely, your speed).
4. Instructions & Kits
A hard question. Many directions are available for free on-line at sites such as maille artisans org. However (having both purchased and made them myself), there are some worth buying.
Generally what I've found are anything that says "chainmail instructions" without going into a whole lot of detail tends not to be worth it (Got 3 pretty but worthless books/pdf files to prove it). Sometimes they're good for interest - general rules of armor making or for historical info, but little else. If you buy instructions, buy specific ones. Get the instructions for the byzantine pattern, the Celtic star, the hackey sack, or the flowered bracelet that you want to try.
Kits: Kits are generally a good place to start because they automatically follow the above rule of instructions -- they are specific. They make a ball or bag or bracelet. Watch for quality (feedback is a good hint), but generally this is a good starting point. I say starting point, because chances are the rings in the kit aren't worth nearly as much as you pay for them. The kit is worth it to you -- the first time...saves time figuring out what rings to use (money when you buy the wrong ones by accident) & finding a good set of instructions for it. So once you learn how to do it, skip the kit & save money by just buying supplies. Most the time, a kit seller will sell rings or "kit refills" at a significant discount. Search Chainmail kits on eBay
Final piece of advice:
If you don't see what you want, but see something similar ask. I have yet to see a chainmailler who doesn't do any custom work, and if they make any rings, chances are they can change the size/color/material for you if you need it. Also, those making/selling rings & kits have probably been at it for a while & know where all the good websites are to do things. Try them & see.
Oh...and if you have any further / specific questions...toss me an e-mail ("contact seller" on ebay here).
A word of warning though...Chainmail is VERY addictive.