Have you ever wanted to make your own jewelry using gemstones by hand? While you can purchase beautiful gemstone jewelry in a jewelry store, there is nothing that can match the originality and imagination of jewelry made by hand.
Read this thorough beginners guide to wire wrapping and start making your own beautiful jewelry in no-time!
To make it easier to digest we have divided the guide into 7 parts. Feel free to skip to the parts you are most interested in!
- Part 1: What is Wire Wrapping
- Part 2: History of Wire Wrapping
- Part 3: Types of Wire and Supplies
- Part 4: What Can You Wrap and Make?
- Part 5: Project Ideas for Wire Wrapping
- Part 6: Basic Wire Wrapping Techniques
- Part 7: General Tips for Wire WRapping
What Is Wire Wrapping?
If you have always wanted to make jewelry yourself, but you do not have access to a forge or soldering tools, one of the simplest and most fun techniques you can learn is wire wrapping.
Wire wrapping allows you to set precious and semi-precious gemstones into simple or elaborate metal frameworks made out of copper, silver, gold, and other materials. You can get started for about $30.
Wire wrapping is actually one of the oldest techniques used in the crafting of handmade jewelry. The technique goes back thousands of years, probably in part because it is so affordable and easy to learn. All you need to get started is a coil of wire, and two pairs of pliers: one for cutting, the other for bending. With those three things, you can make pendants, bracelets, necklaces, head pieces, and more.
How does it work?
The wire used in wire wrapping can vary in hardness and strength, but in general, it is quite flexible and can easily be bent by hand into various shapes and patterns. When doing particularly challenging or precise work, you may find the round-nose pliers helpful. The cutters are of course used for cutting the wire down to the size you need to work with and for removing loose ends.
There are many different techniques that have been developed for wire wrapping. Many wire-wrap artists follow a very orderly method for wrapping a gemstone which involves taking several pieces of wire, wrapping them together into a single, wide band using a smaller gauge wire, and then looping that wide band around a gemstone. The round-nose pliers are then used to pull one of the wires on each side out just slightly to support and lock in the stone so it will not fall out the back or the front.
Other wire wrappers take a more chaotic free-style approach, allowing their imaginations and their sense of aesthetic balance to guide their hands. With this approach, wrappers developer an intuitive sense for structural integrity, and ensure that a stone will not fall out by carefully closing all possible loopholes.
There is no single right or wrong way to wire wrap, which is one of the reasons it is such a popular approach. Literally anyone can learn how to wire wrap who has the patience and imagination to apply themselves to the art. Each artist develops his or her own unique style, and while wire wrapping involves similar materials and techniques, it is often possible to instantly identify the stylistic marks of a particular jeweler.
Wire wrapping is also a popular craft because it can be very relaxing and soothing. Working with your hands gives you a wonderful creative outlet which is not too demanding on your body or mind. At the same time, it requires some focus, so it can be very meditative. Most artisan crafts require a significant upfront investment in order to get started, but not wire wrapping. If you’re interested in making jewelry, it is well worth having a go. This method for making jewelry is affordable, simple, fun, and provides you with endless creative possibilities.
In the next installment of our series, I will teach you a little bit about the history of wire wrapping. I will then teach you about basic supplies that you will need to get started and the different types of wire which are out there. Following that, you will learn about good stones and other materials to wrap, and what you can make with wire wrapping. I will finish up by discussing some basic techniques in detail and point you in the direction of some tutorials.
History of Wire Wrapping
Maybe you were browsing online or in a store which sells jewelry by local artisans and you discovered a pendant with a beautiful gemstone set inside a framework of flowing wire. If so, you may have been startled by the beauty and artistry that can emerge from something as simple as wire.
After all, when most of us think of wire, our first thoughts are of hardware utilities or circuitry. But spools of high-quality craft wire can also be used to make beautiful and elaborate designs for gemstones. The finish result can look as magnificent as anything made using the application of solder and heat.
Wire wrapping has only recently surged into popularity. This is in part because of the growth of e-commerce. Thanks to handcraft websites like Etsy, a lot more sellers of handmade jewelry are able to get their products out there to customers around the world. And since wire wrapping is affordable and easy to learn, it is a popular technique for private artisans. This shouldn’t mislead you into thinking that wire wrapping is in any way new, however. It is actually one of the most ancient jewelry crafting techniques in the world.
Ancient Wire Wrapping
Some of the oldest wire wrap jewelry which has ever been discovered has been found in Egyptian and Phoenician tombs. Some of these pieces date back as much as 5,000 years. Other jewelry discovered in the cemetery of Ur dates back to the Sumerian Dynasty around 2,000 BC. Ancient Roman wire-wrapped jewelry has also been found dating back 2,000 years from today.
Back when these ancient wire-wrap pieces were created, there was no such thing as soldering. As such, wire wrapping was developed as a necessity. It made it possible for elaborate and beautiful pieces to be developed by ancient artisans who literally did not have access to the kinds of tools we have available today.
One tool that was available was called a “drawplate.” The drawplate is a simple metal plate with a number of holes in it shaped to different gauges (diameters). Annealed (softened) metal rods could be drawn through the drawplate in order to create lengths of wire with specific shapes and sizes.
Round wire is most common, but you can also find square wire, triangular wire, and so on. Metal drawplates date back to at least 6th century Persia. In the Middle Ages, they were used to create the wire which was used in the creation of chain-mail armor.
20th Century Examples
Probably the most famous person to bring wire wrapping back to the masses in the early 20th century was an artisan named Mr. C.G. Oxley. Oxley was an English businessman who ran a business called C.G. Oxley & Co. in Somerset. Oxley employed a number of veterans from the first World War at his business. In his studio, they created wire-wrapped jewelry as occupation therapy.
Oxley’s workshop was a popular place to visit, and his jewelry took off as well, to the point where it ended up showing up in department stores around England. In the 1950s, another businessman named Jim Llewellin took over the store after Oxley passed away. He brought the wire-wrapping business to Canada, where it took off again.
Why Can’t I Buy This Stuff at a Department Store?
You may be wondering why you rarely if ever find examples of wire wrapping in any department store. The reason is that the jewelry you purchase at the department store, while often expensive to buy, is cheap and fast to manufacture. It is usually factory made by machines, not human beings. Molded components are easy to reproduce quickly, cheaply, and identically. As a result, large jewelry manufacturers avoid handmade techniques in favor of fast, easy profits.
A lot of people love to craft for the same reason that Oxley was able to make use of it as a form of occupational therapy for veterans at his company. It is relaxing, creative, and therapeutic. A lot of people now sell their jewelry online since the internet provides more geographic reach for their creations. As a result, buyers are discovering the splendor of jewelry crafted by hand with ancient techniques and beautiful gemstones.
If you learn to wire wrap, you will be participating in the resurgence of an ancient tradition of craftsmanship, and bringing some true imagination into the world. Like Oxley’s veterans, you will probably find it a therapeutic and uplifting outlet for your own creativity.
Types of Wire and Supplies
Now that you’ve read up on the basics of wire wrapping and some of the history of this wonderful craft, perhaps you are feeling ready to try your own hand at it. What kinds of supplies do you need? Happily, this is one of the few crafts you can get started on with a very minimal budget.
You can purchase everything you need to make your first wire wrapped pieces of wearable art for about $35.00. That includes pliers, wire, and beads to work with. Let’s talk about the basic supplies, their costs, and what each of them is used for.
You are going to need two pliers to wire wrap effectively. One pair is used for cutting, and the other is used for wrapping the wire around.
- Needle-nose pliers. A small pair of needle-nose jewelry pliers will cost you around $10 to $15. These pliers have a comfortable grip and come to a very small point at the end. With these pliers, you can pull wire through loops that you cannot reach with your fingers, as well as do other wrapping tasks that require a little more force than you can exert by yourself. You will probably still do most of your wrapping without them, but they are an indispensable supply.
- Side-cutting pliers. These pliers should also cost you around $10 to $15. This type of pliers is very small, like the needle nose pliers, and has a comfortable grip. The side-cutter jaws allow you to make a nice clean cut through your wire. These pliers are strong enough even to cut steel wire. The box joint construction of side cutting pliers keeps the jaws aligned to keep the cut line even.
Wire is probably the most complex aspect of supply shopping for wire wrapping. There are a lot of different types of wire which are appropriate for wire wrapping. Let’s break down the different materials, gauges, and strengths of wire so that you understand what you are looking at when you are shopping.
Many different materials can be used for wire. The most common is copper. Copper may be plated with silver or gold, or coated with a color (red, blue, green, purple, black, etc.). Copper is the least expensive type of wire you will find. You may also find steel, brass, nickel, silver, gold, and other materials. Each material has its own unique characteristics which change the wrapping experience. Brass for example is very springy, which can make it challenging to work with.
Wire comes in different shapes and sizes. Most wire is round, but you may also find square wire and other shapes (square wire has edges and corners, whereas round wire is the typical smooth, cylindrical wire you are probably used to seeing). The size of a wire is called its gauge, and refers to its thickness. Very thick wire is tough to bend but will hold its shape beautifully. Very fine wire is extremely easy to bend, but will not hold shape well. It is great for embellishing pieces and holding things together. Medium gauges are ideal for most work. You will probably want to buy several gauges when you get started. Here are some common ranges for gauges:
- 16-18 gauge: These gauges are pretty thick and hard to bend, but hold shape well. Great for wire sculpture or for creating strong frameworks for pendants, bracelets, or other pieces that require strong structural stability.
- 20-22 gauge wire: These medium gauges are great for most applications. They can create reasonably strong frameworks, and may be useful for some embellishments.
- 24-26 gauge wire: These two gauges are great for fine, detail work, and embellishment.
Recommended gauges for beginners: I recommend purchasing a spool of 20-gauge wire and a spool of 26-gauge wire. The 20-gauge is your “go-to” gauge for most projects. It is the most versatile, useful gauge for the majority of purposes. The 26-gauge wire spool will serve you well for embellishments.
One more aspect of wire to be aware of is its strength. Regardless of the main material used in wire (many wire spools are made of alloys), the strength may vary. Wire is usually broken down into three strength categories:
- Hard wire. This type is hardest to bend, but holds its shape well.
- Dead soft. This type of wire is extremely malleable. It is very easy to bend, but it will generally not hold its shape well, even at a medium gauge.
- Half-hard. This is your “go-to” option if in doubt. It is the most commonly used type of wire. It is relatively easy to bend, but not as malleable as dead soft wire. It holds its shape reasonably well, though not as well as hard wire. This is the type you should start with as a beginner.
Coated vs. Non-Coated Wire
Finally, one last note on coated wire is necessary and often overlooked in beginner’s guides. The majority of the wire you will find for sale has some kind of tarnish-resistant coating on it. This is great if you want your wire to stay shiny without polishing. It is however not desirable if you are planning to let your wire tarnish and take on a patina for an aged look. Coated wire will basically never tarnish, and no amount of effort will get you through that coating. So be mindful of what you are purchasing.
Beads and Stones
You will also need something to wrap! Strings of beads will not be as helpful to you as they are to other jewelers, unless you plan to do a lot of large elaborate pieces. One great starter supply is a box or bag of “extra” beads. Many stores sell these loose beads at bulk discount prices.
The beads are often large enough to wrap, and because of the nature of your art, you do not necessarily need a lot of matching beads. You can get a pretty big bag of these for around $5.00. They are great for pendants. Strings of beads will be most helpful for bracelets, crowns, necklaces, and other large projects. You will also need matching beads for earrings.
Gemstones are wonderful centerpieces to wrap. Wrapped gemstones are beautiful to behold, and are also very attractive to buyers. You can wrap pretty much any gemstone if you are careful, even those that are liable to flake apart (like mica, danburite, and so forth). Quartz, agate, obsidian, tiger’s eye, petrified wood, and many other gemstones look beautiful wire wrapped.
Tumbled stones are easier to wrap than rough-cut stones, but both can have a wonderful effect. Stones with holes bored through their centers are easiest to work with, as are flattened stones. Round stones pose extra challenges.
- Sandpaper. You are going to have some loose ends of wire on your pieces. Most of the time you can simply tuck these out of the way, which will prevent them from scratching a wearer. You can optionally sand these down with sandpaper to smooth them out.
- Liver of sulfur. This cool chemical compound reacts with metal to provide a nice tarnish. It works in a matter of minutes, and can make your pieces look antiqued. Great for bringing out texture and providing a different look.
- Hammer. A jewelry hammer and anvil set can be used to flatten wire. This again provides a different look and texture to a piece.
Now you have a complete guide to wire wrapping supplies. You can find most of these supplies at a jewelry supply shop or online. Two pairs of pliers should run you around $20 to $30. Starting beads should cost about $5 if you find one of the aforementioned bags of extras. The cost for wire can range quite a bit, depending on how many yards come in a spool, what material you are purchasing, and whether there are fancy color coatings or not.
Expect to pay around $5 to $7 for most spools of copper wire (color-coated or not). Sterling silver, gold, and other materials may be more expensive. It is best to start out with copper wire for your first few pieces. It is less expensive, and will be more suitable for the learning curve. As you progress, you may decide to invest in more expensive wire wrapping supplies. In our next installments, we will teach you what you can wrap and introduce you to some starting techniques.
What Can You Wrap and What Can You Make?
If you have already read our previous installments in this series, you know something about the history of wire wrapping as well as the supplies that you will need to get started. One topic I brought up briefly in the previous installment on supplies was what kinds of stones and objects you can wrap. I would like to go into a little more detail on that subject, as well as talk about the different types of projects you can work on when you start wire wrapping.
What Objects Can You Wrap?
One of the wonderful things about wire wrapping is its versatility. You can literally wrap just about any object in wire successfully. It is largely a matter of perseverance, carefulness, and cleverness. Some objects will present you with less difficulty than others.
In general, objects which are flatter are easier to wrap than objects which are more rounded. Objects which have a hole through the center are easier to wrap than those which do not, since you may pass a wire through the hole, which gives you a stabilizing point for your piece (this is one reason it is easier to start wrapping large beads than stones if your stones have no holes). One more general guideline is to wrap objects which are strong, though breakable objects can also be wrapped if you are careful and do not use wire which is too strong.
Good objects for beginners thus include:
- Beads. Larger glass and resin beads can serve as focal points for pendants and other jewelry items. You also can make pieces without focal points and simply focus on the wirework (these will always be “freeform” pieces—more on that later).
- Hard, smooth stones that either 1-have a hole through the center, or 2-are flatter rather than rounder.
- Sea glass. Sea glass is usually not too brittle, and the flatter nature of the glass tends to make it an easy beginner wrap.
- Keys. These days pieces which feature antique keys are very popular. Keys are also relatively easy to wrap.
More challenging ideas might include:
- Rounder stones, gemstones which are less durable and tend to flake (mica, danburite, etc.), or gemstones without a hole in the center.
- Other materials such as small pieces of driftwood which may break if you are not careful. Shells are another very challenging object to wrap, since they chip apart almost effortlessly—but they can make beautiful wire wrapped jewelry. Again, you can literally wrap almost anything that is the right size for a finished piece. Any small object which has value (aesthetic, sentimental, or both) can be turned into a piece of wearable art with wire wrapping.
Project Ideas for Wire Wrapping
What are all the different types of finished projects you can make with wire wrapping?
Most applications are jewelry, but as you will see, a few are not. Here are a few things to consider learning how to make:
- Pendants. Most newbies will choose to make pendants as their initial projects. Pendants are smaller, simpler projects. Even very elaborate pendants will take up less material and time than a simple bracelet or necklace. Unlike with earrings, there is no need to worry about symmetry. The focal piece of a pendant can inspire you as well. Many artists allow the focal piece to determine the direction of the entire pendant. Pendants can be strung on chains, cords, or ribbons, or you can learn to wire wrap chains from scratch. Most gemstone projects will be pendants.
- Earrings. Earrings are another project which will not use up a lot of material, which makes them another good starter project. They introduce the challenge of symmetrical design. If you purchase gemstone beads, you can make earrings which match pendants so that you can wear or sell a set.
- Ear cuffs. An ear cuff is a good project if you want to avoid dealing with symmetrical design, but still make something for the ear (if you don’t know what this is, just Google it—and think back to the 80s). It is wise to follow a tutorial for your first design so that you can learn how to make something which will fit many different ears.
- Bracelets. There are several different techniques for making wire wrapped bracelets. This is a slightly larger project.
- Necklaces and chokers. There are a number of approaches for these types of projects as well. They will use a great deal more wire and beads than the other projects listed here.
- Headpieces, crowns, tiaras, etc. Wire-wrapped headpieces are perhaps some of the most challenging projects you can approach. These present a number of difficulties. They take up a great deal of wire and beads to make, and they also must set on the head in such a way that they will not fall off. Further, they must not catch on the hair (or at least not too much to cause inconvenience).
While the majority of wire wrapped projects are jewelry-related (especially those which use gemstones), you can also make sculpture projects out of wire and beads. The sky is the limit here. Anything which you can dream up, you can potentially craft. Sculptures may be entirely abstract, or they may be designed to resemble something, for example maybe an animal.
The most common wire sculpture projects are usually trees made by wrapping large bundles of wire together for the trunk, and them separating them in stages to form the branches and the roots. Beads can be used to represent leaves or flowers. These decorative items can look nice around the house.
A Word on Planned vs. Free-form Design
As with any art form, there are a number of schools of thought on how to approach a project. At one end of the scale, there are wire wrappers who plan every element of a project before they get started. They may draw up diagrams of pieces before making them, and may follow step-by-step plans to create orderly pieces. The majority of wire wrap artists fall close to this end of the spectrum.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are free-form wire wrappers. These designers may or may not draft a plan before they approach a piece. They may or may not follow step-by-step techniques for elements of their pieces, and they may or may not be seeking an orderly effect. Pieces designed with by a freeform hand typically feature less symmetry, or no symmetry, and more of a flowing, organic design.
Instead of focusing on learning specific methods for doing things, these designers come up with their own solutions for each gemstone or object that they wrap, with the goal of keeping it in place and producing an aesthetically pleasing result. More on that in our next installment on basic techniques and tips and tricks for wrapping.
Basic Wire-Wrapping Techniques
“I just bought all this wire and these beads and pliers. Now what do I do with them?” This is probably what you are thinking if you have just brought home your first wire-wrapping supplies. You may look at pictures of wire-wrapped pieces online and wonder how you can ever go from where you are at to creating beautiful gemstone jewelry.
Wire wrapping is not all that complex, though. Much of it is learning how to do a few simple things, and then combine those techniques to create original pieces.
It is helpful to know first off what to do with large, medium, and small gauges of wire.
- Medium-gauge wire (20-22). This is probably the type of wire you will use for most applications. This type of wire is bendable, but can hold its shape relatively well. You can make whole pieces out of medium gauge wire if you want.
- Large-gauge wire (16-18). This type of wire is best for either frameworks or for findings. Bend this type of wire into basic, simple shapes. For example, you can use this to make the basic shape of a cuff bracelet, and then wrap medium or small gauge wire inside to form the ornamentation. Or you can use large-gauge wire to make the circular framework for a tree of life pendant (a very popular type of pendant these days), and then use the smaller wire to make the tree inside.
- Small-gauge wire (24-28). This very fine wire can be used to do small, detailed work or hold larger wires together, but it does not hold its shape well. You can make whole pieces out of it, but it is very tricky, and the results will be very delicate. It is best to use this type of wire to embellish your pieces and hold them together.
One of the first things it is helpful to learn is how to coil wire. Hopefully you have medium- and small-gauge wire, for example, say 20 and 26. Cut a piece of the 20-gauge wire to work with, and then cut a much longer piece of the 26-gauge wire. Hold both pieces of wire in your hands, and then loop the 26-gauge wire around the 20-gauge wire, pulling it tight around. Keep looping the fine wire around the larger one, and you will achieve the coiled look that you see on so many wire wrapped pieces. This is an easy way to make a piece look elaborate and detailed.
Another thing you can do once you have finished coiling the 26-gauge wire around the 20-gauge wire is coil that wire around another one. You can generally just use another 20-gauge wire for this purpose. Wrap the wire you have just finished around the new 20-gauge wire in the exact same way you wrapped the 26-gauge around the first 20-gauge. The result looks incredibly ornate and technical, but as you can see, it was quite simple to achieve.
While you are learning how to coil, you will probably discover that there are many simple variations on coiling which you can use to create different effects. For example, instead of bunching your coils tightly together, you can coil more loosely. If you have multiple colours of wire, you can hold two small-gauge wires together and coil them simultaneously around a medium-gauge to create a striped effect, and so on.
There are many other techniques for wire wrapping you can learn about if you search for tutorials online. While text may be enough for you to understand how to coil wire, images can help. Other techniques like wire weaving are almost impossible to describe without the aid of images. Tutorials are a great starting point if you feel lost, and many are available for free. You can also learn a lot through sheer experimentation. So don’t be afraid to dive in and see what you can discover. You may even end up inventing techniques which nobody else has ever used before.
General Tips for Wire Wrapping
When you are wrapping, keep in mind the following principles of design:
- Structural integrity. When you are wrapping a gemstone, your primary concern should be to close all loopholes so that the stone cannot “escape.” If you have any openings which are wide enough for the stone to dislodge, it may fall out of your framework and be lost. Many new wrappers use a very basic technique for wrapping their stones (look up “basic wire wrapping pendant tutorial” and you should find plenty of instructions) to close their loopholes. If however you are a free-form wrapper, you will discover many innovative strategies for closing loopholes. These techniques may result in a pendant that is as beautiful as it is functional.
- Aesthetics. Obviously you want your creation to be a beautiful one. Just as you can often create lovely results by accident while focusing on the practical aspects of design, oftentimes while focusing on aesthetics you will find yourself closing loopholes intuitively. Think about pleasing shapes and patterns, colours which complement, and enjoy letting your creativity take you on a journey.
- Weight and dimensions. While focusing on structure and aesthetics, it is easy to lose track of what you are doing in terms of weight and measurements. Wire-wrapped pieces are often whimsical and extravagant, but you will usually have an easier time selling more pragmatically sized pieces. Furthermore, weight and balancing can be quite important, especially for earrings.
Now you know some of the basic techniques of wire wrapping. If you haven’t yet reviewed the other sections of our guide, have a look to learn about supplies and the history of this fun and affordable form of wearable art. Enjoy your first forays into the world of wire wrapping, and do not be discouraged if you have a hard time at first. All art takes patience to learn, and once you find your own creative spark, you will be able to craft beautiful one-of-a-kind jewelry creations!
Kyla Cardinalis has been wire wrapping jewelry for over three years, and loves to share her knowledge and enthusiasm for handmade jewelry with others. You may visit her on Etsy at https://www.etsy.com/shop/