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Materials and Their Uses
Article © MAIL User:

Materials and Their Uses




This article is designed to provide a brief, useful overview of the common maille metals and their uses. These are of course, subjective, and judgement should be exercised before starting any project. Aluminum may be good combat armor, but not in a very thin gauge! There are also a thousand other mediums available for mailling, however these are the most prevalent materials used currently. I hope this helps, and maille on!

Aluminized Steel

Recommended Uses: Jewelry that requires strength and durability (i.e. watchbands), small armor pieces.

This is a relatively new material. It is similar to galvanized steel (see below), however instead of a sacrificial zinc coating on the wire, this wire is coated in aluminum. This was originally created for electrical needs in or near seawater. Since aluminum does not rust or wear off (unless by friction or grinding). Also, because it is steel at the center, this wire has more strength than pure aluminum or aluminum alloy wire. However, this advantage is offset by its price and availability. Some welding supply stores might have it, and a few online vendors might be the only option outside of specialty companies.


Aluminum.

Recommended Uses: Armor (show and combat), Jewelry (brite alloys)

A modern metal made from bauxite, aluminum’s most useful properties are its lack of weight and corrosion. Aluminum is an superior costume metal, being lightweight and being a true metal. It is not easily distinguished from steel, and comes in many forms. For combat-ready armor, aluminum is somewhat controversial. However, it has seen frequent and popular use combat, especially in 12.5 gauge, 3/8” I.D. (interior diameter) combinations. Lesser gauges are too fragile for significant combat usage.
As it ages, aluminum is not prone to rust. Some alloys of aluminum will develop a black “ruboff.” This ruboff washes off easily (Simple Green, or a do-it-yourself car wash are good options), and is the result of the alloy oxidizing. It is not harmful. Aluminum is very difficult to weld. It requires either TIG welding or resistance welding. Generally, aluminum wire can be found at many fencing supply stores (Farm & Fleet, etc.) or welding supply stores, but it can be difficult to find at regular home improvement stores. Another advantage to aluminum is that it is relatively cheap, especially if obtained by the pound.
Aluminum can also be colored through a process called “Anodizing.” Anodizing is a process involving running an electric current through an acidic solution, into which the aluminum is then submerged. Then, as that opens up the “pores” of the aluminum, you place the aluminum (rinsed) into a dye solution. The dye soaks into the pores, and then the pores are closed with cold water. It is a relatively easy and inexpensive procedure, but make sure that good instructions are available, and always EXERCISE CAUTION and SAFETY around processes such as anodizing.
Aluminum alloy 5356 is a “brite” alloy good for maille. It is strong, and has a stainless steel type finish. Alloy 5154 is a “dull” finish that is also strong, however it is a flat grey in color. Alloy 1100 is a very soft alloy that is unsuitable for most projects, as it can deform even under it’s own weight upon occasion. Other alloys include 1188, 2319, 4008, 4043, 4047, 4145, 4643, 5180, 5183, 5356, 5554, 5556, 5654. Information regarding these alloys is quite welcome.

Annealed (Mild) Steel

Recommended Uses: Armor (show and combat), artistic uses (black color)

Annealed steel, also known as black steel, is plain mild steel coated (annealed) in a black powder. This powder is similar to the zinc in galvanized steel (see below) as a protective layer for the wire beneath. This coating will rub off profusely when originally worked, however enough tumbling or working will result in a lustrous black shine on the rings. This is good for a period look.
This steel requires regular maintenance (oiling) to prevent rust, and is relatively weak as it is usually only mild steel. Caution is required to make sure this coating does not get in the eyes (wash your hands after handling much). Pliers without teeth are recommended as scratches in the coating will show. Annealed steel is available at select suppliers, usually at inexpensive rates.

Brass

Recommended Uses: Armor inlay/trimming, artistic uses, jewelry

Brass is an alloy derived mostly from copper, but is significantly stronger and heavier. Most brass alloys are at least 70% copper. Zinc is often the other part of the equation, though many other materials, including gold, are in the various alloys. Brass is a more “golden color” than copper, and is also used for artistic and trimming purposes. A full shirt (hauberk) may be fashioned out of brass, however it is not recommended for combat.
Brass is not as inexpensive as copper, but is still not outrageously priced. It can also be found at welding stores, or online vendors. Brass also tarnishes just like copper. Tumbling or using a silver, copper, or brass polish will remove that tarnish. There are many alloys of brass, just as aluminum. Also, just as aluminum, some brass is great for maille, and some is ridiculously soft. When in doubt, ask your supplier about the alloy. More information will be forthcoming regarding alloys.

Bronze

Recommended Uses: Armor inlay/trimming, artistic uses, jewelry

Bronze is similar to brass, although where zinc is used in brass, tin is used in bronze. Bronze is often a darker color than brass, but that can vary from alloy to alloy. Otherwise, bronze is similar to brass in regards to uses, alloys, properties, cost, availability, and tarnish.

Copper

Recommended Uses: Armor inlay/trimming, artistic uses, jewelry

This metal was historically one of the first to be worked. Today it still has its uses. It is a nice color, and is both relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain. Pure copper is relatively weak and heavy, however some modern alloys have lent it strength without changing other properties. Copper is used in many artistic maille, and as edging and dags on armor. Pliers without teeth are strongly recommended for working with copper to avoid marks in the rings as they are worked.
Copper tarnishes a green color, just like the Statue of Liberty. To restore it to its natural color, copper can be tumbled or a copper (or silver) polish can be used to remove the tarnish. Tarnish strips can also be found from jeweler supply stores for storing copper. Many people also have an odd reaction to copper when it is worn; their skin turns green along with the copper! This has to do with the acid levels of their sweat.

Copper Coated Steel

Recommended Uses: Armor inlay/trimming, artistic uses, jewelry

This is a relatively new material. Simply what it says, it is a steel wire coated in copper. It has the appearance of copper with the strength of steel. This is an expensive medium, and can also be hard to find. Some maillers dislike copper coated steel; the copper coating can rub off. This effect is different with different suppliers. Pliers without teeth are recommended as the coating can be scratched through.



Enameled Copper Artistic Wire

Recommended Uses: Armor inlay/trimming, artistic uses requiring color, jewelry requiring color

While not exactly an official name, it get mention here as being one of the few colored wires available. This wire comes in a variety of colors; the color comes from a thin enamel coating over the wire. This coating does not rub off easily. Often available at hobby and craft stores, this wire is usually only available in a few small gauges, such as 18 and 20 gauge. Pliers without teeth are recommended as the coating can be scratched through.

Galvanized Steel

Recommended Uses: Teaching chainmaille, armor, durable jewelry projects (i.e. chandelier base)

This is the material that is most popular with chainmaille today. Easily obtained from most hardware and home improvement stores, this wire is cheap, durable, easy to work with, and appears “period.” (Period is considered as useable for historical reenactment) Galvanized steel is just steel wire coated with a sacrificial coating of zinc. This coating is applied to prevent rust affecting the wire beneath. Galvanized steel will slowly darken over time, thus making it appear a period dark-grey color. Galvy will also rust at the cuts in the rings.
Galvanized steel can be forcibly darkened by putting it in an acidic fluid. Lemon juice, vinegar, muriatic acid (commercial battery acid) are all common fluids used to darken galvanized steel. This process is simply stripping the zinc off of the wire quickly; if the process goes too long, the zinc will be completely removed and the wire beneath will be unprotected. The time needed will vary, depending on the acidity of the solution used.
Galvanized steel also has a very metallic smell some people do not like. Furthermore, DO NOT HEAT this metal. The zinc will evaporate, and zinc fumes are harmful and even fatal. If using a Dremel or powered method of cutting, make sure there is adequate ventilation. To clean galvanized steel, a rag, a touch of oil, and elbow grease are the best methods. Washing it will result in advanced rusting (even if heat-dried immediately), and rolling it in sand will remove the zinc coating. Darkened galvy cannot be restored to its original color or luster.
14 gauge galvanized is usually seen for combat armors. I.D.’s vary, however 5/16” I.D. seem to be the median of combat armors. Galvanized is also great for beginners to learn on, as it is very cheap.


Gold

Recommended Uses; Jewelry, quality artistic pieces

Ahh, gold. Pretty, shiny, and expensive. As a rule, gold is a soft metal, however different alloys change that like any other medium. Gold is expensive, suppliers often base their rates on current market prices, so make sure you are aware of the exact price when it is bought. Obviously, gold is NOT recommended for combat armor. ;-) Pliers without teeth are recommended strongly when using gold, as marks will show quite easily.


Mild Steel

Recommended Uses: Rivetted armor, artistic design that requires a patina of rust

This is truly the most period of metals, as it is almost exactly what our forebears used. Prone to rust and corrosion, this steel is cheap, easily found, and easily worked with. This is most suitable for rivetted maille, as it is easy to punch through without harming any coatings. Regular maintenance is required for mild steel; if it rusts, the best method to remove the rust is taken from old times—tumble it. Either put it in a tumbler, dryer, or big barrel of sand (the authentic way) and agitate it until the rust is mostly removed. Then oil immediately. This metal should be easily found at welding supply stores. Mild steel is heavy, however, and is fairly malleable. Butted maille should be thick or have a small I.D. As combat maille, this is best used as rivetted maille; butted can be too weak at thin gauges, or too heavy at thick gauges.

Nickle Silver

Nickle silver (sometimes referred to as German Silver) actually contains no silver in it at all. It is approximately 90% nickle and 10% copper. Of course, this can vary widely depending on the alloy. It has a silver color with a golden sheen to it, and comes in various tempers, from easily malleable to fairly springy.
Nickle silver is a well regarded metal; it has a nice shiny appearance like silver, but is quite inexpensive compared to the jewelry metals (Gold, silver, etc.). This medium is great for jewelry with its nice luster, but is strong enough for other uses including shirts and other load-bearing projects. Finding this can be a little tricky without looking up special vendors; the local improvements and hardware stores won’t carry it, and some quality industrial supply stores might carry it.

Niobium

Recommended Uses: Jewelry, artistic projects

Niobium is an uncommon hypo-allergenic metal that looks like similar to steel, or stainless steel if polished. Niobium is unique in that it is a refractive metal; as it oxidizes, it appears to change colors as the oxidation changes what colors are refracted. It is prohibitively expensive for most applications, and is somewhat soft, suggesting that it would not be a good combat-armor source.

Platinum

Recommended Uses: Jewelry, high-end artistic projects

Platinum is quite rare in chainmaille. While a beautiful silver luster is nice to see, most maillers (and femaillers) can simply not afford the extravagant costs involved with platinum. Platinum is similar to other jeweler’s metals, so again, pliers without teeth are strongly recommended.

Silver

Recommended Uses: Jewelry, high-end artistic projects

Silver is probably the most popular jeweler’s metal. While having the luster and shine to attract notice, the price of silver is significantly lower than gold or platinum. Silver is generally soft, however harder tempers and alloys can be found. Silver is usually incorporated or used in small projects; a full shirt in silver is very rare, for both cost and strength issues. However, a hardened temper silver could be used for a costume or dress shirt.
Silver will tarnish with age (see copper), but that tarnish can be removed with any polishing agent. Pliers without teeth are strongly recommended. Silver is generally easily obtainable at jewelry supply stores and many specialty vendors. Prices may be set by market price, be sure to verify the exact price before purchasing silver wire.

Stainless Steel

Recommended Uses: Armor, jewelry, art.

Stainless steel is regarded as the “tough” medium for chainmaille, and with good reason. It is perhaps the most durable medium available (barring high-tech specialty metals). It has great tensile strength, and comes in a variety of alloys. Most stainless is quite shiny and is used for many industrial purposes.Some stainless is referred to as “spring steel.” This is a type of steel that is very difficult to manipulate without applying heat. When bent, it has a tendency to bend back to it’s original shape somewhat. Stainless steel is also hypo-allergenic, which makes it good for jewelry uses.
Stainless is considerably more expensive than mild or galvanized steel, however its durability and strength often outweighs the cost for many maillers. Stainless does not succumb to rust (however, stainless is not rust-proof, just rust resistant—it will eventually rust) or oxidize; the prime factor in stainless’s allure in an alloy is the amount of Chromium (the substance that gives stainless its resistance to rust) in the mix. Stainless steel wire is easily found in welding and industrial supply stores, and is typically not found in hardware stores, though there are exceptions to that rule.
Stainless comes in a variety of alloys. The lower the alloy #, the softer the metal will be. Also with these alloy numbers will be a letter at the end. This will either be a “L” “M” or “H”. This signifies the amount of carbon that it is in the steel. An “L” indicates a low carbon content, while “H” indicates a high amount of carbon. Low carbon steel is much easier to work with than high carbon, however the tradeoff is that the high carbon steel is very strong.

Titanium

Recommended uses: Armor, art or jewelry requiring color

Titanium is regarded with wistful awe in the maille kingdom. Titanium can be as strong as some stainless alloys, light as aluminum, titanium is wonderful for a variety of projects, from armor to art to jewelry. It can be colored by applying different levels of heat to it for given periods of time, and does not corrode or oxidize significantly, like stainless. Of course, like any magical metal, it has its drawbacks though.
The first is simply cost. The cost for materials for a hauberk will easily clear $1,000 (U.S.), most likely significantly more than that. The second drawback is that good alloys of titanium can be difficult to find. Grade 2 Titanium is a commercially pure version that is fairly soft. This alloy also work-hardens very easily, so it will become brittle as it is manipulated. Titanium is also hypo-allergenic.

None of the metals above are in any way harmful to wear (except for individual metal allergies), despite some popular rumors. Also, the information above is far from complete. This is just to provide a basic understanding of what each metal is and what it might be good for. More information or corrections are very welcome. Please email them to drlarson@isza.com.
Original URL: http://www.mailleartisans.org/articles/articledisplay.php?key=11