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Chainmail Construction
Article © MAIL User: Chainmailbasket_com

Originally written in 2000.


Before you begin making chainmail, you will require some tools. You will need two pairs of pliers to open and close the chainmail rings. Rings can also be manipulated using one pair of needle nose pliers held with the jaws down, but this is a more unusual method. The type of pliers to use is strictly based upon personal preference. Some of the more common types of pliers to use for chainmailling are pictured below, and if you are new to chainmail, you should try different types to find what is most comfortable for you.

Some things to keep in mind include what types of things you are planning to make. For people wanting to make jewelry, smaller rings are generally used, thus smaller pliers are usually better. Conversely, an armourer will be using larger and much stronger rings and will need bigger pliers with more leverage. The general chainmailler will have a variety of plier types for different applications. Ones with smooth jaws, or sometimes nylon jaws for working with more delicate metals whose surfaces become less attractive from tool marks, for example. Try to find pliers that are not too heavy.

Image: pliers.jpg

Metal Types

Image: c_stainless.jpgStainless steel is a very popular material for chainmail. It costs more than galvanized steel (about 4-8 times the price, depending on the source) but it doesn't oxidize or rust at all (except under extreme conditions), making it a good choice for constructing low maintenance chainmail. Stainless steel is harder to work with and harder to cut than most other materials. I have found the 304 alloy of stainless steel to be nice to work with for most applications. I've also worked with the 308, and 316 alloys, the latter of which is also sometimes referred to as surgical steel, and is hypo-allergenic.
Titanium picTitanium is stronger than most metals used in maille production and is fairly light, weighing about half as heavy as steel, but is fairly expensive. In all but the weakest grades, titanium is difficult to work with because it is a very springy metal. Dull grey in appearance, but can be coloured through a process called anodization. There are many different alloys/grades of titanium, some ideal for chainmail, others not.
Image: c_copper.jpgCopper is a very malleable metal, making it easy to work with. Copper is weak and rings gets easily marred if smooth-jawed pliers are not used. Copper tarnishes easily and turns a dark brown - black colour, and can leave a person's skin green if they handle it or wear it for extended periods of time. Copper can be cleaned in lemon juice, and other acidic solutions.
Image: c_bronze.jpgBronze is a golden brown/yellow colour. It is fairly strong. There are many different alloys of bronze, which define the characteristics including colour, strength, and resistance to tarnishing/oxidization. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Phosphor and Silicon are two distinct types of bronze wire.
Image: c_brass.jpgBrass is a golden yellow colour. It is a bit weaker than bronze, but with similar workability properties. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc.
Image: c_nickelsilver.jpgNickel Silver is a silvery coloured metal with a slight yellow tinge. It is called nickel silver or "German silver", even though there is no silver in it. It is actually an alloy of copper and nickel, primarily, and has great resistance to oxidization. Some people have been known to have allergies to nickel.
Image: c_aluminum.jpgAluminum is a very light weight metal at about one third of steel. There are a vast number of alloys of aluminum, which vary in finish from dull grey to bright shiny silver. Certain alloys of aluminum leave a blackish silver rub off on your skin if handled a lot, but the black (oxide) easily washes off. To clean aluminum, you can use soap and water or some industrial cleaners like Simple Green. 5356, 5556, and 5183 are referred to as 'bright' aluminum, and are among some of the cleaner alloys.
Image: c_anodized.jpgAnodized Aluminum is an ideal choice for those wanting to add colour to chainmail. Pre-made rings are available from a few suppliers. The anodization process itself is messy and involves chemicals and electricity.
Image: c_galvy.jpgGalvanized steel is steel with a zinc coating to prevent rusting. It is commercially used for electric fences, which makes large quantities of it obtainable at farm supply stores. It is also found at hardware stores, usually in smaller quantities. When bought new, galvanized steel has a very shiny, bright silver colour. Over time, and depending on environmental conditions, it becomes a dull grey colour. It will also start to smell a little bit after awhile, and leave the smell on your skin when you handle it. It's a popular choice for those wanting to make SCA/LARP armour.
Image: c_silver.jpgSilver is a great material for high end chainmail jewellery. There are different grades of silver according the purity, which are measured by percent. Fine silver is 99.9% pure, and sterling silver is 92.5% pure, for example. Silver is a soft metal, and if the rings are found to not be strong enough for the application, they can be soldered closed.

Dark Annealed Steel, a.k.a. tie rebar wire, mechanics wire, or stove pipe wire, is annealed (softened) steel with a black carbon coating on it. It is generally a low carbon steel in is softest form. It is fairly weak. The black coating does rub off eventually leaving it prone to rusting. Rust can be kept off it with regular maintenance. Good for the manufacture of riveted mail.

Artistic Wire is enamel coated copper wire that is available in several different bright colours with a greater selection than anodized aluminum. Usually it is found in small sizes and the copper used is usually dead soft which makes it very weak.

Copper coated steel (CCS) is what the name implies, it is steel with a copper coating to prevent it from rusting. The copper coating wears off eventually making this material less than ideal for chainmail use.

There are also other types of wire that can be used in chainmail like gold, gold fill, platinum, niobium, etc. The best thing to do is try using a few different types of metal until you find one (or more) that best suits your mailling needs. It is generally best to start out with galvanized steel if you are a beginner because it is inexpensive, and easy to find. Afterwards, you should seek out some of the more exotic metal types.

Wire Size:

The thickness of the wire is usually measured by a wire gauge system. To make things even more complicated, there are different wire gauge systems. Different kinds of metals use different wire gauge systems. For example, copper-based metals are generally measured using the Brown & Sharpe (AWG) wire gauge system, while steel is generally measured using the standard wire gauge system (SWG). Some suppliers use thousandths of an inch or millimeters, which are preferred as they cause less confusion.

Image: c_wiresize.jpg

Some popular wire sizes used for the manufacture of chainmail are listed below in the two common gauge systems and their conversion to decimal inches and millimeters.

AWGInches (mm) SWGInches (mm)
100.1019" (2.588mm)120.1040" (6.642mm)
120.0808" (2.05mm)140.0800" (2.03mm)
140.0641" (1.63mm)160.0640" (1.62mm)
160.0508" (1.29mm)180.0480" (1.22mm)
180.0403" (1.02mm)190.0400" (1.02mm)
190.0359" (0.912mm)200.0360" (0.914mm)
200.0320" (0.813mm)210.0320" (0.813mm)
210.0285" (0.724mm)220.0280" (0.711mm)
220.0253" (0.643mm)230.0240" (0.610mm)
230.0226" (0.574mm)240.0220" (0.559mm)
240.0201" (0.511mm)250.0200" (0.508mm)

Smaller wire sizes are generally used for jewellery, while the larger sizes are usually used for armour.

Where to Get Wire:

Wire can be found at hardware stores, department stores, welding supply stores, army surplus stores, farm supply stores, elecrical supply stores, scrap yards, as well as online wire and chainmail suppliers.

It is better to get the wire on a spool if this option is available because you can easily build a wire dispensing unit like this one:

Image: spoolfeed.jpg


You will need a supply of rings before you begin to make something out of chainmail. Rings are categorized by the metal type, and ring size (both wire and inner (and/or mandrel) diameter), and aspect ratio (AR).

Rings are made by wrapping wire around a mandrel and then cutting the coil. Ring sizes are defined by the size of the mandrel on which they are produced. Sizes will be in inches or millimeters. Common imperial sizes are 3/32", 1/8", 5/32", 3/16", 1/4", 5/16", 3/8", 7/16", and 1/2". Common metric mandrel sizes are 2.5mm, 3mm, 4mm, 5mm, 6mm, 7mm, 8mm, 9mm, 10mm. If further precision is needed, mandrels in sizes that fall between these can be found.

Pictured below is a picture of my collection of mandrels for handwinding. Each one has two bends in it, which forms a handle, which the exception of the top (1/2") one.

Image: c_mandrels.jpg

Only certain wire sizes will be used with certain mandrels. Smaller wire is used with smaller mandrels. Eventually larger sized wire can be used as a mandrel. Chainmail made from very small ring sizes is sometimes referred to as micromaille. Conversely, really large wire sizes make macromaille.

Aspect ratio (AR) is the relationship between the inner diameter of the ring and the wire sizes. It is a decimal number, which is unitless.

Making Coils:

The mandrel setup is a tool which accommodates a mandrel. It can be easily constructed with one large, long piece of wood for the bottom, and two smaller ones for the ends. Holes must be drilled in each of the end pieces to accommodate the mandrels to be used with the setup, and also must line up properly with each other. This thing should be clamped town to a sturdy work surface for safety and ease of use.

Image: mandrel.jpg

Image: c_wrap01.jpg Image: c_wrap02.jpg

Wind the mandrel until you reach the end and cut the wire off. You will end up with a coil:

Image: coil.jpg

Depending on the direction the coil is wound, you will end up with either left- or right-handed rings. Right handed rings are more popular, and this is mainly due to the fact that the largest ring supplier in the world configure their rings this way.
Image: c_left_vs_right.jpg

Cutting Rings:

After you wind a coil, it will have to be cut into rings. There are basically three types of cuts that can be achieved:

Image: pinchcut.jpgPinch cut rings are those cut with bolt cutters, or other tools that stress the wire until it breaks, creating a >< closure.
Image: shearcut.jpgShear cut rings are the result of a ring cutting method which uses shearing action, such as aviation ships, which provides // closures.
Image: sawcut.jpgSaw cub rings are generally the most desired as they make the highest quality chainmail. Jewelers saws and rotary saw cutting setups yield rings of this type.


I use a combination of Knipex Cobolt cutters, which provide pinch cuts, and modified Xuron cutters (shear cuts). In the past I used aviation snips, sometimes modified versions: Modified Aviation Snips.

Knipex Cobolts
Image: boltcutterssm.jpg

Mini bolt cutters are usually about eight inches long. They can be used to pinch cut rings by stressing the metal until it breaks. Alternatively, they can be used in a process called 'score and break', where small indents are made on the top and bottom of the next ring on a coil and then the ring is grasped and broken off the coil to produce a somewhat flat cut. Either way, it is important to get a pair with one characteristic: The blades should be as close to perfectly lined up as possible, and the blades on the end should look like this: Image: c_boltcut.jpg. These tools are effective for cutting hard metals and those of large wire sizes. Regular bolt cutters can be used for larger rings.

Mastercraft Aviation Snips
Image: aviation2.jpg

Aviation snips are great tools for cutting many types of maille rings. They produce a shear cut, which is a step up from pinch cut. They are very easy to use also, and they can be used to cut rings very quickly. One downfall to the use of aviation snips for cutting rings, is that the rings open sideways a little bit, and take on a slight 'C' shape. Closing these rings requires the ring ends to be pushed together two ways, which is a little bit inconvenient. Aviation snips come in three configurations: right cut, left cut, and straight cut. I personally have no use for the right cut ones (green handles), but the left and straight cut types (red and yellow handles) both shear the way I prefer. Aviation snips are ideal for cutting copper, brass, bronze, nickel silver, aluminum, and galvanized steel rings, as well as others. They are not good for cutting stainless steel rings, and other harder metals, except in very small wire sizes. Until I got my pair of knipex cobolt cutters, I used aviation snips to cut the majority of my rings. Xuron provided me with a nicer shearing option with their "Hard Wire Cutter", which can be modified to prevent ring warpage.

Image: snipsopensm.jpg

Stretching Coils:

If you stretch a coil before cutting it, the rings will all be pre-opened. This does, however, cause some warpage, and should be done only with large rings and not in applications that require a perfect aesthetic look.

Weaving Chainmail

Weaving chainmail is an easy thing to do, it is just time consuming and repetitive. All you really have to do is open a ring, join it onto the rings you are linking it to, and close it. Good closure is important as it makes the chainmail look good and of higher quality. It just takes a little practice. One fairly important skill to develop is to not set down your pliers while weaving as it slows down production.

One of the greatest things about weaving chainmail is that it can be done almost anywhere. All you need is a supply of rings, your pliers, and a surface of some sort on which to work.

The best place to start is to learn some of the simpler weaves like European 4 in 1, [weave=Box Chain], Byzantine, Celtic Visions, Helm Chain, Spiral 4 in 1, using some of the tutorials provided. Once you get better you can move on to more advanced weaves and start designing projects.

Spend some time learning about the different ring sizes and how they affect the consistency of different weaves. You will find that there is a sweet spot for most weaves. Learn as much as you can about the art and pass on what you have learned.
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