Learn how to straighten wire for jewelry making without causing it to work-harden.
Why is using opposing pressures to straighten your wire the way to go?
Copper and silver wire have “spring”.
The heavier or harder the wire, the more it needs to be displaced. This means you need to flex past where you want the wire to align and allow it to spring back into position.
Think about when you close a jump ring … you overcompensate so when you let go, the join aligns. Jump rings are typically made of work-hardened (half-hard) wire, so the spring is more exaggerated, but even dead soft silver wire has some spring to it.
Most of the advice out there says to use nylon jaw pliers to straighten your wire. Others show you to pull and twist the wire, or even to roll it between steel blocks. While these methods hold value for certain tasks, the common factor is they work-harden your wire. When you are working with thick wire to form jewelry links and components, you want to keep the wire pliable.
Forming fundamentals are the key for straightening wire …
There are 3 main factors at play:
Holder – Typically, flat-nose pliers are used to hold the wire stable. But this could translate to anything that helps you stabilize the wire so you can focus on the individual curves.
Forming Pressure – The force applied to flex the wire.
Opposing Pressure – A solid form or point of pressure providing a barrier the wire cannot pass.
Focus on one plane at a time –
Wire is deceptively simple. When it’s straight it’s only one dimensional – meaning it’s just a straight line. Once there’s a curve in it, there are additional dimensions or planes. There are 2 dimensions if it still sits flat on a surface, and there are 3 dimensions if it lifts off the surface. If you focus on just one of these dimensions (or planes) at a time, you’ll have greater success.
The Holder helps hold the wire stable, so you can focus on just one of the planes at a time. I suggest you position things so when you look down the jaw of the pliers the curves are situated on a perpendicular plane to the jaw of the pliers. Here’s an image with a piece of cardstock in the grasp of the pliers showing what I mean by a perpendicular plane. If there are curves on multiple planes, ignore the curves that go up and down and focus solely on those that go toward and away from you on that perpendicular plane as you look down the jaw. You’ll be able to work on the up and down curves after you straighten the first plane.
With the wire stabilized, place opposing pressure on the outside edge of the curve you want to straighten. You can think of this as a barrier that will stop the wire from moving in that location.
Then apply forming pressure further up the wire. The wire will flex where it’s pressed against the barrier (or opposing pressure).
Straighten each curve individually …
If you try to correct more than one curve at a time, you are likely to just form even more curves. Break down complex sections identifying each bend and addressing them separately. If there’s a long, soft curve, you can provide a wide barrier or extended area of opposing pressure. It may seem tedious, but it’s ultimately faster to yield a straight wire if you take your time and use precision.
How much pressure is enough?
Honestly, it comes down to trial and error. You have applied enough pressure when the forming pressure is released and the wire springs back to the alignment you desire. With too much forming pressure, the wire will stay bent in the opposite direction. And if you don’t apply enough forming pressure, the wire will spring back toward the original position.
The proper amount of pressure depends on the gauge of the wire as well as the hardness. Thicker wires inherently have more spring, so they require more force to form. Likewise, if a wire is half-hard or otherwise work hardened it will have more of the spring-like quality, so it’ll require you to overcompensate more than dead soft wire.
How do I know if my wire is work-hardened?
When you shop for silver wire, you have options for the hardness you purchase – dead soft and half-hard being the most common – so keep it in separate bags and well-marked! (Learn more about buying wire for jewelry making here …) Over time, you’d be able to feel the difference, but that only comes with experience. Wire that’s work-hardened requires more force to flex, springs back more, and tends to make sharper bends.
I recommend using dead soft silver wire for forming shapes, clasps and components. It forms more accurately and produces more graceful curves than half-hard wire. If you use appropriate gauges for various pieces, there’s plenty of strength. You can also strengthen vulnerable areas after they’re formed with techniques like forging.
The more you handle your wire, the harder it will become. Running the nylon jaw pliers up a wire compresses the crystal structure slowly but surely. Continued compression can harden the wire to the point where it becomes brittle and wants to fracture when you bend it. You’ve likely experienced this if you’ve played around with a wire and bent it back and forth a few too many times like an old-fashioned twist tie. Twisting wire or hammering wire (even with a nylon hammer) also hardens it, but at a much more rapid pace.
Using opposing pressure with solid forming fundamentals is the best method for straightening thick wire for making jewelry components.
Because you are applying the least amount of pressure required to manipulate the wire, you are allowing the crystal structure to remain as close to its malleable state as possible. With less hardening, there’s less spring which means your shapes can be formed with ease.
This technique is worth learning and practicing!
You’ll gain so much command over your wire. And not just when it comes to straightening wire but bending it as well. When you understand where to place pressure to achieve specific results, you remove the guesswork out of the equation. You’ll gain confidence to make jewelry you are proud to wear.
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