Wire-Sculpture Blog Jewelry Making Tips, News & Videos...Join the conversation

by Rose Marion, Wire-Sculpture.com

Last week, I told you about Bronze and Brass, 2 base metal wires; and today it’s time to talk about nickel silver and copper.

Copper

Here’s an interesting statistic about copper I found: although copper has been mined and used for over 10,000 years, more than 95% of all copper ever mined and smelted, has been extracted since 1900 – that’s in the last 112 years! However, I found that an estimated 80% of extracted copper is still in use today, whether still part of structures or being recycled (copper keeps the same level of quality when recycled as when it is first smelted).

Copper is extremely soft; it only rates a 2.5-3 on Mohs scale! (No wonder it is a good practice wire: if you can wrap a cab in copper wire with no tool marks, you are getting good!) Its elemental symbol is Cu, which comes from cuprum; this is short for cyprium, because the Romans sourced all their copper from the island of Cyprus. You may already know that when copper corrodes, like copper roofs or statues, it gets a green coating called verdigris – but did you know that that same property of copper is how azurite, malachite, and turquoise get their vibrant green and green-blue colors? That’s right, both these stones are exposed to copper as they lie in the earth, imparting those beautiful colors. (Having trouble with copper turning your skin green? Read the comments on this article – or, you can think of it as copper painting malachite on your skin! :) )

Copper is extremely useful in wire jewelry: you can create an entire cabochon frame, not like it, cut it apart, and only be out a few cents in materials. Plus, you can save your scrap and take it to a commercial recycler (the type that takes aluminum cans) every year or so. Strike up a conversation with your electrician, contractor, or handyman and you’ll find that copper prices have gone up for them just like silver has gone up for us: steeply over the last couple decades – but it is still a bargain for us compared to silver!

Copper is mined all over the world, with 1/3 of the world’s copper mined from large sources in Utah and New Mexico in the US, Chile, Indonesia, and Peru. In Sweden, miners operated the Great Copper Mountain from the 900s to 1992 (over 1000 years!): this allowed Sweden to have a copper-backed currency (imagine, a "Copper Standard"!) and in the 1600s, supplied 2/3 of European demand for copper.

Dale wrote an article some time ago on Copper which has some impressive pictures: you can read Dale’s take on this lustrous metal here, A Few Words about Copper.

Recycled Copper

Copper doesn’t have to be smelted to be recycled: you can simply reuse the copper wire found in house wiring and appliances. Now, can you seriously use stripped electrical copper wire in jewelry? Well, firstly, electrical wire is only going to be round, and may come in a size you aren’t expecting (a fat piece of wire may actually contain dozens of strands of 30-gauge or thinner wire, or several large-gauge wires). So if you enjoy creating traditional wire jewelry with square and half round wire, or you like consistency, stick with copper wire that is sold for making jewelry.

Electrical copper wire will be about 99% pure, just like copper jewelry wire, since it needs to be as pure as possible to conduct electricity effectively. Some people might be concerned if the copper has been exposed to lead wire coverings, but I haven’t found any information that says it is a real concern.

However, there are several considerations when recycling electrical wire. First, the temper will probably be dead soft, which means unless you work-harden your pieces well in a tumbler or with a hammer, the resulting piece could be very malleable and could deform. Of course, if you’re used to working with dead soft copper wire, you already anticipate this.

The electrical copper wire also is not manufactured with appearance in mind. You might find dirt or burn marks on the wire, which will you will want to clean off with steel wool. Also, the wire may have been milled with rough patches (less common in modern wire, but if you are stripping wire from an old house, you might find this). Also, if you are stripping the copper wire from the plastic tubing yourself, be careful be to slow and deliberate so as not to ding, kink, or damage the wire.

For me, the effort doesn’t seem worth it – but if someone gave me a truckload of old electrical wire, I would probably take a stab at it!

Nickel Silver

Nickel Silver, known by a host of other names including German Silver, albata, new silver, and alpaca/alpacca, is an alloy of nickel, zinc, and copper. Because it’s alloyed with zinc and copper, some people regard it as a relative of brass.  It’s important to note (and tell your customers) that nickel silver doesn’t actually contain any silver; instead, it is engineered to closely resemble silver at a fraction of the cost.

Nickel silver was developed, as an alternative to the Chinese alloy paktong, by German metalworkers in the 19th century. The Chinese developed this silver look-alike centuries ago, with secret exports to Southeast Asia resulting in an effort by colonizing Europeans to duplicate the guarded formula. In the 1700s metalworkers got close, and in 1823, German competition yielded a winner. Around the same time, a British man discovered a similar metal alloy.

Following its discovery, the use of nickel silver exploded. It has been used in on dining tables nearly since its discovery; some sets of silverware are stamped EPNS, which stands for Electro-plated nickel silver, which is silverware that has been made with nickel silver and electroplated with real silver. These "silver" sets are of no value to a metal recycler, but are becoming more rare every year, so perhaps they will have historical value. Also, as the silver finish wears away, the nickel silver is actually brighter, due to its tarnish resistance, so an EPNS set  Used practically everywhere: keys, zippers, jewelry, silverware, wind instruments including French horns and flutes (can be silver-plated) and frets of guitars, automobiles, coins and even tracks in model railroads. It typically resists tarnish and corrosion. Used extensively by metalsmiths of the Kiowa and Pawnee tribes in Oklahoma.

Nickel silver looks much like true silver, although it can have a slight goldish tone to it. It is highly tarnish resistant and will only slightly darken with age – it really doesn’t react to liver of sulfur, unlike sterling silver and copper relatives such as bronze, brass, and pure copper. Nickel silver is especially in chainmaille, where it is prized for its affordability and tarnish resistance. Could you imagine polishing a large bracelet made from sterling silver? How about an entire garment!

A note about Aluminum

I should briefly mention aluminum: while this metal can look similar to silver, it can lose its shine and become dull. While some people enjoy using aluminum jump rings in chainmaille (it is very light, and very inexpensive), for traditional wire jewelry uses such as bundle bracelets, cabochon pendants, and prong rings, aluminum is too soft to stay in place, and is very difficult to work-harden. Although you can find aluminum wire online, we are proud to provide you with the 4 most-loved base metals – brass, bronze, copper, and nickel silver – in the gauges and shapes wire artists love.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these articles about base metal wire – Happy Jewelry Making!

Have a Wire Jewelry Idea or Resource you’d like to share?
Click Here to submit your idea. You could be featured on our Blog!

Click to Receive Daily Tips by Email

Sources & further reading

Daily Wire Jewelry Making Tip for
September 14, 2011

Question:

Hi Dale, I have some lovely purple aluminum wire. I used my wire gauge and it is about 13-gauge. My question is, what can I do with it? Being aluminum, it is quite soft, and I really love the color. Other than the usual jump rings, can you think of any project specifically for large gauge round wire? I am a newbie wire worker and I read every single daily tip. I have learned so much from you, thanks a bunch!

-Carol in Athens, Ontario, Canada

Answer:

Hey Carol, your wire dilemma sounds like fun to me! The only challenge is that it is aluminum and really there is no way to harden it; not even beating it to death will change its temper and hammering it will probably remove the cool purple color.

Some of my suggestions include making an upper arm bracelet (I’d wrap it with a 16-gauge square half-hard to keep the shape you want), or how about twisting 3 or 4 lengths together to make a Torc-style necklace? If you wanted to use the fact that the color will come off, you could cut different lengths and beat them into paddle shapes, drill holes in one end, and use them as “tie-dye-style” components for other designs. I know you want to use this wire to make jewelry, but have you thought about coiling it around an upside-down test tube and making your own Hummingbird Feeder“?

Answer contributed by Dale "Cougar" Armstrong

Ask Your Tip of the Day Question Here!
Have a Question? Click Here to Submit Your Question

Click to Receive Daily Tips by Email

Daily Wire Tip: Anodized Aluminum and Chipping

Daily Wire Jewelry Making Tip

Question:

Hi there! I love using wire in jewellery-making and I’ve noticed there are so many lovely colours of soft anodized aluminium wire and copper craft wire around. But what puts me off using them is that they seem to marr and chip really easily. Is there a varnish or lacquer that can be sprayed on finished pieces to protect them?

-Joanna in Cookstown, Ireland

Answer:

Hello Joanna, how lovely is Ireland! I totally understand your frustration, because my daughter has used anodized aluminum rings for some of her chain maille designs.

Aluminum is a very soft metal and next to impossible to harden, so tool marks are going to happen! While working with this pretty wire as well as colored craft wire, it is important to be firm and confident with every tool move.

Sometimes folding a piece of lint free-material (such as a piece of cotton t-shirt) or a polishing cloth over the wire while you work will help avoid dents and the removal of the color coating.

When using colored copper craft wire, some people enjoy using nylon jaw pliers as the jaws will not nick the wire when making 90° bends.

After finishing a piece, some people use nail polish to repair color chips and bad scratches. My favorite protective product is the Krylon Crystal Clear Acrylic Spray. For details about this product, please refer to Seashell Jewelry. Just remember to educate your customers about the products you use and that all protectants are temporary.

Answer contributed by Dale "Cougar" Armstrong

Have a Question? Click Here to Submit Your Question

Click to Receive Daily Tips by Email

Daily Wire Jewelry Making Tip
April 18, 2010

Question:

When you have a partially used spool of wire, and don’t know how much is left on the spool, what do you do?  I really don’t want to unroll the spool to find out how many feet are remaining. Is there a chart or calculator that would tell me the length based on the weight-gauge-metal?  I have empty spools that can be weighted for the tare. I’m working in copper and aluminum.

Answer:

I cannot help you with the aluminum yet, but this link will take you to our Wire Footage charts, that include one for copper. Wire Footage Charts

Answer contributed by Dale “Cougar” Armstrong

Have a question? Submit your question here