Working with wire: cup-bur escapades

Just very recently, I’ve gotten back to my earring designs (there are two of them, now, though the second probably won’t go live for a little while) — and that in itself has necessitated my getting back into wirework. What I can say about wirework is that what it takes to work with metal was something that had slipped my mind, until I had to do it again. A couple of days ago (I missed yesterday because of pushing myself too hard the day before) I was filing, sanding, and using a rotary tool with a cup bur attachment, which is all too familiar to me.

Working with metal allows me more elasticity with my findings (metal parts). They’re customizable. I don’t have to deal with the limitations of what is being sold, or with workarounds I have to take because of those limitations. What I found out was relatively…well, I wouldn’t quite call it “enlightening,” but it reminded me why I wouldn’t necessarily want to make patterns, because materials aren’t always interchangeable.

Out of curiosity, I used a digital caliper to measure the diameter of two different pieces of wire I was looking at for earwire models. One was supposedly 22 gauge red brass; the other was supposedly 22 gauge gold fill. This was an attempt at modeling a 22g French Hook; I’ve done it before, just not recently.

I’m not claiming that my measurements were totally accurate, here (in particular, I could have twisted a wire without knowing it), but I measured the gold-fill wire as a full 1/10 of a millimeter finer than the brass (0.5mm in diameter, as versus 0.6mm). In turn, these were both finer than what we found as the intended gauge diameter online…where 0.5mm runs closer to 24 gauge.

This explains why there was not an option to purchase 24 gauge wire as jump rings (in addition to the fact that 24-gauge wire is likely not all that sturdy without hard soldering, and I’ve been taught not to solder wire with coatings [e.g. colored craft store wire], at all, due to toxic vapors: gold-fill and silver-fill I consider to fall into that category, but I could be wrong). The only reason I caught this is that I was attempting to thread a size 8/0 seed bead onto a 22-gauge loop I’d made in a brass-wire model of my intended product, and it had a hard time moving — to the point that I predicted the bead would break rather than shift position. (Note to self: test this before making a bunch of earwires, next time!) I then tried threading it onto a 22-gauge jump ring made of sterling wire, and: guess what, it could move.

As full disclosure, I should mention that any slight deviation from circular would also cause that phenomenon of the bead sticking, as well — and I caught this happening to one of my earwires (I accidentally pinched it with my pliers), though I can’t tell which very easily, at this time. I restored it roughly to a round shape, but beads don’t care about “roughly;” they care about “perfect,” in this case. So one earwire might have a microscopically different diameter than the other, or might be out of shape just a little, which could both throw off the bead’s ability to move.

On looking at the two wires, I could tell that the sterling was finer; probably also stronger…though I haven’t tried work-hardening the brass (which just takes a quick squeeze between nylon-jaw pliers, or alternately, minor smithing on an anvil with a soft mallet such as nylon or rawhide. I’m not responsible for where that ring ends up, though [or for your fingers]. You might want to cover your anvil before going at it). Other than curiosity, I don’t really have any reason to even try to work-harden the brass, at this point. Now, where it comes to gold-filled wire, that’s a different story, as it’s being used as a final product…

And yes, note that I did make a trial version out of cheap wire, before jumping to the expensive stuff, this time! Although, it does turn up some differences that are possibly irrelevant to the finished pieces (but good to know). The main thing: a thicker wire will take up more space inside a seed bead than a thinner one, even with the same diameter loop. This affects how many thread passes (and what size needle, I presume) you’ll be able to put in there, without that bead (and/or needle) breaking.

Which reminds me: I made a note to reserve size #13 beading needles, specifically for finishing: that is, to expressly not use them when I don’t have to. That gives me some extra space when my bead holes are filling up, and I’ve been using a size #11 or #12 needle. I also then know that the number of moves I have left, is limited. (I’ve been using Nymo B for earrings, as I know they aren’t heavy-wear pieces. Nymo shreds after years under heavy use [for example, bracelets that are worn all the time], but works well with non-sharp beads [e.g. seed beads] which don’t get a lot of wear and tear…and Nymo B is functionally smaller than, for example, K.O. thread — the latter of which, I can recall using…unfortunately, I don’t recall for what!!)

I’ve also found that I may need — in the case of the Bee earrings — to thread in my metal components before assembling the woven portion, to avoid having to try and force a wire into that little space between two beads and out the other side. That probably doesn’t make sense in English: I’m sorry. What I mean is that due to the frustration of inserting a jump ring or a head pin into an 8/0 bead that I’m using as a link — not just a bead — after the construction of the component is finished, it might well be worth it to thread those metal parts in before weaving in those 8/0 beads, and just try and not catch the metal with the needle, when finally weaving everything together.

I haven’t tried it yet, though. Maybe I should try, tomorrow?

I also am aware that I have an ongoing problem with using tension that’s too high when beadweaving, which causes the gaps between beads to close up, and close firmly.

Of course, we do have to take into account the fact that seed beads themselves are not necessarily all that, well, interchangeable. Even within a size (say, 8/0 or 11/0 in particular), there are beads which are wider (from hole to hole) and those which are thinner. This is more pronounced in Czech seed beads than in Japanese seed beads, in my experience, but the phenomenon is still present in both. It’s to the point where I’m thinking that bead sizes are more of a nice ideal than a reality. For example, I’ve recently purchased a hank of orange seed beads (Czech) which were supposedly 6/0, and had to wonder if they were really 7/0, and just mislabeled (they were noticeably smaller than my other 6/0s, but I can’t tell if that’s a visual error due to color. I haven’t yet tried the calipers on them: I don’t know that there is a standard size for 6/0 beads, after all…which I just realized, I can look up. Go, me).

Then there are the beads which are sold as 2mm, which vary between 2.5mm and below 2mm (I don’t have the energy to get up and measure these at the moment, apologies…though maybe I should put this into some sort of reference).

I’ve also found some of my bead suppliers to give descriptive information which I’m certain is inaccurate (i.e. claiming a bead to be a Miyuki 6/0 when it is a different size and shape from the rest of my Miyuki 6/0 beads, and the color comes off with short-term daily wear even as the rest of my Miyuki 6/0s [even the dyed ones] don’t wear). That’s on top of the fact that trade names for certain beads seem to be unregulated…so you can get beads which look similar online which are sold under different names, and upon arrival you find that they seem to be, in fact, the same bead (e.g. “Crystal Orange Rainbow” as vs. “Two-Tone Clear AB and Apricot Medium”). Are they? Can we ever be sure? (They certainly look very similar next to each other…)

Speaking of Miyuki, they’re the company that I find comes closest to really regimented bead size — but I wouldn’t have caught onto this without their Tila series (full Tila, 1/2 Tila, 1/4 Tila), which seem precisely machined to fit together; granted that I haven’t used them yet (they’re very Art Deco). Toho is approaching this with their Treasure and Aiko lines (both cylinder beads), which are meant to rival Miyuki Delicas (also cylinder beads). Aikos are apparently supposed to be even more regular than Treasures, particularly where it comes to the angle of the cut edge; but I wouldn’t really know, having never purchased them. I’m not really a big cylinder-bead person, except when it comes to needing to bezel something, or having a weaving path that necessitates a lot of passes — or having to finish something off and needing something small that won’t de-value my piece.

Of course, there’s also the fact that Delicas (along with other Miyuki beads) come in a mind-boggling array of colors, which — along with their uniformity — is likely their largest draw. Miyukis can also be very expensive, however. Generally, when I’m working, I’m using rocailles, which is an industry term for basic “round”, uncut seed beads. I use air quotes because the beads aren’t actually round; they range from cylindrical with softened edges, to donut-shaped, depending on country and company of manufacture. Czech beads, being donut-shaped, also tend to run smaller and have smaller bead holes relative to their size, than Japanese beads. But they’re rounder where beads may meet at an angle (as in Right-Angle Weave, among other stitches), which makes them more useful for a more organic feel.

Toho beads also have a significant and beautiful array of bead colors and finishes. The thing is, because of the large variety of these…and the fact that names may be irrelevant, sometimes the best way to find an exact color and finish match is the color code…which you’ll only find on some web sites selling beads. Some, because once you know the color code, you can efficiently search for the exact same bead type and brand from a number of different vendors — some of which may have better quantities and prices for your needs (say, if they’re being sold in lots of 7 grams each and you need more like 30 grams at a time).

Of course, you’ll also want to take into account what other things the vendors are selling, so as to minimize shipping charges. Sometimes the more expensive outlets also have a more sophisticated selection than your basic wholesale stores. As always, though, with the Internet and digital photography, what you get may differ from what you thought you would get. It might be best to get a small quantity first to see what the material actually looks like, before buying a mass quantity. I found this out the hard way, recently…

Anyhow, though, I meant to get back — at least briefly — to the experience of working with this metal: red brass/Jeweler’s Brass, and gold-filled wire. I had purchased a Beadalon bead reamer a while back, which has a small rotary motor. I hoped to be able to use it in order to help round off the ends of my earwires, using one of their cup-bur attachments. Cup burs basically are meant to round off wire tips: for earwires, for prong settings, etc. Basically, for any application where a wire end may snag, tear, or catch on things like clothing or skin. (For clarity, with the Beadalon motor, I’ve only seen additional bead reamer and additional cup-bur attachments [in three sizes] for sale; I’m hoping they’re going to expand their range.)

I should qualify this by saying that I have never been able to get a wire properly rounded, just by using a cup-bur attachment. Neither this time, nor when I had the opportunity to work with a pendant motor in my metalwork class.

This was a Foredom motor with a rotary handpiece, which is — in effect — an awesomely powerful, quiet, just beautiful tool (not without its hazards); it happens, however, to need to dangle, which (aside from price) is its biggest drawback for the new jeweler. It assumes either the presence of an available bench to mount a hanger onto (and Jeweler’s benches are not cheap), or an improvised stand. The motor hangs at about head level, maybe slightly lower (to the best of my recollection), while the seated user holds the handpiece that is connected to the motor by a sheathed cable. The motor torques the cable which torques the handpiece — which has a collet that can take the shanks of different rotary tools, cup burs included.

The most evident competitor to this in the United States is the Dremel, which — if I’m remembering correctly — is relatively loud. I haven’t had much inclination to use it before now (I think I might have access to one, but I’m not clear on where it is or if it still works), but there is a model which is able to work on top of a surface, as versus being handheld like a drill (which, due to size, is relatively unwieldy for jewelry work).

I tried a number of different cup burs, back when I had access to a Foredom — and to a real-life community of jewelers. What I learned then and recently remembered is that cup burs are often…ineffective in rounding off the end of a wire, alone.

To do this and have a relatively quick result, it’s best to first cut the wire, then file off the corners of the wire (using a small needle file meant for jewelers — a flat, relatively fine one worked for me just recently): remember, these files cut on the push stroke, not on the pull. Then sand them down further with at least three different grits of sandpaper (I used 300-, 400-, and 600-grit wet/dry silicon carbide paper) to go over the area until it feels smooth, and then go in with the cup bur, to smooth everything further.

The problem is that if you go on too straight with the bur, it can just flatten off the end of the wire again. The bur needs to be rotated around the end of the wire so that the remaining burs can be removed. In addition, this needs to be done either with a lubricant such as Bur-Life, or with the tip of the bur wet, or your metal and your bur will get very hot — likely, too hot to hold onto. I would assume for safety that high temperatures would cause the bur to dull more quickly, but I can’t be sure about that.

Then, there is the problem of overrotation, which I’ve experienced all the times I’ve done this recently — where the edge of the cup bur itself bites into the length of the wire, causing indentations in the side of the post. There is also the problem of other remaining sharp points on the tip of the wire, where maybe something wasn’t sanded down properly. The easiest way I’ve found to take care of this — after feeling for any sharp bits and then looking more closely at it with magnification — is a few swipes on 600-grit carbide paper targeting the area, then moving back to the cup bur to polish down that new area. (And maybe, “polishing” is the right term for what a cup bur really does best.)

What you’re looking for is anything which feels sharp, which catches, which is not round. If it feels sharp to a fingertip, it will probably also feel sharp to a piercing. I have been able to get the tips of wires very smooth — the problem is the nicks generated on the stem of the earwire, from over-rotating the bur. I have not been able yet to deal with how to take down these nicks (which do not irritate my piercings, but I still see them as not-great) on a gold-filled wire. My gut tells me that if I try to do so, I’ll expose the core of the wire, which kind of negates the reason for using gold-fill in the first place.

I also don’t know if I can put a high polish on most metal I might file or sand down. With wire ends, I have the cup burs; with round wire, I’d need buffs, more than one type of polishing compound, and a rotary tool, like a Dremel — but it would be best if that tool were much smaller. If I could focus in on the area I’m fixing, which in this case would be a zone less than 2mm cubed…it would be different. Because of this, I can see the use of the Beadalon tool (which runs on two AA batteries) for light duty. The problem is that it seems to be that we go from very inexpensive tools for beadwork, to somewhat expensive but not-quite-made-for-this, to capital expenditure.

I did just now, get the insight to cover the stem of the wire with Painter’s Tape before trying to file or sand or round off anything, and that is an easy fix.

Published by Haruna

Haruna is a Librarian by training, currently pivoting from Public Services into Technical Services. Their undergraduate major was English -- Creative Writing, and they hold an additional small degree in Art (i.e. Visual Arts). Currently, they are trying to figure out whether to place their energies more into language and language arts, or producing handcrafted jewelry and face coverings, for the interim...

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