Choosing a type of metal in a piece of chain maille can be a difficult decision due to the variety of types of metal, and the strengths and weaknesses of each metal. Some metals are better for some applications, and others not so much.
Galvanized steel is the most popular metal used by beginning maillers and in armor grade chain maille pieces today, because it is easy to find, relatively inexpensive, and easy to work with. Galvanized steel has a zinc coating that protects the steel beneath from rusting. The wire is a bright, shiny, silver color when new, but turns a dull gray over time as it is exposed to long periods of damp or oxygen that oxidizes the zinc. This is meant to occur, as the zinc oxidizes in place of the steel, but is the main issue with this material. The time it takes to oxidize varies based on environmental conditions and is almost impossible to reverse. Also as the zinc oxidizes it will begin to have a sort of metallic smell to it that will stick to the skin. Because of these issues, galvanized steel is not suitable for jewelry and is primarily used by beginners before they expand into better metals, and by beginning maillers and experienced maillers alike for armor pieces.
Popular in all aspects of chain maille, from armor to jewelry, due to its high strength, corrosion resistance, and appealing color, stainless steel is the widely used big brother to galvanized steel. Stainless steel is made “stainless” by adding additional chromium to the steel. As a result, stainless steel is more expensive than most materials (several times that of galvanized steel), harder to find, and much harder to cut and work with. Stronger cutters are necessary to cut the rings, as well as better pliers to open and close the rings. Pliers with teeth are typically necessary when working with stainless steel due to its high resistance to bending. The trade-off to these inconveniences are its long-lasting properties that will yield a low maintenance, long-lasting piece of chain maille, that will only rust in the most extreme of conditions. The most common alloys used are 304, 306, 308, and 316. 316 alloy stainless steel is also known as surgical steel, and is hypoallergenic. Stainless steel can also be colored different shades of brown by heat treating it.
For those looking to create a “period” piece of armor, or in other words, armor made in the same fashion, and or, material as the type of armor they are trying to reproduce from a certain historical period, mild steel is the material to use. Mild steel is plain steel with no additives, coatings, or plating added to the steel wire. It can be more durable than galvanized steel, is a light grey color, and is highly susceptible to rust. Mild steel is a high-maintenance material that requires special care.
Inconel is a high-end, super corrosion resistant material that tops even surgical stainless steel. It’s an alloy consisting mainly of nickel and chromium and acts and looks close to stainless steel. Expensive.
Titanium is an expensive material with amazing properties. It is half the weight of steel, strong, and very corrosion resistant. In addition, titanium can be anodized to produce a variety of colors! Titanium can be anodized in two different ways as well. Heat anodizing can produce a variety of different colors by applying a flame to the titanium. Colors vary based on temperature, and length of time exposed to that temperature of heat. Electric anodizing can also produce a variety of different colors by applying a different voltages to the titanium in a certain setup. The color varies based on the voltage. It is important to not that the anodized layer is a colored oxide of the titanium, but has no negative properties.
Niobium is a strong, corrosion resistant and hypoallergenic metal. It weighs slightly more than steel and has a dark, silvery grey color. Like titanium, niobium can be anodized to produce a variety of colors, but in niobium’s case, more vibrant and metallic in appearance. Niobium is anodized electrically in the same fashion as titanium, but isn’t often heat anodized (I’ve only heard of black being produced this way). Because anodized niobium has such beautifully vibrant colors, it is a very popular material to use with silver to add unique color to a piece. The anodized layer is not permanent and can be worn away.
The primary feature of aluminum, and one of the reasons it’s one of my favorite materials, is that it is very light weight. Aluminum is a bout a third the weight of steel which makes it great for making larger jewelry that weighs much less than if it was made from other metals, and is great for making much lighter chain maille armor. The trade-off to aluminum is that it is not very strong and will oxidize, leaving a black residue on the metal and whatever it touches. Aluminum oxidation is not a bad thing for aluminum, like one would think, though. Instead the oxidized layer is close to transparent and forms a non-reactive layer over the aluminum that prevents further oxidation of the aluminum. Oxidation speed, color, and other properties of aluminum varies based on the alloy. A typical 5000 series aluminum (aluminum-magnesium alloy) is a grey color and rather dirty. Etched aluminum is aluminum that has undergone a process that chemically cleans the aluminum, but leaves it a dull grey or white color. Bright aluminum, my preferred aluminum alloy, a common alloy of which is 5356, is aluminum that is typically used for welding applications. It has been drawn into wire with a very smooth surface and chemically cleaned. This makes it much more shiny and will oxidize much less and much slower, if at all. Another cool property of aluminum is that it can be anodized.
Anodized aluminum is aluminum that has been colored by creating a porous surface that is then dyed and sealed, producing a clean, colorful surface. This layer is harder than normal aluminum, as corrosion resistant as stainless steel, and the variety of colors is nearly endless, as it is based on a dye. But you are limited to the wire or rings you can find available in certain dyed colors.
Bronze is a dark copper-colored alloy of copper and tin, that is slightly more corrosion resistant than brass. It will turn a darker, duller color over time, and even green if it gets damp. It is relatively strong and close to the same weight as steel.
Copper is a beautiful, red-toned metal that starts off. When new, it looks like a bright new penny, but won’t stay that way long. It corrodes easily and over time copper will darken or turn a green color as it oxidizes. Copper is softer than most metals and is easily marred by pliers. It can look beautiful as jewelry pieces, but with the downside that it can leave a green residue on your skin as the copper reacts with sweat and acids on the skin. Copper can be cleaned a variety of ways including lemon juice outside of commercially available cleaners and is an interesting material to use. Copper plated wire consists of a layer of copper plated onto mild steel, typically used in welding applications. The coating is slightly darker and can wear off over time. Copper can also be enameled to produce wire with a variety of colors.
Enameled copper, also known as artistic wire, is soft copper coated in a layer of flexible, durable, enamel. The enamel coating can come in a huge variety of shiny, beautiful, colors and provides for a great selection of colors. Silvered enameled copper is copper that has been plated with silver before being enameled, which produces, lighter, brighter colors. Overall enameled copper is a weak material typically found only in smaller gauges, and is only good for jewelry.
Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. two common types of brass are yellow brass and jewelers brass. Yellow brass is more yellow in color, while jewelers brass is a more gold color. Brass will oxidize and can turn a dark yellow color, and can range from a weak, soft wire, to a harder, stronger wire that depends on the temper.
Nickel silver, also known as German Silver is not to be mistaken as silver, and actually has no silver content. It is an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc with fairly high corrosion resistance. It has a color similar to stainless and will darken with time. This is a bad metal if you are worried about allergic reactions, as it causes more allergic reactions than most other types of metal due to the nickel.
Silver is a beautiful material for high-end pieces of chain maille jewelry. There are different grades of silver based on % content with their own properties. Fine silver is 99.9% silver. It has higher corrosion resistance than sterling and fuses cleaner. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver, with the other 7.5% being copper. It will tarnish over time, but can be restored with a chemical silver polish. Argentium Sterling Silver replaces the copper in the alloy with germanium that makes it very white, highly tarnish resistant, fuse easily, and eliminates fire scale, among other properties. Silver is a softer metal and the rings can be soldered closed if that is an issue for the application.
Most people are familiar with gold, but I’m going to talk about gold-filled wire, which is more affordable. Gold filled wire is typically 5% by weight of the wire and is a tube of 14 karat gold filled with brass. It is much better than gold-plated wire as it will almost never wear out, whereas gold-plated wire typically will.
Hopefully all this information will help you in choosing the metal that best suits your needs. For beginners I suggest starting with galvanized steel, as it is easily found at a variety of places. I have even seen it in Wal-Mart (although a low temper) for hanging up clothing. Thank you for reading, and I hope you will look at more of my Chain Maille Basics posts that I have made and stay posted for new ones as I make them!
Some information used from theringlord.com, a wholesale chain maille supplier, as well as chainmailbasket.com, a great chain maille site from which I have modeled some of these Chain Maille Basics posts after.
Browse through more Chain Maille Basics posts or visit M.A.I.L. to learn more about this ancient, and addictive art.
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