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If you make beaded flowers, you'll need to use wire. Other beading and craft projects also incorporate wire; in fact, my stash of wire comes in handy all the time for non-beading projects and household repairs. So as a public service, here's everything I know about wire and its application towards crafts.
Wire is measured in gauges. The higher the number, the thinner the wire.
The most common question I get asked about wire is how to know what size to use, and the most common answer is, "It depends on what you're doing with it." To start, below is a scan of common craft wire sizes (click to enlarge):
The type of metal the wire is made out of matters. Steel wire is harder and therefore more rigid than copper wire. If you are using copper wire, opt for a higher gauge where more support is needed. For places where serious support is required, use steel.
This wire is about as thick as general sewing/beading thread, and about as strong. It has decent tensile strength when pulled straight, just like thread, but as soon as it gets kinked it is prone to breaking. It can be cut with scissors if you hate your scissors (it ruins the scissors' edge).
Do not use this size of wire to make petals or leaves, as they will be completely floppy, just as if you'd made them using thread. Rows will not hold against each other, even with small beads, and the entire petal/leaf will sag when it is attached to a stem.
The reason this size of wire is often called "lacing wire" is because that's what it's really good for; lacing together rows on wide petals and leaves, or binding petals together at their bases. It is so thin that it hides nicely between beaded rows, especially if you use a light colour such as gold/brass for light beads and a dark colour such as green for dark beads.
Lacing is done by weaving the 32 gauge wire between rows of a petal/leaf, as shown in the diagram below. The larger the petal/leaf, the more lacing may need to be done. The sample in the graphic probably doesn't need to be laced at all, but it was the best picture I had on hand to use as an example. As shown in the diagram, alternate successive lacing rows to make the overall structure stronger. Don't pull it too tight or your petal/leaf will warp; just pull it tight enough to hold rows in place. Tie it off at the ends by wrapping it around the wire of the outside row several times and twisting it off against itself, then hide any extra material inside the closest bead.
These gauges are best for petals and leaves. If you're using soft copper wire, 22 or 24 gauge is best, as 26 might be too floppy once a lot of beads are on it. If you're using steel wire, go for 24 or 26, as 22 can be difficult to bend and shape, and will more quickly make your hands sore and tired. You need wire cutters to cut this wire; some scissors may cut it if you work really hard and absolutely destroy the scissors.
All three gauges fit most size 10 or 11 beads. I use a mix of cheap plastic beads from craft stores (which are usually size 10) and more expensive glass beads in size 11 from specialty bead stores, and the only time I've had beads that don't fit on these three gauges of wire is with beads that are malformed.
I usually get 24 gauge as a nice middle ground for most projects, but keep some 22 and 26 around in case I need something thicker or thinner for a specific piece.
At this thickness, the wire is quite stiff and far too big for beads. This wire is used to attach petals and leaves to, thus forming the stem of each flower. For heavy flowers, one piece of stem wire may be insufficient; you may need to tape several together unless you can find even thicker gauges at a reasonable price.
You can bend 18 gauge wire with your bare hands, but to form loops or solid angles, you will need pliers. You will need wire cutters for sure, but it's not terribly hard to cut. Several pieces taped together takes some serious effort to cut with wire cutters, so it's best to cut before taping.
Stem wire comes in plain and cotton-covered varieties. I used to always get the green cotton-covered type, thinking that the nice green colour would look better as a stem. Then I realized that by the time I'd attached petals and leaves, most of the cotton was covered, and the part that wasn't didn't quite match the green tape. Plus, the cotton often snags on other wire and wants to unravel itself, which looks awful. So now I don't bother with the cotton-covered stuff at all; I just tape down the entirety of the plain wire when making a flower.
Plain stem wire is incredibly useful for non-bead projects. I use it for armatures in polymer clay structures because it holds a shape but is reasonably easy to bend with pliers. I use it in household plants that grow tall but need support; I just curl one end, stick the other end in the soil, and then use twist-ties to hold the plant to the wire. I have even used it to create internal supports for my six-foot tall paper skeleton model (named Harvey), whose ribs and a few other bones had been crushed after being moved around too many times. Now Harvey stands proudly in our front room with a fully expanded ribcage and nicely solid limbs (not to mention the ping-pong eyeball and hippie wig, but if me putting this kind of stuff around my house surprises you, you haven't seen my cakes).
I use two main sources for all of my craft wire needs: general craft stores such as Michael's Crafts, and Parawire.
General craft stores tend to have floral arrangement sections. There you will find paddles of green steel wire in 22, 24, and 26 gauges for fairly low cost. Sometimes they also carry silver or pink for about the same cost. In my experience, this is the cheapest wire around, although it is fairly stiff and scratches easily. I use it for leaves or anywhere else where solid green wire is called for. In the same section, you can find packages of straight stem wire, cotton-covered and plain, for a reasonable price.
Such stores may also carry fine beading wire (usually 32 gauge) in their beading section. It's mediocre and slightly overpriced, but not a bad deal if you don't need very much. It's usually only available in gold/brass.
Craft stores may also carry coloured copper wire, or coloured PVC-coated steel wire. The former is insanely overpriced and the latter is stiff, hard to work with, and may not fit smaller beads. I would recommend against buying coloured wire at general craft stores unless you only need a small amount for a one-time project, find it on deep discount, or it's the only source for a specific colour. I used white PVC-coated wire to make a gum tree for my husband because it was the only source of white wire I could find at the time (Parawire now carries white, see below). It was a pain in the behind to work with.
Thus, for all of my coloured wire needs, I turn to Parawire (also called Paramount Craft Wire). They sell a multitude of colours of copper wire for much cheaper than anywhere else I've found. You can buy large spools for the same amount that a few coils will cost in a general craft store. Plus, it's very good quality stuff; the colour doesn't scratch off unless you're really rough with it, it's smooth and easy to use, and it bends and straightens easily.
Shipping can be pricey since it's heavy stuff, but if you order lots all at once, the shipping cost per spool is reasonable. I only purchase from them once a year or less, ordering maximum-size spools and lots of them all at once to save on shipping. I tend to order the colours I want in 24-gauge, plus 32-gauge in green and gold for lacing.
I recommend against buying every colour available, as I have found it to be unnecessary. A general red or blue matches well enough with beads of the same colour; I don't think you need three or four shades of blue wire unless you're very picky. Also, be aware that how colours look on your computer screen and how they look in real life can vary a great deal. Therefore, I recommend getting the following basic colours to start with, and expanding beyond that if you need to: gold or brass, red, blue, and brown. I don't buy green there since it's cheaper at Michael's (as mentioned above). Gold or brass will work for most basic stuff. Red makes any red bead look better. Blue works for all medium to dark shades of blue, purple, and for black as well. Brown is essential for trees and branches. I haven't bought their white, but I probably will on the next order since I expect it'll look nicer with white beads than the gold wire I usually use.
Parawire also sells stem wire now, but I've never ordered any. It seems well-priced compared to the stuff I buy at Michael's, but they don't offer the same type (18 gauge steel non-covered). If I decide I ever want thicker-gauge stems, I'll probably order some from Parawire, but for the incredibly useful 18-gauge stuff described above, I'll stick to Michael's unless Parawire offers the same thing for a lot less.
As for where to buy tools, I'd recommend strongly against any craft specialty supplier, as most of them overcharge ridiculously. Unless you're doing fine wire work with real gold and silver wire - in which case it's worth it to buy a lot of special pliers - just go to your local discount hardware store and get a basic pair of wire cutters and needle-nose pliers. I almost never use anything else. There are nylon-jawed pliers available, which are meant to protect wire from being scratched, but I've never found a pair cheap enough for my wallet so I tend to just wrap tissue around the ends of my needle-nose pliers if I need to protect the wire. I do have a set of round-nosed pliers that I use from time to time, but mostly for non-beading projects (such as stained glass, when I want to form wire loops to hang suncatchers).
I bought both my wire cutters and my needle-nose pliers at a dollar store over a decade ago and they still work perfectly fine.
There are a lot of fancy tools out there that I haven't used, including wire jigs (you put pegs on a board and wrap wire around them to make all kinds of patterns), all sorts of plier shapes that I haven't figured out a use for, coil makers (which actually look nifty but I am too cheap to buy one when I can wrap wire around a thin paintbrush handle and get mostly the same effect), and all kinds of other gizmos. If you have a use for such tools, by all means, buy them. If you're just making petals, leaves, and trees as I am, you don't need to spend money on this other stuff.
For more information on how to work with wire, see Tips on Twisting and Wrapping Wire.
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Page last updated October 17, 2004.
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