Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Importance of Good Tools, or: Don't Hurt Yourself!

Every good craft starts with tools: a needle, a sewing machine, a hammer. In a chainmailler's case, that tool is pliers. You might need a mandrel and a saw or some wire cutters to make your rings, but without pliers, well.... opening and closing rings with your fingers is pretty tough, so you need some pliers.

I think most beginner maillers do one of two things:

1) Buy heavy-duty pliers from a hardware store, or
2) Buy "jeweler's" pliers from a craft store.

Both of these are fine to start with, but pliers you can buy at hardware or craft stores are only meant for quick uses, not for hours and hours of continued use. Once you get really into it (and you will get really into it!), you're going to want pliers that you can use for hours on end without hurting yourself. Here are the key things I think are important for good pliers:

1) The size is comfortable in your grip

This is a pair of pliers that fits nicely in my hand along with a "mini" pair I picked up at a craft store. The minis are ADORABLE, but horribly, horribly impractical. They are way too small for my hands, which makes working with them extremely awkward. Hardware store pliers that are the size of your entire forearm aren't a good choice, either. (but "electrician's" pliers are a good place to look!)

2) ergonomic or very soft handles that fit nicely in the shape of your hand

This is the type of handle that you'll most often find on craft store pliers. Its pretty much just a thin rubber coating around metal, so after awhile of use you'll start to feel that metal pushing against the palm of you hand pretty acutely.
Most hardware stores offer "tool dip", a gooey substance that you dip tool handles in to to get a thick, rubbery coating. It comes in a lot of colors and you can add multiple layers on your handles for a much softer, squishier grip.

3) little to no "spring-back"

The first picture shows 2 pairs that have small metal strips on the inside handles, this sort of creates a springy lever to help pop the pliers back open. The second photo shows pliers with a spring. Basically, you don't want that spring or springy lever to be too strong, because your pliers will spend more time closed than open, and you don't want to have to put too much pressure on them to keep them closed. If it feels like too much work to hold your pliers closed, you can use another pair to break, bend, or rip that springy piece out! I've never had a pair where I've felt the need to do that, but its an important thing to look out for.

4) Lastly, depending on what metals you plan to work with, you might want one (or both) pairs to have a little "tooth" to them (a textured or ridged surface on the inside, where the ring is held) to help keep your grip on metals that like to fight back, but too much "tooth" and your pliers could make marks on your rings, and the "my dog chewed on it" look isn't a great finish!

So, you know what to look for in good, comfy pliers, but what to get? There are so many kinds! I think every mailler has their own preferences and their own favorite set. Here are mine:

Chain nose (above) and round nose/needle nose (below). Round nose pliers, obviously, are round, and chain nose pliers are rounded on the outside and flat where they meet, creating a D-shaped profile. My chain nose pliers are from Otto Frei's ergonomic line; they have an extremely comfy handle and a very, very slight textured surface on the flat parts, which gives me just enough "tooth" to hold on to rings without marking them. My round nose pliers are electrician's pliers from a hardware store, again with a nice ergonomic handle, and a really nice small tip for handling tiny rings.

Last, but certainly not least, we can't forget every crafter's most important tool: Your hands! Always give yourself breaks. Put the pliers down, let your hand muscles rest. Even if you're really excited to finish your hauberk/necklace/whatever, you want to keep doing this for years without the painful side effects of repeated muscle stress. You'll thank me later :D

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