Making Chain Mail (Maille) for Jewelry or Armor: A How-To

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The Basic 4-in-1 Chain Mail Unit

Figure 1 The basic unit of 4-in-1 chain mail
Figure 1 The basic unit of 4-in-1 chain mail | Source

Introduction

Don't be afraid of learning how to weave beautiful chain mail! It's no more difficult than crocheting, knitting, tatting, embroidery, etc. This is a complete "how-to" for making the kind of chain mail worn by knights of the past in battle--and by fashionable people today as jewelry. The techniques are similar or identical to those used to make European chain mail in centuries past, and the results are quite stunning.

Trivia: Ultra-fine (tiny-ringed) chain mail of this type, made by machine, is also used as "cloth" to make gloves to protect professional meat carvers and to protect hair dressers from burns when using professional curling irons.

What is Your Experience?

Have you ever made chain mail before?

  • Yes, for jewelry and armor.
  • Yes, for jewelry only.
  • Yes, for armor only.
  • No, it's not my thing.
  • No, but I probably will after reading this article!
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Tools and Materials You Need to Make Chain Mail

To make chain mail (often misspelled "chain maille") you will need the following:

  • 2 pairs of flat, needle-nosed pliers (jewelry-style, without grooves in them, available in the jewelry-making section of most craft stores).
  • A bunch of inexpensive medium-large--for learning purposes--"jump rings", if you are going to be making a piece of jewelry (available in the jewelry-making section of most craft stores), or special-purpose rings for making armor or other types of chain mail (see references below for sources).
    Note: Choosing two (2) different colors of rings, ideally copper and silver-tone, will really help in learning this technique and in following these instructions!
  • A velveteen mat or similar textured flat work surface, which allows you to easily pick up chain mail rings without having to set down your pliers and it keeps the rings from sliding around.
  • (Optional) Several small containers to hold the raw, open, and closed rings while you are not working with them.

That's it! Some people get fancier, but for this technique, this is all that you will need. Once you develop your own style you'll learn which tools and types of rings really work best for your projects.

About New or "Raw" Rings for Chain Mail

Rings are almost universally manufactured the same way. First, the maker wraps wire around a round-shaped mandrel (a rod, for example, usually made of strong steel). Once wrapped tightly around the mandrel, the wire is cut off into individual rings. This leaves a ring that is almost, but not quite, completely closed: it is offset by one wire-diameter and there is a gap (kerf) the width of the saw or other cutting tool. It also may leave tiny burs on the metal that you may want to remove.

Do you usually hear the "click-click" when closing rings, after practicing for awhile?

  • Yes
  • Most of the time
  • Once in a while
  • Never
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Don't Panic!

Don't worry If you don't normally hear the "click-click" sound: you're just learning a new art form! Don't panic, just re-read the section above on how to close a ring properly and practice, practice, practice. You will be able to get the "click-click" sound, but it does take practice and patience.

How to Close a Ring Properly

Your goal is to have the rings closed so perfectly that you cannot feel the joint (unless your rings have burs from their manufacturing process) and you can only see the joint if you look very closely with a magnifier.

How to close a ring perfectly: To do this, twist the ring one wire-diameter past the point where the wire ends meet. While doing this, push the ends together twice the amount of the gap (kerf). So, with a pair of pliers in each hand, grip the ring firmly (but not too tightly or you'll leave tool marks) covering almost half of each side of the ring with the pliers with the ring opening toward the tip of the pliers. Then, you'll simply rotate the pliers slowly while pushing their tips slightly together (to create a "click-click" sound--more on that later).

Pushing the ends of the pliers together closes the gap (kerf) made during the manufacturing process of the rings. This creates tension in the ring that will help keep the gap closed and make the product stronger and prevent the ring from snagging on clothing.

Note that this is difficult to do with armor-grade (steel) rings because they are strong and require similar strength in the artisan to achieve this close of a meeting between the ends. Fortunately, it is much less critical in armor than in jewelry.

Then, twist the ends back together until they meet perfectly. The spring tension should hold the gap where the ring was cut together and your over-twist should should keep the ends aligned in a perfect circle.

Once you've mastered this technique, you will hear a tell-tale "click-click" sound as you rotate the pliers forward and back, indicating that the spring-tension will securely hold the ring perfectly closed. It may take weeks and several projects to master this, though, so don't panic if you don't hear this clicking sound immediately.

Don't Panic!

Note: I'll say it again: don't panic as you go from step to step. You will be able to learn chain mail weaving, as it's called, using this method. These instructions have been classroom-tested by dozens of students, all of whom were able to weave chain mail by the end of a 2-hour class with minimal assistance from me. Without assistance, it may take you several tries through the instructions to learn it, but you will be able to do it easily in no time, and will probably find it as easy and addictive as crocheting, knitting, embroidery, beading, and other such crafts.

Open and Close a Bunch of Rings

  1. Using both sets of pliers, one in each hand, open 20-30 copper rings to about a 30-degree angle. Practice doing this without picking the rings up with your fingers—just use your pliers, if possible.
  2. Close about the same number of silver rings following the procedure above. (Click-click.)
  3. Arrange your work area: Push all of the "raw" rings aside; we won't be working with them (only opened or closed rings). Make a loose grouping of copper rings and another of silver rings, leaving space in the middle to work in.

Row 1

1. With your dominant-hand pliers, pick up 1 open copper ring. Not with your fingers, with your pliers. Don't panic, it will take practice to do it, but you will learn it soon with very little practice.

2. Pick up 4 closed silver rings in the open ring. Again, don't use your fingers, use your pliers with the open ring in it. Don't panic, this is harder than step 1, but again with a little practice you will be able to do it.

3. Close the original copper ring. (Click-click.)

4. Put the assembly down on your work surface and arrange the rings exactly as shown in Figure 1. Take great care to make sure that your rings on your work surface are "flipped" the same directions as the ones in the figure.

Congratulations, you have just completed one basic unit of chain mail: European 4‑in‑1 chain mail, to be precise, because 4 rings are linked through each 1 ring.

Figure 2
Figure 2 | Source

Figure 2

Figure 2 assigns some letters to the rings to help later on in this process.

Figure 3
Figure 3 | Source

Figure 3

5. Pick up 1 open copper ring. This is Ring D.

6. Pick up 2 closed silver rings in Ring D.

7. Join to the assembly by routing Ring D down through B and C.

8. Double-check your work! Close Ring D.

9. Look carefully at Figure 3 and arrange the rings exactly as shown, so that all of the copper rings are laying flat against each other facing one direction and all the silver rings are going the opposite direction. Double-check that your rings are laying exactly as shown. Take your time to make sure that it is exactly the same.

For wider pieces of chain mail, repeat steps 5 - 9 as many times as needed to get the width you need.

Congratulations, Row 1 is done!

Adding Width to Your Chain Mail Project

For wider pieces of chain mail, repeat steps 5 - 9 as many times as needed to get the width you need.

Congratulations, Row 1 is done!

Figure 4
Figure 4 | Source

Row 2, Figure 4

10. Pick up 1 open copper ring. This is Ring E.
11. Pick up 2 closed rings in Ring E.
12. Join to the assembly by routing Ring E down through Ring A then up through Ring B.
13. Double-check your work! Close Ring E.

Again, arrange the rings carefully on your work surface and verify that the chain mail looks exactly like that in Figure 4.

Important: This is the step where most people get stuck in the way the new silver rings are "flipped", so be aware and beware: one silver ring must "flip" up and over on top of Ring B, while the other must flip down on top of Ring A. Double- and triple-check your work against the diagram.

Figure 5
Figure 5 | Source

Row 2, Figure 5

14. Pick up 1 open copper ring. This is Ring H.
15. Pick up 1 closed silver ring in the open ring. This is Ring J.
16. Join to the assembly by routing down through F and B then up through Ring G.
17. Double-check your work! Then close Ring H.
18. Arrange the rings carefully on your work surface. Your chain mail should now look like Figure 5.

Row 2 is now complete!

Additional Rows/Length to Your Chain Mail Project

Repeat steps 10 - 18 until your piece of chain mail is as long as you need it to be.

Note the Following

  • No ring goes through a ring of the same color.
  • No ring goes through more than 4 rings of the opposite color.
  • Each row ends with loose rings—the grouping of 4 is incomplete.

Tip: As with many crafts (crochet, knitting, tatting, weaving...) the first few rows generally look, well, wrong/messy. However, after you have completed row 2 of a chain mail project you will start to see the chain mail look appear. Also, you will find that with each row it will be easier to lay your work out properly on your working mat. As the project gets much longer, you need not worry about the earlier rows: just worry about the two active rows on the "front line" of your project.

A Great First Project: A Bracelet

To make a nice bracelet for a man, woman, or child, simply repeat steps 10 through 18 (lengthening the chain mail off to the right of your existing work) until the piece of chain mail is long enough to fit around the wearer's wrist, leaving room to add a clasp to the middle ring on each side.

Note: Toggle clasps and magnetic clasps do not work well for this project because they tend to come loose. Use a lobster, spring ring, or "sister" clasp instead. Ask for advice at your local bead store if you aren't familiar with these types of clasps--bring your otherwise-complete project with you so that you can get personalized assistance and advice.

______

These instructions, illustrations, photos, and designs are copyright © 2003, 2009 by Laura Schneider and are for personal use only; they may NOT be used for any other purposes without written permission.

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About Ring Materials

If you are using stamped aluminum rings, you would want to tumble them in a "rock"/jewelry tumbler for quite awhile to get the sharp edges off and make them shiny. If you don't want shiny rings, add a little grit (see your local lapidary supply store for advice) to get a matte finish. Note that although I like aluminum for many things, I find it not so nice to work with--it makes your fingers black due to oxidation and I just don't like the "feel" of it in my hands as much as I do other metals. When working a big project or lots of pieces, that can be a big deal--your personal preference on how the rings feel in your hands while working them. Of course, for lightness and cheapness/affordability, aluminum can't be beat: I'm making a long skirt overlay out of aluminum rings, for example, which would be inappropriately heavy if done in stainless.

Generally, I prefer stainless steel rings for most projects, however, because it doesn't tarnish and it's solid to work with and produces a variety of effects. Tumble the stainless to get a high shine similar to your silverware/pots and pans, or tumble with grit to get a matte look. This can be done before or after the piece is completed as long as the only material in the tumbler is the stainless rings (add clasps after all tumbling is complete). Silver-colored stainless can be heat-treated to attain various darker colors, too. Refer to M.A.I.L. for instructions on how to do this as it's tricky (I've personally never attempted it, but will get up the guts one day). Once colored, however, it supposedly retains its color well, unlike rings with a patina or powder coating or anodized coating--the photos look awesome!

Bronze rings are another good option that feel similar to stainless steel and hold their color and shape well. They, too, should be heat-treatable for color changes and patinas can be applied to get all sorts of colors. An art supply store or lapidary/jewelry making supply company should be able to provide such patinas. Advice on patinas for various metals can often be found by hanging out in the art department of your local university, also.

Bracers/Vambraces

Bracers made out of armor-grade stainless steel and fastened with leather laces. One was made for each arm, weighing 1/2 pound each.
Bracers made out of armor-grade stainless steel and fastened with leather laces. One was made for each arm, weighing 1/2 pound each. | Source

Solid Copper Statement Necklae

A statement necklace out of copper rings in European 4-in-1. This necklace, sadly, went missing from its display case advertising my class.
A statement necklace out of copper rings in European 4-in-1. This necklace, sadly, went missing from its display case advertising my class. | Source

Micro-mail: a Finger Ring

Picture 1 of 2: A finger ring made of micromail (really tiny rings) in European 4-in-1 weave
Picture 1 of 2: A finger ring made of micromail (really tiny rings) in European 4-in-1 weave | Source
Picture 2 of 2: The micromail ring, which is very comfortable to wear since it flexes with your every move.
Picture 2 of 2: The micromail ring, which is very comfortable to wear since it flexes with your every move. | Source

About the Author

Information about the author, a list of her complete works on HubPages, and a means of contacting her are available over on ==>Laura Schneider's profile page. But wait--please continue scrolling down to leave ratings and any comments you have about this article so that it can be improved to best meet your needs. Thank you!

All text, photos, videos, graphics, and chain mail designs in this document are Copyright © 2013 Laura D. Schneider unless indicated otherwise or unless in the public domain. All rights reserved. All trademarks and service marks are the property of their respective owners.

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Comments 5 comments

Julie-Ann Amos profile image

Julie-Ann Amos 6 years ago from Gloucestershire, UK

Wow this is awesome thanks! And thanks for answering my question!


Joanne 5 years ago

If I'm not mistaken, "maille" was the old english way of the spelling


Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 4 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

You're welcome, Julie-Ann!

Correct, Joanne! "Mail" is the current English spelling of the word, though you will often see "maille", "maile", and other variations based on "Ye Olde English" and imagination. It's also an attempt to differ from "chain letters", which nobody enjoys receiving


ptosis profile image

ptosis 4 years ago from Arizona

Nice photos, really helped in visualizing. Saw online stamped aluminum strips of links but would have to tumble them for awhile to get the sharp edges rounded and much lighter than traditional steel links and cheaper.


Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 2 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

ptosis, thanks for your compliments! Actually the "photos" are 3-D renderings done in POV-RAY (a cool free application for 3-D modeling). I was able to get much clearer results this way than I could with photography. They took forever to develop (for a newbie like me), though, so I'm very glad they helped you!

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