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How to make Chainmail - The Basics

Updated on April 7, 2015
A sheet of European 4 in 1 weave chainmail I made some time ago.
A sheet of European 4 in 1 weave chainmail I made some time ago.

An Introduction to Chainmail

Chainmail is the earliest known form of metal armour and has been around at least since the 5th century when it is thought to have been invented by the ancient Celts. Chainmails primary function was to block slashing weapons such as swords and axes as the weave of steel would deflect the edge of the weapon away from the wearer by spreading the contact area over a wide region preventing the wearer from being cut. However chainmail was little or no protection against the force of the blow itself which could still break bones or cause hemorrhaging. To help protect against the force of a blow chainmail garments were usually worn over a thick padded layer that would absorb some of the impact. Chainmail was also little protection against piercing weapons such as spears or arrows that concentrated all their force on a small area. A pointed weapon could split the rings apart relatively easily.

Edward of Woodstock - The Black Prince of Wales (1330 - 1376)
Edward of Woodstock - The Black Prince of Wales (1330 - 1376)

Chainmail and I

I have always had an attraction to history but the period of history that fascinated me the most from boyhood to now was the 12 to 14th century. The 100 years war between England and France was a great love of mine with and contains some of my favorite battles, and my boyhood hero; Edward of Woodstock - The Black Prince of Wales. By the time I was 14 I had already been making my own longbows for some time, had built myself a forge to make arrowheads in, had built a 25 foot high trebuchet and last but not least was making myself a chainmail hauberk. Sadly the hauberk never got completely finished and after about 17,000 links were made by hand and put together I had managed to get an RSI in my wrist and had to stop for a while and never picked it up again. I have now decided some years down the line to finish my hauberk and figured that I may as well write this how-to for anyone else who would like to try their hand at it.

A box of about 1500 handmade links ready to be put together.
A box of about 1500 handmade links ready to be put together.

Relevant Wire Gauges

AWG
Inches / Millemeters
SWG
Inches / Millemeters
10
0.1019" / 2.588mm
12
0.104" / 2.642mm
12
0.0808" / 2.050mm
14
0.080" / 2.032mm
14
0.0641" / 1.630mm
16
0.064" / 1.626mm
16
0.0508" / 1.290mm
18
0.048" / 1.219mm
18
0.0403" / 1.0240mm
19
0.040" / 1.016mm
19
0.0359" / 0.9120mm
20
0.036" / 0.914mm
20
0.0320" / 0.8120mm
21
0.032" / 0.813mm

Making Chainmail Links

Before you can start weaving your chainmail you need some links. You can buy these pre made but I make all my links by hand as it is much much cheaper to do so. If you intend to make a lot of links for a very big project then I would recommend making a winding jig to save you some time. If however you are just looking for a taster then all you need is some galvanized steel wire of the thickness you want to use (more on that later), a rod of the same diameter that you want the inner width of your links to be and something to cut the wire with. What you cut the wire with is important as you will be doing it many many times over and a good pair of cutters makes the difference between enjoyment and hatred of the task. I have put a link to the ones I use and they are great if you have relatively strong hands. If you are not sure how your hands will hold up then I would recommend something with longer handles to give you the leverage. I recently ordered some of the longer TEKTON ones as I don't want a repeat of my RSI. It is a little slower with them because of the length but it makes it very easy going which makes up for it.

Bear in mind the smaller the links the more are needed for the project. Small links look great but take considerably more time and are also more fiddly to put together. I would recommend an internal ring diameter of 3/8ths of an inch.

When choosing a wire diameter take into account that thicker wire is harder to cut and therefore harder on your hands and is also more bulky so will produce larger links by default. The table to the right shows the two main systems used for wire gauges: AWG (American Wire Gauge) and SWG (Standard Wire Gauge).

As a rule buying large spools of wire (e.g. 1/4 mile) is cheaper than buying shorter spools several times over. Builders merchants and hardware type stores such as Home Depot, Lowes, B&Q etc. often stock this wire in varying sizes and quantities and it can also be bought online at places like amazon. I have included a product link to a wire gauge that I would suggest using to show you what you could be looking for.

I would recommend buying a small coil of say 20m to try it out before you invest in a large spool as making chainmail links can be hard work and isn't for everyone. I find it relaxing and a great thing to do while watching a film or listening to some music but that is just me.

Take your rod of chosen thickness and coil the wire around it to produce a spring like coil. You may need to hold the ends of the wire with pliers or in a vice to get enough purchase if using thicker wire. If the wire has been on a spool it may already have some curve to it; if this is the case coil in the direction that the wire wants to go to preserve its spring.

Note: It is not a good idea to use wooden dowel (or similar) as a winding rod as the wood compresses and results in uneven rings. I use a mild steel rod ~3/8" that used to be part of an iron gate and it works really well.

A wire coil with several turns cut but not yet flattened.
A wire coil with several turns cut but not yet flattened.

Cut down the coil with the wire cutters being mindful of how flattening the rings may change their shape. Flatten the rings with some pliers and close the rings with the snipe nosed / needle nosed pliers as this will speed things up later.

I normally make several hundred links in a sitting but if you make around 100 you should have enough to get started with.

A small section of chainmail that this guide will walk through the making of step by step.
A small section of chainmail that this guide will walk through the making of step by step.

The Basics of Making Chainmail

At its most basic chainmail is comprised of rings of metal wire woven together so that each link is connected to four others in what is known as a 4 in 1 pattern. There are many other weaves that are more complex but as this is designed for those new to ring craft I will stick with a 4 in 1 pattern.


There are several different was of achieving the same result with a 4 in 1 weave. One method involves assembling links one by one and is some times called "one open one closed" and the other method involves creating units of 5 rings and then "stitching them together". If you are completely new to chainmail making then I would recommend the one open one closed method as it gives more opportunity to practice closing links properly and lets you see how the pattern works more easily.

One Open One Closed Method

I prefer this method all round as it is very versatile when making specific shapes for more complex projects. Opinion is divided as to which method is faster but this is the one I normally do.

To begin open one link. To do this I slide the ring onto one of the jaws of a pair of snipe nosed pliers (the further back you put the link the more it will open) and squeeze. Don't squeeze to hard or the bottom of the link will no longer be nicely curved and this will cause problems when closing it up again.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A ring slid onto the jaw of a pair of snipe nosed pliers ready to be opened.Notice how the curve of the ring will be forced to flatten slightly when the jaw closes thus opening a gap in the ring.
A ring slid onto the jaw of a pair of snipe nosed pliers ready to be opened.
A ring slid onto the jaw of a pair of snipe nosed pliers ready to be opened.
Notice how the curve of the ring will be forced to flatten slightly when the jaw closes thus opening a gap in the ring.
Notice how the curve of the ring will be forced to flatten slightly when the jaw closes thus opening a gap in the ring.
A ring in the jaws of some snipe nosed pliers ready to be closed.
A ring in the jaws of some snipe nosed pliers ready to be closed.

Only open the link far enough to slide other links inside of it as if you open it too far it will be harder to close neatly. When choosing a pair of snipe nosed pliers you want something that has some grip on the front of the jaw but is smooth on the back. The reason for this is the front is used for closing links and so you need it to not slide off the rings (resulting in pinched fingers) and the back part of the jaw is used for opening rings and you don't a rough jaw that will mark the finish of your wire... one must look their best for battle after all. I have recently had to replace my snipe nosed pliers and have included a link to a suitable pair of snipe/needle nosed pliers which I purchased so you can see what to look for.

Onto your open link slide 4 closed links. Close the open link by gripping each side of the link in the snipe nosed pliers and gently squeezing. If you squeeze too hard you may over close the link and ruin it. Once the link is pretty much closed you can get it even tighter by using the needle nosed pliers in a similar way to how you opened the link except this time you are forcing the ends into the center of the ring and thus closer together.

Closing rings quickly takes practice and please don't be disheartened if you mess up a few. Once you get a feel for the tools and how to use them in this application it gets much easier and faster.

Simplest unit of European 4 in 1 weave laid out flat.
Simplest unit of European 4 in 1 weave laid out flat.
Click thumbnail to view full-size
An open link being threaded through the two rightmost links of the original four.Two closed links being added to the new open link. The open link will now be closed.
An open link being threaded through the two rightmost links of the original four.
An open link being threaded through the two rightmost links of the original four.
Two closed links being added to the new open link. The open link will now be closed.
Two closed links being added to the new open link. The open link will now be closed.

You now have 1 central link connecting to 4 others. Your 4 in 1 chainmail has just been born. To enlarge the pattern lay the links out on a flat surface as shown in the picture to the right.

Once you have the links laid out you need to open another link and thread it through the two rings on the right making sure that the ring will lie in the same direction as the central ring (use the thumbnails to view the pictures).

Before you close the link slide on 2 more closed rings again taking care to make sure that they are lying the same way as the 2 rings that you just looped the open ring through. Close the link up.

You can extend the mail in the horizontal direction (right and left as you look at it) using the steps above to any width you like.

Now lets look at extending in the vertical direction (up and down as you look at it).

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Adding a new open link to begin extending the pattern downwards.Adding 2 closed rings onto the open one before it is closed.After the open link has been closed.Notice the open link is looping through 3 that are already part of the weave.Adding a closed ring before closing the open ring.The completed rectangle of 13 rings (3 rows of 2 and 2 rows of 2)
Adding a new open link to begin extending the pattern downwards.
Adding a new open link to begin extending the pattern downwards.
Adding 2 closed rings onto the open one before it is closed.
Adding 2 closed rings onto the open one before it is closed.
After the open link has been closed.
After the open link has been closed.
Notice the open link is looping through 3 that are already part of the weave.
Notice the open link is looping through 3 that are already part of the weave.
Adding a closed ring before closing the open ring.
Adding a closed ring before closing the open ring.
The completed rectangle of 13 rings (3 rows of 2 and 2 rows of 2)
The completed rectangle of 13 rings (3 rows of 2 and 2 rows of 2)

Open a link and loop it through the bottom 2 loops of what were your original 4 closed rings (see picture. Before you close the link slide on 2 more open rings to lie in the same way as the rings directly above them (use the thumbnails to move through the pictures). To finish this small rectangle you can see that the next link will need to pass through more than 2 existing rings to maintain the pattern and will only have one closed ring slid onto it (see pictures)

That pattern can be extended indefinitely to produce a large sheet of mail.

This hub has hopefully provided an overview of the basics.

I am currently putting together a hub on making a chain mail coif (mail for the head) as a smaller project idea for those not wishing to launch right into making a full hauberk but quite like the idea of having a piece of chainmail. I will update this with a link once it is finished and with any future chainmail inspired hubs that I put together so check back if you are interested.

Here are the links to the guides that I have currently made. More to come!

Will you be making some chainmail after reading this?

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Tell me what you thought and whether or not you would like to see more hubs about mail

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    • Richard1988 profile image
      Author

      Richard 2 years ago from Hampshire - England

      Thank you for your comment and I'm glad you liked reading the hub. Funnily enough the tutorial I am working on at the moment is for a chainmail coif (head-wear) and intend to post it soon. I also intend to produce a more advanced guide to weaves that are relevant to jewelry making so I hope you check back for that if it would be of interest to you. Thanks again and all the best.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 2 years ago from Minnesota

      I saw a group of teens that were making chainmail head-wear. It is actually pretty cool. Maybe someday I will give it a go. I do like to make my own jewelry and will sometimes make my own links for joining parts. This is a nice tutorial. Shared and voted up.

    • tazzytamar profile image

      Anna 2 years ago from chichester

      That is absolutely amazing! Incredible to think that years ago whole suits of armour would have been made this way... I wonder how long it would have taken a professional?

      You should definitely do another chain mail hub - this one is awesome! Pinned! :)