Part 3 - Materials and Their Uses
by Lord Thomas the Black
MATERIALS AND THEIR USES
Welcome back to Blackmaille: your monthly column for all things mail-related! This month we get right into the meat and potatoes of mailling: wire in all its forms and functions.
Wire is the main ingredient in all mail manufacture. What size rings you make, which pliers you use, and what cutters you need will all hinge on the type of wire you choose. Armor uses and jewelry uses each require different types of wire as well, so there are many things to take into consideration. Will your project be armor or jewelry? Will it require different colors? How strong does it need to be? Will it be butted, riveted, or welded? Hopefully, this article will help you make the best choices for your project.
By the way,
all these metals and more, and the info about them can be found at
Recommended Uses: Armor (dress only!), jewelry (brite alloys)
A modern metal made from bauxite, aluminum’s most useful properties are its lack of weight and corrosion. Aluminum is a superior costume metal, being lightweight and being a true metal. It is not easily distinguished from steel in appearance, and comes in many forms. For combat-ready armor, aluminum is somewhat controversial. I personally don’t recommend it, as even when riveted, aluminum is too easily distorted to be of much protective value. However, it has seen use in combat in some places, especially in 12.5 gauge, 3/8” ID (Inner Diameter) configuration. Lesser gauges are too fragile, as I have said, for combat usage. As it ages, aluminum is not prone to rust. Some alloys of aluminum will develop a black “rub-off”. This rub-off washes off easily (Simple
Green, or a do-it-yourself car wash are a few good options), and is the result of the alloy oxidizing. It is not harmful. Aluminum is very difficult to weld, requiring either TIG or resistance welding. Generally, aluminum can be found at many fencing supply stores or welding suppliers, but it can be difficult to find at regular home improvement stores. Another advantage to aluminum is that it is relatively cheap, particularly if bought by the pound.
Aluminum can be colored through a process called “anodizing”. Anodizing is a process involving running an electric current through an acidic solution, into which the aluminum is then submerged. Then, as that opens up the “pores” of the aluminum, you then place the aluminum (rinsed) into a dye solution. The dye soaks into the pores, and then the pores are closed with cold water. It is a relatively easy and inexpensive procedure, but make sure that good instructions are available, and always EXERCISE CAUTION and SAFETY around processes such as anodizing.
Aluminum alloy 5356 is a “brite” alloy good for mail. It is strong, and has a stainless steel type of finish. Alloy 5154 is a “dull” finish that is also strong, but it is a flat gray in color. Alloy 1100 is a very soft alloy that is unsuitable for most projects, as it can deform even under it’s own weight on occasion. Other alloys include 1188, 2319, 4008, 4043, 4047, 4145, 4643, 5180, 5183, 5356, 5554, 5556, and 5654. Information regarding these alloys is available from most welding supply companies carrying them.
Recommended Uses: Armor (show and combat), artistic uses (black color), riveted mail
Annealed steel, also known as black steel, is plain mild steel with a black carbon coating on it. This coating is similar to the zinc in galvanized steel, as a protective layer for the wire beneath (so it doesn’t rust during storage). This coating will rub off profusely when originally worked, however, enough tumbling or working will result in a lustrous black shine on the rings. This is good for a period look.
requires regular maintenance (oiling) to prevent rust, and is relatively weak as
it is usually only mild steel. Caution is required to make sure this coating
does not get into the eyes (wash your hands after handling). Pliers without
teeth are recommended, as scratches in the coating will show. Annealed steel is
available at select suppliers and hardware stores, usually at inexpensive rates.
Brass is an alloy derived mostly from copper, but is significantly stronger and heavier. Most brass alloys are at least 70% copper. Zinc is often the other 30%, though many other materials, including gold are in the various alloys. Brass is a more “golden” or “yellow” color than copper, and is also used for artistic and trimming purposes. A full shirt (hauberk) may be fashioned out of brass, but I don’t recommend it for combat use.
Brass is not as
inexpensive as copper, but it is still not outrageously priced. It can also be
found at welding suppliers, or online vendors. Brass also tarnishes just like
copper. Tumbling or using a silver, copper, or brass polish will remove that
tarnish. There are many alloys of brass, as with aluminum, and some brass is
great for mail, while some is too soft. When in doubt, ask your supplier about
the alloy. More information should be available from them.
similar to brass, but where zinc is used in brass, tin is used in bronze. Bronze
is often a darker color than brass, but that can vary from alloy to alloy.
Otherwise, bronze is similar to bras in regards to uses, alloys, properties,
cost, availability, and tarnish. Bronze is usually stronger than brass.
This metal was
historically one of the first to be worked. Today it still has its uses. It has
a nice brownish color, and is both relatively easy and inexpensive to obtain.
Recommended Uses: Armor, general uses
This is the medium that is most popular with maillers today. Easily obtained from most hardware and home improvement stores, this wire is cheap, durable, easy to work with, and appears “period” (useable for historical re-enactment). Galvanized steel is just steel wire coated with a sacrificial coating of zinc. This coating is applied to prevent rust from affecting the wire beneath. Galvanized steel will slowly darken over time, thus making it appear a period dark-grey in color. Galvy will also rust at the ends of the cut rings, but this usually takes a long time (unless the mail is often subjected to moisture), and does not, for the most part, affect the overall appearance of the mail.
Galvanized steel can be forcibly darkened by bathing it in an acidic solution.
Lemon juice, vinegar, and muriatic acid (commercial battery acid) are all common fluids used to darken galvanized steel. This process is simply a chemical reaction between the acid and the zinc coating. If the galvanized steel is left in the bath too long, the zinc will be completely removed, and you will be left with bare steel. The time needed will vary, depending on the acidity of the solution used, and on the galvanized steel itself, as zinc coatings vary between manufacturers.
Galvanized steel also has a very metallic smell that some people do not like.
Furthermore, and most importantly, DO NOT HEAT GALVANIZED STEEL! The zinc will evaporate, and zinc fumes are very harmful and can even be fatal. If using a Dremel or other powered method of cutting, make sure there is adequate ventilation. To clean galvanized steel, a rag, a touch of oil, and elbow grease are the best methods. Washing it will result in advanced rusting (even if heat-dried immediately), and rolling it in sand will remove the zinc coating. Darkened galvy cannot be restored to it’s original color or luster.
galvanized is usually used for combat armors. ID’s vary, but 5/16” seems to be
the median of combat armors. Galvanized is also great for beginners to learn on,
as it is very cheap. A ¼ mile spool of 14 gauge galvanized electric fence wire
runs around $20.00 at most farming supply stores.
This is truly the most period of metals, as it is very close to what our forebears used (they used iron). Prone to rust and corrosion, this steel is cheap, easily found, and easily worked with. This is most suitable for riveted mail, as it is easy to punch through without harming any coatings or damaging tools. Regular maintenance is required for mild steel. If it rusts, the best method of removing the rust is still the one used in the
Middle Ages: tumble it.
Either put it in a tumbler, put it in a pillowcase in a dryer (with the heat
off), or put it in a barrel of sand (this is the period method) and agitate it
until the rust is removed. Then oil immediately. This metal should be easily
found at welding supply stores. Mild steel is heavy, however, and is fairly
malleable. Butted mail made of mild steel can be too weak at thin gauges, and
too heavy at thick ones.
Nickel silver, sometimes called German silver, actually contains no silver at all! It is approximately 90% nickel and 10% copper. Of course, this can vary widely, depending on the alloy. It has a silver color with a golden sheen to it, and comes in various tempers, from easily malleable to fairly springy. As a general rule, nickel silver doesn’t tarnish as readily as some of the other copper-based metals.
is a well-regarded metal. It has a nice, shiny appearance like silver, but is
quite inexpensive compared to the other jewelry metals (gold, silver, etc). This
medium is great for jewelry with its nice luster, but is strong enough for other
uses including shirts and other load-bearing projects. Finding this can be a
little tricky without turning to specialty vendors. The local home-improvement
and hardware stores generally won’t carry it, but some quality industrial supply
Stainless steel is regarded as the “tough” medium for chainmail, and with good reason. It is perhaps the most durable medium available (barring high-tech specialty metals). It has great tensile strength, and comes in a variety of alloys. In general, the higher-numbered alloys will be the shiniest (308 or higher). The lower numbers, such as 302, have a medium to dark grey finish, and resemble galvanized steel in appearance.
Most alloys are quite shiny, though, and are used for many industrial purposes. Some stainless is referred to as “spring steel”. This is a type of steel that is very difficult to manipulate without applying heat. When bent, it has a tendency to bend back to its original shape somewhat. Some stainless steels (316l alloy, for example) are hypo-allergenic, which makes it good for jewelry applications.
Stainless is considerably more expensive than mild or galvanized steel. However, its durability, strength, and non-tarnishing properties often outweigh the cost for many maillers. Stainless does not succumb to rust or oxidize, but it is not rust proof, just very resistant. Stainless steel wire is often found in welding and industrial supply stores, and is typically not found in hardware stores, though there are exceptions to this.
in a variety of alloys. The prime factor in stainless’ strength in an alloy is
the amount of chromium in the mix. The lower the alloy number, the softer the
metal will be. Also, with these alloy numbers will be a letter at the end. This
will either be a “L”, “M”, or “H”. This signifies the amount of carbon that is
in the steel. An “L” indicates a low carbon content, while “H” indicates a high
amount of carbon. Low carbon steel is easier to work with than high carbon,
however, the trade-off is that the high-carbon steel is stronger.
Recommended Uses: Armor, art or jewelry requiring color
Titanium is regarded with wistful awe among those in the mail community.
Titanium can be as strong as some stainless alloys, light as aluminum, and is wonderful for a variety of projects, from armor to jewelry to art. It can be colored by applying different levels of heat to it for given periods of time, and does not corrode or oxidize significantly. Of course, like any magic metal, it has its drawbacks.
The first is simply cost. The cost for materials for a hauberk will easily clear more than $1000.00 (US), most likely significantly more than that. The second drawback is that good alloys of titanium can be difficult to find. Grade 2 titanium is a commercially pure version that is fairly soft. This alloy also work-hardens very easily, so it will become brittle as it is manipulated. Titanium is also hypo-allergenic.
None of the metals I’ve mentioned in this chapter are in any way harmful to wear, (except by those with metal allergies), despite some rumors floating around. Also, the information in this chapter is far from complete. This is just intended to give a basic understanding of what each metal is and what it might be good for.
Well, that's it for this month's Blackmaille. As always, please send your mail-related questions to:
c/o Tom Beckett
6522 E 125th St, Apt 2
Grandview, MO 64030
Next month: Cleaning the Different Mediums of Mail
See you next month!
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