Part 7 - Cutters
by Lord Thomas the Black



             Welcome back to another edition of everyone’s favorite mail-related monthly: Blackmaille! Last month we talked about how to wind your wire into coils, so this month we’re covering some of the different methods used to cut your coils into rings.

             As I mentioned a few articles back, there are several different types of cutters, and they leave different-shaped cuts on the ends of the rings. Some of these will be better for butted mail, while some are more suited for riveted mail (where the ends will be flattened anyway).


Hammerhead Snips - Also called carpenter’s snips, end snips, end nippers, hoof nippers, tile nippers, etc. These are among the most common cutters for mail, and are one of the oldest designs in cutters, so they’re perfect for authenticity-minded demonstrations. They’re also used in a wide variety of trades, so there’s many different names for them. I’ve taken to bringing a drawing with me when I need to buy new ones.


            Hammerhead snips only cut one ring at a time, and leave a V-shaped end to the rings. If used for butted mail, this will have to be filed down before use. If used for riveted, however, it’s not that big a deal, since the ends will be mashed flat anyway. Conversely, you can use the “score and break” method, wherein the coil is squeezed gently where the ring is to be cut, then the ring is broken of, leaving nice, flat ends. This helps the rings close cleanly and quickly.


 Aviation Shears - These are sold under several brand names, “Wiss” being probably the most popular. These are good for butted mail, as you can cut several rings at once, and the ends will be sheared flat. The drawback is that since these are sheet-metal shears, they leave a larger kerf on the rings. This can be a problem with the larger-gauge rings. If you have a limited amount of time to finish a large project, aviation shears may be the way to go. Be aware, however, that they come in left- and right-handed versions, as well as straight cutting. You want the straight-cutting ones for mail.


Diagonal Cutters - Mostly used for electrical/electronics repair, these are useful for smaller-gauge wire. They leave a V-shaped end on the rings, which will have to be filed down before use. It’s been my experience that due to the design of these cutters, the “score and break” method doesn’t work as well with these. For riveted mail, of course, this V-shaped cut won’t make a difference.


Mini Bolt Cutters - These are available most easily from Sears, as they seem to be the only place I’ve found that stocks them consistently. They’re perfect for heavier-gauge or harder wires, such as some of the stainless alloys. They also leave a nice, flat end to the rings. The drawback is that mini bolt cutters can be a little awkward to use, as they don’t fit well into one hand (unless you have unusually large hands). Also, because of the shape of the jaws, you have to leave more space between turns in your coils to get the jaws into. This can result in warped rings if you’re not careful.


Hacksaw - Fine-toothed hacksaws will work for just about any gauge of wire, but I don’t recommend them for a couple of reasons. First, they can be difficult to use, especially for small-gauge coils. some sort of framework is often needed to hold the coil, steady the saw, and catch the rings. Second, depending on the kind of blade used, the kerf in the rings can get fairly big. on the other hand, as long as the saw is steady, the ends of the rings are flat, making them ideal for butted mail.


Jeweler’s Saw - Essentially a smaller, finer hacksaw. Jeweler’s saws don’t take away as much material, though, so the kerfs are smaller. Still, like hacksaws, they can be time-consuming and difficult to use.


Small Chisel - According to Simon Metcalf of the Victoria and Albert Museum in England, this is the most period way of cutting rings (“Mail and Plate Armor”, History Channel, “Arms in Action” series). This method is perfect for riveted mil, as you can cut the rings with an overlap built in. You do need a firm surface and a cutting board, however, or be prepared to re-sharpen your chisel after each use. To cut rings with a chisel, place the chisel tip between the turns of your coil. Rest the tip on the wire where you want it cut and place it on a hard surface (such as an anvil face). Give the chisel a sharp rap or two with a hammer, and have something ready to catch the ring.

            The advantages of the hammer-and-chisel method are ease of use, authenticity, and the fact that you can cut the overlap into riveted rings. The disadvantages are speed (it’s not a fast method) and the need to have a ring catcher on hand (unless you happen to like hunting down rings that shoot across the room).


Dremel Tool - A Dremel tool with a cutting wheel sounds like an easy, fast way of cutting rings, but i don’t care much for it personally, for several reasons. One, the cutting wheels don’t last long, and are fragile. If the wheel doesn’t shatter, throwing shrapnel all over your shop (I speak from experience, having had to pick pieces of cutting wheel out of my face once), you still only get about half a coil out of one disk. Two, they’re expensive. Even a cheap Dremel knock-off can run $35 - $40, and the cutting wheels are $5 - $10 for a pack of 20. Third, the Dremel heats up the coil as it cuts, from the friction of the cutting disk. if used on galvanized wire, the result is a toxic vapor that can cause serious respiratory problems. Last, it’s not a very medieval method, so when doing demonstrations, you’ll have to leave the Dremel at home.

             Well, that covers the methods I’ve used to cut coils into rings. I’m sure there are others, but as I haven’t seen them or tried them first-hand, I’m not qualified to speak on them. As always, thanks for reading my column for another month! Any mail-related questions should be sent to (note the new address):

                                    c/o Tom Beckett
                                    6112 E 126th St, Apt 104
                                    Grandview, MO 64030

            Now that you have a pile of rings, next month we’ll talk about ways to sort and store your rings. See you next month!


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