Gauge is one of the most confusing aspects of silversmithing for those who’ve never done metalwork in the past. While it’s a direct measurement of metal thickness, it’s also not in units that most of us are familiar with.
Looking to learn more about the gauge of silver and other non-ferrous metals? Let’s dig in and I’ll teach you a little bit about the history of this measurement and help you make sense of the numbers!
A Brief History of AWG
Gauge is a shortening of American Wire Gauge or AWG. It’s mostly used in the electrician and jeweler’s industries these days, and you’ll also find it used to describe steel material that’s under ¼” or ⅛” depending on the need at hand.
Gauge is a strange measurement unit. The modern AWG system is based on a logarithmic scale, with a lot of complex math involved in precise calculation. You’ll never need the actual math behind the units.
Previously “gauge” was a proprietary unit used during raw material manufacture. A wire is crafted by pulling an ingot through a device known as a draw plate. A draw plate is pretty simple: it’s a chunk of metal with a bunch of various-sized holes drilled through it. Each hole has a shaped entry that helps to pull the wire into a smaller size.
Previously, “gauge” was just a measure of how many times a bit of wire was pulled through various drawplates, starting with 0. It’s no longer used that way, but it’s where the concept comes from.
For the budding metal crafter, this is one area where there’s no real advantage to digging into the math except as an intellectual curiosity. Instead, most of us just learn to use “gauge” or a standard unit equivalent to discuss what we’re looking at.
You can measure gauge with a digital caliper, although you’ll need to convert the units in some cases. I recommend having a pair around for most things, but it’s essential to pick one up if you’re hammering or rolling out your own ingots.
None of this is quite as confusing as it sounds. Just check out our chart below!
Quick Conversion Chart for Common Gauges
Most jeweler’s work will be measured in millimeters, or fractions thereof, so it makes sense to base your thickness ratings there. For the sake of ease of transition, I’ve also listed the measurements in fractions of an inch.
Most wire and sheet metal is sold only in even gauges. The majority of silversmithing work uses pieces of metal between 10 and 30 gauge, hence the gauge listing.
The real question, then, is what we do with this information!
Sheet Metal Gauges and Uses
Sheet is one of the main basis of form for silversmith pieces. Whether you’re engaging in an intricate grain set that covers the surface of a piece or just sticking a stone in a bezel.
The thickness of the sheet used depends on the project, but the majority of work I’ve seen is done in the 18-26 gauge range.
At the upper end of “normal” sizing, you have 18 gauge sheet. At roughly 1mm thick, it’s the minimum thickness needed for some stone setting techniques like pave, or it can be used to create heavy, sturdy pieces.
On the lower end, you’ll find 24 gauge, roughly .5mm, which is often used for backplates or intricate pierced pieces. If you go much thinner than 24 gauge the metal won’t be sturdy enough for most use, but very thin pieces are still used in layered construction or as bezel strip for settings.
Here’s the thing: most of us use thinner metal where possible to cut down on costs. It actually doesn’t cost the piece much when it comes to structural integrity as long as you’re not going absurdly thin.
Using thicker metal for things like backplates will make a piece feel more solid. One of the ways that people appraise silver jewelry is by weight, even if they don’t realize it, since our brains tend to associate a weightier object with having more strength.
So, if you can afford it, using thicker material (think an 18 gauge/1mm backplate) will lend a piece a more pleasing feel in the hand. Thicker metal is usually a sign of quality work.
That’s not always the case, of course, you can still have a bad join or other manufacturing error with thicker metal. It’s something to consider, however, especially if you’ve found that your pieces feel “cheap.”
One other thing: as odd as it may seem, it’s actually easier to texture 16-18 gauge metal than 24-28 gauge. There’s not enough metal to move in the smaller gauges, and it can be hard to get a crisp impression with rolled textures once you get under 22 gauge.
I recommend a newbie purchase some 24 gauge sheet before moving to thicker metal, just to cut down on practice costs without sacrificing strength for most cabochons.
In general, you can use the following gauges as described:
- 18-20 gauge- Flush setting small stones, heavy backplates, structural elements, texturing
- 20-22- Backplates, heavier pierced elements, decorative elements
- 24 gauge- Light backplates, light pierced elements, decorative elements
If you’re still at a loss, just buy some 24 gauge metal to start with. You’ll soon see both how strong the thin layer of metal is and how it affects the weight of a piece. You can adjust from there if it’s not to your liking.
You purchase silver by weight, not surface area. With that in mind, it’s good to note that you’ll receive roughly double the surface area of 24 gauge compared to 18 gauge for the same price. That’s a lot of extra surface for a difference that can seem small (~.5mm) in theory.
Wire Gauges and Uses
Wire uses the same rough measurements, but we use wire for rather different purposes in silverwork. You also need to take into account the fact that wire comes with different cross-sections, which affects the weight and size of the material.
In any case, the AWG measurement of wire is the diameter of the wire for both round and square wire. Naturally, square material has a lot more weight to it and will look thicker than a piece of round wire in the same gauge.
Half-round wire is also a common find in workshops. The AWG measurement for half-round wire runs across the flat surface of the wire. Basically, if you taped two bits of 20 gauge half-round wire together, you’d end up with a single piece the size of a 20 gauge round wire.
Gauges used with wire are very important in wire weaving, but usually just a sturdy bit is enough for those who aren’t incorporating wire weaving or wrapping into their techniques. Larger wire (over 12 gauge) is more often used as a base for fabrication instead than directly.
In general, if you’re using wire as wire the following are good uses for each gauge range:
- 24-28 gauge- Wire used for weaving patterns or “tying” bits of metal together. You want at least a 4 gauge difference between the base and weaving wires, (ie: 20 gauge frames should use at least a 24 gauge wire)
- 18-22 gauge- Structural elements such as frames or the base wires in a woven piece are made using thicker wire. 20 gauge is one of the most common base wires for wire weaving or wrapping pieces.
- 14-16 gauge- Often used as a single piece to make bangles, ring shanks, or other components that benefit from the increased thickness and strength of larger wire.
Everyone’s work varies a little bit when it comes to preferred gauges, but the above guidelines can often last a silversmith’s entire career.
Measuring Gauge With Calipers
Measuring metal is relatively easy, as long as you have the right tools in the first place. A digital caliper is the easiest way to take these measurements and for the average hobbyist a $25 caliper will do the trick, much like the one below.
You may not need a caliper at all if you’re working with pre-bought metals only, but you’ll appreciate it for other tasks around the work bench.
Do you think I actually memorize the size and arrangement of the burrs for my flex shaft?
Absolutely not, I just grab my calipers to measure them.
Using a pair of digital calipers is easy enough, just do the following:
- Zero the calipers while they’re completely closed. There will be a button on the front for this with most models.
- Open the calipers using the wheel on the spine of the tool, spin it until the jaws are wider than the bit of metal you’re measuring.
- Clamp the calipers down by pushing the wheel, and take a measurement. For wire and perfectly flat sheet you’re done.
- If the sheet isn’t perfectly flat you may need to take a few measurements from around the outside of the sheet and roughly average them. Make sure you’re only clipping the edge and not getting any extra space in there from the metal’s bend.
Calipers are the key to repeatable work in many cases, and paired with a set of dividers you can get a lot of precise measurements done in a short amount of time.
You don’t necessarily have to convert to AWG when you’ve taken your measurements. I usually don’t bother, instead working in increments of a millimeter with scrap metal processed at home. That said, playing with calipers is a great way to start to figure out which gauge of metal you need for your next project!
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