Last updated: 5/13/21, 11/2/20, 7/23/20
Nancy LT Hamilton
What is a Mandrel?
Please see my page on Mandrel Holders for ways to hold these little (and not so little) darlings. Also, see my Mandrels Q&A page.
***Note: always buy the best tools (for your needs) that you can afford BUT don’t hold off learning a technique until you can afford the “perfect tool”. Usually, “good enough” will get the work done.
In the jewelry world, a mandrel is basically a rod that metal, wax, or clay is formed around. There are a variety of shapes available for the jeweler and a few different sizes – which will be discussed below.
I like mandrels with tangs – they do come without. I like a tang because I can crank down my Bench Yoke Vise or my rotating mandrel holder on the tang and not scar up the mandrel. It’s also easier to hammer when you have both hands free. See my page on Mandrel Holders for links and more information.
Mandrels can be made of plastic, wood, aluminum, and steel. The material that the mandrel is made of, somewhat dictates what can be accomplished with it. For instance, a wooden mandrel is soft and the blows of a hammer, onto metal, will dent it. But, it doesn’t rust and can be drilled in so, it’s great for metal clay work, polishing, or drilling into rounded shapes. Wooden, aluminum, and plastic mandrels are also great when you are working with patterned metal. The softer material doesn’t mar patterns the way a steel tool can. Remember, to stretch metal you’ll need to be steel-on-steel – a steel hammer on a steel mandrel. For shaping, you can use wood/wood, wood/plastic, steel/wood, metal/plastic, aluminum/leather, etc. It takes longer to shape on softer materials but, you can always anneal and keep going.
Wooden mandrels are great for wax work too. Carving waxes doesn’t involve water or high pressure so, a lighter mandrel works fine.
Plastic is similar to the wooden mandrel but it’s a bit more fragile and you may not want to drill on it. I don’t own one.
Aluminum mandrels are generally used for wax carving and, if covered with wax paper, parchment, or other product, can be used with metal clay. Aluminum and metal clay don’t get on well together! Aluminum can touch metal clay briefly but should not be left in contact with it for long. Please read more on contamination with aluminum and metal clay in this article by Mary Ellin D’Agostino at Medacreations.
You can use aluminum mandrels for forming – they are just not as hard as steel and it is harder to move metal on them because of this. Ensure that your mandrels are kept smooth and shiny so that they don’t transfer their marks to your metal. If your steel block, hammer, or anvil is marred, the marks on the steel will be transferred to your metal, as well.
Urethane, plastic, leather, brass, or wood mallets are often used when shaping sheet metal or wire around the mandrel. This is because these softer hammers move the metal but don’t distort or mar the surface of the metal you are hammering. But, these softer hammers don’t stretch the metal and it takes longer to shape if you are using wood or plastic mandrel beneath your blows. Steel on steel, moves metal the fastest, in this process.
Metal hammers are also used on mandrels and are great for stretching rings, for planishing metal (video of Sage Reynolds finishing a cup), and for texturing, among other things. I like a planishing, a shiny-faced chasing hammer, or a goldsmith’s hammer for this.
For basic shaping, I recommend a mallet that is made of either leather/rawhide, urethane, or wood. I usually use a leather/rawhide mallet. You can also get lead shot-filled mallets to add power to your punch!
The size of the mallet you use is determined by your strength, how thick the metal you are forming is, whether you are trying to stretch the metal or not, and personal preference.
There are steel shot-filled mallets for added whamo! BIG NOTE: Before using a new rawhide mallet, take a few minutes to condition the ends. Many people take their rawhide mallet outside and pound on the sidewalk for a while, others use files or sandpaper. They dip these mallets in shellac and you need to remove the shellac from the ends or it will mar your metal. Whatever method you use, be sure to removes fines, left from filing, grit, or gravel from the mallet face BEFORE using. Such fun!
Bigger mallets, held correctly (with the hand almost to the end of the handle) require more lifting strength but, less hammering strength as the mallet does most of the work. A small mallet will require more muscle to move the same amount of metal than a large one does. A small mallet can also take longer, because of this.
A note on mallets: the only hammer/mallet that I’ve ever used that didn’t mar my metal, to any degree, was a urethane mallet (Bonny Doon makes a nice one). Rawhide, plastic, and wood, can all impart some kind of marks on your metal – they don’t always – but, sometimes they do. Keeping the faces of your hammers smooth and lump and crud-free will help to reduce any marring that could occur. So, hey, take a little care of your mallets and hammers and they will love you back!
Before hammering metal around a mandrel, it’s best to anneal it.
Wait! What is annealing?
***Please see my video How to Anneal Silver Sheet for more information on annealing.
Annealing (as far as jewelers are concerned) is a process wherein heat (see my Annealing Temperature Chart) rearranges the molecular structure of the metal. Annealing forces a realignment of the molecules – into evenly spaced, symmetrical positions. Simply, think of it as making the metal soft and pliable. Work hardened metal – which is basically the opposite of annealed metal – has areas of tightly compressed, disorderly, displaced molecules.
Practical reasons to anneal
1. You don’t have to work too hard as the metal will be much more pliable when annealed.
2. Your hammering will create sharper shapes and angles. Hammering work-hardened metal, besides potentially causing stress fractures, won’t allow the metal to follow the shape of the mandrel – you’ll notice curves where there should be corners. It also gets frustrating when you are wailing away and nothing is happening. So, anneal your metal often and save both of you (you and your metal) from developing stress fractures!
Moving the Metal Around
When using a graduated mandrel (an elongated conical shape) it is important to flip, the material being hammered, so that one side doesn’t become larger than the other. Potentially, one side of the ring will fit the customer and the other side won’t. This discrepancy will be much more evident in a wide ring. Remember the metal takes on the shape of the mandrel so, if you have a conical shape, the metal will have a conical shape.
Conversely, if you are making a basket or a crown (tapered bezel where the prongs are made by filing into the sides of the bezel) setting, you’ll want the conical shape. The shape of the mandrel mimics the shape of a faceted stone.
Types of Mandrels
- Bezel mandrels are used to form bezels and other small shapes like fancy jump rings, hollow forms or beads. These mandrels come in a variety of shapes and are lighter, thinner, and smaller than ring or, especially, bracelet mandrels.
You can make bezels and settings that are square, emerald, oval, round, etc. Small mandrels are also great for making interestingly shaped jump rings and, if you wrap them with a strip of sandpaper, they can be used to sand the interiors of small shapes.
Ring mandrels are used, usually, to shape, size, and form rings on. But, they can be used for any other shaping need. They come in a variety of shapes – though not as many as the Bezel Mandrels do. That’s because people usually aren’t interested in oval or triangular ring shanks (for instance). Having said that, I want to create a triangular ring shank now!!!
In case you haven’t looked recently, let me remind you that your fingers aren’t actually round. Sometimes, it makes sense to create rings that are shaped more like our digits. The Finger-shaped mandrel (VERY hard to find these days! This one at Santa Fe Jeweler’s Supply.) is aptly named. It’s narrower at the bottom and wider at the top with finger-shaped sides. The idea is that the ring won’t roll as much – it does work. I make bar-fight rings; rings with giant or weirdly shaped tops. Having a finger-shaped ring shank (or square) helps to keep the ring top-up and ready for that brawl!
There’s also the Rounded Square Ring Mandrel that mimics a finger’s shape (see illustration, above). The non-round mandrels are a bit trickier to shape on as, the center of the ring needs to be spot on, otherwise, the ring will be off-center. It takes a bit of practice and even then…
Other shapes available for ring, bezel, and other forming mandrels:
- Cut-Corner – Rectangle
- Cut-Corner – Square
This bench pin/clamp set sold at Amazon has an interesting bench vise that holds a ring mandrel, bracelet mandrel, and a bench pin. It includes the ring, bracelet mandrels, and the bench pin. Although, the bench pin is rather – not thin but, not wide. See my video: The Bench Pin, A Jeweler’ Workhorse for more information on bench pins.
Most ring mandrels, that have sizes marked on them, are usually not very accurate. The variance may only be 1/4 of size or so but, that small amount can be the difference between a perfect fit or a back to the drawing board moment. Check your ring mandrel against your ring sizer to be sure.
Match your ring sizer gauge, to your customer’s hand, and slide the gauge onto your mandrel. Wherever the center of the gauge lands, either write down what size it is or directly mark your mandrel with a thick sharpie. It’s usually best to keep a record of actual size variances so that you don’t have to repeatedly measure. But, hey – whatever works for you!
There are also wide band ring sizers which are very handy when making wide bands. Wide bands are more difficult to size as the extra width may take up several 1/4-1/2 sizes on the mandrel, depending on how wide it is. A customer’s size, for a wide band, will probably be bigger for a wide-band ring.
There are unmarked ring mandrels which are great for forming/forging without worrying about picking up the sizing lines. (Of course, you could hammer on the unmarked side of the mandrel too!) I slide the ring sizer on the plain mandrels and mark where my size is. Then I know where to hammer, just like with the sized mandrel.
Big fingers? No problem! Pepetools carries both large (sizes 20-26) and giant (sizes 16-20) mandrels. (I think they have their mandrel names mixed up! I always think of giant as larger than large? Who knows?)
Grooved Mandrels are for shaping rings that are stone set. Frankly, I rarely ever use mine except when I accidentally grab it. You can still size and form a ring on it. I just have never needed the groove. Also, I don’t do a lot of resizing or (gawd forbid) repairs. You might need one though if you do.
Stepped Ring Mandrels come in 1/2 and whole size steps. I recommend going with a 1/2 size mandrel as you’ll have more options for resizing and sizing.
Bracelet mandrels are for forming, well, bracelets. But, they are great surfaces to shape metal into curves. You can make containers, hammer patterns over large areas of metal, maim an intruder. There’s a lot of steel in these mandrels and they are heavy – unless of course your’s is made from wood!
There are two basic shapes: Round and Oval. Round is very useful and great for things like bangles but, our wrists/arms are actually more oval-shaped. I use my oval mandrel almost all the time for cuffs. But, if you have a round mandrel you can shape your bracelet into an oval shape with some hammering and a little manipulating. Bangles are great to use the round bracelet mandrel with.
I have used stainless steel travel coffee mugs for bracelet mandrels too. Much cheaper than a bracelet mandrel (the second-hand store usually has a nice selection) and they are a lot lighter too. They may not last forever but, for $1.50, who cares? IF you are lucky, you can find them in graduated shapes and parallel shapes. If the coffee mug has a handle, make sure that it won’t be in the way of your hammering. If it isn’t in the way, the handle can be clamped in a vise for stability – if not saw it off.
Stepped mandrels are great for making consistently-sized bangles.
There are bracelet mandrels made from steel and cast iron. Steel is stronger and is more resistant to dings from hammer blows. The steel is about $10.00 more than the cast iron. Buy the best that you can afford.
“Tang-less” bracelet mandrels rest on your bench or held in some other fashion. Personally, I prefer a mandrel with a tang. The “tanged” mandrels tend to be shorter than the “tang-less”. But, to me, the length reduction is worth it for ease of use. If your mandrel has a tang, you can put it in a vise which leaves both hands free to work the metal.
This Solid Wood Oval Bracelet Mandrel is good for thin bangles and thinner metals. Also wax and metal clay. Protect the wood from delaminating/warping, when using metal clay, by wrapping wax/parchment or another type of water-resistant paper/plastic around the mandrel. I wouldn’t want to be whaling away on heavy gauge metal with this as my mandrel – dents will occur.
The Stepped, Wooden Bracelet Mandrel is great for bangles but, some only offer 5 sizes. This stepped mandrel (below) has 10 sizes.
Multi-step mandrel. Looks like the maximum width is 8 7/8″ wide. I have NOT used this mandrel so, I can’t recommend it or not recommend it. I only post it here because it has 10 different sizes as opposed to the normal 4-5. Please read the reviews before purchasing.
See link under Articles and further information on Mandrels, Ring, Bracelet, and Necklace Sizing below, for determining bracelet sizes.
I have never owned or used a necklace mandrel which may or may not mean anything! I have never felt the need to purchase one. But, maybe, if I tried one, I’d like it. I don’t do a lot of hammered necklaces and I find my own body a pretty good test as to whether or not the necklace lies properly. Although it would be a good tool for wax carving necklaces, I would imagine.
As I said, I have never used one of these including the one from Amazon, above. But, it has a 5-star rating from 5 reviews.
Alternatives to Traditional Mandrels
Forming Blocks and Benders
You can also use a forming block to create ring shanks with, as well as using them for forming other metal shapes. I have this set and I love it – so many shapes, so little time! It’s pretty easy to create ring shanks with it: Place your metal into one of the swages (“U” channel), place one of the rods, in the set, over it and whack it with your mallet. Turn the metal a hair and whack it again. Repeat. It’s essentially the same process as for tube making – which you can also do with this set (obviously).
Lately, I’ve started to use my Pepe Ring Bender to shape all of my round rings. It takes 1/10 of the time, is easier on my old joints (as there is no hammering involved) and I don’t have to keep flipping the shank over and over again as the bender is round, not a cone. There are two how-to videos on Pepe’s page (not mine, for some reason???)
Pepe also has a Ring Shank Bender tool that also bends shanks. I have not tried this one yet. But, it looks easy to use.
I have a video somewhere on how to use the Ring Bender. In that video, I demonstrate other uses for the tool as well as of showing you how to use it. Let me look for it…nope, not there…ok, what about here?… Nope…Ah, here it is!
You can also use mandrel pliers like these triangular mandrel pliers by Wubbers. I love Wubbers. They are really well-made pliers – just an FYI!
Hoop Earring Mandrels
I have one of these, actually, mine’s a blacksmith’s cone mandrel (similar to this one) but, the same concept. I use it a lot because it has such a wide range of sizes and it’s smooth. Great for forging curved shapes, rings, bracelets, necklaces, etc. Mine is 14 1/4″(36.2 cm) long with a size range from 5/16″ (7.94 mm) to 2 7/16″ (6.19 cm). It’s not wide enough for a large bracelet so, I switch to my bracelet mandrel after shaping.
Steel hoop mandrel – used, as the name suggests, for making hoops. It can also be used for many other forming needs.
Otto Frei carries a similar or the same Steel Hoop Mandrel. It too is 12″ long with size ranges from 3/8″ to 2″ (9.5mm to 51mm). $29.00 as of 8/2014. I like this photo because it shows the size. I am a very visual person, after all!
Wax and Metal Clay Mandrels
Matt Ring Tube Sizer at Otto Frei. This mandrel shaves the inside of a wax ring or tube to resize it.
Jump Ring Mandrels
- Wooden dowels make good drilling platforms/mandrels too.
- Square, round and oval steel, brass, bronze, or aluminum stock also make good mandrels – when cut to size.
Clear Acrylic Tubes at Tap Plastics
Multi-Mandrel from Bead Smith. Limited usability (in MHO). Might be okay for wirework. You can’t use heavy wire and get crisp edges as your fingers aren’t strong enough. You can’t hammer on these. I have one (why I bought it I’ll never know) and have used it once. Might be okay for metal clay work too.
You can also use PVC tubing sections, in a pinch, or a can of vegetables – get creative.
The EZ Bracelet sizer can help you determine bracelet sizes. I have not tried this. You could probably mark your mandrel in a similar fashion.
Bracelet Gauges are on method for finding sizes.
Amazon carries a similar product called the EZ Sizer for necklaces. $14.45 @ 8/2014.
What to do with an old Ring Mandrel
I turned mine into a sinusoidal stake for forging shapes. Lots of hot steel and sweat involved in this process.
See this article by Michael Good on Anticlastic Raising. (So much to learn and explore in this field, eh?)
See: Articles and further information on Mandrels, Ring, Bracelet and Necklace Sizing at the bottom of this page, for information on how to make your own.
Articles and further information on Mandrels, Ring, Bracelet and Necklace Sizing
- MJSA – Social Media Roundup: Mandrel Madness by Peggy Jo Donahue. A discussion on the variance in ring mandrel sizes.
- Jewelry Making Tools: Best Ring Mandrel to Buy by MakingJewelry
- How to Determine Bracelet Size by Rio Grande
- Accurate Ring Sizing by Rio Grande
- Adjustable Ring Size Chart by Nancy LT Hamilton
- Ring Blank Chart by Nancy LT Hamilton
- Video: How to Make a Ring Part one, Part two, Part three by Nancy LT Hamilton
- Video: How to Make a Domed Ring, Parts 1, 2 & 3 by Nancy LT Hamilton
- Michael Good – Anticlastic Raising
- Alberic.Net – Making Your Own Steel Sinusoidal Stakes
Related Web Pages
- Adjustable Ring Size Chart
- Adjustable Ring Shank Patterns
- Mandrel Holders
- Q&A: Rings
- Ring Blank Chart
- Saddle Ring Pattern
- Stones and Stone Setting
- Texturing Metal