What does wire gauge mean?
When looking at the gauge numbers of wire, it is normal to think: “the larger the number, the bigger the wire.” However, wire gauges actually work in reverse: “the larger the number, the smaller the wire.” This is because all jewelry wire sizes begin at the number 0, and each time the wire is passed through a drawing die, it becomes smaller. So, a wire that is labeled as 22-gauge has been pulled 22 times, and it is 22 times smaller than its original size. The gauge equals the diameter of the wire, meaning the distance straight across its center.
Common Jewelry Uses of Wire by Gauge (AWG):
32-28 gauge are extremely thin. They are typically used for intricate wire work like weaving, crochet, and Viking knit.
26-24 gauge are good sizes for stringing pearls and beads with small holes. 26 ga also works well for Viking knit.
22-20 gauge are good all-purpose, versatile wire sizes, thin enough to be able to string on most beads. If you use half-hard wire (or work-harden softer wire), these gauges are also sturdy enough to hold their shape for making handmade chain, ear wires, eye pins, jump rings, and lightweight clasps. 20 ga works well for bracelet and necklace wire.
18-16 gauge work well for making sturdy clasps and jump rings (see about wire hardness for more info). They're also great as necklace and bracelet wire. Solid (not plated or filled) wire in these gauges is commonly used to make rivets. 18 ga makes good ear wires too. Depending on the metal, 16 ga gauge may be difficult to bend.
14 gauge is primarily used to create thick, extra-strength components such as clasps, rings, cuff bracelets and bangle bracelets. It can also be used to create frames for resin and mixed media projects, as well as structural support for many styles of jewelry. Solid 14 ga wire can be used to make rivets. Depending on the metal, this gauge may be difficult to bend. 14 gauge wire is often only available in dead soft temper.
12 gauge is popular for rings, neck collars, bangle bracelets and cuff bracelets. It is usually only available in dead soft, and may require heavy-duty wire cutters or a jeweler's saw.
10 gauge is also a good weight for bangle bracelets and cuff bracelets. It is usually only available in dead soft, and generally requires heavy-duty jewelry tools for both cutting and shaping.
The shape of a wire refers to what you see when you look at a cross section of it (i.e. the cut end).
Round wire is the most common wire shape, and is the standard shape used in most wire working.
Square wire is sometimes chosen for purely aesthetic reasons, since the corners of square wire lend a different look to finished jewelry. It also has a practical advantage when you want to place several pieces of wire flush against each other. The flat sides of square wire will lay flush in a way that round wire can't. This makes square wire preferable in banding designs. Also, you can use a pin vise to twist square wire, for a sparkling effect.
Half round wire is typically used to connect several adjacent pieces of square wire. The flat side of the half-round wire is placed against the square wires, and the rounded side remains exposed in the finished design. This is called banding.
Twisted (aka fancy) wire is used to provide textural and aesthetic qualities to wire work. It can be formed from round wires or square wires.