By: Clay Edgin (PoD) and Dave Larson (Aegiswolf)
Like any craft, especially those with metalworking involved, mailling can cause injuries. However, just like any activity, certain precautions can be taken to prevent those injuries. This article will first discuss the possible injuries that can occur during the various stages of mailling and will suggest safety measures that can be taken to prevent them. Later, it will discuss first aid practices to treat them.
There are three main stages of mailling that these safety issues pertain to: coiling, cutting, and weaving. Coiling is the process of taking bulk wire and wrapping it around a mandrel or rod to create a coil. Cutting is simply cutting that coil into rings, and weaving is the process of interlocking those rings to create your finished weave.
Coiling is usually accomplished through two different methods. The first is manual coiling. This is basically moving your mandrel manually, with a hand crank. Similarly, a small percentage of maillers simply twist the mandrel by hand to wind the coil. While this does seem to give their product a bit more merit because they didn’t “cheat” with an electric drill, it does produce two negative results: (1) dementia, and (2) an unusually large forearm muscle. :-) The second method is to use a machine, such as a drill, electric motor, or a lathe, to turn the mandrel at higher speeds than manual coiling can achieve. Manual coiling is generally the safer of the two, due to the fact that it is completely under control at all times and you can immediately stop winding the coil if you injure yourself. A drill or motor doesn’t know that your fingers are wrapped up in the coil, and even if it could, it mostly likely would not care. It certainly will not stop on its own, so anyone wanting to coil using power tools should be warned. However, manual coiling is not foolproof. The three major injuries that can occur while manual coiling are muscle strain, blisters, and pinched fingers and hands.
To prevent injuries during manual coiling, take at least 2-3 minutes to stretch your arms, hands, and fingers. Make sure your stretches are slow and constant. Do not quickly bend your hand or fingers back and forth. Put steadily increasing pressure on the muscle group being worked, until there is firm but NOT painful resistance. Some maillers prefer to have their hands be warm since it means that there is blood circulating freely, which is always a good thing. Maillers who do not wish to get blisters wear gloves to protect their hands. Rest assured, however, that any repetitive motion will earn you a few calluses on your hands. Also, make sure you are coiling from a stable position. If you are standing, have your feet well planted, and have good vision of your coiling work. If you are sitting, make sure you have good stability for your leverage while coiling. Above all, don’t get in too much of a rush. Make sure everything is set up properly before you start each coil. As you gain experience, your speed will increase —- don’t try to force things. A little preventive medicine here will go a long way to keeping you healthy and mailling for a long time.
The other form of coiling is powered coiling. Powered coiling is significantly more dangerous, and is the leading cause of injuries found in mailling (based upon a survey of the members of the Chainmaille Board). Powered coiling, obviously, increases the speed at which the wire wraps around the mandrel. The two most common injuries during this stage of production are wire-lash and contact burns/blisters. Wire-lash is where the end of the wire reaches the spinning mandrel and slips from your fingers. It is moving at such a high speed that it cuts through skin like a light saber through a T-shirt before you realize that it even happens. The ends of the wire are very sharp, and with both the velocity of the drill (anywhere between 1750 and 3400 RPM’s) and centrifugal force rotating the wire, hands, faces, and arms can get seriously gashed. The second injury directly caused by powered coiling is a contact burn or blister from holding the wire without good gloves. As most people keep a good hold of the wire to ensure that it coils properly, a lot of friction and heat are generated, causing low-degree burns and possibly blisters. Even with good gloves, it is still possible to feel the heat generated by the friction.
Safety can be achieved in powered coiling through a number of methods. The first is to make sure that your coiling device (drill, lathe, etc.) does not go too fast for you to keep track of the wire so that the end doesn’t come before you realize it. The faster the coil is turned, the harder it is to control feeding the wire, and the easier it is to get something caught, like a glove or a finger. Additionally, do NOT have an automatic device that does not turn off easily. If your hand gets caught in the coil, and your device keeps winding, your injury will be much more serious (and painful). Make sure your devices utilize a constant pressure activation, like a drill’s trigger that, once released, stops the winding immediately.
Keep your body and hands as far away from your coil and mandrel as conveniently possible to avoid getting anything caught in it. Wearing gloves is recommended but many maillers shun gloves because they feel that gloves are an extra hazard for getting caught in the wire. That decision is yours to make while keeping in mind these safety guidelines. The best method to keep injuries down is to create a wire-feeding guide that keeps your hands out of the process. Some designs utilize wood, screws, and holes.
Cutting, the second stage of maille-making, is another stage where serious injuries can occur. Like coiling, cutting can also be powered. Manually though, the most common injury is strained muscles and joints from overuse or cutting very thick or hard materials, such as 14 gauge full-spring stainless steel. Because of this, it is important to choose cutters that have compound leverage and allow you to cut rings easier, such as bolt cutters or bulldog (a.k.a. notching) snips. Many maillers prefer bolt cutters for thick wire like the 14 gauge stainless because as they press the levers together, there are one, and sometimes two, strong pivot points for the levers and jaws to use, so you use less energy to cut rings with more force. As for snips, simple physics dictates that the farther the pivot point (the nut) is towards the end of the snips, the more leverage you will have, so bulldog snips have more leverage than regular Wiss M1 snips. However, since cutting utilizes both sharp object and a great deal of applied force, it is imperative to keep your hands and fingers away from the cutting blades, as that can lead to quite painful cuts and blisters. Repeated abuse can lead to swelling and bruising of the hand if done for an excessively long period of time.The best way to prevent injuries here is just like the methods in manual coiling. Stretch your muscles. Have good leverage, and a stable seat or position. Have a good view of where you are cutting. Also here, make sure that your cutters are comfortable in your hands. You can tape padding on the handles for comfort. Also, for difficult and strong materials, you can brace your cutters on the floor or a workbench, or you can create a handle extension that gives you more leverage. If sitting, try resting the bottom handle of the cutters on top of your upper thigh and pressing down with your whole arm. This saves wear and tear on your hand. And of course, above all, take your time and make sure you’re making clean cuts.
Powered cutting includes using Dremel brand rotary tools, machining shears, band saws, and if you’re one of the incredibly lucky few, lasers. Since laser cutting is so rare, it will be assumed that the lucky shmuck who has that method at their disposal knows the proper safety guidelines for it. However, when using Dremels and the like, be sure of a few things. Firstly, definitely keep your hands and fingers clear of the cutting blade. Secondly, wear solid eye protection to shield your eyes from sparks, debris, and rings being kicked up. Thirdly, have a safe place for the rings to fall or fly off to. Cutters that have even a slightly abrasive side will project rings like a bullet, so make sure they won’t cause injury achieving lethal velocities. Laying a bucket on its side directly in front of your cutting area collects rings nicely. Fourthly, make sure your coil is firmly anchored. A loose coil can slip and result in some nasty results. Lastly, cut in a well-ventilated area or use some sort of respiration mask to keep you from inhaling fumes or dust. This is especially important with galvanized steel and aluminum. The zinc coating on galvanized steel emits a noxious fume when heated, and aluminum dust in the lungs can be very serious. Not to mention the very dangerous dust in the air from the cutting wheels themselves. Maillers who choose to use Dremels or those pneumatic cut off wheels should keep in mind that these wheels wear down and they don’t just disappear –- they turn into dust that can be hazardous and make you ill. If you choose to cut rings with any kind of powered apparatus, keep the above tips in mind. Your lungs will thank you.
Weaving is undoubtedly the safest of the stages of mailling, however, the greatest frequency of injures occur at this point. Cuts, nicks, pinches, cramps, and muscle strains are all common during this step of the procedure. Depending on the pliers used, sharp edges and teeth can bite into the skin. Also, slipping pliers can jam into hands and fingers with great force, especially with the dreaded stainless monster at task. Again, perform your stretches on your hands and arms. Make sure you have a good level work area, not too crowded or uncomfortable. Make sure you take time getting a good hold of your ring(s). If your pliers are too small in the hand, you can pad those with some filler (like leather or fabric) and some tape to keep hand fatigue to a minimum. To alleviate the problem better, find yourself a good pair of pliers that fit correctly in your hands. Spending $50 for a pair of gel-cushioned pliers may seem outrageous, but they would be worth it. Finally, keep your eyes on your work, not your TV.
There are also some advanced techniques of weaving that require their own safety precautions, specifically stripping wire, riveting maille and welding maille. To properly strip wire, you have a couple of options. The best and safest is a wire stripper. Wire strippers are a device that look like pliers with sharp edges and different sized holes in them (for different wire gauges). You simply put your wire in the appropriate hole, pinch the pliers so the coating is cut, and twist the cutters. Then, simply pull the wire through the cutters and you should have clean wire. Unfortunately, the larger wire gauges, with which many maillers use, are usually not included in strippers. Thus, you will have to resort to a knife. The first rule with a knife is a truism anywhere: Always cut AWAY from you. Thus, if you slip, you cut empty air and not your intestines. Secondly, make sure what you are cutting is secured, and can’t slip. Lastly, always be aware of where your hands are, so you don’t cut them, as well. When stripping wire with a knife, try the following directions. Start out by lying the wire on a good, flat work surface. Cut around the diameter of the wire about a foot from the end. Then, secure the wire in a corner, such as where the desk meets a wall. Then, run the knife along the wire, cutting the coating along the wire. Cut to the short end, and remove the coating. Then cut along the rest of your wire, until you are finished. And remember, cut AWAY from you.
Welding safety could easily be a manual (and is) on its own. However, there are just a few basics for this article. First of all, remember it is FIRE! Keep all flammables away from your working area. Keep your hair covered with a hat, and keep your skin and hands covered with something that doesn’t burn well, such as leather or denim (NO POLYESTER! It melts, and can cause even worse burns). Keep a fire extinguisher handy, and make sure that any slag that drops off won’t ignite or burn anything, including your shoes! Secondly, take proper precautions with your eyes. Looking at a welder can permanently damage your eyes. Make sure that the lens your looking through is sufficient for your needs. If you are using a welder, such as a TIG or MIG welder, make sure your equipment is in good working condition. Make sure the welder is properly grounded, and not through you!
If you are using a torch, make sure you are ready to light the torch before touching the gas. A delay can be a serious mistake. Also, have proper flashback arrestors on your torch. It is further recommended to have flashback arrestors on your tanks too, in case you have a leak in the hose or other nasty mishap. Make sure the metal you are working is clean, and free of chemicals or coatings, which can cause lethal fumes. Lastly, make sure that you have proper ventilation and breathing protection in case you do get something nasty caught in your work. Always consult your equipment manuals, and see that the proper safety guides and regulations are met.
Riveting maille is the process of flattening the ring (either part of it or the whole thing), overlapping the ends, punching a hole through the overlapped area, and driving a rivet through the hole. Then, flattening the rivet to secure the ends, the ring is held firmly closed. Riveting maille is a painstaking process, which involves a lot of attention to detail (of course, so does all mailling). It’s very easy to get bored or to lose focus while doing it, so first of all pay attention to each ring you work on. The biggest aspect of safety while riveting maille is making sure that the ring is properly secured without your hands. Otherwise, your hands can get severely smashed by your crushing utensil. One of the most popular methods is having a cylindrical hole, and placing the ring at the bottom of that. Then, flatten the ring by dropping a piston on it. The same basic method can be used when securing the rivet into the ring. Also, be sure to have eye protection on. Thus, should anything fly upon impact, you still get to see later on.
Treatments for these injuries involve a lot of common sense, but here are a few basics:
Muscle or joint sprain/strain:
Foreign object in the eye:
Broken bone (simple fracture—the bone has not pierced the skin)
Broken bone (complex fracture—the bone has broken through the skin)
Dismemberment, such as fingertip loss:
Inhalation of fumes or metal dust:
And, of course, when in doubt, seek a professional opinion.
Those are the basics of maille safety. Like always, the keys to safety involve proper preparation and common sense. Above all, take your time with things. It can be easy to get impatient, but honestly, speed will come with time and practice! Just relax, be smart, and enjoy mailling.
If you have any questions, please contact Dave Larson (a.k.a. Aegiswolf) at email@example.com, or Clay Edgin (PoD) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We would like to take this time to thank the members of the Chainmaille Board for their insights, comments, help and encouragement and to thank the members of the Armour Archive who provided helpful safety tips for using a torch and welder. Thanks!