Chains Part 6

Last time we talked about chain links that start out as figure 8s, and I said that my next area of focus would be on a capital letter B. Before I do that I want to share a picture of some links that I couldn’t find last week in time for the blog. These were purchased from an old collection of metal detector finds from the Balkans. They are supposed to be Medieval, which is plausible. The most poorly crafted chain in the batch is actually the forth down from the top. The links look like they were cut with a chisel (there is at least one double strike) and no attempt was made to make the ends of the links square. It reminds us that not all “old” craftsmanship was good (but that is still no excuse for lousy modern craftsmanship).

old twisted 8 links

I admit that another week of research on the topic of link forms has changed my mind a little. I have talked about this before. One of the dangers of continuing to do research in digital archives all over Europe, while writing blogs, is that sometimes you change your mind. A thing is not exactly what you thought it was. So in this case “B” is for bent.

Now “bent” may seem a bit obtuse, but imagine that you have made half of one of those last figure eight links that we talked about, and then instead of making the other half, you simply bent the remaining wire down in a gentle arch until it reached the bottom end of the formed bottom of the eight… confused? Here is a photo of some links to clarify. The top picture shows the links from straight down, and the bottom picture shows them from the side so that you can see how 3D they are. The figure eight link is the one that I mentioned. The link to the right of that shows what I mean by only making half of the figure 8, then the middle link shows the beginning of the bending process, and the forth link from the left shows the completed link. The link all the way to the right is the same link form flipped on to its side so that you can see the half circle clearly. Better?

bent link collage

Take a look at the chains on this chatelaine at the British Museum. This 7th century Merovingian piece has three identical chains hanging from it. But if you look at the last link on the bottom of the center chain you can see exactly the form that I am talking about. It is half of an eight with the other end of the wire bent to form a half circle.

Now I think that this link form was one of the ones that really confused me when I first looked at it about five or six years ago. So I went in search of other similar links in other areas of Europe. I like to see how pervasive a form is, and how long we seem to find the form. Is it a local fad, or do we find it in a lot of places? I found several chains with the ‘bent” links in the Swedish National Museum, four from Gotland and one from Öland, and all from the Viking Age. I was trying to locate the museum’s technical definition of the Viking Age, since not everyone uses the same exact dates, but I couldn’t find it, so we will go with A.D. 793–1066. This picture has three pieces of chain, from the island of Gotland. If you click on the small picture it will bring up a bigger one. The top piece is a simple two in one link pattern, but the bottom two are both the “bent” links. The middle chain is particularly nice because the last two links on the left side are both slightly open, which allows you to see exactly how they were formed and put together.

I was still looking for a few more examples from other places in Europe, I am sure that there are more, it is just a matter of spending enough hours going through digital archives. At the last minute I found this piece from Germany in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a Censor for burning incense, dating to the 12th Century. This close-up shows the form of the links really nicely.

And Next Time: A couple of other unusual, but not uncommon, link forms.

Chains Part 4

What sort of Shaped Chains do we find?

If you remember, last time I divided shaped chains into chains that started out round, and chains that may not have started out round. The reason that I say “may not” is because we have no way of knowing, based on the final shapes of these chains if they started out as round links, or some other shape. Round links are definitely one of the easiest shapes to wrap, but modern link making equipment also uses square, oval and triangular mandrels to wrap loops. I have recently begun experimenting with unusually shaped mandrels. It definitely takes a little getting used to, but it has potential. Unless we found a mandrel, in use, that was just left there with unfinished links (and a few cut ones and a partial chain just to help us know what was going on) we have no positive proof of exactly how a link was made, all we have is the final result.

I should also mention that I am only currently discussing chains that are made from wire, not chains made from cast links. The chain on this gold enameled pendant from Germany is an excellent example of how cast links can be used, and just how elaborate some of them can be. And a La Tené chain with cast loops shows that simple can still be impressive.

Anyway, probably the simplest change from round is oval. This 9th to 8th century BC bronze chain from Iran is a classic example. The picture is good because you can actually see where most of the links open.

Another relatively easy way to change a link is simply to squish that oval even further. The basic form becomes a figure eight, without any crossing of wires. This iron chain shows the concept. I know that I have seen a better example, but of course, when you actually go looking for something…

And once you have squished a link into a figure eight, you can make the squished part of the link longer and wrap the center of the figure eight with a wire spiral. I have actually seen two different forms of this type of link, one where a separate spiral of wire is wrapped onto the link and another where the wrap is actually created from the same wire as the link. The first entry on this Pinterest page is a copy of a page from the original publication on the finds at Birka, Sweden. The page shows just a few of the different types of chains that were found there. Number 13 shows one of the chains where the wrap is actually the same wire that the link is made from.

progression of link shapes








This graphic shows the sort of natural progression that we can create in link formation. The links can be made as long as we want to, limited only by the limitations of the type of metal and the size of the wires that we use. Picture number 11 in the Birka chains is an excellent example of a long exaggerated link.

Next time: Link shapes that may make your brain hurt.

Chains! Part 2

So last time we talked a little about basic chains. And this time we need to talk about how the links are made and cut, and what we call the chain patterns.

The process for making plain round links is a simple one. Just take a wooden dowel that is the size of the inside of the links that you want to make and wrap the wire that you plan to use around the dowel. This diagram shows the basic process. The wire in the diagram is not packed as tightly as I would normally wind it, so that you can see the separate winds. Your goal is to lay the wire completely up against the previous piece of wire as you wind it. This will give you a nice tight coil with uniform proto-links. I call them proto-links right now because they haven’t grown up to be links yet. Each wrap of the wire will become a link.

sawing links

You will need a jewelers saw to cut the links properly. A jeweler’s saw basically looks like a coping saw, but it has blades with very fine teeth that will make a clean, smooth cut on your wire. I always buy my saw blades in packs of 1 dozen, because you will break blades, especially when you are learning to cut links.

And now a trick or two. Before you try to cut the coil of wire into links, wrap it with masking tape or painters’ tape. It helps to keep the coil from wobbling around as much and it helps keep the links from stretching as they are cut off of the coil. It also dramatically reduces the number of saw blades that you are likely to break.

When you are ready to saw the links, just slide the coil to the end of the dowel and cut away. Don’t worry if the saw blade cuts into the end of the dowel a little. If your saw blade gets too sticky from the tape, just use some fingernail polish remover to clean off the tape glue.

So now that we have links, we need to learn how to use them. The simplest form of chain is a one in one pattern. That simply means that one link hooks into one link. Like the top example in this picture. I just threw together three examples, they need some fine tuning before they are ready to go out into the world, but the picture shows 1 in 1, 2 in 1, and 2 in 2 pattern chains. These types of chains are all very common in pre-1600 crafts.

Chain Patterns Live

When I first went looking for good pictures of pre-1600 chains a lot of the pictures were so poor that you really couldn’t see much, but then I ran across several pieces of chains in a book called the Ancient Hungarians, which was published by the Hungarian National Museum, and suddenly I seemed to find good quality pictures of chains everywhere.

Next time we will talk about shaped chain links.