Do I need a mandrel? What is it? How do I use it? How do I pick one?
Those are some common questions, and here is some information that will help you sort it out.
A mandrel is any object that is used to form, size or shape the jewelry you are making. You can use "found objects" of a proper size and shape for your project, or you can purchase mandrels. Here's a bit of a run-down.
FOR SIZING RINGS OR BRACELETS - If you are making rings or certain kinds of bracelets (not strung or linked), you need a mandrel, or a set of mandrels, in sizes that match common ring or bracelet sizes. Most mandrels have markings on them. If you want to make a size 7 ring, you wrap the wire around the marking for that size on your mandrel. You would use the same approach for a wire bracelet, using the mandrel to assist with sizing.
FOR SHAPING RINGS OR BRACELETS - A ring mandrel will help ensure that your ring starts out, and stays, the size you want it to be when finished. It will also help you make sure it stays round, so it will feel comfortable. Bracelet mandrels, on the other hand come in round and oval. I prefer the oval shape that is shown in the picture, as it most closely resembles the shape of the wrist, but some designs will call for round bracelet mandrels.
FOR JUMP RINGS - If you are going to make chain maille and cut your own rings, you will want at least one set of jump ring mandrels, and perhaps more. Some sets come in metric increments, and other sets come in increments of 32nds or 64ths of an inch. If you are just going to cut occasional jump rings for connectors in basic jewelry, a full set of jump ring mandrels is over-kill.
STEPPED VERSUS SLOPED MANDRELS - What? The ones in the picture are stepped. If you look at a supplier that has a wide variety of tools, you will likely see some mandrels that are sort of a long smooth cone, and others that have a series of "steps" with each step having a flat (not sloped) surface and with each step being slightly smaller in diameter than the previous
step. The advantage of the sloped kind is that it is more readily available, and sometimes less expensive than a stepped mandrel. The disadvantage is that if you wrap wire around it, say 3 times, each wrap is actually in a different place and therefore a different size. This means you need to remove the wrapped work, turn it around, and place it back on the mandrel to even out the size of the 3 wraps so they are closer to the same size. I prefer the stepped mandrels because the diameter around each step is exactly the same, so all of the wraps around it will be the same size. The step also helps with a bundle of wire that has been wrapped together, keeping the entire bundle on the same diameter.
WOOD, STEEL OR PLASTIC? - If you decide to invest in a stepped mandrel it will likely be more expensive because those are generally made of steel. These are good because you can actually pound on them if necessary while you are making your piece. Plastic or wood are O.K. but you need to keep a couple things in mind. You can't pound on it, for one thing. And being softer than steel, tightly wrapped wire can actually gouge it and be difficult if not impossible to remove from the mandrel. Therefore one needs to keep that in mind and work accordingly.
FOUND OBJECTS - Yes, you can use found objects as mandrels. Getting the right size is a little more challenging, but it can be done. Wood dowling is very commonly used - just be sure not to wrap too tightly so the wire doesn't bite into the wood. Knitting needles make great mandrels for small things like jump rings. If you need a mandrel for coiling wire, you can use small diameter wood dowels, or a length of wire that has been work hardened. For bracelets, you can use larger diameter found objects such as glasses, jars, cans - anything that is round and in the circumference you need. Use a flexible tape measure to check the size. Don't forget to look in the garage - there are lots of round things there!
ANY OTHER OPTIONS? - Oh yes! Since I work with polymer clay, I make forming tools and "mandrels" when I need odd shapes or sizes. For example, if you need an oval form for shaping a bracelet, here's what you would do. Grab yourself a package or two of polymer clay or use scraps. You will also need an oval template with a circumference of the size and shape you need for the finished bracelet. Condition the clay by kneading or rolling, roll it out flat, and cut several of the oval shapes out of the clay. Stack them up until you have a stack that is at least 1/2 inch thick, or even thicker if you want to make a wide bracelet. Smooth the edges, as this will be your forming surface so you want it all lined up and even. Bake it, cool it, and you have a forming tool. You can't pound on it, but it will provide you with a surface of the right size and shape against which you can press the bracelet while shaping.
So, what is the strangest object you have ever used for a mandrel in a pinch? Keep it clean!!!!!!!