Beading - stringing beads together in various ways - is a fun craft. Like many crafts, you can end up spending lots of money on it, but you don't have to. Unfortunately, I've seen the case where newbie beaders ask more experienced beaders what equipment they need, and the response included, in their list of "essential" equipment, tools that I have never used myself. Hardly "essential". So I've written this article to assure people that they can take up beading with hardly any equipment at all; that they can start small, to see if they like it, without having to spend tons of money first.
- Fine needle.
That's all you need. Because basic beading is just stringing together beads on a thread.
Kinds of thread:
- Cotton: can make knots easily, but tends to break more than others
- polycotton or polyester thread: can be knotted easily, doesn't break as much
- nylon "invisible" thread: hard to break, but slippery; isn't as easy to tie knots in
Kinds of needle:
What is required is a needle fine enough that the bead will go over the eye of the needle plus two widths of thread.
- normal fine needle: easy to find in sewing shops; impossible to use with very small beads, but okay with larger ones
- specialized beading needle: harder to find, but easier to use with very small beads
A few more minimal tools which you might find around the house:
- a teaspoon: really quite useful for scooping up beads when you're transferring them from one container to another.
- clear nail polish: sometimes one can avoid having to use a needle to thread the beads by stiffening up the end of the thread with a few coats of nail polish.
- Bulldog clip or clothes peg: To use as a bead-stopper, which one attaches to the end of one's current strand, so that the beads don't fall off if one has to put it down. I find a small bulldog clip easier to use than a clothes peg.
- tweezers: some people find it easier to pick up beads with tweezers.
- thimble: if you have a tendency to poke yourself with sharp needles.
- pliers: (see "jump rings" below). You don't have to have specialist jewellery pliers, just a normal set of pliers. If you're using normal pliers, the ones that narrow towards the end (long-nose pliers) are best. Jewellery pliers tend to be smaller than normal pliers, so one doesn't need to limit oneself to long-nose pliers in that case.
- epoxy or superglue: if you want to glue beads to things instead of threading them (see "brooches" below).
What Are These Things Called Findings?
Findings are those little bits and pieces one uses to finish off a necklace: clasps, fasteners, earring wires, brooch pins, and so on. No, I don't know why they're called "findings".
Clasps: For fastening the ends of a necklace or bracelet together. One can buy specialist clasps, or one can use other less expensive materials.
Clasps made out of ordinary things:
- hook-and-eye fastenings: yes, the ones you get from a sewing shop; they do fine for fastening a simple necklace
- button-and-loop: take a normal button at one end, and some string at the other, and form the string into a loop which is just big enough for the button to go through. Another cheap and simple fastener. One can use a fancy button to make the clasp a feature. One can also make the loop more fancy by making it using macramé knots or crochet stitches.
Clasps designed for jewellery:
- hook-and-eye clasps: these from a specialist shop; still a simple hook and loop, but can get quite large and ornate
- box clasps: you pinch them to fasten them, and when you let go, the bent metal springs back and latches into the other half of the clasp. These can be called "filigree" or "diamante" clasps, because they can be very elaborately decorated with same. Can also come with multiple loops at the ends, to make a multi-stranded necklace.
- toggle clasps, or loop-and-toggle clasps: one of my favourite types of clasp, because the clasp itself can be a decorative feature of the necklace, rather than being hidden away. The clasp consists of two parts, the "loop" or "ring" part, which is a ring with a little loop attached to the side. The other half is the "toggle" part, which is a bar with a loop in the middle. One end of the necklace attaches to the little loop on the ring, and the other end of the necklace attaches to the little loop on the bar. The way it is fastened, the bar is pushed through the ring, and then pulled back so that it is resting cross-wise on the ring, thus not falling through.
- fish clasps: so called because they look like a fish when they're closed. A cross between a box clasp and a hook clasp; the hook is put through the fastener, then it is pushed inside and locks in as with a box clasp. These are good for when you want a belt-and-braces approach to necklace-fastening.
- magnetic clasps: each half of the clasp has a magnet in it. Which is a cool concept, especially for fastening bracelets, but I've found that many magnetic clasps are so weak that the item falls off if you sneeze.
The following clasps require a ring or tag to fasten on to. A ring is a ring of metal which is attached to one end of the necklace (the clasp to the other). A tag is a flat teardrop-shaped piece of metal with two holes; one small hole to attach to the necklace, and a large hole for the clasp to attach to.
- bolt-ring clasp: these are common ones for fastening a necklace; the round loop with a spring-loaded sticky-out thing. I dislike these, because they are the most fiddly to open and close.
- Lobster clasp or Parrot clasp (the terms appear to be used interchangeably). I find these easier to fasten than bolt-ring clasps.
Earring findings: For making earrings with. I don't think there's anything one can substitute for the specialized earring findings, unlike for clasps. These can be divided into those for pierced ears, and clip-ons. They can be further subdivided into those with loops that one can attach things to, and those with a flat surface that one can glue things to.
Brooch findings: For making brooches with. Most of these are designed for one to glue things to.
Rings (jump-rings/split-rings): The jack-of-all-trades of jewellery making. Round rings of metal that one uses to connect things together. These are of two types:
- jump rings: a circle of metal with a slit on one side; twist them open with pliers, attach what one wants to attach, and close them again with pliers.
- split rings: thin metal that loops around twice, like a keyring. One has to pry the loop open, slip the whatever-it-is in the gap, and turn the ring around until the whatever has been pulled inside the ring.
It's a toss up as to which one of these is easier to use. Yes, the jump ring requires pliers to use, but if one doesn't use a tool to pry open the split-ring, it can play havoc with one's fingernails.
Headpins and Eyepins: Straight pieces of metal one can string things onto and then attach to other things. Head-pins have a flat head (like a sewing pin, but blunt at the pointy end) to stop things falling off. Some head-pins have quite fancy ends. Eye-pins have a loop at one end, so that one can fasten other things to it.
Types of Bead
There are beads, and there are beads, and if you're going to buy them, there are a few terms you'll need to know.
Seed beads: The smallest type of bead, round like little seeds. Made of glass. Vary from 2mm to 4mm in size. These are staples of beading, you'll need these.
Bugle beads: Tube-shaped beads, made of glass; generally about 2-3mm in diameter, and vary from 3-25mm in length.
Pony beads (aka Jug beads or Crow beads): Medium-sized beads with large holes. Round or cylindrical in shape. Usually about 6mm to 9mm in size. Can be glass or plastic or metal. The large holes make it possible for these to be strung onto string, yarn or leather thonging.
Pandora-style beads: 10-12mm donut-shaped beads with very large holes, designed to be strung onto snake-chain. They can be made of metal, glass, glass-and-metal, and clay.
Other beads: These are all the rest; there are many, many styles of large bead. Most of them have small holes, unlike Pony or Pandora beads. Plastic beads are cheapest, but they don't have the sparkle or weight of glass beads. Then there are beads of semi-precious stone, metal, wood, clay, horn, bone or shell. All of them have their own attractions and disadvantages. They also come from different sources. Czech glass beads are good quality and reasonably priced. Indian glass beads are cheaper and less uniform. However, you can use Indian beads to give the work a rustic style.
Another term that gets used is "feature bead". This is used to refer to a bead which is ornate rather than plain, or perhaps particularly large - a bead with features that make it stand out from the other beads in the work.
While there are lots of colours of bead, and the best thing to do when buying them is to have a project in mind, there are certain colours of beads which I find are useful to have around, to use as fillers and accents to a necklace.
- black: a dramatic contrast, and good for highlighting feature beads.
- silver: small silver metal beads, or silver-lined clear seed beads; good for spacing out larger beads.
- gold: as with silver, when the large beads in question look better with gold than with silver.
With findings, depending on where one looks, one can get them in a number of metal colours: silver, gold, copper, black, brass. However, not only are silver and gold the easiest to find, they are the most useful to have.
Note that when I say "silver", I mean silver-coloured. Unless one intends to go professional, it is not necessary to use sterling silver findings in one's beading.
So you have your beads... how are you going to store them? Seed beads especially need good storage, or you will find them all over the floor. However, you don't need to buy expensive bead storage kits (though you can if you want to).
- Fishing tackle boxes and/or toolboxes. From a hardware store. Designed for putting lots of little things into. Really very useful. You can put beads and findings in the small compartments, and tools in the larger.
- Matchboxes. The cheapest and best thing for storing seed beads in (and then you put the matchboxes in your toolbox). You don't have to wait for someone to use up the matches; you can just buy the matches from the supermarket, have a little bonfire, and keep the matchboxes. One of the good things about matchboxes for storing seed beads is that you don't have to pour the beads into another container to use them; you can pick them right out of the matchbox. Note, however, that if you are doing a project-on-the-go and you put your project inside a soft project-bag, it might be best to put the matchboxes inside a container (e.g. a takeaway food container) or secure them with rubber bands, so that they don't accidentally get pushed open.
- Enhanced matchboxes, version 1. To make matchboxes even nicer to use, take a craft knife and some wide transparent sticky tape. Cut a rectangle out of the top of the matchbox cover, not too big or it will lose its structure. Cover the hole with sticky tape. Then, carefully, cover the inside of the hole with sticky-tape (otherwise the seed beads will stick to it). Now you have a little clear window you can see into the matchbox with, showing the colour of the beads inside.
- Enhanced matchboxes, version 2. Like version 1, you cut out a rectangle from the matchbox cover. However, in addition to the sticky tape, you need some clear plastic, taken from old plastic packaging. Cut a rectangle of plastic a little larger than the hole in the matchbox cover. Place the plastic rectangle over the hole in the matchbox cover, and stick it in place by wrapping sticky-tape over the top. The advantages of this version is that you don't have to try to put sticky-tape on the inside of the matchbox cover, and the window is a bit clearer. The disadvantages of this version is that one has to do more cutting, and one might not have any clear plastic hanging around anyway.
- Pill-boxes. Especially the semi-transparent multi-compartment ones. If they can keep tiny pills in them without spilling, they can keep seed-beads. You can find pill-boxes cheap from discount stores rather than buying them from a pharmacy. The multi-compartment pill-boxes can vary widely in size; one can use the small ones for small amounts of seed beads, and the bigger ones for more or larger beads.
- Tiny jam jars. You know those jam-sampler packs one can get which have about 4-6 little jars of different kinds of jam? Or the tiny jam-jars they give you with breakfast in some hotels? Keep the jars, wash them out, and put beads into them.
- Smallest-size plastic food containers. You can find these in the supermarket; the best ones I've found are ones that are designed for salad-dressing, because they are very small and compact, and the lids are air-tight. Snack-food containers, baby-food containers... the smallest ones you can find. Especially the ones which are transparent, or have transparent lids. These are also good for temporary storage of the beads one is using for one's current project; one container for each colour.
- Large rectangular plastic take-away food containers. These are useful for putting your small containers, matchboxes and jam-jars into if one doesn't want to use a toolbox. Put them in a drawer or on a shelf; they stack quite nicely.
- Multi-compartment plastic boxes with hinged lid. There are a few different styles of these, but they're about the size of an A4 piece of paper, and about an inch to 1.5 inches high, and usually have 16-18 compartments inside. The prices of these vary enormously, depending on where you get them. In a craft store, you could pay $30 for one, yet in a cheap-import store in my local shopping centre, I can get one for $3. These boxes are particularly good for larger beads that are too big or too numerous for matchboxes. There are two styles of these; the ones with removable dividers, and the ones where the compartment sizes are fixed. I actually prefer the ones without removable dividers, because if the dividers don't fit snugly, you have gaps in the compartments, and beads might not stay where they are put.
- Tiny paint-pots/craft containers. Found in craft stores. Designed for putting little bits of paint into and keeping it from drying out. They're transparent cylindrical containers with semi-transparent lids, about an inch in diameter and an inch high. These are good for tiny amounts of beads that would rattle around in a matchbox.
- Specialist bead containers: transparent plastic containers with pop-top lids. I've come across three styles of these: cylindrical, long and thin; cylindrical, short and wide; and rectangular, similar to a Tic-tac box(*). I am including them on the list because they are still pretty good, and they aren't horribly expensive if you buy them in bulk. Though if you're in a position to need that many containers... you're just as bad as I am.
(*) I suppose Tic-tac boxes would make good bead containers too, but I've never tried using them.
Another type of bead container which is pretty popular - but which I don't use myself - is zip-lock bags, particularly the very small ones that one can get from craft stores. I don't like them because they don't stack neatly, but others don't mind that.
One type of bead container I do not recommend is the one which is a stack of cylindrical transparent containers. They are much-touted as craft storage, but I find them irritating, because you can't use them separately; the lid of each container is the bottom of the next container. Only the very top container of the stack has a lid of its own. The only thing I've found them remotely useful for is as a set of travelling containers for a given project. Even then, you need to be careful to choose higher-quality ones which have proper screw-top closure rather than screw-latch closure, or they will come undone in your bag and there will be beads everywhere.
Tools and Materials To Make Things Easier
So, you've been beading for a while, and you're finding some things a bit frustrating. Now's the time to invest in a few more tools and things to make your crafting a bit easier. If you want to.
Bead board: Plastic board with flocked coating, with sections for beads, and grooves with markings at regular intervals for laying out a necklace design. I find it useful when designing how to string a necklace, rather than just popping beads on and hoping for the best.
Another set of pliers: It's easier to open jump-rings with two pliers than with one.
Callottes (aka "bead tips" or "clam shells"): A nifty little finding which makes fastening and ending a necklace easier. You thread the thread through the hole in the bottom of the clam-shell, tie a big knot so it won't fall out, fold over the two halves of the clam-shell, thus hiding the knot. Then you attach the hook part of the clam-shell to the necklace-clasp.
Tiger-tail and crimps: Plastic-coated braided wire, for heavy-duty stringing. Much tougher than thread; doesn't break like thread does. Easier to string because you don't need a needle, since the tiger-tail is stiff. Fastened using crimps. A crimp is a small metal bead, which you string onto the tiger-tail, then pull the tiger-tail back through it so it forms a loop, then you squish the crimp-bead with pliers, and it holds the tiger-tail in place. I find this much easier than trying to tie knots in thread.
Fishing wire and crimps: One can use fishing wire and fasten it like tiger-tail above. One can also use fishing wire and crimps to make an "invisible" necklace, since the fishing wire is transparent, and one can hold the beads in place by putting a crimp on either side of the bead.
Shears and/or wire-cutter: For cutting the tiger-tail and fishing wire. If you use ordinary scissors for that, they will go blunt very quickly.
So you've been stringing beads together, and you want to see what else you can do with beads and/or jewellery making. There are a number of directions you can go.
This uses seed beads and stitches them together in various patterns with various kinds of stitches. Can be used to make tubes of beads as well as rectangles and other shapes. Patterns are designed on graph paper. Creates jewellery, embellishments of clothes and accessories - even little boxes can be made with this technique.
Requires only seed beads, thread, needle, scissors. And lots of patience.
Weaving beads on a bead-loom. Makes long flexible rectangles of beads. Patterns are designed on graph paper.
Requires bead loom (though one can make one's own), seed beads, thread, needle, scissors. And patience.
Combines beading with macramé techniques; a combination of stringing beads and knotting string. Mainly used for jewellery, but could be used for anything that can be made with macramé.
Requires decorative string small enough for beads to be strung onto, beads with holes large enough to string onto the string, scissors. Also having a macramé board helps, though a small portable cork-board or bulletin board would do. And pins or T-pins to pin the work onto the board.
D. Bead Crochet
Combines beading with crochet techniques. The beads can embellish the crochet, or the crochet can embellish the beading.
Requires decorative string small enough for beads to be strung onto, beads with holes large enough to string onto the string, crochet hooks, scissors.
I find with both micro-macramé and bead crochet, that fine crochet yarn works well, especially the satin-like polyester yarn, because of its pretty finish. But with larger-holed beads, such as pony beads, one can use thicker yarn, including metallic yarn.
One can also do bead knitting (using knitting) and bead spool-knitting (using a spool knitter). With the spool-knitting, one can either string on beads as part of the knitting, or one can drop large beads down the centre of the hollow tube that is created by the spool-knitting.
For crochet, knitting and spool-knitting, one can also use very fine wire. This needs practice, since the wire can break if it is bent too much.
Combines beading with decorative embellishment with and of wire. Wire is bent into decorative shapes such as spirals, used to make findings, used to wrap around beads and objects, used to wrap around wire to make pretty shapes. As well as the standard gold, silver, copper or brass-coloured wire, one can get "craft wire" which is enamelled in different bright colours. The craft wire needs to be treated gently, because the enamel can scrape off.
Requires beads, wire, long-nosed pliers, round-nosed pliers, wire cutters.
Additional optional tools:
- nylon-tipped pliers: used to straighten out bent wire without scratching it
- flat-nosed pliers: for squashing things with more force than long-nosed pliers
- cup burr: to smooth out the freshly-cut ends of wire
- Jig (Thing-a-ma-Jig): a peg-board with pegs to make shapes to wrap wire around.
- Mandrels, or a "coiling gizmo": to make coils of wire to use decoratively, either to decorate thicker wire, or to make wire beads with.
- hammer and anvil: for flattening and tempering the wire forms. The "anvil" doesn't have to be large; one can get solid steel blocks which are only about three inches square, intended for jewellery making.
F. Chain Maille
Interlinking jump-rings to make decorative chains, rectangles, cylinders and... chain mail. This can be combined with beads, or done as a craft by itself. As well as the standard gold, silver, copper or brass-coloured jump-rings, one can also get anodized aluminium jump rings in different colours. The anodized aluminium rings need to be treated gently, because the colour can scrape off.
For any given project, it is wise to use rings only from the same source, because not everyone makes the exact same size jump rings, but in chain maille, one needs to use the exact same size jump rings; not just the same in diameter, but the same gauge wire.
Also, if one is using jump-rings for chain-maille, they need to be of a higher quality than normal jump-rings. Look for a description that says "saw-cut": this means that the jump-rings have been cut with a jeweller's saw rather than snipped with cutters. Saw-cut rings have flush ends, which means that the join when they are closed is tight and smooth.
Requires lots of jump-rings, and at least two pliers(*). Also, a good chain-maille jump-ring supplier.
(*) Because one will be using these a lot, it makes a huge difference if the pliers have padded/foam handles. Your hands will thank you.
Those who are heavily into this craft will make their own jump-rings, which requires additional equipment such as a jeweller's saw.
Even More Tools and Materials
Some people swear by the following tools, and some people swear at them.
- bead-stopper: a specialist device to attach to the end of a strand to stop the beads falling off when you have to put it down. It's like a spring with a little handle at each end. You don't need a bead-stopper - as I said above, you can use a bulldog clip - but I find it a little easier to use than a bulldog clip, so I use it.
- split-ring pliers or tweezers: with a bendy-down bit which is designed to pry open the split in split-rings. Not essential, but my fingernails have thanked me since I started using one.
- crimping pliers: pliers designed specifically for squashing crimps so that they remain curved, not squashed completely flat. Some people think that looks more professional. Other people think it's a waste of money.
- bead spinner: a device which is supposed to help you collect beads on your needle
- knotting tool: to help you tie knots in thread
- glue gun: for gluing things to other things
- multi-purpose drill tool: for drilling, engraving, sanding and polishing things.
There are also many other materials and findings that one can use.
- Bails: for attaching pendants to necklaces (instead of using jump-rings). Some bails attach to a loop, others are meant to be glued to the pendant.
- Bell caps: metal finding which has a bell/cone shape with a loop on the top. Used to turn a bead or object into a pendant by gluing the cap onto the top of the object.
- Bead caps: round metal caps with a hole in the centre; purely decorative, strung at either end of a large bead to make it extra pretty.
- Ring findings: for making the kind of rings you wear on your fingers. Some have loops to attach things to, others have a flat surface to glue things to.
- Memory wire: for making rings, bracelets and necklaces that wrap around one's limbs and don't need clasps. Designed for people with small limbs.
- Leather thonging: for that rustic look.
- Waxed cotton: cheaper than leather thonging.
- Leather crimps: unlike standard crimps, these are not metal beads, but a U-shaped piece of metal that folds over (first one side, then the other). One can get plain crimps, or crimps that have a loop at one end for attaching to other things.
- metal chain: functional or decorative, in many different styles and sizes
- Nylon mesh tubing: one can drop the beads inside the tube, or string pandora-style beads on the outside of it.
- Wire mesh tubing: as with nylon mesh tubing, but one can also bend it into various forms, tease it out or squish it down.
Going Further Up And Further In
There are other related crafts that I haven't dabbled in, so I can't give any advice about them. A number of them require expensive materials and/or equipment; the rest simply didn't interest me enough.
- Polymer clay beads
- terracotta clay beads
- felted wool beads
- rolled paper/cloth beads
- glass lampwork (glass + blowtorch)
- carved wood/bone/shell beads
Expensive jewellery making:
- precious metal clay
I hope y'all weren't bored by this fairly comprehensive overview.