Meinssen Handmade Rosaries, Construction Techniques, Materials & Sizing
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Catholic rosary beads handmade by Ann Meinssen
Rosary making instructions on materials and sizing
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Bead and bead strand basics

The first step in learning to create your own chained rosary (where the beads are joined by wire loops) is learning all about beads: the materials that they are made from, a sense of their actual sizes, and most important of all, how the sizes of the holes drilled through them will affect your entire project.

Choosing a bead material: You've doubtless seen beads made from everything under the sun--glass, clay, wood, stone, plastic, shells, metals, ceramic, seeds, bone, horn and corals. There's no end to the fabulous combinations you can come up with to make your rosary a truly individual work of art.

When choosing a bead type for a rosary, fragility and weight are two concerns that you should bear in mind. A rosary must be able to stand up to tough handling, and survive being dropped a short distance without shattering. Accidents do happen, but a careful selection of material will go a long way toward preserving your craftsmanship. It's also very important to remember that semi-precious stones and many glass (or lead crystal) beads are heavier than plastic or wood, so the wire that you select must be able to support their weight.

Beads on a strand: a majority of beads are sold temporarily strung by the full strand. A full strand is 16 inches long. Let's have a look at approximately how many beads of a particular size that gives you per strand, and what all of that means to your pocketbook:

bead counts per 16 inch strand chart
photo of bead varieties

A five decade rosary requires a total of 59 beads: 53 Ave beads plus 6 Pater Noster beads. It's your esthetic choice whether to have all 59 beads the same, or have 53 the same and the 6 Paters differ. Now let's look back at that chart. You will see that a single, full 16 inch strand of 5mm, 6mm or 7mm beads will make an entire rosary if all 59 beads match. When you move up to the larger sizes, two strands are required. Please note that at the 7mm size, because of slight variations in hand cut bead sizes, you may get a few less than 59 beads (but you should get at least 53 for the Aves), so ask your supplier before you purchase. One other note, sometimes the strands are not a full 16 inches, so count carefully!

Luckily, there are many bead sellers out there who sell "half strands," 12 inch strands, and "bracelet" lengths of beads. 3 half strands or bracelets of 8mm beads will easily get you to 59 beads, and you will save money on extras that you don't need. And if you're really fortunate, some bead sellers will even offer you the few extra it takes to round out your purchase of a single strand of 8mm to 53 beads, but those sellers are very special, and very rare.

When designing your rosary with Paters of a different bead, don't forget to add in the cost of that additional strand. Any extra beads that you end up with after making a single rosary may be used in chaplets or jewelry or as the Paters for another set.

Bead sizes and how they affect your project: Let's start first with trying to get an idea of how big a 6mm bead really is. If you're shopping online for beads, it's difficult to get a sense of sizes. Below is a size chart that we've created to help you. On a 15 to 17 inch monitor set to 800 by 600 pixels, these beads should appear very close to actual size.

comparative bead size chart
There are advantages to the different bead sizes used for the Aves. Cost is one factor. Another is the age and physical capacity of the person for whom you're designing. For a young person or a woman with small hands and dexterity, a small 5 to 6.5mm bead, especially when capped, is certainly adequate. For a number of semi-precious stones with translucency, small sizes are the best quality. Some are only very rarely even offered larger, and the prices for those strands can leave you sticker shocked. Small beads are much more difficult for a man or the elderly or a person with a disease of the hand to manipulate, however. Generally, adults prefer the feel of the 8mm bead. 10mm beads are approaching the upper limit of functionality for Aves, especially with stones, because the resulting rosary will be very large and very heavy. Men don't seem to mind that much, but rosaries of that size are cumbersome. 10mm and larger beads are best kept for Paters.

A note about Pater bead sizes: there's an upper limit for these, too! If you want to have your Pater beads larger than your Aves, scale is definitely a factor. Don't overreach. Let's talk about round beads first. A rosary made with 6mm round Aves looks odd paired with 12mm round Paters. But it can look great with a teardrop shaped bead, or a flattened or elongated bead that's 12mm long and 7 or 8mm wide. The length is not as critical as the diameter, in other words, except concerning weight. For 8mm Aves, perfectly round Paters over 12.5mm are pushing the esthetic limit as well. You can get away with a bit more for faceted or carved round beads, but if you are a beginner without a solid sense of bead sizes, you risk less disappointment keeping a tight range of scale in mind.

A last, critical consideration on bead sizes for Aves is the drill hole. Just when you think you've got bead sizes and cost outlays figured out, here comes a new twist. And it's a biggie. The drill hole of your bead changes everything about your rosary--the wire gauge, the use of bead caps, the size of rings you can make functional, the Pater bead size your rosary can physically support and so forth. Beads in the 5mm to 6.5mm range are far more likely to be all over the map as far as drill hole sizes than 7mm and larger. The best recommendation, especially if you don't plan on stocking a variety of wire sizes, is either ask your bead seller for a definitive drill hole diameter or wait until you have the beads in hand before purchasing any other design element for your rosary.

header, uncoiling the tangle of wire choices

Wire is the workhorse of your rosary. So let's explore gauges, the metals it may be made with, and it's shapes and properties of hardness and softness.

gauge translations: If wire thicknesses were given in millimeters (as bead drill hole sizes are), rather than in gauge sizes, novice beaders would have a much easier time of getting a great fit. To make matters worse, gauges get smaller as the wire gets thicker. To help you, we've created the gauge chart below to take the guesswork out of choosing the right gauge for your handmade rosary. Diameters are rounded to the nearest one tenth of a millimeter.

wire gauge converstion chart
photo of wire types

The wire diameters given in the chart above are an indicator of the minimum required bead drill that your bead must have in order to accomodate a wire size. So while a 20g wire will nearly fill a 1mm diameter drill hole, an 18g wire must have a minimum 1mm diameter drill.

Very generally speaking, it's rare to find an 8mm bead that will not accomodate a 20g wire, and likewise, be too loose on a 24g wire.

An experienced rosary maker will generally use about four feet of wire for a looped rosary made with 6mm beads. An 8mm bead rosary, where the individual wire sections per bead are cut about one and one quarter inches long, will take approximately six feet for 20g.

The metals used to make wire: Gold and silver, brass, bronze, and copper are common choices for "solid" wire. Brass, copper and steel are often used as the base metal for wire that is plated in gold or silver, rhodium and tin. Wire also comes in enameled colors and clear-coats, gold, pink, red and green vermeil (gold plated over silver) or antiqued finishes. Gold and silver filled wires have a thin sheet of precious metal bonded to a metal core, and are an excellent choice for their durability (the precious metal doesn't "wear off" like a plated metal might), reasonable cost and quality second only to solid Sterling or gold.

Sterling and other wire is often sold by the ounce rather than the foot. An ounce of Sterling wire will give you about 19 feet of 20g. One ounce in 18g will yield only 12 feet, so be sure that if you're trying to buy wire for more than one project, you keep the gauges and their footage yields in mind.

Wire shapes and properties: Wire is available in shapes other than round. Many great looking antique chained rosaries, especially beefy, masculine ones, are made with square wire, with square wire ring caps to top the beads. The challenge here is less in finding shaped wire than in finding the findings to match. Wire also comes in oval and half round for more design options.

Wire is also classified by hardness, i.e. flexibility. Soft wire bends easily. Half hard wire is more difficult to manipulate. In the finished product, this means that loops formed with half hard wire are harder to pull open than soft wire loops. This is much less of a concern in the heavier gauges, 20g and thicker, but really has to be taken into consideration for the thinner gauges.

If you choose to make a rosary with 18g half hard wire, you may find that you need to use slightly longer pieces of wire per bead in order to have a firm enough grip to make your loops. It's tough stuff, but if your bead drills and bead cap holes (should you want to use them) can take 18g, and you're strong enough to bend it, the final result is fantastic. Around here, we like to joke that you could hang a truck off of it, but of course we have no empirical evidence to support a claim like that. We just love the rugged feel of the finished product, no matter how much the manicure suffers.

header, how to use rings or links to cap beads

Where to get the rings: Ring caps may be "made" with either standard jump rings (a little saw-cut ring of wire used to link jewelry parts together), or with links which are taken, two by two, from lengths of unsoldered chain. Chain and jump rings come one of two ways--open and closed. Closed jump rings and the links of closed chain are soldered shut. If you find a length of chain with links of the perfect size for ring caps, make sure that it isn't soldered. Otherwise, you will lose every other link because you have to cut the links off rather than opening them to slip them apart. You will be spending a good deal of money for wasted material.

Critical sizing: The tolerances of a great fit of ring cap to wire size to bead size is in the tenths of millimeters.

Thick wire won't fit in too small a ring. Thin wire with too large a ring will require a larger, and therefore, weaker loop. And the ring itself must not be so large in diameter that it looks awkward on the bead. The best way to describe this is with photographs:

closeup too small a ring for the wire gauge closeup too large a ring for the wire gauge closeup ring too large for the bead size

In the first photograph, the wire is 18g tested with a thin jump ring which is 3.5mm in diamter. The wire gauge used to make the jump ring is about 22g. The jump ring is too small to provide nice coverage for the cut end of the loop, and, as commonly occurs, the jump ring is pushed open unattractively by the heavy wire.

In the second photograph, the wire is 22g in a properly sized loop tested with a 4mm diameter ring which is 1mm thick. The ring is too large for the wire gauge of the loop. Here the bead is turned upside down, and you can see how the ring falls away from the bead and slides up the loop. Messy! The loop should set the ring tight againt the bead end.

In the third photograph, the ring and wire match well, but the ring (a closed metal "bead" 1mm x 4.2mm) is too large for the 6mm round bead, which is not esthetically pleasing.

Very generally, the diameter of the ring cap should be about half the maximum diameter of the bead.

Optimum pairings of wire size to ring size: For the most reliable fit for the largest range of bead sizes, use 20g wire with 3.5mm to 3.7mm diameter jump rings or chain links. A good range of thickness for the jump rings or links will be 0.8mm to 1.2mm.

For beads (usually 8mm and over) which you are looping with 18g wire, use 3.8 to 4.2mm diameter jump rings or chain links. The thickness of the jump ring or chain link should measure approximately .8mm to 1.5mm for a tidy look.

Using small metal beads as ring caps: A third source which you may choose for ring caps are small metal "beads" which look like they might work as a ring (some manufacturers call anything soldered shut a bead). Be careful here. Most "beads" are 2mm and up in thickness, with narrow holes, and tend to give a squared-off look to round beads. Adding all that extra length (2mm on one side of the bead and 2mm on the other) can also make it difficult to acquire a tight, secure fit, and you will be using up more of your wire supply. For your best bet, look to genuine Bali handmade or Thai Karen silver handmade for "beads" which are 1mm thick and 3.5mm to 4.0mm in diameter and with an opening somewhere near 2mm. These can be really pretty, with rope and many other patterns, and add a lot of punch to your designs. Or look to knock-off Bali designs which are sometimes available in base metals.

bead caps header

When attempting to design a rosary with bead cap details, you always have to keep an eye on how your finished piece is going to feel to someone praying it. In this way, it differs from a jewelry piece, because a rosary using special touches like bead caps should be made as handsome as possible without being a constant distraction while praying it.

The smoothness factor: A smooth feel is achieved in one of two ways, either by selecting caps with rounded or unobtrusive details, or by selecting caps which do not entirely cover over the end of the the bead. That is, choosing bead caps of a small size relative to the size of the bead.

Sizing caps in two directions: Quite often, cap suppliers don't mention the depth of the cap, or they don't give the inner dimension of the diameter because they're not given it by the manufacturer. A heavy bead cap that has an 8mm outer diameter may only fit a 6mm bead. It can all get very confusing.

If you want a safe bet for your round beads, look for a bead cap with a saucer-like, rather than a cup-like, shape that is two-thirds the maximum diameter of your bead. This solves two problems. Sticking with "flattened" shape bead caps make them useful over a wide range of bead sizes, so you're more likely to find something that works. Secondly, by keeping the cap diameter small, you eliminate all those problems of smoothness mentioned above. They can be decorated to the hilt but they won't be a distraction during prayer. A small cap that is 2mm deep is a great choice for most rosaries made with 20g wire.

The saucer shape is also very nice with rondell beads, and here you can use caps that are up to the full diameter of the rondell bead, since you don't have that rounded end to overcome.

Small caps of a medium depth, about 4mm deep, also look nice, but be prepared to work a lot harder on getting a tight fit with your loops, because you're extending the total length of a single bead section by 8mm. This is best done with heavy 18g to 20g half hard wire that really doesn't go anywhere once you bend it. Small deep caps look great on the ends of fully rounded oval beads, teardrops, rice and other elongated shapes, and because they hug the bead end, are much easier to use for those beads rather than round beads.

For traditionally fitted, deep cup-shaped caps, find suppliers who show photos of their caps used on actual beads of a given size, or who mention that the cap works well on 6mm or 9mm, etc. beads. There are a number of these suppliers listed in our Resources section.

A final important note on caps and overall design: Just like every other choice you make for your rosary design, you have to be sure that the wire gauge you've chosen will pass through the hole in the cap, or that the hole in the cap is not so large that you have to make large, weak loops to hold them. The wire end does not need to be tucked back into the hole, so you don't have to worry so much about tenths of millimeters as you do with ring caps, but you still need to shop with some care.

art photo of scattered beads and caps
header, chains, connectors, pins and jump rings

The last set of materials that you will need to purchase are the connecting elements--chain or jewelry connectors and jump rings. These parts are used to attach decades of Aves to the Pater Nosters, center medal and crucifix. Included here also is a short section on using eyepins rather than wire to loop your beads.

Chain link size: If you go below 2.5mm in either length or width, you may end up struggling to fit your bead loops or jump rings through the links. A nice range of link sizes that seem to look good and function well with most reasonably sized rosaries is 3mm to 4mm wide and about 5mm long. The links may be even longer than this if they're not too wide.

Jump rings and split rings are used to connect your center medal and crucifix to the chain, to add two-hole connectors and also to add religious medals to your rosary. Jump rings are single circles of wire. A split ring resembles a key ring, where you open the wire to the side and thread an element between doubled rings.

If you have strong, unsoldered chain, you may be able to eliminate the jump rings at the center by opening a link, threading it through the little loops of the center, and attaching that way. The bail on a crucifix is often large, though, and you will most likely need a jump ring there.

Sometimes, especially when using unsoldered rollo chain, the loops of the center medal are a little too small to accomodate the thickness of the chain link. The attachment should roll freely. In this case, a jump ring sized to fit the size of the center medal's loops would be a better choice.

A third alternative to the jump or split ring is a figure eight ring, where two loops of wire run perpendicular to one another. One element goes on one ring, the element you wish to attach goes on the other. These are nice because the offset loops make it easier to get your center medal and crucifix facing forward without twist. Figure eight rings are somewhat harder to come by, however, as not every findings supplier stocks them.

Using eyepins to wire loop your beads: Eyepins resemble dressmaker pins, but instead of a head, they have a pre-made loop on one end and a blunt cut on the other. Eyepins are a wonderful alternative to wire because they save so much time in construction. Half the loops are already done.

To get the most from your money when purchasing eyepins, look for pins that are heavy for their length, and keep the length somewhere in the range of 1 1/4" to 2" to minimize waste. Note that if you're using 12mm Pater beads, you may struggle with an eyepin only 1 1/4" long. Sometimes, but not always, the measure of the pins will be given for both the length and the wire gauge used to form the pin. The wire gauges are the same as those in spools of wire. Be cautious when purchasing eyepins for heavy stones. The vast majority of pins available are thin (around 22g), and may not correctly support your design.

photo of finished rosary using bead caps, ring caps and two hole connectors

"Be like living stones, to build the Holy Church."

~ Pope Benedict XVI ~

celebrating the 500th anniversary of the founding of St. Peter's basilica.

© 2007 meinssen handmade rosaries