Larry Larson said in his instructional DVD on machining armatures that he used the pipe-cleaner wire for the fingers on armatures. He also said to use cloth pipe cleaners. I know that craft store pipe cleaners are made of plastic, but is the metallurgy of the wire any different?
They must be annealed, which is a softening process that makes them more flexible and thus less prone to breakage from bending back and forth. I wouldn't actually use pipe cleaners, because of all the fuzzy stuff, but I do use annealed wire. Be sure to stay away from hardware store wire, which is anodized (hardened), to make it more weather resistant, which also makes it more brittle. Specifically what you want is annealed aluminum, though generally it won't actually say annealed on the package or the webpage, it will usually say soft or flexible aluminum wire. Your best bet is to buy from an art supply or craft store that carries it for sculpting - they actually call it aluminum armature wire conveniently enough!
Woah, flashback! I would use pipe cleaners to make characters for my first sad attempts at animation when I was kid. I suppose if you removed the fuzz somehow that could work, but I think the main lesson to take away from Larry Larson's choice of pipe cleaners is most likely the way they are twisted. You always want to twist your wires that way.
Like Strider suggested, the best choice is aluminum armature wire, but if you can't find any, it's too pricey, or maybe you're just feeling experimental, there are other types of wire that can work just as well.
Two (possibly cheaper) alternatives are bead wire for jewelry, and floral wire for flower arrangements (usually green). Bead wire or Jewelry wire can be found in just about any arts and crafts store. Floral wire can be bought from a floral shoppe, plant nursery, or even the arts and crafts store.
I've tested both against aluminum armature wire in a stress and weight test. Bead wire is essentially the same as armature wire, no notable differences. You can also buy it in a variety of smaller gauges.
Floral wire only comes in about a 16 gauge, it's coated in a very thin plastic, withstands almost the same number of bends as 16 gauge armature wire, and it supports a bit more weight. It costs a bit less too.
I've even had good results with copper wire and thin steel wire, but aluminum armature wire is time-tested and traditional.
Dick Blick's has a nice choice of sculpture armature wire, getting down into the thinnest guages. Another place I would try is this site:
Sure Mike! I got loads of Copper wire. Do you mean from Radio Shack or from a craft's store?
I've only tried solid 16 gauge wire from the hardware store. It's coated in plastic insulation and comes in large rolls, bought by the foot. It's not as soft as armature wire, but it's stronger and withstands more bends. So there's a trade off.
I use aluminium armature wire for fingers. Originally I could only get two sizes of armature wire where I live (Australia), 3mm (1/8th") diameter and 1.5mm (1/16th") so I used one strand of 1.5mm for each finger. But I got a special order from a wire factory of 1mm wire with another animator, and now I mostly use 2 or 3 strands of that twisted together, for fingers. It's easier to bend, but still stiff enough to pose in any position with latex or silicone over it. So the stuff I do fingers with would be the 18 gauge = 1mm, or 0.04 inch diameter.
Most recently, I ordered some from Whimsie, they have a good range of diameters. They don't ship outside the US and Canada, so I had to work through an agent that buys stuff in the US for overseas customers, then sends it on.
I always have to look up what "16 gauge" means, we don't use that system here! But Whimsie gives the sizes in Gauge, diameter in decimal divisions of an inch, and metric.
I don't know much about copper wire, but I assume it also comes in either hardened or softened varieties like other wire. I'd be careful with any wire from the hardware store, they seem to carry the hardened stuff, it's usually the art and craft stores that have soft wire, and you have to make sure that' what you're getting, because they also carry hard wires. I tried copper wire once because I had some laying around, and arms were breaking off before I finished making the puppet's clothes. That's when I switched to annealed aluminum armature wire and never tried anything else. I'v also used the floral wire, which is apparently a soft steel wire. A craft store near me used to sell it either with green paper or plastic covering or bare. That's what I used to use before I knew about armature wire, and it's a lot stiffer and harder to bend. It'll really cut up your fingers and bruise the heck out of them if you don't use pliers, and you should never use pliers for bending armature wire, it puts little cuts and nicks in it that get bigger each time the wire bends and will break very quickly. After trying real armature wire I would never even consider using floral wire for puppets. Well, maybe if I needed something to be really stiff and strong but not very flexible. Ok, I'll amend that - if I couldn't get ahold of any armature wire then floral wire is what I'd default to as a distant second choice.
I only mentioned the other wires as an alternative if armature wire isn't available for some reason. I think I made it sound like they were equal alternatives though, and they're not. Sorry for the miscommunication. Annealed aluminum armature wire is definitely the best wire to use. Strider is definitely correct about floral wire cutting and bruising your hands and fingers too. I didn't use pliers to work with it, and my hands got very sore.
For the other wires, I was lucky to find an older gentleman at the hardware store who knew exactly what I needed it for and knew a lot about the characteristics of different wire. Still, none of my wire experiments lead me to find anything truly better than good old aluminum armature wire. There are cheaper alternatives that come close enough in a pinch, but nothing beats a time-tested standard.
For 25 years I've only used plsatic-coated copper electrical wire from the hardware store for the bodies of my armatures, and in all that time I've only had two breaks. I think the coating adds strength and durability, and it easily holds up the weight of clay - even on a fat character. But for hands, I use only clay with no armature. If the character needs to pick up something, I make a spare hard-baked hand and glue the object to it.
Ok, well if it works for you Randy, then that's good enough for me! I might have had the wrong kind of copper wire. I wonder if the fact that you do clay animation makes a difference? I was about to suggest that maybe the clay puppets allow the wire to bend more gently, like spaghetti arm style, but the puppet in your avatar seems to be bending his elbow quite sharply.
I use 1/4 inch copper tubing for "bones", crimped in place along the arms and legs so the wire bends nicely where it should, although it does take a little bit of sculpting to maintain the elbow and keep it from getting too round. You have to find the right tension on the wire you purchase. I've often spent too much time standing in front of the wire display, bending the different wires to find the best firmness with the least amount of spring-back. But I've always been very surprised by how durable it is. Plus I'm usually careful to never bend it unless absolutely necessary. In other words, before shooting, I never play with or pose the puppets just for fun. (bummer - hehe)
^^ lolol!! When I was younger and just starting out (trying to ) make puppets, I killed quite a few that way. That was back before there was an internet or digital cameras, working on super 8. We used floral wire and then all my friends would spend hours posing them, usually obscenely, and for some reason those puppets never lasted very long..