Pin Curls for Dummies

Pin curls are incredibly difficult to master. We all know this. I’ve been struggling off and on for ages trying to figure it out, and I was determined that as soon as I could manage a successful set, I would write about it here to help all of you who know what I’ve been going through. Don’t give up, it’s so worth it. There’s nothing like a pin curl set to get the most authentic look, the most malleable and cooperative hair, and the most staying power out of your look.

The basics. A pin curl should be wound (or wrapped, more accurately) from tip to root, not the other way around. This way the end gets tucked in and doesn’t stick out all funny. It’s especially important not to twist it or you’ll get the fuzziest incurable afro instead of smooth vintage curls. The basic technique is to take about a one inch section of hair, wrap the end a few times around a finger or two, and then slip it off your finger and wrap up to the scalp and pin with a pin curl clip or a couple bobby pins in an X. I recommend 2 fingers because it’s easier to get the hair off, and you can put the very tip of your hair between the two fingers to pull it into the center where it belongs. This is all fairly straight forward, but it’s extremely challenging to keep that little circle neat and tight as you wrap it, and to keep the ends in, especially if your hair is naturally straight.

What helps – the first thing you can try, which is time consuming but makes a big difference, is pin curl your hair when it’s already curled. If you’re dedicated and have a lot of time, you can set it in hot rollers before setting it in pin curls. But this gets to be a bit much, definitely not something you want to do on a nightly basis. The other way is to do a regular roller set one day, and then set it in pin curls that night. It doesn’t help much for keeping the curls tidy as you wrap them, but it really does help to keep the ends in and get the curls started, since you’re working with a shape that’s already somewhat what you want. Another quick tip – I found that standing pincurls are a little easier to position on your head, easier to clip since there’s less hair to get around, especially if your hair is long like mine, and gives more volume. They’re too small to really crush while you sleep, and if they do at all then the hair at the top will cover it. I managed this with no issues at all. Only one curl got crushed, and once it was all brushed out you couldn’t tell if you tried.

The BIG thing that helped me, I feel the only reason I was able to accomplish this finally, was using a pin curler, or pin curl stick. These are generally uncommon. When I googled it, I found nothing. The only mention I found of them was on the fedora lounge, where girls routinely do pin curl sets and look at old magazines of the vintage era. My grandma had never even heard of one and she’s been doing pin curls for probably over 60 years. Where I first heard about them though was in a Lisa Freemont Street video about pin curling. She had the Sculpture Pincurler from Vintagehair.com, and because she’s never steered me wrong, I got it immediately. The packaging and the product itself are authentic 1950s, totally adorable. It has a different size on each end, honestly not much different, and the ends are comb-like. So you put the tip of your hair through the comb part, roll it up like a curler, turn it on end, and slip your hair off. Brilliant. This made everything VERY easy, and the top and sides of my hair at least turned out perfectly parted and even because you can only use a very specific amount of hair for each curl. It forces you to be uniform, and when everything was pinned up it looked downright professional. Amazing. But I also got to thinking, this is so simple there must be other things you can use. Such as chopsticks, or dolly pins. Or you could use little end papers and something like a marker or lip gloss tube. The possibilities are endless. Do whatever works, it’s totally not cheating.

All set.

All set.

I also just want to mention water really quick before I move on. You can spray it before, or after you set. Which one you do will depend on your hair type, how quickly it dries, and the final look you want, but unlike rollers which you only want damp enough to resemble a fine morning dew, you can sometimes get away with setting it wet. I found that spraying each piece damp/wet before I rolled it resulted in fluffy hair like in the mirror shot I took below with the flower. That next night I set it dry in all standing pin curls and sprayed it after it was all done. Quicker, and it used less water and setting lotion that way. I also found that it resulted in a much smoother curl, like this black and white picture just below here. I didn’t love it when I first brushed it, it looked a little helmet-y. But after a little time to relax and shake it out before brushing it again, it was smooth and loose and luxurious, just like Rita Hayworth. Perfection. I will be doing this from now on. From what I gather, this might be best for longer hair.

So you all must know as well everything I knew about brushing them out – on paper anyway. But there’s something really different about doing this which really makes you deeply appreciate how true it is that brushing your hair out is the most important part. To start, it’s really tough to get the brush through. The curls are just so tight. I mean my hair is 14 inches long (which is to the bra band) and the curls that came out of the pins were seriously about two inches. My hair looked very short. That’s how dense it gets, so brushing is difficult. Then you start to get a big frizzy fro.

I just had to come back to this article and add this picture, to show you that THIS is actually normal. Don't manic. Worst case scenario, brushing doesn't calm it down and you put it in a snood for the day. Put it back up into larger pin curls at night, leave them dry, and the next morning it will be beautiful.

Sorry to interrupt, but I just had to come back to this article and add this picture, to show you that THIS is actually normal. Don’t panic. Worst case scenario, brushing doesn’t calm it down and you put it in a snood for the day. Put it back up into larger pin curls over night, leave them dry, and the next morning it will be beautiful.

See?

See? Ok, I’ll let you get back to the tutorial now.

It gets scary. And you know you have to keep brushing for ages, but it’s not THAT long. Maybe a good 5 minutes. Try not to freak out during that 5 minutes. I knew this would happen and yet I almost did. But as you go, you start to see your hair turn into a shape. The top of your hair WILL smooth out, you won’t get granny hair unless it’s really short, like the midi baby or something. Brush against your hand of course, and brush it in the direction you want it to curl. To get everything uniform, and turn it into pretty much one solid mass of hair, I pulled everything back into a ponytail and brushed around and under my thumb, then made sure the ends were tucked in and gently spread it around to the sides. When my hair started to break up and look a bit messy I just did it again. Just a few seconds to get everything back into place. Now just add a flower and you have yourself some real 40s glam going on.

My first successful pin curl set. Go me!

So this takes a lot of time, many failed attempts at about an hour or so each time. But you’ll get there. It will get better, and faster. Just know that no effort is wasted. I found that even when my hair came out wonky straight, pin curling gave it enough structure to make the ensuing hot roller set last over 12 hours in high humidity. Hot rollers or hot sticks are blessings for a failed set, and everybody gets them. And then when nothing else will do, you simply have a new opportunity to try a cute retro updo. Keep at it!

Here’s that great video from Lisa Freemont Street.

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30 comments on “Pin Curls for Dummies

  1. Taygan says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!
    This Is by far the clearest and best pin-curling tutorial I have ever read!
    I think I’ll be having a pin-curl practice weekend!

  2. […] you ever really wondered why you should learn how to do pin curls? With all the effort it takes, it better be worth it. It takes so long to master and if […]

  3. Suzanne Young says:

    Thank You, so much for the pin curl video, I just did a set on my girlfriend who is a 1940’s themed wedding today and before heading out my door I viewed your video and LOVED IT!! so much help, I will be watchin more!! Sincerely, Suzi

  4. Suzanne Young says:

    My friend has very straight course hair so I used a lot of product and it took forever and she said the curl came out right away from the humidity, so what do you recommend for that type of hair as far as what type of product should I have used I just used a mouse and wave lotion. Thank You,Suzi

    • Ava Strange says:

      As if I just saw this comment now. Damnit. Humidity is the enemy of hair that’s for sure. All I can really say is to use a setting lotion. I use Lottabody, diluted in water in a spray bottle. It definitely makes a difference. Then for hair spray I like Elnet because it isn’t sticky or hard at all but definitely still holds it.

  5. Barb says:

    Can you use this method for simply curling your hair? I remember my mom doing this for me when I was younger and now with planning to do my own wedding hair, it was the first thing I thought of. Do you think it would turn out all right with just finger brushing it?

    • Ava Strange says:

      I’d say probably yes, depending on your hair. I find myself that I need to add a good mousse though because finger brushing alone can sometimes leave it looking a bit disheveled. If your wedding isn’t super soon you may want to experiment with this beforehand to find just what works best. It may turn out that you can’t do it on day 1 without looking like Shirley Temple first thing out of bed, but it looks great on day 2 if you set it dry in larger curls over night. You can also experiment with the directionality of the curls. All curled under will be more conducive to a vintage pageboy kind of look, but for something a little more natural/romantic and not so vintage then random or alternating directions, even twisting the hair just one time around can make all the difference. This is all a bit tricky at first but with some solid practice you can make pin curls work for just about any look you want 🙂

  6. Anita says:

    Will it set if you use a blow-dryer instead of letting it dry naturally, or will that mess it up? I’m trying to get into the vintage type of hair styles, but I’d also like to be able to do it in the mornings before I go to work.

    • Ava Strange says:

      It has a fair chance of not drying all the way through or evenly, and may not come out as smooth. Also, considering how much time it takes you to put the curls in (easily half an hour for a beginner) and then blow dry this could take a huge chunk out of your morning. I can see this easily going over an hour. Personally I wouldn’t find this to be worth it at all. Also, pin curls have the benefit of lasting up to a week by re-setting them dry in larger curls every night, which takes only about ten minutes, and if you do this in the morning instead you will not get this benefit and will have to start over again every day.
      That said, as long as you make sure to dry it completely it should be fine. If you really prefer to do it in the morning maybe just try it one evening to see how using a blow dryer works for you, and if it doesn’t quite do the job then you can leave the pins in over night and can quickly style it the next morning. A much better option for morning styling is a tight heat set, like Remington Tight Curls or hot sticks.

  7. Robin says:

    I have been practicing and practicing pincurls on my very fine, stick straight hair for several months now. FINALLY you give instructions and outcomes I understand. Thank you so much!

    ~Robin

  8. […] the hair well using any tool that is available like hand drier. • Place curls in the hair using a curl stick or pins. • Hold the hair backwards and then […]

  9. V says:

    Nice Job. I would like to see a video of you brushing out the curls though

  10. […] especially for short hairs, you don’t need to have pin curls since they may only be needed for longer hair. Did we miss anything on this post regarding finger […]

  11. Holly Riggs says:

    I want to achieve a 40s hollywood glam wave look that pin curls can achieve. Can I curl my hair with a curler then put the pins in my hair? And how long shall I leave the pins in because I cannot keep them in overnight as I am going somewhere in the evening of the day I will do this. Thank you, please reply ASAP.

  12. hollyriggs1 says:

    Hi, I really want to recreate this beautiful hollywood glam hairstyle for my prom this coming thursday. I was wondering; can I curl my hair with a curler and then place the curls in pins or do I not need to for this look? And how long shall I leave the pin curls to set because I will not be able to leave them in overnight as my prom is in the evening of the day I will do this. Many thanks, please reply asap. 🙂

    • Ava Strange says:

      You can, and this is done very commonly, but it won’t give you a traditional pin curl effect. A curling iron can’t get curls that small, and heat sets always look different than wet sets. Pinning curls you created with heat just helps them to last longer, but they’ll look the same way after you pinned them up as they did before. The pins in this case only need to be left on until the curls are completely cooled, but it’s also a great way to make sure your style looks as fresh as possible if you started curling earlier in the day.

    • Blyth Lover says:

      If you want to mimic tight pin curls, your best bet is to use the smallest barrel curler you have. Take a small section the way you’d see a pin curl be created, curl that lock, then wrap it around your finger, slide off, and pin it in place. It won’t be a curl that’s “locked in” like a set you left in for a few hours, but having it cool in place will last the night. I’ve had hot curls last me 4 hours before relaxing, and that’s with Aussie mousse and no hair spray. If you do this and carefully brush out, a strong holding hair spray should keep you safe for the entire prom night.

  13. Blyth Lover says:

    Wooden pegs, or dolly pins as you called them, work just fine and you don’t need to spend over 20 bucks on one little plastic pin curler. It works best using dry hair, though. I’ve tried it with wet hair and it doesn’t slide off very easily. Just be sure to use an emery board to smooth out the edges.

    When it comes to wet vs dry set, I strongly suggest dry set & dampening if your hair is longer than BSL. If you’re at mid back like me, and have fairly thick hair, wet setting just turns it into a hot mess. I have to take thinner locks of hair than Lisa does in her video. I think I’m over 30 pins for my whole head. Longer hair doing a 4 hour dry set can survive well. Even when I used to mess up, the “good ones” lasted about 8 hours before starting to relax. Personally I think that shoulder-length hair works better with a wet set.

    For those who want an organic setting lotion/hair gel, I’ve tried out boiling flax seeds for their goo. I won’t lie — it’s as disgusting feeling as egg whites. But just a thin layer on your finger tips to smooth over and bristle brush through makes for a great setting lotion that really promotes curls. Even when doing a 5 minute test, I already saw a strong, tight curl. It’s gross stuff to touch but a little dab will do ya.

  14. Thank you for this, I did hairdressing at college and quite often go for pin up hair but had totally forgotten about pin curling. This completely refreshed my mind and I’m hoping to try this out for my nephews christening on Sunday, I have a gorgeous 50’s dress to go with the look so hoping I can pull it off (even with my recent hair disaster)!

  15. […] Lady Grey (check her out!!) and there is a great pincurls for dummies article by Ava Strange that I can […]

  16. […] adventures, or take a peek at the pincurls for dummies basics over at the glorious vintage blog of Ava Strange. I’m sure I’ll have a few more pointers and posts in the near future. Until then, keep […]

  17. So you put the tip of your hair through the comb part, roll it up like a curler, … hadryer.wordpress.com

  18. […] Skirting the Issue created a wonderful introduction and tutorial entitled Pin Curls for Dummies. […]

  19. Imogen says:

    Fantastic tips! And that final set looks great. Just wondering if you could please tell me what kind of/ shape haircut you have? I struggle to get the front sections of my hair looking like yours.

    Thank you in advance 🙂

    • Ava Strange says:

      It’s cut in a midi, so the shape of the bottom (the “hem”) is round. It comes up higher towards the face even when it’s straight so it does the same when it’s curled. There’s also no razoring/thinning/feathering, the ends are all cut blunt so it stays in the curls easier and the result is more clean.

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