Can Hawley Retainers Close Gaps? How Your Dentist Can Help

You have a small gap and you’re thinking of budget-friendly ways to close it. Perhaps your dentist suggested closing it with a Hawley retainer, or you’ve been researching this information online. Either way, you’re in the right place! You’re going to learn all about Hawley retainers and how they can work to close gaps.

Before we dive in, please note that this is not a method I usually recommend for closing gaps. Gaps are sometimes tricky to manage, and can take a long time to close. But, if you do intend to go down this route, know that it’s entirely possible, and it’s been done for ages.

Can you use a Hawley retainer to close a gap?

The short answer is: yes, Hawley retainers can be used to close gaps, but you need to be under the supervision of a dentist or orthodontist. They will be the ones performing the tightening and making sure your treatment stays on course.

Hawley retainers look and function very much like traditional removable appliances, which have been frequently used in the past to straighten children’s teeth. They have clasps on back teeth for stability and retention, coupled with a labial bow on six front teeth. There are multiple design variations, but we won’t go into technical detail here.

The main difference between Hawley retainers and other acrylic removable appliances is that Hawley retainers are designed to be passive, as opposed to removable appliances that always have an active element – a screw, a spring, a bow, etc.

There are some things your dentist or orthodontist can do to transform your Hawley from a passive appliance into an active one. We are able to tighten Hawley retainers when they become loose, so why not tighten them even more to shift teeth back and/or close gaps?

However, not everyone is a good candidate for this type of dental correction. Here are some of the criteria you need to meet so that the Hawley retainer is able to close your gap properly:

  • Your gap is the result of slight relapse after braces and you need a new retainer. Your dentist or orthodontist can make a Hawley, activate it to fix the gap, and then use it as a normal retainer once the gap is closed.
  • You’ve never had braces and you only have a slight gap that you want fixed. Your teeth are straight and your bite is good.
  • You’re a young patient, ideally a teenager or in your 20s. Adults are often more challenging to treat as their bone gets more dense, and some may be dealing with gum recession.
  • You have sufficient clearance to move your teeth back, meaning your top teeth don’t touch the bottom teeth when you bite down. Your top front teeth will need at least a couple of millimetres of room to move back.
  • You don’t have a thick frenum that’s preventing the front teeth from coming together. If you do, closing gaps is still possible but you will need gum surgery.
  • You’re willing to wear the Hawley retainer 24/7 for the duration of gap closure. Otherwise it won’t work.

Your dentist or orthodontist will evaluate your bite and let you know if using a Hawley retainer is possible or you’ll need braces or aligners instead.

I personally like to use aligners for minor corrections, but I can see why something like a Hawley appliance can be a good option, since they’re less expensive to make and you don’t need multiple trays to go through as you do with aligners.

How Hawley retainers close gaps step by step

Let’s jump into the nitty gritty of using Hawley retainers for closing gaps. Keep in mind that this section is for informational purposes only, you shouldn’t troubleshoot at home or alter your Hawley appliance in any way.

However, it’s good to understand the different aspects of Hawley activation, so you can let your dentist know if you have issues with any of the appliance components.

Step 1 – Checking for clearance

When closing a gap, the first thing your dentist or orthodontist needs to make sure is that you have enough clearance for your top incisors to move back. This is called overjet. The normal amount of overjet is 2mm, and a person wanting to close their front gap should have at least that.

Ideally, 3-4mm is better. However, if you have excess overjet, it’s best not to focus on your gap alone and get your entire bite treated with braces or clear aligners.

Some people have insufficient overjet, meaning that their bite is very tight and there’s no room, or clearance to move teeth back. This makes closing gaps very difficult, even in braces.

Step 2 – Checking the retention and seating

Once you get your Hawley, your dentist will check that it fits well, and that you can seat it properly. This is important, because you’ll be removing and placing your Hawley retainer a few times per day, and it’s important to get it right.

I see many patients not pushing their Hawley retainers all the way in, which can cause teeth to shift after braces.

Another thing patients complain about is loose appliances. Hawley retainers come in many designs, the traditional ones have clasps that go on molars, while more modern ones have wraparound wires and plastic inserts that go in between teeth.

Your dentist will check that the clasps or wires are tight around your teeth so that your Hawley retainer doesn’t fall out.

Step 2 – Tightening the labial bow

Now comes the part where the Hawley retainer turns from a passive appliance into an active device that puts pressure on your teeth and begins closing your gap.

On your front teeth, you’ll notice the labial bow. It has two loops at canine level, and a wire pushing against the incisor. This bow can be tightened and loosened to your dentist’s preference. To close your gap, we need this bow to be tight.

Tightening the appliance is easily done with a three-prong plier, but any dental plier will do. We put pressure on the two loops and check that the Hawley retainer is still easy enough to insert. You’ll feel pressure on your teeth, and you can expect your front teeth to become sore the following days.

Step 3 – Trimming the acrylic surface

Tightening the labial bow won’t do anything on its own unless it’s coupled with making room for your teeth to go back.

The Hawley retainer supports your teeth on the lingual side with an acrylic plate that’s supposed to sit in contact with your teeth. We need to relieve that contact at the incisor level so that these teeth can actually move back and come together.

We do this by trimming the acrylic surface about 1mm at a time with a special acrylic bur. We don’t want to trim any other sections as this will affect the stability of your retainer. Here’s how it looks:

Step 4 – Repeating this process every 3 weeks

You’ll need to wear your Hawley retainer 24/7, with the exception of eating and brushing. Nighttime only won’t cut it for closing gaps. After a couple of weeks of correctly wearing your appliance, you’ll notice that it’s not tight anymore.

It takes about 3 weeks for the labial bow to become inactive, so you’ll be seeing your dentist every 3 weeks or monthly. Depending on the size of your gap (small to medium), it should be closed anywhere from 3 to 6 months.

At every appointment, your dentist will repeat the process: check for clearance, check for retention, activate the labial bow, trim the acrylic surface.

Step 5 – Moving into the retention phase

Once your gap is closed, you will continue to wear your retainer full time for the following 3 to 6 months, according to your dentist’s instructions. Your Hawley retainer will no longer be active, but it’s crucial that you continue wearing it to maintain results.

Gaps are notoriously difficult to keep closed. If you have enough clearance and your dentist is up for it, you can get a fixed retainer to ensure the gap stays closed.

After the 24/7 retention phase, it’s time to move into the long term retention phase. You’ll be wearing your Hawley as a normal retainer at night for years to come. The longer, the better.

My recommendations for closing gaps

Now that you’ve learned how Hawley retainers close gaps, here are my thought on this method:

  • It’s a great option for general dentists looking to offer their patients a quick cosmetic fix. Hawley retainers are effective and fast, but they do require some knowledge and skill. Plus, there are many other way to close gaps in dentistry: bonding, veneers, crowns, etc.
  • If you are an adult, you’re better off getting aligners to get more predictable results. Hawley retainers have a visible wire that’s not as esthetic, plus they work best on children and teenagers.
  • If you have other bite issues, I advise getting braces or full aligner treatment under the supervision of a certified orthodontist. Often, the gap is just a symptom of a more serious bite or periodontal issue.
  • If you are on a budget, you can still close your gaps for cheap with partial braces that only go on 6 teeth, called social six, provided that your bite is good and your gap is small.
  • Your gap will reopen if you have a thick labial frenum that’s inserted low between your front teeth. Orthodontists always check for this and address this issue before attempting to close gaps.

To learn more about closing gaps, check these articles on gaps and braces:


Hopefully I’ve satisfied your curiosity and helped you make a decision. Which route will you go to close your gap? Leave a comment below and let me know!

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