Welding and metalworking in general are tool-intensive skills. The most experienced and talented welder in the world can’t do much without at least a basic set of tools. Plus, the tools used in metalworking tend to be expensive. If you plan to do your own metalwork, you need to budget quite a bit of money (and space in your shop or garage) for tools.
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On the other hand, you don’t need to spend a fortune to get started and achieve good results on basic projects. While a top-quality TIG welder costs several thousand dollars, you can purchase a basic 110-volt wire-feed welder new for less than $200. Used oxygenacetylene welding sets are available for well under $500, and a basic stick arc welder can be purchased from the classified ads for less than $100.
Along with the big purchases like a welder, there are also investments to be made in hammers, chisels, shears, and clamps. These low-cost tools can be bought one at a time, and often turn up at garage sales and swap meets at extremely affordable prices. At the other end of the spectrum are specialized tools like English wheels, sheetmetal brakes, and blacksmithing anvils. Generally these tools cost more and occupy a lot of precious shop space.
As a general rule, you should buy the best tools you can afford, and generally try to get tools that are more capable than you think you’ll need. It’s frustrating and often unsafe to try to weld with a tool that is inadequate to the task at hand. When it comes to clamps and shears and other tools, good equipment saves you both in time and money in ruined or poor quality results. There’s no shame in starting with a basic set of tools, but even if you have to build your tool set slowly, it’s best to build it right.
This chapter describes some of the tools found in a metalworking shop. Some of the tools described here may be new to you, and others are found in virtually every home, but are mentioned here because of specific uses in automotive metalworking. You can use this chapter to generate a shopping or wish list for your shop, but remember that most hobbyists build up their tool collection over many years, and you can find bargains on used tools at garage sales and swap meets.
A Word About Renting
If you’re looking at a special project or simply need to weld only infrequently, you can rent MIG, TIG, oxy-acetylene, and stick welders from many tool rental centers and welding shops. This is often an affordable alternative to buying your own equipment, but be prepared to leave a large deposit. There are also equipped metal shops and studios that rent out working space. These businesses provide varying levels of equipment and assistance, but can also be useful if you don’t have a working space.
Working with any kind of tools can be dangerous, and welding is more dangerous than most undertakings. Mostly this is because welding involves extreme heat, but you’re also at some risk for cuts, crushing injuries, and radiation burns from your welding arc.
Getting hurt is no fun at all and an injury can put your project on indefinite hold, so it’s important to purchase good safety gear and then use it as designed at all times.
Fire Extinguishers and First Aid Kits
First on your list should be a pair of fire extinguishers. One should be a dry chemical or carbon dioxide B-C rated extinguisher, preferably the 5 pound size. These are good for grease, plastic, and other materials. The other should be an A-rated waterbased fire extinguisher for wood, paper, and just for cooling hot metal. You can recharge a water-based extinguisher with your air compressor and a hose. Just be sure that you grab the right extinguisher when a fire happens. Pouring water on a kerosene, gasoline, or other chemical fire can turn a small fire into a huge fireball.
Keep a good first aid kit in your shop, and keep it stocked. Burns and cuts are common when working with metal.
A good set of gloves is a basic part of your safety kit. Buy several pairs because gloves get lost more than anything else in your shop. Any kind of animal skin gloves are good, but cowhide seems to be the toughest against heat. Pigskin works well, but the surface tends to be more porous and the gloves do not last as long as cowhide.
Special TIG welding gloves are made from thinner material to provide more tactile sensitivity. This helps when TIG welding because the rods are finer and TIG is often used for welding very fine sheetmetal or other delicate tasks.
Avoid any kind of synthetic material for welding gloves—many of these materials may melt or catch fire. Some welders keep a supply of thick cotton gloves, which may catch fire if used carelessly, but are much less expensive to replace. Wool gloves are even better, as they will smolder but not catch fire.
Some welding gloves come to the wrist, but traditional welder’s gloves are insulated and have a skirt to protect the welder’s forearms. These are most useful when you have to work in a very hot area or you have another need to protect your forearms, but you trade off dexterity for insulation.
Owning a variety of high-quality gloves allows you to choose the best option for any given job.
Welding Hoods, Masks and Goggles
First on the list of required safety equipment is high-quality eye protection rated for the type of welding you’re doing. A pair of sunglasses simply will not do, and you can damage your eyesight permanently if you don’t use appropriate protection. All quality welding lenses protect your eyes from ultraviolet and infrared radiation as emitted by the welding process, and that’s something your sunglasses just aren’t designed to do.
Fortunately, appropriate protection does not have to be expensive. A basic welding helmet with replaceable lenses costs about $30, and just a few dollars more for a complete selection of lenses. Also, most welding units come with at least a basic hood or handheld mask, which is usually enough to get you started.
The lenses used for welding are numbered in ascending order by the amount of light they block. Thus, a #8 lens suitable for allows more light to pass through than a #12 lens. In general, as the amperage of your welder increases, so should your lens number. For example, depending on the amperage being used, a TIG welder requires a #10 to #12 lens, and a MIG welder from #10 to #13. Stick welders require lenses from #9 to #14. Lighter lenses can be used for gas welding and brazing. The standard lens that comes in most welding helmets is usually a #10. Follow the recommendations in your welding machine’s operator’s manual.
No matter what brand of helmet you choose, make sure that your helmet is lightweight and fits well. You’ll be wearing it a lot, and if it’s uncomfortable or unwieldy, you’ll be tempted to weld without it, and that’s a bad choice.
Hand-Held Masks and Goggles
Many low-cost welders come with a handheld mask rather than a welding hood. These masks can be handy for working in close quarters, but you should be aware that the radiation from Stick, MIG, and TIG welding is dangerous for your skin as well as your eyes, so you should cover all your skin to avoid a welding “sunburn.” This means that you really do need a full hood to cover your face and neck. A handheld mask or a set of goggles does not provide the necessary protection for arc welding of any kind. If you are using oxy-acetylene gas, a set of goggles or a handheld mask is sufficient.
With most hoods, you have to position your welding tip, then flip down the lens before you start to weld, but an auto-darkening hood allows you to see what you’re doing before you strike an arc, and then the lens turns dark within 1/1000 of a second as you begin to weld. The better auto-darkening helmets cost more than $200, but most serious welders choose these hoods for convenience. Bargain tool stores sometimes carry less expensive auto-darkening hoods, but these trade off features for low cost. They do work, however, and can be a good choice for the hobbyist welder.
Better auto-darkening hoods allow you to set the total sensitivity and the re-lightening delay. The lens sensitivity setting is so that nearby welders do not set off your hood. With a fully adjustable helmet, you can also set the lens rating for the work you’re doing. Setting the re-lightening delay allows your helmet to re-lighten shortly after you stop the arc, protecting your eyes from residual glow but allowing convenient work.
Coats and Aprons
As mentioned before, the radiation from arc welding is dangerous for your skin as well as your eyes. Also, welding frequently involves splattering molten metal, so you really want to protect your entire body from burns. A good coat or apron (or both) is an important part of your welding safety kit. Most welding aprons are made of leather, and work very well. Cotton clothing is preferred because while it will burn, it’s easily extinguished and unlike synthetics, will not melt onto your skin. Wool is even better than cotton because it will not catch fire, and military surplus stores have 100 percent wool pants and coats at low prices. If you’re not sure of the material, cut a small bit off and try to light it with a match—if it melts and burns, it’s synthetic and not wool!
Hats and Hair Control
Your hair is flammable. Because you’re likely to have your head near your welding project, it’s important to cover your hair and your scalp when welding. Cotton is the preferred material for a dedicated welding hat. Most welding shops offer inexpensive beanie-like hats that do not interfere with a welding helmet and protect your scalp from splatter and sparks. As always, avoid synthetic materials, because they burn and melt.
Probably the most overlooked safety item is hearing protection. Metal shops are noisy places, and a $1 investment in a pair of nice ear plugs will help save your hearing. If you plan to spend a lot of time in the shop, keep a stash of earplugs or external hearing protectors. Gun shops have a great selection of hearing protection designed to be comfortable for extended use. As a side benefit, reducing the noise level in your head also reduces fatigue. You can do better work for more hours if you wear hearing protection.
You need good leather shoes to work safely around metal. Beyond the fire hazards of synthetic materials and rubber soles, a metal shop always has splinters and shards on the floor. Get a shoe with protective steel toes if you plan to work with heavy parts such as brake discs, flywheels, engines, and so on. A good set of work boots can be found used at thrift stores for just a few dollars.
All the basic hand tools used in automotive metalworking come under the heading cold tools. These include the hammers, files, dollies, chisels, and other unpowered tools that date back to the beginning of civilization. A few notes are listed below about these tools as they relate to automotive work.
You should have a good selection of hammers in your shop. You need a variety of sizes, from small 8-ounce hammers for tapping pieces into place to 4- or even 8-pound sledge hammers for serious persuasion. A variety of hammer face designs are also useful. The most common designs are ball peen and cross peen hammers. A cross peen hammer has a flat face and a V-shaped face with the point of the V perpendicular to the hammer handle.
Less common is a straight peen hammer, where the V-face is parallel to the handle. You also need at least one dead blow or soft face hammer for moving material that you do not wish to mark with hard hammer blows. Such hammers may have bronze, lead, or plastic faces.
If you plan on doing your own welding, you need a chipping hammer for use with stick welders and flux-core wire feed welders. A chipping hammer has a chisel end and a pointed end. Sometimes they include a wire brush as well. You use a chipping hammer to chip away the crust of flux slag left behind by a stick or flux-core wire welder.
As you collect a shop full of tools, you may also want a slide hammer—this is a shaft with a threaded end and an end with a mushroomed cap. There is a heavy handle that slides along the shaft, and various tools can be attached to the threaded end. These are useful for pulling on dents and other difficult pieces that cannot be pushed with hammer blows.
Sheetmetal Hammers and Dollies
If you plan to work with sheetmetal, you need a set of dollies and bodywork hammers. You can purchase a basic kit of body tools at discount tool stores or online, but there is no end to the variety of dollies that you can find.
Dollies and spoons are portable, handheld anvils for shaping sheetmetal. To fit a wide range of curvatures, you need a selection of dollies. These come in handy whether you’re fabricating your own sheetmetal parts or repairing existing panels. They’re also useful any time you need a solid backing to a part you’re fitting into place.
Sheetmetal hammers are different from general purpose hammers; they are lighter and frequently have a pick on one side of the head and a coin-sized flat surface on the other. These hammers are designed to do fine work without leaving marks on the surface. Consult a bodywork and paint manual for detailed instructions on using these tools on automotive bodywork.
You will want to accumulate a good assortment of quality files in your shop. Keep a separate box of files for use with aluminum and other non-ferrous metals. Those files don’t wear as much, so they last longer. You don’t want to mix your files because small particles of iron, aluminum, or other metals remain in the file and can be transferred to other pieces you’re working. If you try to weld a steel piece with bits of aluminum wedged in it, or aluminum with bits of iron, your weld quality will suffer. Even with all the gadgets and grinders and power tools, the basic file is still an indispensable tool for shaping metal.
A well-supplied shop also has at least one vise. There are two kinds of vises commonly used in metal shops. By far the most common is a machinist’s vise, also called a bench vise. These are typically bolted to a workbench or table, and they are designed to hold a part while you work. Most include a flat surface for chiseling or hammering, but do not mistake a bench vise for an anvil. If you use a hammer to beat a piece held in the vise jaws, some of the blow is transferred to the vise screw, and it can bend.
You can get a machinist’s vise in any size from a jewelry vise to vise with an 8-inch opening and heavy jaws. Different vises also offer a variety of adjustments to hold materials at any angle. In general you get what you pay for, but estate and garage sales are good places to find an older high-quality vise.
The other type of vise is more archaic, but also more useful. It’s called a leg or blacksmith’s vise, and it’s easily identified because it has a support leg that stands on the ground, while the body of the vise is still mounted to a bench or table. The key difference is that a leg vise is designed to be used as an anvil surface as well as to hold your work. This is also sometimes called a blacksmith’s vise. If you find one of these, it’s likely to be at a farm sale or antique store, and they are likely to be expensive. But those who use them value them highly.
Clamps are constantly used in metalworking. Holding your work together while you weld, grind, and fit the parts is critical to a high-quality outcome. Luckily, if you have a selection of woodworking clamps, these can generally be used for metalwork as well.
Basic woodworking clamps with a wide opening are good to have, along with a selection of C-clamps and spring clips. Handheld Vise-Grip clamping pliers are very convenient, and come with a variety of jaw designs. Most commonly sold Vise- Grips have plier jaws, but you can also purchase models with flat plate jaws for holding sheetmetal and with large open jaws for clamping parts to be welded.
These go by a dozen different names—clippers, dikes, wire cutters, and so on. They are indispensable for wire-feed and MIG welding because you frequently have to trim the wire coming out of the gun. Get a pair with a little spring that holds the jaws open for easier use when you’re wearing heavy gloves. A good set of lineman’s pliers are also handy.
One of the benefits of working with ferrous metals is that you can take advantage of magnets. Most welding shops have a selection of magnetic tools that are designed to hold parts in perfect 15-, 30-, 45-, 60-, and 90-degree orientations while you weld. Magnetic clamps and even magnetic studs allow you to ground your arc welder to an otherwise smooth piece.
Finally, invest in a magnetic dish to hold small parts as you work on your car. The dish will stick to your work and all the nuts and bolts you don’t want to lose will stay in the dish until you’re ready for them again.
Angle Finders and Protractors
A carpenter’s angle finder is a basic tool with an adjustable (and clampable) pivot. Simply place it against any arbitrary angle and clamp it down. Then you can take the finder and use it as an angle template to repeat the exact angle or its complementary angle. A protractor may be fixed or adjustable, but is graduated with degrees and allows you to measure any angle.
It’s almost impossible to work with sheetmetal without a variety of shears. You can use the most basic scissor-design tin snips, or you can purchase a set of aircraft sheetmetal shears with special designs optimized for cutting left or right, or straight. Complete sets are available at any tool store.
Many metal shops or industrial suppliers cut sheet steel to your specifications at a small added cost over the price of the material, but they do expect to sell you the basic material if they are asked to cut it.
Seamers and Folders
Heating and air-conditioning sheetmetal workers use some tools that are handy for automotive metalworking. A seamer or seamer tongs looks like pliers with flat wide jaws. They are available in 1 to 6 inch jaw widths. The jaw depth usually less than two inches, but they are useful for making small straight bends along edges. Folders slip over the edge of the metal to a depth of 3/8 or 1 inch and then are used to fold over the edge. This is particularly useful for making hems in small pieces.
One tool that is harder to find in the modern era, but which remains one of the most useful tools you can own is an anvil. Anvils come in a variety of sizes and designs, and even a small anvil is useful for home-shop metalworking projects.
Many different shapes and designs have been used over the centuries, but the most common anvil used by blacksmiths is called the London or American pattern, with a round, pointed horn at one end and a hard, flat rectangular working surface. Often, these anvils have other features such as a smaller, flat chiseling surface called a pad and a pair of square and round holes in the anvil’s face.
The square hole is called a hardy hole and it is used to hold hardies— small tools with square tangs that sit in the hole. Common hardies include chisels, shaping tools, and conical vertical horns. The smaller round pritchel hole is used for punching holes and can also be used to secure a working piece to the anvil with a piece of bent rebar.
A traditional blacksmithing anvil is made of forged iron or steel, with a hard steel working face, but many modern anvils sold in discount stores omit the hard face. A modern farrier’s (horseshoe) anvil may have a bulge on one side for shoe forming. The face of a farrier’s anvil need not be as hard as a smith’s anvil, because it is designed to modify premade horseshoes, not for heavy work with steel. If you go to buy an anvil, you can generally purchase a new European anvil for about the same or less money than an antique. Avoid cast iron anvils and those sold at discount tool stores for more than the lightest work.
A traditional blacksmithing anvil is made of forged iron or steel, with a hard steel working face, but many modern anvils sold in discount stores omit the hard face. A modern farrier’s (horseshoe) anvil may have a bulge on one side for shoe forming. The face of a farrier’s anvil need not be as hard as a smith’s anvil, because it is designed to modify premade horseshoes, not for heavy work with steel.
If you go to buy an anvil, you can generally purchase a new European anvil for about the same or less money than an antique. Avoid cast iron anvils and those sold at discount tool stores for more than the lightest work.
Setting up your anvil is also important. Your anvil should be mounted securely to a sturdy base. A section of log makes a good anvil stand. Cut the base so that the top of the anvil is dead level and about at knuckle height when you stand next to it and let your arms hang at your sides.
If a true anvil is beyond your means, Chapter 4 includes a project to make one out of a piece of railroad track, or you can make do with just about any large, heavy piece of steel with a flat face. Search your local steel scrapyard for a big chunk that you can cut to meet your needs.
Lead Shot Bags
Another tool for forming sheetmetal (and weighting down light parts) is a lead shot bag. These bags are usually leather, although a heavy canvas bank coin bag also works well. Because it is filled with lead shot, you can form the bag and it tends to hold its shape. You can form your sheetmetal using the shot bag as a backing that yields against your hammer blows. This tool is especially handy for dishing sheetmetal.
A planishing stake is a smooth round surface used to smooth indentations and irregularities from a piece of formed sheetmetal. Think of a tennis ball on a stick and you’ve got the idea. A planishing hammer is a special hammer with a rounded face that is kept free of blemishes and used to smooth metal over the planishing stake.
You can make your own planishing stakes to fit the hardy hole in your anvil or fit into your bench vise or other sturdy support. Because planishing is a gentle process, it’s OK to use a conventional machinist’s bench vise. Alternately, you can buy an electric or air-powered planishing tool.
These sometimes go by the name smoothers. They are simply a framework that holds an air-powered hammer and a rounded die beneath. You simply insert the sheetmetal to be planished between the air hammer and the die and actuate the machine. The hammer gently and repeatedly strikes the metal on the die and by moving the metal back and forth, you can smooth out small imperfections.
A deburring scraper is an important and inexpensive tool if you are working with sheet metal. When you use shears or a nibbler on sheetmetal, you leave behind a sharp and somewhat jagged edge—perfectly made to slash open your hand. You don’t want to cut yourself while working or leave that edge on your finished product, and running the deburring tool along the sharp edge helps to avoid that. The tool works like a potato peeler, simple and easy.
You will want to accumulate a good supply of wire brushes, including some that are dedicated to cleaning grunge off of cars and parts, and others that you keep clean to use when you’re welding. Get a supply of steel-bristled brushes in large and small sizes, but also get some with brass and nylon bristles for more delicate work.
Bench and Free-Standing Tools
You can do a lot with hand tools, but when you start doing more and larger projects, you will find that your results are better and easier with larger bench-mount or free-standing tools. Of course, these tools are correspondingly more expensive than hand tools. While the prices may be intimidating, you can often find these tools for less on the used market, and you can build up your shop over time.
A welding table may be any size, and the structure may be made of any material, but it has a flat rectangular surface made of 1/4-inch or thicker steel on top. The steel surface allows you to use magnets or even tack welds to hold your pieces in place for welding. The steel surface also allows you to weld without fear of setting your workbench on fire.
If your tabletop is perfectly rectangular, you can align your parts and be confident that they’re square to each other. When you’re through welding, you can break or grind your parts free of the table and grind the table smooth again for the next project. A project to create a welding table is detailed in Chapter 3.
Bench-Mount Sheetmetal Shears
For thicker sheetmetals, you may need a bench-mounted shear (also known as a “throatless” shear and by the popular brand name Beverly shear). The term “throatless” means simply that you do not feed the metal through the body of the shear as you do with a free-standing shear. These use leverage and heavyduty edges to cut thicker gauges of sheet steel or aluminum than handheld shears can manage. A bench shear also allows you to cut a curve into your metal. You can buy a highquality bench-mount shear for about $650 or an imported throatless shear suitable for light work for about $100 through discount tool stores.
Free-Standing Sheetmetal Shears
If you have a great deal of free space and you think you will do a lot of large-scale sheetmetal work, you may want to invest in a free-standing sheetmetal shear, often called a jump shear because of its foot-operated action. You can buy a new 8-foot shear that cuts up to 16 gauge sheet steel for about $3,000. Used shears occasionally turn up at shop sales for less. These large tools make clean straight cuts in sheet aluminum or steel and allow you to buy your sheetmetal in larger sizes, which can save you some money.
Professional shops also have a 90-degree corner notcher, which uses replaceable dies to shear perfect interior corner cuts out of sheetmetal. Again, if you plan to do a great deal of professional-quality sheetmetal work, this tool makes a good investment. You can find a basic notcher for about $700.
Perhaps the ultimate tool for outstanding automotive sheetmetal work is a louver punch. This tool allows you to take any piece of sheetmetal, such as your car’s hood, and punch professional-quality louvers into it. Race car and hot rod fabricators always find a good use for a louver punch. You can find this kind of tool starting at about $1,500.
A brake is a tool used to make straight, crisp, accurate bends in sheetmetal. You can purchase small bench-mounted brakes (up to 36 inches) for less than $200 at discount tool stores. These are perfectly adequate for the occasional job—making a switchbox or heat shield, for example. Larger brakes cost many thousands of dollars and you’re better off taking work of that size to a professional metal shop for bending.
When shopping for a brake, be sure to recognize the difference between a press brake and a leaf brake. A press brake uses hydraulics or other force to pinch a bend into the metal. A leaf brake clamps the metal and then you lift a hinged leaf to make the bend. A special type of leaf brake is the box and pan brake. This brake has removable and adjustable fingers that allow you to make bends of precise width and let previous bends move into the machine without interference.
Some bargain brakes also incorporate a bead roller and/or a shear in their construction. You can use pieces of angle iron held in a vise as a makeshift brake, but your results are likely to be uneven if the piece is much larger than the vise.
A bead roller is an important tool if you want to achieve a finished, professional-looking result with sheetmetal. Using interchangeable rollers, this tool can roll the sharp edges of cut sheetmetal under and fold the material, leaving a smooth edge. You can also use a bead roller with different spools to create raised or depressed sections for cross-sectional rigidity. Bead rollers are available in a variety of styles, and a benchmounted roller can be purchased at a discount tool store for under $100. High-quality motorized units cost more than $500, but a manual roller is sufficient for most hobbyists.
A slip roller is used to make smooth even-radius curves in sheetmetal. These tools start at about $650 for a small unit. However, to make compound curves, you need a set of planishing tools or an English wheel.
An English wheel is a large tool used to form long smooth curves in sheetmetal. Using a wheel requires patience, however. Historic and vintage race cars with sheet aluminum bodies and fenders were often handmade by English wheel experts. You can buy an English wheel kit for about $500. The kit includes the wheels, but you need to weld it together. Sometimes discount tool stores carry English wheels, but these are often flimsy when assembled. You can, however, reinforce these as a practical welding project.
English wheels and anvils are all very well and good, and they are irreplaceable for fine work, but one of the benefits of the modern world is the availability of power tools. Most automotive hobbyists and all professionals are short on time, and power tools cut down the time required to do any given job.
The body grinder (also known as an angle grinder) is probably the most basic power tool to have in an automotive metal shop. This is simply a tool with a replaceable rotating disc and an extra handle you can grab for support. You can install a disc that grinds on its face, one that grinds on its edge, a disc of overlapping pieces of sandpaper, or any of several kinds of wire wheel or cupshaped wire brushes. With this variety of abrasives, you can easily grind away metal, rust, or grunge, clean off paint, or rough up a surface. These tools are also handy for cleaning up the slag and crust left over from stick welding, but be sure to wear your eye protection! These tools come in a variety of sizes. Larger units are good for getting a lot of work done fast, while smaller tools allow you to get into tight spaces.
Wire wheels and brush cups that attach to your body grinder, power drill, and bench grinder are critical for removing rust, paint, and grunge before you weld. You can also use a wire wheel to clean up the slag left over from stick welding. A wire cup or wheel on a body grinder makes short work of anything standing between you and clean metal. Unfortunately, it can also make short work of paint, chrome, and skin that you didn’t intend to remove, so use these tools with care and wear your safety glasses.
Belt Sanders and Grinders
A good bench-mounted belt sander or grinder is always useful around automotive projects. Belt grinders are more precise than a stone bench grinder or a body grinder. If you plan to weld thin materials, you can use the belt grinder for making bevels for your weld beads and to clean up and smooth your welds.
A nibbler is designed to cut sheetmetal by taking little bites out of the sheet. Nibblers make a ragged cut and also leave thousands of little sheetmetal nibbles all over your shop. You can get nibblers that work on compressed air or on electricity. When using a nibbler, always be sure to remember that the width of the bite is lost from your work and take that into account when you measure and cut.
Probably the nicest tool available for cutting sheetmetal is a set of power shears. These are similar to aircraft shears, but powered by air or electricity instead of your forearm muscles. Most power shears cut a small section from the sheetmetal, so keep them to the outside of your desired cut line, and leave space between cut lines on the same sheet of metal.
You can also buy a shearing attachment that fits onto your handheld electric drill. The attachment converts the drill’s rotational movement into a scissors action shear. These attachments cost about the same as a pneumatic shear. Electric shears are more expensive, but if you have air power, it’s always better to have a tool designed explicitly for the job.
Power shears work quickly and easily, and yield great results. You want to have a deburring tool handy, though, as power shears leave a razor-sharp edge on your material.
Bandsaws and Chop Saws
Two power saws are used most often with metal. A standard bandsaw is handy for cutting aluminum and other non-steel metals. You can get by with a saber saw or a reciprocating (Sawzall) saw, but the band saw allows you to do finer work.
Handheld band saws are also available, and these allow you to cut substantial cross sections of metal that for whatever reason you cannot maneuver into a shop tool.
Within your shop, a straight metal-cutting bandsaw is handy for cutting box and tube steel. But you can get results just as good with a chop saw. There are abrasive blades for use cutting steel and you can also spend a little more and get a carbide or diamond-tipped metal blade and a saw body that spins slower (about 1,300 rpm). The metal blade lasts longer than the consumable abrasive blades and produces less dust, but the price difference is significant.
You can also get by with an abrasive blade on a table saw or even with a handheld circular saw, but these are dangerous due to their high rotation speed. If the blade comes apart, you (or bystanders) could be injured. There are now special handheld circular saws on the market that spin at the lower speed and are designed to use the same kind of metal-cutting blades found on coldcutting chop saws.
Every metal shop needs a good large drill press. Get the biggest and most powerful drill press you can afford and find a vise or clamp attachment to hold parts. Countless metalworkers have been injured when a drill press grabbed the part and swung it around to hit their hands! Get a good set of high-speed hardened drill bits with plenty of spares for the small and often-used sizes (1/4, 5/16, 7/16, 1/2, 9/16, and so on). You can also invest in a set of step-bits, which have a small pilot section to start a hole accurately before the main bit cuts the hole to size.
If you plan to make roll bars and cages, tube-frame chassis, or any kind of figures using round tube steel, you need a tubing notcher. This is a ream or a drill with an attachment to hold a piece of round tube at a fixed angle. This allows you to create the perfectfit fishmouth ends for great-looking tube projects. A good tubing notcher with a hole-saw end can cost as little as $200. Reamer-style units cost substantially more.
The corresponding tool to a tubing notcher is a tubing bender. If you plan on making a lot of roll bars or tube-frame chassis, this is a good investment. Manual tubing benders start at about $300, while a professional- quality power unit costs up to several thousand dollars.
A welder is one of the largest investments the automotive hobbyist may make in shop equipment. Over time, some enthusiasts collect a selection of welders including a basic wire feed welder, TIG welder, and an oxy-acetylene rig. You can find these tools through classified ads, at swap meets, or through welding shops. Obviously, buying used through a reputable welding shop is the safest route.
You may already own a welding setup of some kind. But if you start to weld regularly, chances are good you’ll be in the market for a second welder shortly, because different welding rigs are good for different purposes. If you plan to weld a wide range of materials, you’ll have your wallet out soon. The table below lists the most common types of welding setups and their best uses.
Of all these types of welding, the MIG and flux-core processes are the easiest to learn. In basic terms, these are point and shoot welders. Flux-core welders are cheaper to buy, but MIG delivers substantially better results. The best option for the amateur automotive metalworker is to buy a low-cost electric welder with both MIG and flux-core capabilities. That way, you can get started practicing with flux-core welding and then add a gas bottle and solid-core wire as your budget allows. But if at all possible, spring for the MIG setup from the beginning and make your life easier. Used welders are a good way to start.
Stick welding takes a little more skill, but it’s very inexpensive, especially if you buy your stick setup through an online market like Craigslist.org Oxy-acetylene setups are expensive and tricky to use. At the top of the heap, there’s TIG welding. These welders are precise, fun to use, and they offer beginners very good results on simple tasks. As you gain experience, you can weld difficult materials such as chromemoly and titanium or magnesium alloys with TIG.
Oxy-Acetylene & Oxy-Propane
Automakers do not typically use gas welding to make cars. It’s just too expensive and fiddly a process to be part of an assembly line. But hot rodders, race car builders and home mechanics can make good use of gas welding and cutting in projects. A well-formed gas weld with the proper rod is strong enough for most automotive purposes. Professionals shy away from gas welds on structural or safety pieces such as roll bars because gas welding can oxidize metal, removing carbon and leaving the welded area brittle. However, it’s just the ticket for many repairs, and with just a basic rig, you can both cut and weld.
Cutting with an oxy-acetylene torch is easy if you don’t care about messing up your results, but harder to make precise, clean cuts. The advantage of torch-cutting is that you’re not limited to straight lines as with a chop saw, and you can cut thicker materials more easily than with a reciprocating or saber saw. But getting good results from an oxyacetylene torch takes practice, and the gas can get expensive.
Be careful when considering a deal on gas welding gear. If the bottles are rented or out of date, you can be in for extra expense if the bottles require replacement or recertification. Often it’s cheaper to pick a good welding shop near your shop and buy a basic torch kit and rent your bottles from the store. Bear in mind that with rented bottles, you are restricted to having them filled at that shop.
Welding gas bottles must be certified every 10 years. If you buy an older welding kit, be aware that if the bottles may require a recertification before they can be filled. Certification generally costs about $20 per bottle. Welding shops often charge you the $20 and trade your bottle for a new one. There are many different tips and accessories that go with an oxyacetylene setup. You will probably buy a kit, or if you go used you will get someone’s collection of gas welding gear.
The basic kit includes a pair of regulators that attach to the welding bottles. These allow you to reduce the pressure (up to 3,000 psi) coming from the bottles to just a few PSI. Then there are hoses that connect the regulators to a welding handle. You can screw many kinds of attachments and tips to the welding handle. Welding tips are a basic nozzle that delivers mixed oxygen and acetylene. You set the mixture with valves in the handle. Different sized holes in the welding tips yield different sized flames for more or less heat delivered to your welding point.
A cutting torch attaches to the handle and offers a lever or valve that delivers extra oxygen through the center of a larger flame. This oxygen delivery is used to blow out molten metal and thereby cut through materials. Like welding tips, there are different sizes of cutting tips for larger or smaller jobs.
A rosebud tip is a larger tip with many holes to deliver the oxy-acetylene mixture. This tip is used to heat materials before you work them. Like the other tips, rosebuds come in a variety of shapes and sizes. It’s important to note that the different brands of gas welding tips, handles, and torches may not interchange. Lincoln is the most popular brand on the market today, but older Sears Craftsman gas rigs and other brands often turn up for sale. Before you invest in a gas welding setup, make sure that the brand is compatible with modern supplies, or make sure it has everything you need.
Brazing and Soldering: A close relative of oxy-acetylene gas welding is the process of brazing and soldering. Simply put, brazing and soldering do not melt the pieces of metal being joined, but use low-melting-point metals such as lead, tin, copper, silver, brass, and bronze to glue the pieces together. Except for wiring, automotive brazing and soldering happens with an oxy-acetylene or propane gas torch. For wiring, the best tool is a basic soldering iron.
Stick welding, technically called shielded metal arc welding (SMAW), is an electrical arc welding process. A traditional basic stick-based arc welder (called a buzz box) is one of the least expensive tools you can buy to get started with arc welding. You can use one of these boxes to do a wide variety of projects. They’re not as precise as a wire feed or TIG welder, but with a bit of practice you can get good results on structural pieces. These welders are not generally precise enough for delicate work such as sheetmetal (less than .125-inch thick), although you can get small rods that allow you to work with thin plate.
Stick welders are the most common tools to find in the classified ads. They are inexpensive and sturdy. It takes some skill to get a pretty weld with a stick welder, but the world is held together with stick welds. The most basic stick welders are AC-only and straight polarity. Better models allow you to select both current and polarity. All stick welders allow you set the power level, from about 30 amps up to 225 amps for a basic shop or farm model up to several hundred amps for a top of the line unit.
The most common welding technique used in automotive applications is wire-feed or MIG welding. These are also electric arc processes, officially known as flux core arc welding (FCAW) and gas metal arc welding (GMAW). MIG stands for metal inert gas and is so named because the welding gun issues a small cloud of gas such as argon or carbon dioxide to protect the molten steel from oxygen while the weld is taking place. The gun also directs a feed of consumable wire into the weld, taking the place of the electrode or welding rod in other types of welding.
You do not have to use gas to use wire-feed welding. The least expensive welders on the market use flux-core wire to generate the oxygen-free environment required for a good arc weld. This wire has the same sort of material inside that stick welders place on the outside of welding rods. Flux-core wire-feed welding is relatively easy and inexpensive, so it is often used in noncritical applications.
Most wire-feed welders can also function as MIG welders. The difference is that when operating as a MIG, a bottle of inert gas has been connected to the welder and an appropriate spool of wire has been installed. MIG welders are covered later in this chapter. This section covers the use of 110-volt and 220-volt wire-feed welders without gas. For decades, almost all wire-feed welders required 220 volts of AC power, but in the last 20 years, the 110-volt wire feed welder has made wire-feed welding both convenient and inexpensive. Inexpensive wire feed-welders can be purchased new for as little as $150.
Used without gas, a 110-volt wire feed welder delivers AC power and flux-core wire to the weld. The user can adjust the electric power through a dial or switches, and the wire feed speed using a separate dial. Along with the diameter and composition of the wire, these are the only variables you can set on a basic wire-feed welder. A bottle kit to adapt an inexpensive wire feed welder to MIG operation costs about $100 on top of the price of the basic welder. Larger, more expensive MIG welders can cost up to several thousand dollars.
A MIG welder using inert gas to protect the weld area can be operated in AC or DC mode, and with either polarity, depending on the material being welded. Aluminum requires AC operation for best results, while DC straight polarity yields a smoother weld, less splatter, and generally better results on steel.
TIG welding is also known by the trade name Heliarc welding. Its technical name is gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW). TIG stands for tungsten inert gas. Like MIG welding, the welding gun issues a cloud of inert gas to protect the molten metal from oxidization, but a TIG gun uses a non-consumable tungsten electrode to create the arc, and you use uncoated welding rod similar to that used with an oxy-acetylene welder as feed material in your weld. TIG welding is known for its capability to weld delicate or thin materials. TIG is especially associated with welding aluminum. The gas mixtures used for TIG welding are the same as those used in MIG welding—a mixture of helium, argon, and other inert gases.
One feature of TIG welders is a foot pedal that controls the amount of electricity supplied to the weld. This allows very fine control, and TIG welding can be used on sheetmetal that would be difficult to weld by gas, stick, or wire feed processes. The downside of TIG welders is the price. Even a basic TIG setup costs upward of $1,000.
A plasma cutter uses an arc to melt the metal and then a stream of compressed air to blow out the molten material and make the cut. This yields a good precise cut with less skill and lower operating cost than an oxy-acetylene torch. Like a torch, the plasma cutter allows you to make detailed cuts which cannot be achieved with an abrasive or saw.
The price of a plasma cutter has dropped into the amateur’s budget in the last decade. A basic plasma cutter now costs about $600 and cuts up to 1/2-inch steel using just ordinary household 110VAC electricity and compressed air. Anyone can get good results with one of these units, and they’re rapidly replacing oxyacetylene rigs.
If you think you will undertake a lot of work with sheetmetal, a spot welder may be a reasonable investment. Spot welders that are affordable and useful for small shops and home projects look like a large set of pincers. A spot welder passes current from one jaw to the other through thin materials, making a small, round weld. A basic spot welder costs about $600.
Written by Russell Nyberg & Jeffery Zurschmeide and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks