In the Shop: Metalworking Fantasies

March 11, 2011 07:16 PM

Farm shops vary widely in their metalworking tool inventory. Some shops have state-of-the-art MIG welders, plasma cutters, metal-cutting band saws, ironworker machines and even metal lathes. The majority, however, still cut metal with hacksaws, weld with "buzz box" welders and shape angle iron with a big hammer.

For those interested in upgrading, here’s a quick rundown of metalworking options and considerations.

Welders. "Buzz box" welders—the ubiquitous 220-amp arc welders that violently buzz when the stick electrode freezes to the metal—are OK. But for a little extra money, "smart" arc and MIG welders make welding fun. The extra money buys computerized circuitry that lets amateurs weld like a pro. Comparing buzz box and older MIG welders with the new MIG and arc welders, the differences are amazing. If you’re still using a buzz box and get a chance to try a smart welder, you’ll see what I mean.

Metal-cutting machinery. Metal-cutting "chop" saws have replaced hacksaws in many farm shops. Chop saws cut metal quickly but are dirty, noisy and not very precise. But they’re less than $200, far faster and less work than a hacksaw and bench vise. If I was limited to one metal-cutting device, I’d choose an industrial-duty chop saw with an adjustable fence and the ability to cut angles and bevels.

For a little more money, a metal-cutting hacksaw or band saw is my preference. Band saws cut relatively quickly, have an adjustable table for vertical or angled cuts and can make curved cuts in thin metal. The downside is the cost of blades and the challenge of adjusting and maintaining tables and blades to cut true.

Power hacksaws cut slowly but require less maintenance and fewer adjustments to achieve precise cuts. Blades are cheaper and easier to replace.

A high-priced but multipurpose metal-cutting option is an ironworker machine, the hydraulically actuated shears seen in blacksmith and machinist shops. They quickly and accurately slice angle iron, flat iron, bar stock—anything that will fit on the table.

Ironworkers cost thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, but offer fast, precise cuts of angle, bar and small sheet. With the correct dies, they punch holes, make notches and perform multiple metalworking tasks.

Drill press. A good drill press is an asset to a shop; a cheap one is an annoyance. Cheap drill presses have tables that flex, lack an adjustable table vise and can’t deliver on accuracy. Folks who’ve never operated a drill press with a solid, crank-adjustable table, adjustable table vise and motor/drive/chuck assembly think they’ve died and gone to heaven the first time they drill a hole with one.

Acetylene torch/plasma cutter. A plasma cutter is unsurpassed for cutting sheet and  flat-surfaced dimensional steel quickly and without distortion, but it won’t replace a cutting torch.
Plasma cutters won’t heat metal for easy bending or to loosen frozen metal gears or bearings. They require maintenance and adjustment and have consumable components, meaning that tips and other parts wear out.

Good ol’ oxyacetylene torches are nearly bulletproof and incredibly versatile. They heat, cut, burn, braze, weld, solder … and those are just the factory-recommended uses.

Many torches in farm shops could use new cutting tips. If a tip doesn’t produce five distinct blue cones around a clear jet of oxygen from the center hole, clean or replace it.

Many farm shop torches and regulators are maladjusted for cutting metal. Recommended acetylene cutting pressure is 4 psi to 7 psi (for safety reasons, never more than 7 psi). A universal setting for oxygen is 25 psi. Adjust oxygen pressure slightly higher or lower to improve the cleanness of the cut edges.

Cool Tool of the Month

cool tool mar11Clean clogged cutting holes in oxyacetylene torch tips with a micro drill bit tip cleaner. An assortment of drill bits are stored inside the cleaner’s handle. Select and tighten an appropriate-size drill bit in the tool’s chuck, then use your fingers to spin the tool and clean or drill out clogged tips.

Price: about $15 from several tool retailers.

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