You change the oil, rotate the tires, wax your car to keep it in tip-top shape right? Well why not your tools? Metal fabrication tools get used hard and often we forget that they need maintenance to keep them working well. I put together a handful of tips that will help you keep your tools cared for.
Shrinkers and Stretchers are essential fabrication tools and quite amazing really. They can move metal with the push of a pedal or by pulling on the handle. They work well to create a shape or bend a piece of metal to fit your needs. Like any mechanical item, they do need maintenance and work best when they’re tuned up. We have a community set of shrinker/stretchers here in our shop and they get used HARD and OFTEN, which means they tend to need more maintenance then a DIY’er at home would. The biggest thing we see happen to these tools are that the textured jaws can get clogged up with metal. This happens because the jaws are constantly grabbing the surface of the metal and digging in a tiny bit to pull it apart or push it together. What you will find happen is that tool will lose its shrinking or stretching efficiency and won’t move the metal as quickly as before.
This is easy to check and correct. You may see the little grooves in the jaws have a tiny slivers of metal or powder that could completely cover the grooves. I like to take the jaws apart and hit these areas with a wire brush until all metal shavings/dust are gone. You can also use a small pick to get any stubborn bits out.
While you have the jaws apart, we’ve also had luck modifying the inside faces (that touch when the jaws come together) on the shrinker with a sander. By removing a small amount of material you allow the shrinker jaws to have more travel. This means they can grab and shrink more at a time. We suggest you only remove a little at a time (using a mill would be the most precise), don’t go at it with a cut-off grinder or a stone grinding disc!
Body Hammers are the bread and butter of metal fab tools. The cleaner and smoother they are, the less finish work you will have to do later on. I personally like to keep a set of “junky” hammers that I use to hammer and work out damage on rusty/original metal or to “rough-in” a panel. These I don’t mind undercoating, rust, minor dents , etc in the faces. But I also like to keep a nice set of hammers that are for doing finish or finesse work. These hammers I like to lightly sand and repolish the faces once a year. This keeps them tuned up and free of any defects that could transfer into a panel. This is especially important if you’re trying to metal finish steel or are working with softer metals like aluminum.
If it’s a hammer I keep up with, I like to start with 800 on a DA and lightly smooth the surface and remove any minor defects. From there I will take the hammer to the buffer and work the area to a mirror finish with a buffer until you can see your smiling face in the hammer head. Obviously if this is a neglected or vintage hammer you may need to start with something a little more aggressive, you just have to be careful not to change or remove the radius in the face of the hammer (many body hammers have a slight radius to them).
Hand-Crank Bead Rollers
Bead Rollers like a shrinker stretcher are fantastic tools for manipulating metal. Bead rollers tend to work well with very little maintenance but you do need to keep up on a few things.
If you have shared tools in your shop or workspace you may have others using the bead roller that aren’t as careful as they should be. I’ve run across bead roller dies many times that have cuts or divots in the dies from someone failing to clean the metal before rolling or from rolling over a weld bead or weld spatter from a MIG welder. These can then transfer to your metal when you roll a bead on everything from there on out. In those cases it’s best to just buy a new set of dies and hide them from the careless people in your shop!
The other tip is to make sure you keep the bead roller lubricated and adjusted properly. All of our hand-cranked bead rollers have grease fittings to grease the rotational portions. I also suggest to lube up the gears at the handle side of the roller as well. You’d be surprised how much easier and smoother it is when cranking! I like to lube and tune our roller up once a year.
An english wheel is a fine tuned machine that can put beautiful shapes into metal with some practice. It works by pinching the metal between the upper and lower wheel and thus stretching the metal out. Because of the force involved between the two wheels, your metal, or even worse, your wheels can easily be damaged by a something being put through the wheel like a piece of weld spatter or pieces of metal shavings/debris. This is why it’s a good idea to wipe down your metal and wheels with PRE prep.
Also the smoother your wheel is the better, so much like a good body hammer, polishing your wheels are a nice way to make sure they are staying clean. This gives you a chance to inspect them for any damage as well. If your wheel has any chips, major divots, or imperfections, it will transfer into the metal. Minor nicks and dents can be livable for most DIY guys, but if you work in aluminum a lot you need to be extremely diligent with your cleaning and polishing of your wheels.