If you are at all into home fabrication you know about and want a MIG welder, a plasma cutter, a tubing bender, or a plasma table. These tools are flashy and seem at first glance to be what separate the true metal fabricators from your average Joes. The truth is a MIG welder is critical to any amateur fabricator, but if you had to you could weld with the proper welding rod, jumper cables, and a few batteries. Yeah, the welds are going to look like poop, but in a pinch it can work. Plasma cutters and plasma tables are amazing tools that can, when used properly, save a fabricator a bunch of time and money. Same goes for tubing benders. But if you don’t know how to use these tools, they all can be a great way to waste steel, time, and money.
There are several unsung heroes of the fab shop. What fab tools do professional fabricators use that are not so flashy and thus get forgotten when it comes to DIY fab stories in your favorite 4x4 magazine? The 4 1/2 angle grinder, metal band-saw, chop saw, disc sander, hydraulic press, iron worker. These tools, with a little knowhow, can be used to make some amazing components that in the right hands push the border between functional parts and vehicular art.
At 4-Wheel & Off-Road we love tools, and we love the sense of gratification that comes from doing something ourselves. While we are not masters of all before us, we know that the right tools and knowledge of how to use them make all the difference. We also like to save cash, and we know who to ask about a given tool when we are in over our heads. The best part is we are here to show you, the 4x4 enthusiast, these unsung tools and give you tips on how they work.
The best, most expensive tools in the world won’t make you an amazing fabricator. While cheap tools can cause problems, skill and experience are of paramount importance. Simple tools when used correctly are awesome. The hacksaw is one tool that gets overlooked a lot. Use long slow strokes that use the entire length of the blade. Also, letting the saw blade do the work by not forcing it into the material you are cutting makes a big difference. Short quick strokes while pressing down hard are neither faster nor yield a better cut.
Angle grinders in both the 4 1/2 inch electric or pneumatic flavors are critical. We love our 4 1/2 inch grinder with a flap wheel for a huge number of applications, but a small pneumatic grinder with a sanding disc is awesome for cleaning up welds and deburring edges after cuts or drilling a hole. Sanding discs and flap wheels come in different “grits”; you’ll want a rough, low-number grit for removing lots of material and a smoother, high-number grit for smoothing and polishing the metal. Stone grinding attachments are also very useful for both, as are wire wheel brushes and Scotch Bright style discs. If you want nice welds from that MIG or TIG, metal prep is critical. See the welding table the grinders are on? It’s also a critical part of any metal fab shop.
A hydraulic shop press is also a very helpful tool in the fab shop. Besides the expected uses of pressing things together or apart, there are many other tools that when combined with a press can make the difference. For example, with a hole saw, a drill, and the proper dies you can add fancy dimple dies to your fabricated parts. Most fab guys also have a metal brake that can be added to a shop press. Swag Off Road sells both a dimple die set and a few metal brake conversion kits.
A band saw that is built to cut steel (rather than wood) is an amazing tool for making brackets and tabs for your project. If you don’t have a plasma cutter or plasma table and can’t afford one, the metal band saw is a good alternative.
A good vise is an indispensable tool for any fab shop or general shade tree 4x4 mechanic. We beat and pound on this awesome old vise that a friend gave us for free (good friends are priceless). Stout vises are pretty hard to find and can be difficult to find parts for, but the old American-made vises are built to last. You may be able to pass a good vise down to your grandchild. In a pinch you can use a vise for hundreds of things, including as a rudimentary break to bend steel up to about 90 degrees.
A belt or disc sander can help speed up metal fabrication. You can use it to clean up cuts from that band saw or hacksaw. According to fabricator Rob Bonney, quality sanders can also be used to cope tubing and or remove material for fine-tuning fitment and will allow you to feed steel into the disc or belt without slowing or stalling. Bonney recommends using 36-grit paper.
Hydraulic Iron Worker
We’ve fallen in love with this old piece of American history. It is Rob Bonney’s old Scotchman iron worker. It requires a three-phase inverter and is not perfect for everyone, but it does some pretty amazing things. You can use it to punch holes in steel plate and to shear angle iron and plate (including 1/2-inch bar up to 3 or 4 inches wide), and with dimple dies you can dimple holes for that racy look. Bonney’s Scotchman needed some work and was not perfect, but it works well and is built to last.