Author: Craig Perronne Photos: Courtesy of Manufacturers
At the beginning of this magazine’s existence in what now seems like eons ago, we created the Fab 101 series with the goal of helping those who were just starting their journey into the wonderful world of fabrication. While there are plenty of awesome products in the Dirt Sports Nation that are ready to bolt onto your vehicle, lots of things just need to be built by hand. And, even if the parts are readily available, nothing quite matches the satisfaction of carefully crafting your own custom creation. With that in mind we have decided to revive the Fab 101 series after a few years of absence. While we all are in a constant state of drool over the beautiful expertise showcased in our Masterpiece in Metal section, keep in mind that those vehicles are the results of artisans with years (and even decades) of experience. Don’t expect to achieve that level of skill any time soon, but don’t get disheartened either. Fabrication is fun and a great way to spend some quality time in the garage. Plus, we will be there to provide some tips along the way and with enough practice and dedication, you can be producing high-quality items after some time as well. For our first installment we were going to jump right into techniques, but decided to take a step back to look at some of the tools you will need to fabricate properly. Remember, this is not intended to be an end-all be-all list as how much fabrication you intend to do and what you want to build can alter your needs significantly. Getting the right tools to get started with might not be cheap, but the good news is if you buy high-quality items they should last you a lifetime. Let’s take a look at some of the basic tools of the trade.
A Place To Work: The Miller ArcStation is pretty cool, but might be a bit of overkill if you are just starting out. However, the point is that you will need a clean and organized space to work in along with a sturdy table if you plan on building smaller items. Welding on the floor will quickly get old, and parts can easily become dirty and contaminated. A comfortable seat and a table to put pieces on while welding can make a huge difference. Even if you are not doing table work and are welding onto a vehicle, a little seat on rollers will keep you much more comfortable and productive. Keeping your work area clean and organized will help as well.
Safety Gear: At the bare minimum you will need a quality welding helmet to protect your face and eyes when welding. While auto-darkening helmets used to be considered exotic, they have come down significantly in price, and welding with them is actually easier without the constant need to open and close a helmet. They are worth a look if you don’t have a helmet yet, and shouldn’t be too hard on the budget. A good set of gloves and a jacket can also keep you from burning your hands or catching your T-shirt on fire (trust us, it happens).
Welder: It is not shocking that one of the key pieces of fabricating equipment is a welder, and here is where you need to be realistic with yourself. If you are only planning to zap metal together occasionally, than a smaller, less featured and even portable unit like this Hobart might be ideal -- along with saving you money. However, if the plan is to do lots of welding with heavy use, a more feature-laden and robust model might be needed. Also remember that, in the long run, it might be cheaper and less of a hassle to get a welder that you can “grow into” instead of one that you will have to sell in a few years and replace (usually at a loss). At the bare minimum, whatever welder you source should be able to handle the thickness of the material you will be welding. Buying a welder used can also save significant money, but make sure you can spot the difference between a great deal and a lemon. We will dive into tips for selecting the right welder in a future article.
Chopping: Cutting through tubing with a hacksaw or Sawzall, while possible, will eventually become very tiresome, time consuming and messy if you are working with lots of tube. Professionals often use cold saws, such as this Scotchman CPO 275, because they produce extremely accurate and clean cuts without any burrs or sparking. They can also easily and accurately miter tubing as well. However, a good chop saw with the right blade should make short work of most tubing, and save some coin over higher-end units. Just remember that they will leave burrs that need to be removed, making for some additional prep before welding.
Grinding and Cutting: A nice belt grinder, like this Grit GX 75, might not seem necessary, but they do a nice job of finishing, cleaning and deburring pieces. Another item that can be worth investing in is a band saw, as it makes working with metal plate easy. Again, you need to be realistic with the actual work you will be doing, otherwise you can easily wind up with a garage full of unused and expensive tools. Also remember that while this may seem a significant investment, you can add tools as you go along to expand your capabilities and match your needs.
Getting Bent: If you are working with tubing, you will eventually need a way to bend it. This Judd Tool Tube Bandit would make every fabricator in the Dirt Sports Nation drool, but is extreme overkill if you are just starting out. Often if you are not bending lots of tube, a good manual bender can be all you need. If you see lots of bending in your future though, a hydraulic bender might be the better way to go. If you are unsure of your needs, one way to save money is to buy a manual bender than can later be upgraded to a hydraulic version. Remember also to budget in the tubing dies you will need for the size tubing you are working with as they can add up quickly.
Notching: Welding two piece of tubing together requires that they be cut, or “notched,” so they fit together properly. A high-end tubing notcher, like this Baleigh Industrial TN-250, will make short work of any notching operation. However, it is a serious commitment in terms of money and space. Smaller and cheaper units do exist, but if you are not fitting lots of tube together, you can get away with using a chop saw and a grinder. This will take significantly more time and require more skill, but can save a lot of money.