How do metalworkers cut material?

Let’s get right to the point, you won’t be able to make much without cutting down your materials. When it comes to sizing up your work piece, there are a lot of options out there depending on the size of your operation and bankroll, you could spend $10 or well over $1 million to get a single tool that cuts metal (or multiple tools).

Whether you’re looking to cut down a 4 foot by 10 foot sheet of steel, or you want to chop down a piece of 2″ square bar stock, there are several options to choose from. Picking the right tool for the job is going to make all of the difference in your production time and ability to hold dimensional tolerances… Take a look at the list below for some of the most common options.

What are the common tools?

  • Manual Shears/Tin Snips/Snips- These are typically like scissors but with some meat to them. They can be typically be found at your local hardware store (or home improvement store). These can be had as cheaply as $8.00 and they’ll get little jobs done if the steel is thin enough.
  • Electric/Pneumatic Shears- These are much more efficient in cutting through sheet steel compared to the manual snips. They feature a tough bit (could be tungsten carbide). These look like a big drill with a funky mouth. Can be had for as low as $40 from places like Harbor Freight.
  • Hack Saw- Comes in many different sizes, shaped like a bow (like the weapon) but with a sharp toothed blade where there string would go. Can saw straight cuts through material; though not efficient to be used on sheet steel this is effective on bar and flat stock if you don’t have a power tool. You can get these for as loe as $5!!
  • Reciprocating Saw- Yeah, you can use the “fast hack saw” if you’re looking for a shortcut. Mostly for tubing if you’re using it on steel. It’s earned the name “Sawzall” because people have been known to use them for everything from exhaust work on their F150 to building a whole deck (out of 2×4’s). You’re looking at $25 from the likes of Walmart.
  • Band Saw- This is a saw that runs a continuous blade around a set of 2 wheels to provide a consistent sawing in one direction. You can feed your work piece toward the blade for clean cuts with radius capability as well. This will cost you as little as $129 brand new for a Ryobi unit, or you can buy better quality used for the same price or less if you scout Craigslist.

How about the BIG machines though?… Okay, keep on reading.

  • Foot Operated Shear – 52″ wide is going to be plenty to cut down your 4ft wide sheets of material. These machines make quick and squared work of sheets, but only provide straight cuts. Big machines, BIG price tag. This will run you around $1,200 brand new.
  • Punch Press (Small) – This is a machine with a hydraulic ram with preloaded-spring attachments of different sizes to force material away to make a work piece take shape slowly. Machines like “Strippit” brand were very popular decades ago. These can be had for around $5,000 used since I’m not sure they’re being made new any longer.
  • CNC Punch Machines (Computer Numerically Controlled)- Utilize a computer and programming to map out a cutting route. These are advanced pieces of machinery that can contain a “turret style” holder for different punches loaded to be used one after the other instead of requiring a worker to unload and reload different tooling to complete one run. Probably the best option for a professional business because this machine can out-produce many other machines. A huge footprint, uses 3-phase power and air. These sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and can even be purchased as a punch/laser combo machine.
  • CNC Laser Cutter- Some are behemoth creations, with multiple “tables” to hold different stock to rotate out while another sheet it being cut to keep production moving. Though, in my personal experience, these are much slower than a punch machine, it’s a good investment to have. Cutting out odd shapes is not a problem, it does not require the purchase of expensive tooling for a small run, one-off job like the punch machine would. Average price… You’re looking at $2,000 for a very small unit with limited uses, all the way up to well over $1,000,000 for a larger unit to be used in an industrial setting.
Large cutting machines can make quick work of detailed designs

I’m sure that I am missing some of the options in between, so just be aware that there are more options around.

You’ll find what works best for you in regards to your financial standing and what your needs are. Shops that I have worked in utilize both lasers, punches, and hand shears. But, I’ve known shops that get by with just a CNC laser (but they’re limiting themselves for high volume orders of repeat parts), and even shops that have just a CNC punch (but they limit themselves to the shapes they can create without buying extra tooling, almost eliminating the ability to do small run custom orders).

If you do end up buying a laser for your company, or one of the other options, just know that you can outsource other processes if you need. Say you’ve got a customer looking for a special design and your punch can’t do it; it’s always good business to work with your neighbor, so maybe you have a shop nearby with a laser (who probably is not focused on the same market as you), it wouldn’t be bad practice to see if they’ll quote you some laser time to cut your project out if you provide them with a CAD file or detailed drawing. It won’t be free, but you’ve got options and you certainly are not stuck if a customer asks for something you can’t do yourself.

Now if you’ve just got a small workshop at home so you can do this work as a hobby, then you can probably get a combination of the smaller tools and if you need something larger done you should reach out to a local shop. Only thing I will say is to not expect to be put right to the front of their production line if you only have 2 or 3 pieces you need cut. Expect to fall somewhere in their lead time (typically 4 weeks – 8 weeks depending on what time of year we’re in). Know that shops usually have more availability to take on jobs in the mid-end of the 4th quarter [This is the last 3 months of the year], but don’t knock on their door the week before Christmas.

Now you’re ready to get out there and tackle a project with a little more information about some of the tools that are available!

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