Sheet metal fabrication tools

Other than a pair of snips, a carbide blade on a table saw, and a small band saw, our team doesn’t have any tools for working with sheet metal. I’m wondering if anyone has any recommendations for what we should acquire as I’m largely ignorant of what’s out there.

Three tools I’ve come across are a press brake, a shear, and a slip roll. They look pretty straightforward, but I have no experience. Harbor Freight has a 30" all-in-one model for $400. Would we be smart to get one? Does anyone have any experience to share?

Another tool I’ve found is a bead roller. Eastwood has one for $150. Harbor Freight also has an economy model for a bit more. It looks like one could use thinner sheets of aluminum, and create the rigidity of a thicker sheet using this tool, but without the extra weight. Does anyone have any experience to share?

Not to knock harbor freight too much, But anything with HF in the name will not handle the heavier gauge AL that most of us use. That is not what they are made for. The same goes for most of the multi-function sheet metal tools.

Thanks. The HF model shear can only cut up to 20 ga., so not much. It can bend and roll thicker gauges up to 16.

My teams has this, and it’s been a bit of a pain. The press brake works nicely, but the shear and the roller are another story. The rollers aren’t the easiest to adjust to produce the correct bend, and it’s not the greatest construction. The shear can work, but it’s awful hard to cut anything, and we were able to crack the bottom table cutting some sheet metal.

So, overall, I don’t know if I’d recommend it. It works and it’s rather cheap for all the machines it combines, but I’m sure there are other options that could work better.

Thanks for the review. That’s what I need to know and I’ll keep shopping. I’m guessing that a shear, a press brake and a slip roller of a better quality would be good tools to have. Are they worth it for the money?

Any comments on bead rollers in general, or the Eastwood and HF models in particular? Are they useful? Is my assumption correct?

For those that have a press brake in-house, what do you have and up to what length and thickness can you bend for 6061 Aluminum and/or 5052 Aluminum?

We don’t have a sheet metal brake in-house, but I would really like to have one so that we can bend more parts…

Based on the reviews for the heftiest brake on HF (http://www.harborfreight.com/36-inch-metal-brake-with-stand-91012.html), it sounds like folks can usually bend 16ga (.050" AL), but it will often struggle with sizes up to 12ga (.080" AL). Does anyone have experience with this bender, and if so, what do you think its limitations are? What thickness can it handle if they’re short little brackets (bend length ~2" maybe)?

Grizzly makes a few sheet metal combo machines. They are import machines as well but I have found that their quality is much better than HF. Anyone have any experience with the Grizzly 3-in-1 machines?

The Grizzly 3-in-one models look identical to the HF model, but the price indicates a better quality. They’re out of our budget this coming season, but possibly next year. They still only cut 22-20 ga. mild steel. How does that translate to the much softer aluminum? 18-16 ga.?

This will be harder to find, but keep your eyes on the lookout for used heavier duty shears and brakes.

Look in industrial or government auctions - often times companies that go out of business or government agencies that have old stuff will auction them off, and you can pick up stuff for pennies on the dollar. You can pick up used, 20-30 year old equipment that’s much better quality than new HF stuff for the same price.

Also, ask around at local machine shops and see if they have any older/mothballed equipment that they might donate to your team.

I once used one of those $300 all-in-one shear/brake/roller and it barely lasted a year of VEX and FRC use before the cast housing cracked.

I am not sure because we rarely use sheet under an 1/8", but it should be noted that steel is slightly thicker than aluminum of the same gauge. See here

Thanks Art. Do you, or anyone, have any thing to share about bead rollers in general? My assumption is that one can use it to add rigidity to thinner sheets of aluminum without adding weight. Am I correct in this? Once again, I have no experience in sheet metal work aside from repairing/replacing flashing on my roof.

Thanks Art. Do you, or anyone, have any thing to share about bead rollers in general? My assumption is that one can use it to add rigidity to thinner sheets of aluminum without adding weight. Am I correct in this? Is it a useful tool in your experience? Once again, I have no experience in sheet metal work aside from repairing/replacing flashing on my roof.

Remember sheet aluminum usually comes in 48" widths. A 30" shear won’t work.
You need a very good shear. If the blade moves even a little bit, the shear turns into a shear/bend :ahh:
If you get a break, be sure it comes with different width blades. You can mix them up for different width bends. You also need a good flat piece of steel to align the blades whe you set them up.
You also might consider a good flange plier. These are used for short bends but also can be used to straighten wavy bends.

Thanks Wayne. I just got off the phone with a metal fabricator in Bakersfield, CA. He said he might have some old machines that he could donate. Hope it all pans out.

Our local sheet metal supplier gives us free cuts (if I remember right my story right), and will strip the material down for us into 1’ x 4’ strips, or smaller. This makes it much more manageable for us.

A set of Cleco clamps go a long way to lining up rivet holes and keeping things square. Look on eBay for some great deals - everything to get started for about $50-75.

Grizzly is a little better on quality, but not the best. Import or domestic, it doesn’t matter. Price and brand is more relevant to quality since the Chinese factories will meet the specified price point and make tradeoffs to meet schedule, demand, and specifications. Typical US importers want the lowest cost possible, and that’s when quality lacks.

Swag Offroad has a shop press brake kit you might want to check out (it may or may not meet your requirements - it does require welding). The Harbor Freight 20 ton shop press is about $160 on sale.

I check Craigslist nearly every day for miscellaneous metalworking tools. Press brakes and shears are a rare item now that many fabricators have long-ago switched to large multi-ton hydraulic systems.

Also, glad to see you are venturing into sheet metal! :smiley:

Disclaimer: I’m no sheet metal expert, this is just what I’ve found over the years of general fabrication in FRC and FSAE.

We have a finger brake in-house. We have comfortably bent up to 1/8in 6061, never tried more. A finger brake offers some advantages over a press brake, including the ability to do more complex bends that a press-brake might require special tooling for and the ability to change bend radius without changing tooling.

One doesn’t *really *need the shears or roller IMO. Straight cuts in sheet metal (and cuts considerably more complex that shears can do) can be made with a tool like an air nibbler and a clamped straight-edge. I’ve never felt the need to use a roller or bead roller (though we have both in our shop) and a CNC plasma cutter has all but completely supplanted the 4ft+ air-powered shears we have.

If I were to be picking machines from scratch I would get a large CNC router table and the finger brake.

Thinking about it… we may try using the bead roller this pre-season to see how we like it.

I have the slightly smaller version of this, without fingers, in my garage. I have bent 3-4in widths of 1/4in bronze with it. Very capable and easy to use machine, especially when paired with a hydraulic ram like this one like I have done.

The advantage of a setup like this (vs a combo machine) is that broaching, pressing in bearings, etc are all now very easy to do. Though the longest possible bend has gotten smaller.