Metalworking for woodworkers

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Forum topic by live4ever posted 01-03-2013 09:05 PM 4184 views 3 times favorited 24 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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983 posts in 3009 days

01-03-2013 09:05 PM

Topic tags/keywords: metalworking shop resource tip aluminum copper brass steel

Working with metal is almost unavoidable, even if our preferred medium is wood. Whether it’s jig-building, hardware modification, tool maintenance & modification, or just general putzing around, the need to cut, shape, drill, and polish metals often arises.

For me this is a whole ‘nuther bag of worms, so I thought I’d start a thread on it and see if we can compile some basic info and resources on things metal. Now and again I come across a post where someone used their lathe to turn a softer metal or shaped some stainless steel with a grinder. I realize a lot of this just comes from putzing around, but I’d like a source of more organized/consolidated information. Call it “metalworking for woodworkers” if you will.

So please feel free to comment or ask questions surrounding how you work with metal in your shop, e.g.:

How do you cut and shape softer metals, like aluminum, brass, and copper? How do you cut and shape harder metals like steel?

What do you find to be useful shop tools for working with metal (not talking about milling machines or metal lathes, but everyday kind of tools many of us have access to)?

How do you polish metals?

Examples of projects you’ve made that used metalworking in some way? It doesn’t have to be complicated…perhaps a simple aluminum part in a jig or a copper ferrule on a turned project. Or something more elaborate.

Books, links, etc. on the subject? Let’s see where this goes…

-- Optimists are usually disappointed. Pessimists are either right or pleasantly surprised. I tend to be a disappointed pessimist.

24 replies so far

View RiverWood's profile


115 posts in 2759 days

#1 posted 01-03-2013 09:26 PM

This should turn out to be a very informative topic. I enjoy making tools from old files and saw blades. There is no need to be an expert metallurgist if you go slow and don’t overheat your stock. Polishing is much like sharpening, pretty much the same end result. As for softer metals, I have made many things with everything from spent ammo to used pipe and fittings. A dremel tool or angle grinder are very useful for shaping (remember go slow) and a grinder or files to refine shapes. Hope this helps to get the topic going.

-- My favorite projects were firewood bound

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1554 posts in 2131 days

#2 posted 01-03-2013 09:58 PM

One thing to always remember is “DON”T TOUCH HOT METAL”! Ouch, that smarts.

-- Russell Pitner Hixson, TN 37343

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1233 posts in 1994 days

#3 posted 01-03-2013 10:03 PM

For the telescope project in my profile I had to build some aluminum mirror supports, as well as a stainless steel tailgate that holds the mirror adjustment structure.

T6061 aluminum is pretty easy to work with with a lot of woodworking tools. Your drill press will have no problems, especially if it can be slowed down to just a few hundred RPM and you use a lot of cutting lubricant (commonly available in spary cans). I put a metal cutting blade on my bandsaw and cut the shapes. Drills did the rest. Your router, even on its slow speed, may turn too fast to do edge shaping (and your carbid bits aren’t the right type for aluminum either), so I bought a good file and used that to break edges, etc. It taps easily too. I’ve heard it referred to as the ‘woodworkers metal’ and I can see why. For simple shapes it works out OK.

Stainless steel is very hard to work. It gets harder to work the hotter it gets. The best way to cut it is with a plasma torch. I very carefully made my plans for the stainless part, then bought the proper pieces cut to length from a local metal shop. I used my Harbor Freight bench top drill press to drill the holes. Its slowest speed of 600rpm was too fast. Even with all the cutting fluid, it got hot and hard to drill. At that point it was close to impossible to tap as well, but luckily I got it done with a very high quality hardened tap. I then build a plywood jig to hold all the pieces in the right place, pefectly square, etc., and had a local shop weld it together.

For other metals, I’ve mainly stuck to hacksaws for cutting and files for dressing the cuts, etc. Drills and taps are easier in some metals than others, and selecting the right type of metal for the purpose avoids a lot of cussing.

Also, a dremel is a great tool for light metal work. That thing has 1001 uses.


-- Part of engineering is to know when to put your calculator down and pick up your tools.

View PurpLev's profile


8535 posts in 3648 days

#4 posted 01-03-2013 10:15 PM

I find that a hack saw, and some files are indispensable for working metal both for working softer and harder metals.

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

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10396 posts in 3647 days

#5 posted 01-03-2013 10:18 PM

I have a couple of angle grinders. I have grinding wheels, a cup
brush and a box of “Radiac” cutoff wheels. I use the cutoff
wheels a lot to cut steel and have become pretty good at
making accurate miters and things like that in steel.

A set of drills and taps comes in handy. I just have a small
set for smaller machine screws up to 1/4” and I use
them a lot. Thread cutting oil is good to have, though
in a pinch most any oil will do.

Shinto saw rasps work on aluminum.

A high quality jig saw like a Bosch or Festool is real nice
to have if you want to cut metal. The better jig saws
don’t vibrate as much.

I use a piece of railroad track as an anvil. If I want to
make a sharp bend in a piece of steel I heat it up
red hot with a propane torch and work it with hammers
on the anvil. A small (cheap) metalworking vise is far
better than no vise for bending and shaping metal.
I had a blacksmith’s leg vise for awhile but sold it
when I moved several years ago. It was nice to have.

View Don W's profile

Don W

18715 posts in 2567 days

#6 posted 01-03-2013 10:27 PM

I have a horizontal bandsaw, several grinders, a welder, vice, and wire wheels set up for metal work. My last project ( had some metal work involved.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View RonInOhio's profile


721 posts in 2863 days

#7 posted 01-03-2013 10:37 PM

Working metal into shop tools is an intriguing subject and one that I hope to pursue eventually. What better enjoyment can there be than to fabricate your own wood plane,or marking tool, or set of chisels ?

Just reading several articles on these very things has been enlightening and given me the desire to try it out

Usually articles in ShopNotes or Fineworking give resources and how-tos. For example in one article it tells you how
to temper the metal of a home-made plane blade with a propane torch. What tool steel is the best, places to buy tool steel , etc. Often its a combination of wood working and metal fabricating.

View live4ever's profile


983 posts in 3009 days

#8 posted 01-03-2013 10:47 PM

Great stuff so far guys, keep it coming…

On Dremel tools: Those of you who like to use a Dremel for light metal work, what do you find to be its limits? For instance, can it grind metal off at a reasonable rate? Can it cut steel rod or bar to size? Would you be able to grind a flat in round steel rod?

One woodworking jig involving “pseudo-metalworking” I’d like to make is Derek Cohen’s carousel shooting board. He outlines how to do a lot of the metalwork pretty nicely in his how-to (hope you don’t mind me linking, Derek):

What’s a good vise for holding metal parts while you grind/shape them?

-- Optimists are usually disappointed. Pessimists are either right or pleasantly surprised. I tend to be a disappointed pessimist.

View JoeinGa's profile


7736 posts in 2006 days

#9 posted 01-03-2013 11:12 PM

”What do you find to be useful shop tools for working with metal?”

A hand-held torch and several different hammers.

I have a 110v wire welder which comes in handy occasionally.

I also have a home made anvil (you can see it behind and to the right of my RAS)

And this 5” mechanics vise is quite handy as well

-- Perform A Random Act Of Kindness Today ... Pay It Forward

View runswithscissors's profile


2751 posts in 2024 days

#10 posted 01-03-2013 11:51 PM

You read my mind. I’ve been thinking a thread like this was needed for some time. Maybe even an article in FWW. I do quite a bit with metal in my shop, for example I make my own mobile bases out of angle iron and/or square tubing. I also make jigs and tool mods. I started out brazing with a Solid Ox outfit, which was frustrating to use, and expensive to operate (with Ox at about $8 for a small bottle—and it doesn’t weigh anything!)
I have a 140 amp (220 input) wire welder, in which I mostly run fluxcore. I have done a small amount of aluminum welding as well. But I am self taught (via books and trial and error—emphasis on the error). Consequently I am not that good at it, but usually I can make a satisfactory product. The welder is from HF, and has to be at least 25 years old. I’ve been eyeing their 170 amp and 180 amp models recently. I’m also intrigued by their spot welders, which I know I could find use for.

I cut mild steel and stainless with a 1/16” cutting disk in my 4 1/2” grinder. AL that way too, sometimes, but it usually is easiest on woodworking tools—TS and BS. I find aluminum more challenging than steel in some ways, because it is sticky and gets hot very quickly, especially if over 1/4” thick. I hate cutting it on the TS or MS, though, because it throws a lot of chips. I wear a full face mask, even gloves. And I learned not to wear fleece, as aluminum sticks to it like burrs on a dog. Grinding and welding sparks also melt holes in synthetic fabrics. I did get a 10” blade from HF that is intended for AL. It has negative rake to the teeth, which helps it not load up with aluminum chips. Spraying with WD40 or Dry Lube helps also. When I cut metal with the angle grinder, the sparks make it very hard to see a cut line, so I use Press A Ply labels (available in 10X12 sheets), then draw my cut on that with pen or pencil. Do the same thing when I’m cutting curves on the BS. That’s the 14” BS that I modified (when brand new, from Grizzly), by putting in a jack shaft and a couple of step pulleys. Gets the blade speed down to about 400 fpm—maybe a little fast, but works okay. I get variable pitch bi-metal blades from a local saw shop, in 1/4” width because sometimes I have to do tight curves. They cut mild steel and even stainless quite well, though not very fast. The variable pitch is to accommodate all the way from 16 gauge up to 1/4” steels (and occasionally heavier).It surprising how long these blades last. I’ve only had to replace them 2 or 3 times in several years. I do occasionally make short cuts in wood with this saw, but of course it goes very slowly. I originally figured I’d swap blades and blade speed to cut wood, but discovered I was too lazy to fuss with it. I do have an 18” BS for serious woodwork.

Having the need to cut quite a few square holes in 1/8” aluminum, I quickly tired of drilling a pilot hole, cutting out with the saber saw, and filing the holes to clean them up. So I tried an end mill in the router, using speed reducer, template, and bushing. The end mills are available in 1/8” to 3/8” sizes, with 3/8” shanks, which I can use because Porter Cable makes (or made?) a 3/8” collet. 1/2” mills have a 1/2” shank. Though the shanks all have a flat spot on them for the milling machine chuck, at moderate speeds this doesn’t seem to create any vibration problems. One nice thing about end mills is they cut their own starting holes.

As for drilling, I use cobalt bits almost exclusively, as they are the best way to drill stainless, and work fine in everything else. But if I’m stuck without the cobalt bit I need (they do break sometimes), I resort to an old trick a hardware store salesman told me one time: lubricate HSS bits with canned milk. Sounds crazy, but it works, I think because the water cools, while the butterfat lubricates. With that hypothesis in mind, I tried mixing water with miscible oil (dormant oil for spraying your fruit trees), and it works great. Unlike canned milk, it doesn’t turn sour and stink.

As for cutting stainless with a jig saw, it’s almost impossible. Bimetal blades will cut, but they turn red hot in seconds, and are toast. I did try it using my cooling/lubing formula, which sort of worked, but it’s hard to keep the fluid flowing into the cut. The bandsaw works because the blade has plenty of time to cool in its long course around the wheels.

A few projects:
1. Several mobile bases.
2. A mod to a tenoning jig which lets me cut 4 sided tenons (faces and edges) on the router table or shaper (I’ve used both). Makes perfect tenons more quickly than any other way I know. The metal work was a slab of 1/2” aluminum with a T slot (using a T cutter on my drill press, which was barely able to resist the torquing forces), adjustable fence sawed out of a block of aluminum (next time I’d just weld it up), and a clamp, welded up with parts from a C clamp and a slotted piece of square tube. This all attaches to the leading end of the tenon jig at right angles to the normal face.
3. A sharpening jig for planer and jointer knives. Welded out of 1” angle iron and a chunk of 1/4” steel plate. Bolts onto the 6” belt sander in place of the sander’s fence, and is used with the sander in upright position. A very simple design, but it makes a beautiful, even, straight bevel, going through several grit grades. Oh, plus a blade holder for this setup out of various 1/4” aluminum scraps.
4. Motor mounts for several projects.
5. Several projects involving gardening machines and tools (sorry, not woodworking)
6. Any number of jigs and tool mods, for various purposes (pretty vague, I know, but I’m getting tired of typing)

Finally, I am blessed with great sources for tools and supplies, all within a 20 minute drive: Grizzly, Harbor Freight, a steel yard (they seem to have no problem with me prowling around through their offcut pile), probably the best hardware store in the USA (Hardware Sales in Bellingham, WA), 2 or 3 welding shops, the ReStore (non-profit recyclers of a lot of wood and some metal), and a metal recycler. The latter set aside any aluminum and stainless that looks usable, and sell it by the pound. I make periodic pilgrimages to this place.

-- I admit to being an adrenaline junky; fortunately, I'm very easily frightened

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2751 posts in 2024 days

#11 posted 01-04-2013 12:02 AM

Sorry to get so long winded about this. Started and couldn’t stop.

-- I admit to being an adrenaline junky; fortunately, I'm very easily frightened

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Don W

18715 posts in 2567 days

#12 posted 01-04-2013 12:04 AM

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View MNgary's profile


298 posts in 2416 days

#13 posted 01-04-2013 12:22 AM

I had a coworker who worked metal and he felt metalworking to be additive while woodworking is subtractive in concept. Of course, his experience was with welding while mine designing furniture so he only heard me discussing shaping pieces of wood and he joined pieces of metal. But I thought it an interesting insight considering our past discussions.

His approach was to build up a project from pieces of flat or round bars and sheets while I approached projects thinking of ways to cut down and shape boards.

-- I dream of a world where a duck can cross the road and no one asks why.

View FeralVermonter's profile


100 posts in 1970 days

#14 posted 01-04-2013 12:34 AM

Love the topic!

OK, first off, you want to get the old Army manuals. It’s an absolutely AMAZING resource, these manuals—tons of them out there, and they belong to you, citizen, so you should avail yourself. (Here’s a sort of double-link: to a short list of army manuals, free to download, and to the Multimachine project, which is a neat example of DIY machining in and of itself: Dig deeper and you find all sorts of stuff: masonry manuals, carpentry manuals, navigation manuals… amazing. A truly amazing resource. (I should add that the guys in the multimachine forum have a lot of great advice re: metalworking with commonly available tools.)

I’ve noticed, researching various topics for crazy design/build schemes over the years, that there’s a sort of balkanization of knowledge–metalworkers think in metal, woodworkers in wood, and electronics guys can make a CNC plasma cutter, but don’t seem to know which end of the handsaw to grab. Which is a shame, because I think a lot of projects could benefit from a hybrid of materials and approaches.

Sometimes, not knowing that something can’t be done is the best way to do it. I popped a normal drill bit in my drill press, not even thinking about rpm, and easily drilled a bunch of 1/4” holes in 1/8” angle iron. When I went up to 1/2”, though… I blunted my bits, and never did make it through. So not knowing will only get you so far…

So far as metalworking on common tools goes… obviously a bench grinder can be useful, sanders (belt, orbital). I managed to take a metal shaft down from 1/2” to 31/64” by loading it into my drill press and (ever so slowly) grinding it down with a file and sandpaper (though I’m told that drill presses really aren’t designed to take sideways pressure like that–think the technical term is “radial loading”). I have this dirt-cheap “chop-saw” (just a saw mounted on big plastic circle that rides in a plastic base) that I loaded with a $8 metal cutoff blade. It cuts angle iron just fine, and it’s not a bad way to clean up those cut ends either. I’ve read that you can cut aluminum just fine with a steel chisel (yet to try it, though).

I’ve read a bit about the “build your own metalworking shop from scrap” series by david gingery, borrowed them from a friend for a bit… pretty interesting stuff in there. More than I’d want to take on, right now, but certainly helped me understand some basic principles of metal, metal working…

Then there’s elbow-greased solutions. Tap and die is pretty useful, and a basic set doesn’t cost that much. Files… have actually turned out to be some of my most-used tools. A hacksaw is a slow way to get exactly the cut you want. And on hiking trips, I’ve sharpened my knives on rocks found along the way–there’s more than one way to work with metal.

View Stephenw's profile


273 posts in 2385 days

#15 posted 01-04-2013 12:53 AM

I have a horizontal/vertical metal cutting band saw. I also have a plasma cutter.

A metal and wood project I made…

Here is my garage/shop…

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