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More Tools, Tips and Tricks for Shaping Metal



Kevin is working on his sculpture Sheleen, which is, as he says, "a little on the curvy side." People ask him how he does all the shaping. Once section at a time? Over his head? Over his knee?

He says that, once he gets the pieces cut out, he attaches one corner of the steel sculpture with a 1/4" tack weld. Then he works down the seam, prying and tacking. He shows one of his favorite pry bars, a small, handheld model he got from Snap-on tools. It's great for working in small areas because you don't have so much leverage that you're bending the metal, but you have enough to persuade it.

Kevin also uses a lot of woodworking clamps. They're quick to adjust and have enough flexibility to tighten things up. He also uses Bessey clamps, but one he really likes is one he overheated the pad on. He warped it, so it won't sit flat, so he decided to add a piece 1/4" angle iron on it. Now he can actually hook it on the edge of a sheet if he wants to, say, pull a whole section in. If you are doing this type of work and have a junk clamp, consider welding a little piece of angle iron on its pad to create this great clamp.

Another favorite tool is motorcyle tie-down straps. Kevin says a four-pack at the big "orange store" is pretty reasonably priced. For instance, when he got to the last seam on this sculpture, it was warped 10 - 12 inches out of alignment because of all the heating, welding, tacking, etc. He took a motorcycle strap and went inside on one end and inside on the other. He pulled from the inside because he didn't want to peel back the metal, which was just tack welded together. Pulling the pieces of metal in opposite directions let him line up the ends, clamp them into place, align everything, and tack weld it.

Next Kevin points to a "damn dent," a wrinkle caused by prying the metal as well as from the welding heat. To fix it, he's going to locate the longest part of the divot and use his 4-1/2" grinder with a cut-off blade to cut across, right through the metal. Then he'll get another piece of 16 gauge steel or a piece of 1/8" plate steel and get this backer to the shape he wants. Then he'll use that backer plate, drill some holes through the sculpture and the plate, use his clecos to reshape this section of the sculpture.

What are clecos? Kevin shows us this tool from the aircraft industry that is used to put the skin on planes. They are, in essence, removable pop rivets that let you position something, tack or otherwise permanently put it together, then remove the clecos. So he'll drill 1/8" holes through the wrinkle and the backer metal to accommodate the clecos, which will "suck" everything together so he can tack weld the metal into place.

Kevin may need to adjust things with a hammer, too, because the steel is now stretched and longer than it was originally. He may get away with just cutting it, bending it back up, coming in underneath with a dolly, and shaping it with a hammer from above. Sometimes, though, the metal is bent so far out of shape, you have to actually cut out a piece of the steel.

A body dolly or hardie, which goes in an anvil's hardie hole is a great tool for shaping metal. Dollies are shaped pieces of hardened steel that are perfect for reaching up inside your work. You put the dolly on the bottom side of the dent so you have something to hammer against. Kevin recalls creating his own dolly out of a six-foot-long pipe with a trailer ball on it so he could get up inside of a big sculpture where he couldn't otherwise reach.

Next Kevin demonstrates how he takes out a dent. You don't have to "wail" on a dent to get rid of it. First you feel up inside to locate the dent - this one felt like a big tent. He positioned the hardie so that the metal could be hammered to the shape he wanted. Then he can come back in with a smaller hammer to shape it a little more carefully on the top. Finally, he finishes with a grinder to remove the hammer marks.

So those are some of the options to consider to shape metal: slicing, stretching, shrinking, as well as using a backer, clecos and lots of clamps.

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