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Metal Fabrication Equipment

By Joe Richardson, Product Developer and Eastwood Expert

In the world of modern car restoration and custom building, there are many steel reproduction panels available for the more popular collector cars. If a replacement panel is available for a damaged area of your particular car, the task is relatively straightforward. What happens then if there is no prefabricated piece available for your particular application? You could search for a used section at a salvage yard specializing in collector cars, but this not always the solution. The only alternative is to make it yourself.

You may think that, since the original part was created in a huge press at a stamping plant, this is impossible, right? Well, fortunately the tools and equipment are readily available to create just about any shape in metal you could imagine. Keep in mind that in the early 20th century, before modern stamping equipment was developed, automobile, locomotive, airplane and marine panels were all fabricated by hand. In fact many exotic European sports and race car bodies were created entirely by hand as recently as the 50’s and 60’s. Many of today’s one-off customs have bodies fabricated by hand.

Tools and Equipment Used in Custom Panel Fabrication:

English Wheel – This device has been around for a long time. The early versions were somewhat basic, and constructed with extremely large and heavy castings. This was a requirement when fabricating airplane radial engine cowlings, and especially heavy gauge steam locomotive panels.

The English Wheel functions by passing a sheet of metal between the upper (or rolling) wheel and the smaller, lower (or anvil) wheel with a slight adjustable tension applied. The anvils are interchangeable, with the choice of radii based on the final contour desired. Though simple to operate, the English Wheel requires a great deal of patience and practice to master.

All the advantages of today’s machining and welding technology, as well as metallurgy science, means that modern wheeling machines are available at a relatively low price, while also offering a high degree of precision and quality. Eastwood offers a comprehensive array of English Wheel sizes and accessories designed to help form virtually any metal item ranging from intricate artwork pieces and motorcycle components such as tanks and fenders, to large automotive panels such as hoods, roofs, and more.

Planishing Hammer – The term “planish” means to smooth. The basic idea is to first create a shape in a piece of metal by rough forming it with forming tools or mallets, followed by smoothing out the surface by planishing it with a planishing hammer. Before today’s modern pneumatic designs were available, these were generally manually foot or hand powered. This was quite effective, but very time consuming and tiring. With precision pneumatic components and controls, this step can now be accomplished quickly and accurately with very little effort. The planishing hammer essentially functions by passing the formed piece between a reciprocating “hammering” hammer and a stationary “die”. The dies, like the anvils of the English Wheel, are interchangeable, with various surface radii chosen to most closely match the contour of the finished project.

Shrinker/ Stretcher – These tools are invaluable when there is a need to create those impossible-to-buy pieces such as auto body windshield/rear glass openings, wheel opening lips, door opening doglegs, and headlight openings. Starting with a piece of metal of any length and having a 90 degree angle bend (where each side is an inch or so), you can produce any combination of curves and in any direction you need.

The Shrinker functions by actuating a set of jaws which draw the edge of the metal inward from opposite directions causing it to “shrink” and generating an inward curve in the piece.

The Stretcher is the opposite of the Shrinker, in that it functions by actuating a set of jaws that spread the edge of the metal outward in opposite directions causing it to “stretch,” and generate an outward curve in the metal.

You only need to cut a strip of metal about 1-1/2” to 2-1/2” wide in any length, bend it to 90 degrees along its length at about the center line (our Versa-Bend Sheet Metal Brake is perfect for this), and, using some easily-made cardboard templates, make your parts.

You have a choice of actuation:

The hand operated Shrinker-Stretcher Set has been in the Eastwood catalog for many years with thousands in use. These can be mounted on most any work bench, or a number of Eastwood tool stands.

The ultimate is the Heavy-Duty Shrinker-Stretcher Kit. This has an integral stand and powerful, extra-large capacity jaws with a foot pedal control. This allows a user to shrink or stretch up to 16-gauge mild steel.

We at Eastwood are very enthusiastic about sharing your interest in the “lost art” of metal working. We are pleased to offer all of the tools and equipment needed as well as being available to provide advice on the selection of the right tools for your project and their use.

Have questions or comments on Metal Working? Join the discussion on the Metal Shop section of our online forum