Shears

What type of bench shears should I use to cut sheet metal?

Question

“I have watched the tutorial that you have on bench shears for cutting metal.  There are a few sizes I could purchase.  Do you think the smallest size, “4″ bench shear” can cut 18 gauge sterling silver sheets easily? Since I’m a small size woman, I need to know what shear can cut it easily without the need to put much effort into it.”

Answer

There are hand shears and larger shears.

Cutting metal with hand shears is possible if you are cutting no thicker than 20 gauge non-ferrous metal.  Steel, iron and stainless are a whole different story and require even more specialized tools.

Most of the shears with handles are pretty easy to use – if they are mounted to a sturdy workbench or table.  Mount the shear where you can use your body weight to help depress the handle (probably waist height or lower).  Thick gauges will require considerably more effort than say 24 gauge.  I mount my shears to wood and them firmly clamp them (with “C” clamps) to my workbench.  You can also bolt them to a benchtop.  You might think of clamping or bolting yours lower – say to a seating bench or a stump so that you can use your body weight when cutting.

There are 3 basic types of shear to consider and a few specialty shears:

  1.   The guillotine shear is also known as a squaring shear or a precision shear.  The guillotine shear has a table, and often a guide, with which to line up the metal.  Guillotine or Precision shears are really fabulous for creating perfect 90°, 45°, and other angled cuts.  They leave you with beautifully straight edges and save you tons of time filing, sanding and banging your metal flat and square.  I used to have Pepe Tool’s 4″ Precision Shear but recently upgraded to Pepe Tool’s 6″ Precision Shear.  I love it!  I like the larger shear because most of my metal comes with one 6″ side.  The shear accommodates and cuts my metal perfectly. It cuts non-ferrous metals up to 18 gauge:  gold, silver, brass, copper, bronze, aluminum, etc. No steel, iron, stainless steel.
  2.   The bench or lever shear, which is used for rough cutting and for cutting heavier, larger sheets of metal – like 16 gauge. Pepe Tools makes a heavy duty version. “Cuts 1.6mm sheet or 10mm round stock of mild steel.” (Quote: Pepe Tools). That means it will cut your non-ferrous metals easily (of course, gauge must be considered).
  3.   The throatless shear is useful for curved and straight cuts but, like the bench shear, is not a precision cutting tool. It is called a throatless shear because you don’t feed metal down its “throat” like with the guillotine shear and you can move the metal around to cut curves. Amazon has many varieties. (Link works even though it doesn’t look like it!)
  4.   The Plate shear is basically a throatless shear.

Some shears have holes in the upper blade to cut rod and wire.

Specialty Shears

  Electric Shears.  There are also electric shears but, the cutting swath is wide so, you waste a lot of metal – not great if the metal is a precious metal.  They may cut metal rapidly but, will not give you small, intricate cuts.  Amazon carries some and they are pretty inexpensive and supposedly cut 14 g steel.

  Sheet Nibblers.  Similar to the electric shear:  it cuts wide swaths of metal and can’t create the fine, intricate details that jewelers employ but, it will cut your metal into pieces.  Amazon carries a few different types:  Double Head Sheet Nibler and the Versi Cutter, to name a few.  The nibbler pictured will cut iron up to 15 gauge (1.8mm), stainless steel up to 18 gauge (1.0 mm).

  Foot Pedal Powered Shears.  Easy as pie to operate and able to cut large sheets of metal but, they take up tons of room.  Surprisingly inexpensive for such a large chunk of steel!  I saw used ones on eBay for $400.00 US. Wonder how much it costs to sharpen or replace the blade?  Wondered because, you can assume, that the used ones will be dull.  New shears run anywhere from  $1,100.00 and up.  The foot shear pictured (Jet FS-1652J Foot Shearruns about $2,500. It will cut up to 14 gauge soft metal: copper, aluminum, etc.

Many jewelers use both a bench shear or throat-less shear with a guillotine.  The bench or throatless shear is used to cut large sheets of metal to size and the guillotine to make clean, even, uncurled cuts. But, it is not necessary to have two – just nice to have both.  

Before purchasing a shear, what you want to consider is:

  • The size, gauge and type of  metal you will be cutting
  • What your price range is
  • How much space do you have on your bench top or in your studio
  • What you will be using it for.  Do you just need to break up large sheets of metal or will you be creating precise cuts for things like ring shanks, cuffs, box making, and other precision-based items?

When purchasing a shear, I can’t stress this enough, be sure to check what gauge metal it cuts and what size metal you will be cutting. Quite a few of the guillotines, I researched, only cut 22 gauge and less.  If you will be cutting 18g or 20g, that shear won’t work for you.  That goes for wire too.  Here’s my drill bit chart for converting decimal inches to gauge (most of the non-jewelry suppliers post sizes in inches).