Tools for Squaring Metal

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Squaring Metal (Creating 90° Angles and Flat Edges)

90-degree-angle  One of the most difficult tasks for the jewelry fabricator is creating perfectly square metal edges and corners.  The simplest method, in making a 45° or 90° corner is to start with a piece that has one, perfectly straight edge.  Having that one, straight edge to work with, makes creating a perfect corner,  so much easier.

You can either use your factory cut edges (these edges are the ones that are present when you first order sheet metal from your supplier) or cut/file your own. Using factory edges is great until you run out of edges!  So, it’s a good idea to know how to create your own.


Shears are a simple way to cut clean lines on metal.

Guillotine Shears

The bench top, guillotine, throatless shears is perfect for cutting large sheets and smaller pieces that don’t need to be perfectly square. They are very difficult to create perfect 90° angles with.   That said, they are very useful shears.  I have one and it is handy for cutting larger pieces of metal that are then placed into the precision shear.  throatless-sheer-cutting  You feed the metal through, cut, push in, along the cut, cut, push in a bit more, cut, etc.  You can cut pretty large sheets with the throatless shear. I use this shear the most.

Precision Shears

Precision-shear-usage  The precision shear, at least the affordable ones (well, not REALLY, REALLY affordable!) don’t have a very wide area with which to place the metal.  So, with my 4″ Pepe bench shear, I have to trim the metal down to fit inside the blade area.  I create the preliminary cuts with my throatless sheer.

A precision shear has a guide, that the metal is placed along, then it is cut at a 90° angle (see image above). You can cut other angles too, as you can see in the photo, the straight edge is adjustable. But, to get really perfect square cuts (and other angles) you have to have one, beautifully straight side on the metal.

 I would love to check out Pepe’s new 8″ Precision Bench Shear (at a reasonable price too!) – it allows you to lock the metal down when making cuts. This equals more control and straighter cuts. Durston makes a 12″ shear (the wider the “mouth” the more money it is apparently) I thought Pepe made one too but, can’t find one for sale.  The wider the mouth of the shear, the wider the metal you can put into it.

Other Shears For Creating a Straight Edge.

If you don’t have a shear, you can create straight edges in a few ways.

  • French shop shears (this pair states that it will cut up to 20 g) (or other type of scissor-like shear) and a large file. Rio Grande (the springs make them pricier I guess) also sells hand shears. The link shows a pair that has a spring, which makes it easier to open and close. They also come curved for pattern cutting.  Rio state’s that theirs are for 24 g and thinner but, I have cut 20g metal with them.  I use them regularly for cutting 22g and I’ve had one pair for over 10 years.  It’s up to you on what gauge you cut with them.
  • Saw the metal and drag along a big file (or rough sandpaper like 220g) or use the Machinist’s Vise (below).

Shears will curl your metal so, you need to flatten it.  The easiest way to do this is to:

  1. Anneal the metal.
  2. Place the metal in the middle of a sandwich composed of: a steel surface (like a steel block), your metal, a piece of wood.  Place the steel down first.
  3. Use a heavy mallet to wham down on the wood and flatten the edges.
  4. Turn the metal over, if necessary and whack again.
  5. If still not flat, repeat. But, it should be.

Congrats! Now, you’ve got a nice flat, even edge. Time to move on…

Creating Perfect 45° and 90° Angles

The Miter Cutting Vise

To save yourself a lot of work, frustration and mistakes, invest in a miter cutting vise and jig, this one from Rio Grande.  It cuts angles of 45°, 60° and 90° that are very straight. Back wait, read on before purchasing this tool!

Please see my page: Tools: Miter-Cutting Vise and Jig, for information on how to use the tool.

miter-cutting-vise-and-jig The three angle miter-cutting vise.

I must say, I own a much more expensive version of this tool, as well as the cheaper version ($69.). At the time, I think I paid $170 for the pricey one.  It’s now $220.  Not cheap right?  Well, it’s worth it!  The quality, of this tool, is so much better than the cheaper one.  The cheap version is not tooled properly and it gets stuck while opening and closing.  I’ve had to pry it open and tap it down to operate. Not happy with it.  Nope.  So, I’m sending it back.  Perhaps I got a lemon. If they send me another one and it works, I will update my findings here.

Interestingly, this cheaper, 3 angle vise got very good reviews.  Maybe I do have a lemon.

The Machinist’s Vise

Toolmakers-vise  I have recently discovered a new tool for achieving a square 90° corner AND straight sides.  It is called a Toolmaker’s Screw-less Vise or a Machinist’s Vise or other things.  I purchased mine from Little Machine Shop but, there are many other places to purchase them like Amazon.

how-to-use-a-machinist's-vise  Here’s how I use the machinist’s square:  I put the metal (with two, very wonky edges) into the vise.  One side hangs out on the right and the other on the top.  I try to leave only a small amount of metal sticking out of both sides.  This is especially important with very thin, very soft metals (like annealed, 22g copper!).  how-to-use-machinists-vise There is also, less to file and therefore, less work for me.  I make sure at least a 1/2 mm – 1 mm, of all the edges, are exposed. This is to ensure that there aren’t any gaps caused by low areas on the metal.

I then file the top, flush with the vise, and do the same with the right side.  Leaving me with a perfect 90° angle!  So easy, so quick!  So, so, so, so, much easier than it used to be.  So glad I saw that tool at Chimera and brought it home to play around with.

Tip: Use the biggest file that you have for this process.  This will help you to avoid filing divots into the metal. It is also much quicker than using something like a needle file (don’t use a needle file!).

You will probably have to sand the edges of the metal, afterwards because, small burs often form.  Don’t ruin the “true” of the square with the sandpaper.  Just sand the edges, if possible.  Of course, if you are putting a final finish on your edges, you will have to sand them.  To keep your flat edge, flat, tape a piece of sandpaper (grits from 320-? whatever grit you finish with) to your work surface and evenly drag the edge along the paper.  sanding-square-edges-on-metal Switching grits as you go.  If necessary, drag the metal along a flat edge, as a guide. Secure the straight edge next to the sand paper.

Sand (a few times) with the metal, north to south, in your hand.  Then, flip the metal around and drag again, with the metal in a south to north direction.  I don’t mean slide it on the sandpaper differently. I mean: flip the orientation of the metal in your hand.  Why are we doing this Nancy, you may ask?  Well, we humans, with our inability to achieve perfection, don’t apply even pressure when we sand, file or pet cats (no, not even you!). This is the reason why we need to turn the metal – so that one side is not uneven due to our lack of perfection.

straight-edges  Ideas for flat surfaces:  wood chunk, steel block.

Tools For Checking Square

square-edges  Checking for square with a machinist’s square.

So, now you’ve created a square (90°) corner or maybe a 45° corner.  Is it really perfect?  You better check ’cause you know that the old adage:  Measure twice, cut once, is true!

You can check your angles with the following tools.  You want to see the metal touching, evenly, at all points.

Use can use an adjustable square to check for square.

adjutable-square   Your hardware store probably does too.  But, a better square will be machined better and give you more accurate results.  They can also allow for a variety of angles to be checked. They are more expensive but, if you need precision and several angles, this may be your only choice!

Or you can use a machinist’s square. 

machinists-square   Machinist’s Square.


Tip on Using a Scribe and Actually Seeing the Line

Added: 1/28/17

  Use a ruler/square and a Broad Permanent Marker – Sharpie to make a mark in the area where you will be scribing or using your dividers.  Place the square or dividers, into position, and drag it through the Sharpie mark. The scribed line is much easier to see.

  Marker, Scribe   Dividers, Scribe

Another idea, borrowed from the Industrial Metal Arts is to use a product like Dykem layout fluid. Although, there are many different brands AND they also come in different colors. There can be applied by brush, spray or roll on – applicators are included.

Here’s a video from Westminster School UK on using the fluid.

I watched another video – a rant, as he calls it – on how the brush splays out (with the Dykem) and sprays blue everywhere. Chuck also mentions that the brush is impossible to get back in the bottle. He also notes that the nozzle on the spray version sucks too. But, a viewer’s of Chuck (Jack), offered a solution: place a piece of heat shrink tubing around the brush and shrink it with a heat gun. I believe, you can purchase the tubing at the hardware store. see also his follow up video and fast forward towards the end for solutions and products.  I think the roll on might be a better solution especially, for us jewelers as we don’t cover vast areas with the stuff.

Someone else recommended pouring the fluid into an (empty!) nail polish bottle. The smaller brush would allow more control.  Wear gloves!

Rubbing alcohol cleans it up and can thin the product.

Since the layout fluid is a stain, I wonder if a stain, like the ones that Sculpt Nouveau sells, would also work.