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Learning how to cut metal without power tools can help you save money from buying a dedicated power tool if you are only planning to do a few DIY jobs.
Professional metalworkers that need to cut metal typically turn to nibblers for the job. They are fast, powerful, and efficient, and can make short work of even fairly thick sheets of metal.
But not everyone can afford to have a nibbler at home or is willing to pay the cost of a similar power tool.
For DIY jobs or occasional cutting applications, there are many more cost-effective solutions. Let’s take a look at some of the available options.
Tools to cut sheet metal by hand
1. Tin snips
If you are committed to learning how to cut sheet metal by hand, the cheapest solution by far would be using an aviation snip set.
They are essentially metal cutting scissors that are stronger and more durable than standard scissors. Tin snips have heavy blades that can cut through thin sheets of metal.
There are many different types of tin snips, but for cutting sheet metal, you only need to work with three basic types: right cutting, left cutting, and straight cutting snips. Right, and left-cutting snips are used for making curved cuts, while straight cutting snips make straight cuts.
The main benefit of using tin snips is that they are so inexpensive. For only a few dollars, you have a surprisingly accurate and effective tool for cutting sheet metal.
But tin snips aren’t quick or easy to work with. They will require a lot of effort and can be difficult to work with if you have to cut a lot of material.
Hacksaws are another possible solution if you don’t have a power tool or would rather not use one. Like tin snips, they are also inexpensive and readily available. In fact, you probably already have a hacksaw in your tool bag or workshop.
Hacksaws are useful for making steeply-angled cuts in metal. However, they are even slower and more difficult to work with as tin snips.
Furthermore, the cuts you make with a hacksaw will likely come out jagged with messy edges that you will have to smoothen out afterward.
3. Hack chisel
You can also use a bashing chisel-like your Irwin or Stanley wood chisel with your Estwing hammer to cut metal in a pinch if those are all you have available. If the metal is thin enough, you could simply use your chisel to start the cut and then rip the metal the rest of the way.
But this is a slow and messy process, and you probably won’t be too pleased with the results. Your cuts will likely come out jagged as well, and you will put a lot of wear-and-tear on your chisel in the process.
How to use tinsnips
Using tin snips is pretty easy and straightforward, but you do have to keep some basics steps and principles in mind.
Possibly the most important thing to keep in mind is to use the right snips for the job. Depending on the material and the cuts you have to make, you may need to use more than one type of sheet metal snips.
It’s always a good idea to make marks on the metal with a sharp nail before cutting. This will help you stay on course and improve your results.
Try to make long and smooth strokes as opposed to small cuts. This will help minimize jagged edges. Rollback the material as you cut to clear the path for succeeding cuts.
Straight cut vs. Corner cut tin snips
Making straight cuts into sheet metal is fairly easy and straightforward. In most cases, all you have to do is keep making smooth, long cuts with your metal snips to achieve consistent results.
Making corner cuts is considerably more difficult. For this, you will need a left or right-handed pair of cutting tin snips, depending on your preferred orientation.
Most snips are color-coded, so you’ll know which one to choose for any given job. Left-cutting snips usually have red handles. “Yellow-handled” tin snips are straight cut metal cutters.
Although some are designed for cutting in either direction right or left. Right-handed tin snips are colored green, while left-handed snips are often red or orange.
When making corner cuts, it is especially important to lift up the material as you cut. This will provide sufficient clearance so that you can make the succeeding cuts cleanly.
Save time with a cheap electric tool
You don’t have to make do with tin snips if you have a lot of cutting to do. Another possible solution for cutting sheet metal is a cheap electric tool such as a Dremel.
Commonly used in metal or woodworking shops, these are multipurpose handheld rotary tools that come with a variety of attachments.
Depending on the attachment, they can be used to cut wood, plastic, metal, and even glass and electronics. They are tremendously versatile and can save you considerable time and effort.
If you have a lot of metal to cut, a Dremel is the perfect middle ground between power tools and manual cutting tools such as tin snips.
Corded electric shears
Electric tin snips or electric shears are like a more powerful and more efficient pair of snips. They run on electricity, which makes them a lot quicker and more effective at handling high volume jobs.
Electric shears can make large radius curved cuts just as effectively as they can make straight cuts.
They are also more versatile than tin snips because there is no limit to the size of cuts they can make. Some of the larger electric shears can even cut sheet metal of up to 12 gauge thickness.
Cordless electric shears
Cordless electric shears serve the same purpose and the same functions as corded electric shears, with the added advantage of portability and convenience.
Like most other cordless power tools, cordless shears are powered by rechargeable batteries, which are commonly Lithium-ion batteries. These serve as alternative power sources that do away with the need for a mains electrical source.
Cordless electric shears are useful for going on the road or working on remote locations that don’t have a power outlet handy.
Even if you are only going to use your shears in your garage or driveway, cordless shears are more convenient solutions since you won’t have to deal with tangled cords.
Drill attachment electric shears
Still another option you can try out is a pair of sheet metal shears that attach to your drill.
If you already have a power drill that you like regularly using, purchasing an electric shears attachment is a great way to add to its functionality.
Some of the best attachment shears have heavy-duty components that allow you to cut sheet metal much more efficiently than any manual tool. Features such as alloy steel blades make short work.
of even thick metal sheets. Most shear attachments also let you make curved and square cuts just as easily as straight cuts.
Drill attachment nibbler
If you want to cut circles as well as doing straight cuts a cheaper alternative to a dedicated nibbler tool, is a nibbler drill attachment, it is a great alternative for DIY’ers.
For smaller jobs when you want to cut metal with more flexibility than by hand, a nibbler drill attachment has a place for professional results, for intricate metalworking cuts on sheet metal.
Some actually come with a jig that allows you to quickly cut-out a perfect circle in sheet metal, this is great for roofers and other trades for the onsite building of flashings for roof penetrations.
Consider going all out on a dedicated nibbler tool!
If cutting sheet metal is something that you regularly do, it might be best to go all the way and purchase metal nibbler tool.
This is the most effective solution for cutting sheet metal by hand, and it is a cost-effective solution as well. Nibblers can snip through metal extremely quickly, spewing out metal chips as it goes.
Nibblers aren’t the perfect solutions for all applications. Because they remove a bit of material with every cut, they aren’t really suitable for making clean cuts.
But if you can live with that or you don’t mind cleaning up the jagged edges afterward, nibblers are a quick and efficient cutting solution for thicker materials that tin snips struggle with.
As you can see, there are many different solutions for cutting metal, even without power tools.
Although a nibbler is probably the best way to go about it, there are many other options you can try if you would prefer to cut metal by hand.
If you want the cheapest DIY alternative to go alongside your straight cut tin snips, look at getting a sheet metal nibbler attachment.