Steel is universally renowned as a sturdy and tough material. If you are welding or fabricating you will need to know how to cut lighter gauge steel properly. For heavier gauge steel, please refer to our article on ‘Everything You Need To Know About Cutting High Gauge Steel’.
Steel can come in a variety of different shapes, sizes and thicknesses. When referring to the ‘gauge’ of the steel, we are referencing the thickness of the steel. The lower the number of the gauge, then the thicker the steel is going to be.
Unlike thicker steel, which needs to be cut using oxygen torches, wateriest or lasers, thin-gauge steel can be cut manually without any expensive equipment. You may use torches, or other more involved processes, to cut thin-gauge steel, however, often times it is more practical to just follow the tips outlined in this article.
To get the best results from these cutting tips, it is important that you start off by doing two thing: clean and measure! Before you read on, clean the surface of your steel and make sure to ‘measure twice and cut once.’
In the following article we are going to outline the three main ways to cut steel yourself without having to go to a steel cutting service. If you are looking for steel cutting services, however, we do recommend that you go to a specialist steel cutting manufacturer to get quote.
Option 1 – Cutting Sheet And Thinner Steel
- First of all you need to use compound snip scissors to make minor cuts into the steel. These scissors work on any material at a gauge of roughly 25 or above. Although it requires a little extra force, this process is not unlike cutting regular paper with a pair of scissors. Cutting using compound snip scissors is a great option if you are short on time and have thin enough metal. Other names for compound snips are ‘tin snips’ and ‘aviation snips’. We personally like the term ‘tin snips’, just because it is fun to say! But seriously, compound snips (tin snips, aviation snips, whatever you want to call them) are are a terrific tool to have handy. There are three main types of these scissors you can uses, and they are colour-coded accordingly:
- Yellow handled snips are for cutting straight lines;
- Red handles allow you to cut into the steel in a counter-clockwise motion;
- Green handles let you cut into the steel in a clockwise manner.
- Ever heard of a nibbler? Despite their cute name, these instruments are pretty tough and good at cutting long lines through light-gauge steel. Compound snips work well for smaller cuts, however, if you need to make a quick cut for a long stretch of steel then you may wish to employ nibblers. Nibblers are cheap, quick, spark free and create very little distortion in the steel. Depending on the brand of nibbler you get you can cut up to 12 gauge steel with these instruments. Like the compound snip scissors, there are a variety of different options to choose from depending on the brand and quality. Below are some of our tips for cutting using nibblers.
- You can find hand-operated electric nibblers are freely available at your local store or purchase one online.
- Nibblers produce small pieces of still, the result is that you will have several small pieces of sharp steel littering your work area. This can be safety hazard, so we recommend you clean these up immediately. Although we don’t image you will be walking around barefoot, these pieces of metal can get caught in the bottom of your soles and in some cases can go straight through. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
- Okay! We’ve got compound snips for light steel and nibblers for long cuts, but what happens when you have a slightly thicker gauge steel or an unwieldy shape? This is where angle grinders come in handy. Angle grinders are used for making rough cuts. Angle grinders are a more affordable option than getting steel professional cut or ground. As you can use a variety of different blade attachments this method is one commonly used by welders and fabricators. Although this tool is handy to use, it is not exactly the most accurate tool for cutting steel. We recommend the following when you begin using an angle grinder for the first time.
- Safety first! Always have protective eyewear, face-wear and ear protection on when handling this tool. As your hands will be very close to spark you will want to use proper work gloves when operating the angle grinder. Don’t make any angle grind cuts near anything flammable (for obvious reasons).
- Read your instruction manual! Don’t get caught by surprise in the middle of a cut. Know your machinery before you begin making any cuts.
- Sometimes it’s better to keep it simple, and there is nothing simpler and more efficient than cutting up your steel using a hacksaw. Hacksaws are terrific for making any shallow cuts. Although this tool can be handy it is not useful for doing any deep cuts. In fact, it can be very hard to make a very accurate cut in general using a hacksaw on steel. We do recommend, however, that you have one at your side as they can be a very helpful tool. Below are some tips we’ve come up with for keeping your hacksaw in good condition and avoiding any safety issues.
- Make sure your blade is sharp and in good condition. You may use wax to keep your blades in good condition. This not only improves performance but is also a safety issue.
- If you are looking for a cleaner cut then we recommend apply masking tape to the bottom and top of the metal you are cutting so as to avoid the final result appearing scratched or dented.
- So, finally, when it comes to cutting light gauge steel we recommend you use a bench shear. These tools are commonly found in workshops across the globe and are used specifically for cutting sheet metal. There are two main types of bench shears, they are straight sheers and throatless shears. If you are looking to cut a straight line then we recommend you use a straight shear, if you need to do complicated shapes or curves then opt for the throatless shears. If you are having a hard time visualising how these work, then imagine an office paper cutter with a lever attached. Bench shears work in much the same way. In order to make a cut you need to do as follows below.
- Mark where you want the line to be cut in the sheet metal and place the blade exactly over the point.
- In one careful and consistent motion please pull down the handle and allow the blade to slice through the metal. Obviously this tool is best applied on lighter gauge steel.
A Word of Warning – The Value of Safety!
Even though some of the above techniques for cutting steel may seem fairly innocuous. Never stop thinking about safety. Many experienced welders and fabricators have hurt themselves in the process of using an angle grinder, or even less intensive equipment like bench shears!
We recommend getting advice, or even an observant eye, of an experienced local fabricator or welder before doing cutting for the first time.
Remember, some basic tips for avoiding accidents are as follows.
- Stay clear of machinery when you are not operating it. Also avoid loose clothing.
- Have proper protective wear on before approaching any machinery, especially when the machinery might splinter off bits of steel shrapnel.
- Coveralls are a great way to protect your torso. Use heavy duty fabric.
- Get the proper OHS training if you are operating any machinery in a workplace. Do not try to ‘learn on the job’. You may find yourself in a spot of difficulty if you don’t train your staff either. Nobody wants a lost pinky finger, or a law suit for said pinky finger.
- Perform all cuts in a consistent manner. Do not rush, that is a recipe for disaster.
In the next chapter of this series we will let you know how to cut through thicker gauges of steel using more intensive equipment, such as power saws and oxygen torches! Sound like fun? We know we’re excited already. Who doesn’t like playing with fire and sharp things?
But, in all seriousness, make sure that you adhere to strict safety standards when cutting steel. Even some of the above techniques can be dangerous if not performed properly. We recommend getting the advice of someone local with experience before cutting for the first time.
If you would like to get steel cut for your next project, but do not feel confident or capable of doing it yourself, then we recommend you find your nearest steel production company and inquire about cutting of shapes. This may be very handy, especially if you are looking to make bulk cuts for products or construction projects.