There are over 100 elements on the periodic table that are considered “metal.” For the most part, fabricators and construction personnel only work with a few of the most common of those as well as their alloys – namely steel, iron, and copper.
At the same time, professionals today have a lot of options when it comes to cutting those materials, both with and without the use of power tools.
If you’re new to the trade or an amateur DIYer, you may not be familiar with all of these cutting methods. This guide will work to remedy that by introducing you to an assortment of metal cutting methods ranging from the simplest ones utilizing hand tools all the way to more advanced methods using power tools.
4 Best Ways to Cut Metal Without Power Tools
Let’s start with methods that are ideal for smaller one-off projects and in other situations where the use of power tools might be overkill or inadequate.
Using Tin Snips
This tool both looks and operates like scissors, but their sharp jaws allow you to crimp and pierce sheet metal in a single smooth motion. On that front, tin snips provide a lot of versatility while also remaining fully accurate and manageable during a cut.
With regard to their versatility, just a single pair of tin snips is not always sufficient.
That’s because many sheet metal cutting jobs call for curves. For that purpose, you’d need a set of left- and right-cutting tin snips. Luckily, these snips and their straight-cutting counterparts often come in a set. That way, you can start with basic metal cutting jobs without needing to make a major tool investment.
This all being said, tin snips have one noteworthy disadvantage. Once these tools dull down (which can occur quickly if you use them a lot), they’re as good as useless. As such, you may find yourself replacing them often if they are your only available method for cutting a lot of sheet metal.
Using a Hacksaw
Meanwhile, if you’re a DIY who does not want to invest in new tools at this time, then you could always pick up a tool you likely already have in your DIY arsenal. Specifically, a hacksaw is often able to accomplish basic metal-cutting jobs without much trouble.
Hacksaws are also great for amateur metal cutters because they don’t require a special technique to use. You will, however, need to put a little extra elbow grease to make a hacksaw work for you.
Like many saw types, a hacksaw’s function is directly governed by the type of blade it is equipped with.
Hacksaws have an interchangeable blade set-up, of course. So, it is critical that you switch on a purpose-made metal-cutting blade before attempting to cut into any bolt or sheet metal. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself simply tearing up and wearing down your wood-cutting blades.
Also, don’t forget why the hacksaw got its name. A hacksaw cut tends to be rather messy and rough, even when slicing through metal. Be sure to plan accordingly when it comes to smoothing those cut edges back down after completing a cut.
Using a Utility Knife
As you might expect, fabricating and construction professionals have a variety of methods they use to cut metal stock in a pinch. One of their quicker methods on this front involves whipping out a utility knife and scoring the surface of light-gauge metal stock.
When done properly (i.e. in a straight line using a guide), this can allow a strong individual to cleanly break that stock off without needing to resort to a saw or snips.
This method sees the majority of its use in projects that incorporate metal siding. To that end, contractors will often use this technique to quickly create customized cuts in thin aluminum siding panels without needing to start-up any power tools. Some contractors also claim to be able to use this method to trim up metal studs, though this implementation is far less common.
Be aware, though, that this method comes with some apparent safety risks. As you may expect, using a metal utility knife on a metal surface comes with a clear risk of the blade slipping. As such, this technique should only be used when wearing gloves and working in an area where your co-workers are not within arm’s reach of the blade.
Using a Bench Shear
All of the metal-cutting hand tools mentioned up to this point have been portable in nature. As such, they’ve all had limited capacities when it comes to cutting and shaping larger metal stock. For that purpose, you may want to turn to a bench sheer.
In essence, this stationary, bench-mounted tool is designed to allow you to precisely cut into metal stock without losing even an ounce of leverage.
To do this, bench shears utilize a long, upward-facing handle that the user pulls down upon to move the unit’s blade. When this is done, the unit’s blade lowers down towards the base, thus transferring the force applied to the lever into the blade’s edge. This allows the blade to smoothly cut through up to 10 gauge metal without trouble.
In all, this action tends to cause metal workpieces to move a bit while the cut is occurring. As such, you should always hold onto your metal workpiece while placing it in a bench shear. Keep your fingers far from the shear’s blade, though, as they are very sharp and will cut through even work gloves.
7 Best Ways to Cut Metal with Power Tools
Next up, let’s take a look at the best ways to cut metal if you have power tools at your disposal.
Using a Nibbler
If there were any one power tool that acted as a simple upgrade for a familiar metal-cutting hand tool, it would likely be the nibbler. Many non-professionals are not familiar with the nibbler, which is too bad, given their capacity to make long cuts in thin-gauge steel.
In that capacity, this compact, pistol-shaped power tool is able to make clean, high-speed cuts without causing much noise or distortion to the targeted metal workpiece.
The nibbler’s actual function is not all that fancy when you get down to it.
When in action, a nibbler punches out a line of metal that passes under its head. As such, repeated use of a nibbler will result in your workspace being littered with curly metal filings. You’ll want to be sure to clean those up as soon as possible as their small size can cause unpleasant cuts if they pass over uncovered skin on accident.
Also, before investing a nibbler, be sure to appraise the maximum thickness of steel that you or your team regularly cuts. This is because nibblers come in a variety of sizes (and prices), all the way up to a 14 gauge steel cutting capacity.
Using an Angle Grinder
Angle grinders are among the most obvious choices when it comes to cutting metal, either as a professional or as a DIYer. That’s because these handheld power tools are fairly easy to use properly and affordable enough for a non-professional to invest in.
Once in hand, the small but fast circular blade on an angle grinder is able to cut through most thin stock and even some thicker stock (including bolts) without experiencing much kickback.
To that end, kickback on an angle grinder is common. That’s why it’s often important to mount your unit with a side support handle. This can ensure that your cuts remain even, even if your blade bucks around a bit during the cut.
Angle grinders are also well-known for their overall versatility. Most units are compatible with a variety of blade types, after all. So, you’ll likely be able to use your new angle grinder to cut more than just metal if your line of work requires you to engage with a variety of materials over the course of a project.
Using a Circular Saw
In practice, these saws can often be used to slice through metal as well, so long as you have the proper disc blade equipped. Specifically, you’ll often want to use a blade that is extra abrasive and able to complete a cut without much resistance. In most cases, a carbide-tipped blade is the best option for this purpose.
With the proper blade set in your tool, you’ll be surprised at what kinds of metals a circular saw can cut through.
For example, many professionals use their circular saw to make quick work of cuts through rebar. Similarly, a circular saw can be used to cut through 3/8-inch stock without much trouble. That’s a considerable capacity increase from many of the other metal-cutting power tools.
Not all circular saws are able to cut metal, though, even if they do allow for a metal-cutting blade. Be sure to always check your unit’s user’s manual before jumping into a metal-cutting project with a circular saw that you already own.
Using a Miter Saw
If you know much about miter saws, then you know that their function is fairly similar to that of a circular saw. However, their unique arm-based mounting system allows them to successfully cut at an angle without requiring the user to hold the weight of the unit.
Many miter saws are able to provide a similar degree of function when cutting through metals. You will still need a blade designed to cut non-ferrous metal, though, so be sure to check into your unit’s capabilities before trotting out your miter saw at a metal cutting project.
There are several factors to consider when cutting metal with a miter saw.
First of all, these units are very strong and can potentially bend thinner stock during the process of a cut. As such, you’ll want to use a wood backing whenever possible to prevent warping. Also, be aware that miter saws tend to throw off a lot of debris when they are active.
To prevent injury, proper safety equipment must be worn while cutting metal with your miter saw.
Using an Oscillating Saw
For that purpose, you’ll likely want to grab an oscillating saw with a metal-cutting blade attachment installed. These tools can slowly but surely slice into metal fixtures at a flush angle due to their horizontal shape. As such, bolts and nails are often no match for this power tool.
Keep in mind, though, that this power tool is not really made for making clear cuts through a piece of metal stock.
While this tool can accomplish this task, you’ll likely need to clamp down that workpiece to prevent this tool’s movement from shifting it about. This type of saw can also be a solid option if you are working on a demolition site, where this tool is already part of the standard arsenal.
Using a Reciprocating Saw
Among all of the metal-cutting power tool options, this is one of the most accessible and versatile options that a DIYer might want to consider. That’s because a reciprocating saw is often able to cut through the types of metal stock and objects that DIYers are likely to run into.
To that end, it is common for reciprocating saws to be used to cut old nails and slice through thin stock. Doing this requires a proper blade, of course, most of which are carbide-tipped in nature.
Reciprocating saws see a lot of use in demolition, as you may already know. As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that metal cuts made by this tool are rather rough. So, it is not recommended for metal cutting jobs that require precision.
If you think a reciprocating saw is a tool you need, make sure to check out my recommendations.
Using a Bandsaw
As with other saws in this collection, this capacity to cut metal is made possible by specialized blades. These tend to be bi-metal in nature, though carbon steel blades also see a fair bit of successful use on this front. In any case, this tool can be used to cut thicker stock in some circumstances.
Generally speaking, though, professionals tend to avoid this method.
That’s because it is overall rather slow, even when it comes to slicing thick metal stock. This method also burns through blades quickly due to the thin nature of a band saw blade. In turn, this method can get expensive fast if it is used with any regularity.
As you can see now, there are more than just a handful of ways to cut metal.
In fact, whether you only have hand tools or have access to strong power tools, your options for slicing up metal workpieces are fairly broad. All you need to do is consider which of the options described above fit within your skillset.
Then, you’ll be able to invest in the tools necessary to complete your metal-cutting tasks efficiently and effectively.