A programmer’s guide to metalworking
Why does it matter that I am a programmer? It doesn’t, really – but it is supposed to show that I come from a totally different profession and simply picked up metalworking as a balance to my desk job.
To me there is little better than having the tools and skills to manipulate physical objects, cut and weld and shape them into new forms – it simply feels great to build new things out of old stuff.
And that is what I mostly do: Scrap Art from old pieces of metal that I pull out of the waterways with magnets, aka magnetfishing. Here is an example:
The best thing about all these is that it does not cost terribly much to get the tools you need – in fact you could do it even cheaper than I have by getting used, corded tools. I have the added problem of not having a workshop so I bought a truck and cordless tools – truck aside my whole tool set costs just 500€ and I get a lot of use out of them helping people out or building my own stuff.
So let me quickly go over the tools I consider essential:
Following I will list the tools with links to my individual ones that I use in case you are looking for more detailed information. However most of what I have could easily be replaced by the average cheap tool from a flea market, I just decided to buy into the 18V Makita line of tools and I also bought a full set of wrenches and sockets to avoid having to search for things all the time. But again, I come from assorted tools that my neighbors and family gifted me over the years and they do the same job just fine – I just decided to spend some luxury money on good tools. But let’s go:
- An angle grinder is essential. Do yourself a favor and get hearing and eye protecting in the process, I already had some cuts in my cheek that could have been my eyes. I have this one (Amazon Affiliate link).
- I also have a Sawzall / reciprocating saw but I would say that ninety percent of cutting you’ll have to do is possible with an angle grinder. Just keep in mind that you might not be able to reach in tight spots with a curved blade. But frankly I use the recip saw more for woodworking than metal. I have this one (Amazon Affiliate link)
- A cordless drill. I would not skimp at this part, it is incredibly nice to have one of the new, powerful ones that can do the same stuff as the corded ones. I remember the time when cordless drills were toys but today they are tools. I have this one (Amazon Affiliate link)
- A set of sockets and wrenches. I have a pretty nice box that cost me around 80 bucks and I could have spent much less but I wanted the quick-change system.
- A little welder goes a long way. If you get a cheap one for a hundred bucks, an auto-darkening mask for around 70 and a pair of welding gloves you can stay under 200 bucks for this and it makes all the difference. I am a bit weird in this regard because I don’t have power on my truck and have to weld with two car batteries and jumper cables – but honestly if you have a socket get one of the cheap welders.
And that is essentially it, with this tool set you can cut, drill, grind and connect metal at will and then the world of metalworking is open to you until you figure out what other tools you need for your specific use.
Taking out the recip saw that I use very little this set stays right under 500€ for some great quality tools that are cordless, convenient and pretty top-of-the-line for what you can buy around here. I love picking them up and using them knowing I splurged on great quality. Good tools are never a bad investment in my opinion – and I already got the money back helping myself or other people save money repairing, renovating or building.
That is the thing about tools: They may seem a little expensive sometimes but the first time you avoid paying a professional you usually have that tool paid for. Everything after that is pure profit – and fun each time you get to do something yourself.
I always a love these beginner projects lists – just for one it doesn’t require you to code yet another to-do list application or hello-world example. These are actual things you can build, take pictures of to annoy your friends and even gift to people who have no idea where to put them.
- Restore old tools – a wire wheel on the angle grinder is often enough to make rusted tools usable again.
- Or turn an old, dysfunctional tool into a garden decoration, Pinterest is your friend for thousands of inspirations.
- Use some pieces of scrap metal to learn welding and build a little coat hanger.
- Old chain can be welded into snakes, wine bottle holders and all kinds of other things – leave them rusted and clear-coat them for a really nice look.
Here are some projects I built:
Getting the confidence
If you never worked with certain tools in your life they can seem like scary screaming death machines – because they are. I know I took the longest time before I felt confident using an angle grinder – and I still have all due respect for it but when used properly it is one hell of a versatile tool. Think of it as the IDE of physical tools: It allows you to build a whole ton of cool things.
But back to the topic at hand: Getting the confidence to use tools is essential in using them correctly, safely and making it to the end of your project with life and limbs intact.
Personally I acquired this confidence in three different ways:
- Inching my way up, anyone can use a cordless drill and the recip saw is pretty safe as well if you keep the danger end pointed away from you. Then it is time for the angle grinder.
- YouTube tutorials on tool safety, for example the Essential Craftsmen videos on chainsaw safety. You can also watch a whole lot of inspirational and instructional videos to learn, YouTube is a great resource in that regard.
- Working on a farm and in construction where safety was of little concern and the summer job kid quickly learned the use of tools and machinery way beyond his skill level or age. That also taught me not to be over-anxious of tools and life in general, being scared of tools is just as dangerous as being over-confident.
Once you have basic skills and confidence with those tools you will be surprised how many things you can build, repair and maintain with just a handful of tools – and they will come in handy all the time. Since I bought those tools not a week goes by without me picking up and using at least one of them – and I am a programmer living in an apartment which is not exactly the expected work environment for power tools. But things break -— or need to be broken — all the time, or repaired or built or crafted and then there are friends and colleagues and family who are all thankful if they don’t have to spend money on hiring someone.
I have always thought that sharing tools and labor is one of the greatest joys in life — and one that my social circles aren’t exactly used to. We are office folks, we rent trucks to move and hire people to install a new sink — but I can do both of those myself and plenty more. I enjoy doing things myself, right when the need arises without waiting and paying.
Metalworking is a seriously fun hobby that I wouldn’t want to miss anymore – and it also comes in handy at the same time. The costs aren’t terribly much if you stick to the basics – Just take a look at some restoration videos on YouTube to see how little tools you need to build and repair a lot of cool things. In case you are interested you can take a look at the videos I make about my projects down below: