Sorry about missing last weeks edition of Tool Time Tuesday. And even this one is late, but I really do have good reasons for it. Many of you know that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer and underwent surgery to remove the cancer. The surgery was quite successful, so much so that she didn’t require Chemo or Radiation. We have certainly counted our blessings for that. Mid February my mother underwent some extensive surgery during the reconstruction process and I have traveled to Utah to help her as she continues to recover from this surgery. She came home from the hospital last Tuesday and I have been busy in helping out around the house among other things. So with that all said, here we are for another edition of Tool Time Tuesday.
When I decided to get serious about jewelry just 3 1/2 short years ago I quickly found that having the right tools made my job much easier and much more efficient. I wanted to work with some discs and circles, domed or flat, but I quickly found that I had a very difficult time getting a perfect circle with my jewelers saw and files. Not only that, but they took much more time than should be reasonable to be practical and profitable. Below, you will see the four disc cutters I will be talking about in this edition of Tool Time Tuesday. The back two are economy disc cutters, we will talk about those first. The one on the right is my Pepe disc cutter and the one on the left is a Swanstrom disc cutter on loan to me by my friend Jeanette from Fundametals.net.
Before buying a cutter I began to do a bit of research on disc cutters. I found that there were some very affordable disc cutters on the market that worked, but it didn’t mean they were a good buy. I will show you what I mean. I have a couple of suppliers that have “economy” disc cutters. They run the range of $35 – $50 -US. They are made of hardened steel, which is desirable. However, their downfall is in their construction.
You can see the construction looks nice and there is a slot where you can insert your metal. It allows for a nice thick piece of metal which is great. But you cannot adjust that gap when you are working with thinner pieces of metal and that is where we really run into problems.
You can see that the metal is not held into place well. This makes it so that the metal can move while you are trying to punch your hole out of the sheet. The best cutters will open and close on the metal so you have a nice solid fit between the top and bottom dies so the metal doesn’t move when striking the punch with a hammer.
You can see the marks left by the punch as I tried to cut the disc out. This happened because the metal shifts between hammer blows. This metal is approximately 22 gauge and it took a couple of strikes before I got the punch to penetrate entirely through the sheet.
So what if this is the only option you can afford at this time? There are ways to make this work. They just take a little more work. I find that you can use some of the blue painter’s tape to help hold the metal in place so that it doesn’t move as much when striking the punch. You will get a bit of a cleaner cut that way.
I had read about these disc cutters and decided that this was going to be one of those tools that you invest your money right the first time and I didn’t buy them… at least not at first. As you can see, I now have 2 of this type and to tell you honestly, they don’t get used much. I bought them more to show my students the difference between a good set and not so good set.
When I bought my disc cutter 3 years ago the best one that I could find was made by Pepe. I absolutely ADORE my disc cutter. It was not cheap and they are somewhat difficult to get a hold of as they seem to always be on back order. But the wait and cost is totally worth it. This is a tool that I cannot live without.
If you look back to the picture at the top you will see that this disc cutter comes in a wooden stand that holds each of the separate punches and the two pieces of the die. That is an important feature, there are two separate pieces to the die. This means that you can put in any thickness of metal between them and it will hold your metal nice and snugly giving you a good clean cut.
There are a couple of other points that are worth pointing out between a high quality disc cutter and an economy one. The dies or holes are milled with exact precision so that the punches fit perfectly in the holes. You MUST take care to insert your punches straight in and not at an angle. This will keep your cutting edges nice and crisp ensuring a good clean cut every time. You will also notice on this Pepe tool that the openings are beveled in a little to help guide the punches in correctly.
Another really good disc cutter came out just in the last couple of years. It was introduced after I had already purchased my Pepe cutter. This newer disc cutter is made by Swanstrom.
This cutter comes with a rubber storage mat for the cutter and punches. Similar to the Pepe, the die is constructed of two separate pieces of steel. The Swanstrom cutter doesn’t come apart like the Pepe cutter does, but you use the handle to crank it open and close on your metal, again forming a nice snug fit on your metal to keep it in place. You just move the handle out of the way before striking your punch with a hammer.
Here I am cranking the handle to tighten the die on my metal.
Using a brass mallet I will strike the punch to create my disc. Is the type of hammer important? YES! You want to use a brass mallet so that you don’t ruin your steel punches. Using a steel hammer can shorten the life of your punches. The brass mallet still has a little bit of give to it, but still provides the strength necessary to force the punch through the metal. Here I am using a 2 lb mallet, but that is only because my 1 lb hammer arrived after I took these pictures.
You want to have a nice solid surface to hammer on as you will be striking the metal with some pretty heavy blows. I actually have a concrete floor in my studio and will set my disc cutter on that and hammer there. You also want to take care that you only strike hard enough to cut out your disc. You don’t want to hit your punch into the concrete or steel block if it can be avoided. There is a reason that I say this, particularly on the better disc cutters. The punches are not flat on the bottom. They are actually cut at an angle. This helps to create a better and more precise cut on the metal. It also makes it cut through the metal faster than if the pressure is evenly distributed.
Look at the difference between the punches from the Swanstrom and economy cutters. The Pepe punches are cut just like the Swanstrom pieces, I just didn’t take a picture of them.
These are the punches from
the Swanstrom cutter. The angled edge is what helps get that super clean cut. This is also the reason you don’t want to hit the punches onto a hard surface. You can easily damage that edge if you aren’t careful. These tools aren’t cheap and you really want to take care of them.
Creating Washers with perfectly centered holes
Washers are a big thing in jewelry right now. You can purchase washers already made, but what if they don’t have the size you want? Well, if you have a swanstrom cutter, you have a great option available to you. My good friend Jeanette worked with the engineers at Swanstrom to come up with Center Positioning plugs and these things totally ROCK! You make your smaller hole in the metal making certain to leave enough of a margin for the outer disc. After cutting out the inner disc, move the metal to the hole that will be used for the outer edge.
Find the plug that fits in the die for the outer disc. The plug has been tapered perfectly to move the inner hole to the center of the outer hole. Remove the plug after you have centered your metal, insert the disc cutting punch and strike with the hammer and you have a perfectly centered washer EVERY TIME! The best part is the plugs are fairly inexpensive and what a time saver.
Keep it clean, lubed and rust free
I currently live in Ohio and our weather is somewhat humid. Nothing like it was when I lived in the DC area, but I still have a problem with rust on my tools if I am not careful. It is very important that you take good care of these tools as they are an investment and they will last forever if you take just a few minutes to care for them.
One thing I do in my studio, particularly during the more humid months is run a dehumidifier at least a couple of hours a day. I am amazed at the amount of moisture I get out of the air in the studio. The other thing I do is put a lube and moisture barrier on my tools. The one that I prefer is a little more expensive, but again, totally worth it to me.
I use this Boeshield T-9. It was developed by Boeing to be used on their airplanes. The thing I really like about this is that it can be used in a couple of ways. You can spray it on and just leave it as a protectant. The lube will turn into a powdery substance that can be wiped off when you are ready to use the tool again. Or what I do most often is spay it on and then use it to lubricate and clean the tools.
You can see that I have put a nice coating of this on the die. From here I will take a paper towel and rub it evenly over the surface and into the each of the die holes. I also pay attention to the pegs so that when I assemble the die it will move smoothly.
Here you can see that I am working the lubricant into the holes of the die. This cleans and protects the tool.
So how do they all compare?
I already pointed out the differences between a good disc cutter and some of the economy brands out there. But how do the two nice disc cutters compare? there are features that I really like about both of them.
I like the variety of sizes of holes I can get from both the Pepe and Swanstrom cutters. Both of them are made with exact measurements and with the best materials.
I like that my Pepe cutter has a flat surface when it is assembled and I don’t have to worry bout damaging anything if my strike is a little bit off. The Swansrom has the crank that can get it the way if you don’t do things just right. However, I am positive that once you have worked out your confidence on your striking, it won’t be a problem at all.
I really like the cranking mechanism of the Swanstrom I know that if I put a piece of metal in the cutter, crank it down, the metal won’t be moving at all. I never have to worry about unclean cuts, even if I don’t get the punch through the first time.
Another thing that I really like about the Swanstrom is the size of the cutters. My Pepe cutter only goes up to 1″ for the largest disc that I can make. The Swanstrom cutter sizes go from 1/8″ to 1 1/4″ in 1/8″ incriments. So there are two larger sizes than my Pepe. That right there is so very tempting for me to want to buy it.
The Swanstrom is a bit more expensive than the Pepe but you won’t find yourself waiting for months while the other is on back order. That right there is sometimes worh the cost in and of itself.
Both the Swanstrom and Pepe have storage units which make moving the tool around much nicer than the economy tools. The punches stay in place better in the Swanstrom unit as the rubber mold has a nice snug fit for both the cutter and the punches. The Pepe base is made of wood and offers a more rigid surface which makes it somewhat easier to move as it isn’t flexible.
The economy tools don’t have bases and they are a pain in the bum to move, but it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with some sort of base for it if it is that bothersome.
If you would like more information on the Pepe Cutter you can check out their website at www.pepetools.com
I am not affiliated with any of these tools, providers or anything. These are just my own insights into these tools as I have used them in my work. If you have had some experiences with these or any other disc cutters, please feel free to share your experiences.
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