Tool Time Tuesday – Disc Cutters

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.

Many choices

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.

chepie
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.

not closed
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.

rotten Cut
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.

pepe
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.

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.
Tighten Metal
Here I am cranking the handle to tighten the die on my metal.

insert cutter
I have inserted the punch and moved the handle out of the way.

brass hammer
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.

cheap punch
This is a picture of the economy cutter. See how it is just a straight cut along the bottom?

Good Cutters
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

make a washer
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.

center with plug
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.

protection

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.

sprayed

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.
Photobucket
Here you can see that I am working the lubricant into the holes of the die. This cleans and protects the tool.

Photobucket
It is also important that you take the time to clean and lubricate the punches themselves. This will keep them rust free and moving smoothly as they work through the die.

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

To find out more information on the Swanstrom Disc Cutter, check out the Fundametals.net Website.
Click here To find out more information on the Swanstrom Centering Plugs

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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29 thoughts on “Tool Time Tuesday – Disc Cutters

  1. Michelle

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. I just purchased the Swanstrom unit from fundametals. I love it!! Thank you not only for this article but for all of the great articles that you write.

    Reply
  2. Angie S

    What a GREAT and informative article! Even though I’ve been making jewelry for several years, I’ve just recently purchased a disc cutter and dapping set. I had no choice but to get the economy set and am happy with it, but will definitely upgrade as soon as the opportunity presents itself. The hammer information was great too! Thanks for sharing!!!

    Reply
  3. Melissa Muir

    Thanks everyone. I am so glad that you are enjoying the posts. I can’t wait to get back to Ohio and get back into the posts. Just one more week to go and we will get all caught up. 🙂

    ~Melissa~

    Reply
  4. Patricia

    Thanks for the great advice. I’ve been looking at both the Pepe and the Swanstrom disc cutters. I think I’ll purchase the Swanstrom, as it cuts larger discs, which I like.

    Reply
  5. Melissa Muir

    You know, if I could justify it, I would totally get the Swanstrom as well. They didn’t have those when I bought my Pepe cutters. I think you will be happy with the Swanstroms! But Let me know when you get them.
    ~Melissa

    Reply
  6. Patricia

    HI, thanks for responding to my email. I ordered the Swanstrom Disc Cutter last night and the 24-piece
    dapping set, all from Rio Grande. I can’t wait to get them and to start cutting and dapping. I’m so glad I found your site. Keep the good advicecoming! Pat

    Reply
  7. Melissa Muir

    Pat,
    I made those two purchases together as well, along with my flexshaft. If you go back far enough in my blog (start at the beginning) you will see where I bought them in March 2007 and watch as my work level took a HUGE leap. The next time my work took a giant leap is when I took a couple of classes in 2008/2009 at the University of Akron in their metals department. Having the right tools makes all the difference in the world. I am excited for you. I remember the thrill of getting them and loving life.

    Melissa

    Reply
  8. Robyn

    Great article, I’ve got an economy disk cutter as well as a medium range set.
    A friend of mine has had a set of each for a while and she loves hers too, so I’ve taken the plunge and ordered the Swanstrom cutter and the plugs from Jeanette at Fundametals.

    Reply
  9. Melissa Muir

    Robyn,

    You are going to love them. I love that cutter. If I didn’t already have my pepe, I would totally buy that cutter. It is well worth the money. You will have to be sure to show us what you make with it and let me know how you like it.

    Melissa

    Reply
  10. beadinggem

    Super and very helpful review. I will mention it in a future blog post so my readers cancome and read it for themselves. Pearl

    Reply
  11. Melissa Muir

    Thanks Pearl. I would appreciate any reposts I can get. Glad you found it helpful. Let me know if there are ever any tools or such that you would like reviewed.
    ~Melissa~

    Reply
  12. Kharisma Sommers

    I have a Durston disc cutter that looks very much like Swanstorm, only the crank is an allen wrench that is removable. I think that’s a nice perk as I don’t have to worry about hitting the crank if I missed. I believe it’s about GPB175 so probably a bit more expensive than Swanstorm and I’m not sure where to get in the USA as I won it in a contest.

    I have Pepe’s disc cutters too, in 2 separate sets (big and small) as the combo set wasn’t available when I needed it. My 2 sets have screw on mechanism, knob screw, no handles. They are very nice too and with those 3 sets, I have many sizes to choose from!

    I’m glad I never bought the economy cutters. I watched a video of it not long ago in youtube and it didn’t look pleasant to use. The screw on mechanism is DEFINITELY a plus! I wouldn’t waste money on economy cutters. A quality disc cutter is a worthy investment. Love the clean cuts they make.

    I just purchased the Swanstorm’s metric centering plugs for my Durston cutter, hopefully will fit! Bought metric since UK is supposedly use metric. lol.

    Reply
  13. Melissa Muir

    I will bet that your plugs will work just fine. They work great with my Pepe cutter. What a score with the Durston set. 

    Reply
  14. Daphne

    I appreciate your review on each cutter. I have one of the cheaper ones and don’t like it at all. I’d rather cut out a disc with my jewelers saw rather than use that cutter. But I was wondering if maybe in a future article you could show discs cut with the Pepe and discs cut with the Swanstrom. You showed the disc cut with the economy cutters but not the others. There is a huge price difference between the Swanstrom and the Pepe and I would really like to see what the difference in output is, what the edges look like, the top, the back, etc.

    Reply
  15. Daphne

    I just realized you’re the Melissa with the youtube videos. What a coincidence. I just came from youtube looking for a demo of the pepe cutter and saw none, only the Swanstroms. Is it possible to do a demo of both cutters in one of your videos?

    Reply
  16. Melissa Muir

    Sure, I would love to. I need to find someone with a Swanstrom disc cutter as the one that I had for this post was borrowed from a friend of mine when I still live in Ohio. But to tell you honestly, I didn’t find a difference between the two in terms of quality of the disc cut. They were both clean. If you had them sitting side by side, you wouldn’t be able to tell which cutter made the cut. The one thing that I liked about the Swanstrom over the Pepe cutter was the larger size discs. Swanstrom had two disc sizes larger than the largest possible at Pepe. So when it comes down to it, I often recommend that people purchase the Pepe cutter because of the cost. The main reason I would tell people to go with a Swanstrom would be if they want the larger disc sizes or the Pepe is out of stock and difficult to get, as it often is.

    Reply
  17. Janet

    This article was very informative. But i did wonder if any or all of these cutters could also be used with a hydraulic press? If so, is it still worth it to get one of the more expensive kinds?

    Reply
  18. Melissa Muir

    You know, that is a good question. At the time I wrote this, I didn’t have a press. Now that I do, I would say yes, you can use it with a press with far better results than with a hammer. However, it would be wise to note that these do not have a slant to the cutting end that the higher end cutters do and the sheared edge may not be as clean as one that you would get from the higher end cutters. 

    Reply
  19. Dana

    I have been mulling over which disc cutter to buy for quite some time (while cutting by hand and sanding). After deciding to invest in one of the better ones, I was going back and forth between Pepe and Swanstrom. You have just solved my dilemma. THANK YOU.

    Reply
  20. Melissa Muir

    I am so glad I could help you. Which cutter did you decide to do? You will never be sorry that you made this purchase.

    Melissa

    Reply
  21. Lori T

    Thank you for this great post! I’ve been trying to figure out which disc cutter to get and this has really helped. I’m still debating with my budget about spending $100 more for 2 additional larger sizes with the Swanstrom.

    Reply
  22. Melissa Muir

    Lori, I recently found out that Pepetools also has a cutter similar to the one from Swanstrom. It is on Otto Frei. Check it out. It looks pretty nice as well. 

    Reply
  23. Melissa Muir

    Lori,

    There is actually a cutter made by Pepe that is very similar and has the larger sizes. I found it on Otto Frei. Check it out and see what you think.

    Reply
  24. Lori T

    I ordered the Pepe disc cutter today! I finally decided that the Swanstrom handle sticking out would make me nervous that I would hit it. And that I could do without the larger sizes for now. I looked at the larger Pepe ones over on Otto Frei and they are supposed to be used with a hydraulic press which I don’t have.
    Thanks for all your help!

    Reply

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