Forming Tools Part II

Spin Forming

In spin forming, a flat circle of metal is rotated at a very high speed to shape a seamless, hollow part using the combined forces of rotation and pressure. For example, a flat circular blank such as an aluminum disk, is mounted in a lathe in conjunction with a form block (usually made of hardwood). As the aircraft technician revolves the disc and form block together at high speeds, the disk is molded to the form block by applying pressure with a spinning stick or tool. It provides an economical alternative to stamping, casting, and many other metal forming processes. Propeller spinners are sometimes fabricated with this technique.

Aluminum soap, tallow, or ordinary soap can be used as a lubricant. The best adapted materials for spinning are the softer aluminum alloys, but other alloys can be used if the shape to be spun is not excessively deep or if the spinning is done in stages utilizing intermediate annealing to remove the effect of strain hardening that results from the spinning operation. Hot forming is used in some instances when spinning thicker and harder alloys. [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Spin forming

Forming With an English Wheel

The English wheel, a popular type of metal forming tool used to create double curves in metal, has two steel wheels between which metal is formed. [Figure 2] Keep in mind that the English wheel is primarily a stretching machine, so it stretches and thins the metal before forming it into the desired shape. Thus, the operator must be careful not to over-stretch the metal.

Figure 2. English wheel

To use the English wheel, place a piece of sheet metal between the wheels (one above and one below the metal). Then, roll the wheels against one another under a pre-adjusted pressure setting. Steel or aluminum can be shaped by pushing the metal back and forth between the wheels. Very little pressure is needed to shape the panel, which is stretched or raised to the desired shape. It is important to work slowly and gradually curve the metal into the desired shape. Monitor the curvature with frequent references to the template.

The English wheel is used for shaping low crowns on large panels and polishing or planishing (to smooth the surface of a metal by rolling or hammering it) parts that have been formed with power hammers or hammer and shot bag.

Piccolo Former

The piccolo former is used for cold forming and rolling sheet metal and other profile sections (extrusions). [Figure 3] The position of the ram is adjustable in height by means of either a handwheel or a foot pedal that permits control of the working pressure. Be sure to utilize the adjusting ring situated in the machine head to control the maximum working pressure. The forming tools are located in the moving ram and the lower tool holder. Depending on the variety of forming tools included, the operator can perform such procedures as forming edges, bending profiles, removing wrinkles, spot shrinking to remove buckles and dents, or expanding dome sheet metal. Available in either fiberglass (to prevent marring the surface) or steel (for working harder materials) faces, the tools are the quick-change type.

Figure 3. Piccolo former

Shrinking and Stretching Tools

Shrinking Tools

Shrinking dies repeatedly clamp down on the metal, then shift inward. [Figure 4] This compresses the material between the dies, which actually slightly increases the thickness of the metal. Strain hardening takes place during this process, so it is best to set the working pressure high enough to complete the shape rather quickly (eight passes could be considered excessive).

Figure 4. Shrinking and stretching tools

CAUTION: Avoid striking a die on the radius itself when forming a curved flange. This damages the metal in the radius and decreases the angle of bend.

Stretching Tools

Stretching dies repeatedly clamp down on the surface and then shift outward. This stretches the metal between the dies, which decreases the thickness in the stretched area. Striking the same point too many times weakens and eventually cracks the part. It is advantageous to deburr or even polish the edges of a flange that must undergo even moderate stretching to avoid crack formation. Forming flanges with existing holes causes the holes to distort and possibly crack or substantially weaken the flange.

Manual Foot-Operated Sheet Metal Shrinker

The manual foot-operated sheet metal shrinker operates very similarly to the Piccolo former though it only has two primary functions: shrinking and stretching. The only dies available are steel faced and therefore tend to mar the surface of the metal. When used on aluminum, it is necessary to gently blend out the surface irregularities (primarily in the cladding), then treat and paint the part.

Since this is a manual machine, it relies on leg power, as the operator repeatedly steps on the foot pedal. The more force is applied, the more stresses are concentrated at that single point. It yields a better part with a series of smaller stretches (or shrinks) than with a few intense ones. Squeezing the dies over the radius damages the metal and flattens out some of the bend. It may be useful to tape a thick piece of plastic or micarta to the opposite leg to shim the radius of the angle away from the clamping area of the dies.

NOTE: Watch the part change shape while slowly applying pressure. A number of small stretches works more effectively than one large one. If applying too much pressure, the metal has the tendency to buckle.

Hand-Operated Shrinker and Stretcher

The hand-operated shrinker and structure is similar to the manual foot-operated unit, except a handle is used to apply force to shrinking and stretching blocks. The dies are all metal and leave marks on aluminum that need to be blended out after the shrinking or stretching operation. [Figure 5]

Figure 5. Hand-operated shrinker and stretcher unit

Dollies and Stakes

Sheet metal is often formed or finished (planished) over anvils, available in a variety of shapes and sizes, called dollies and stakes. These are used for forming small, oddshaped parts, or for putting on finishing touches for which a large machine may not be suited. Dollies are meant to be held in the hand, whereas stakes are designed to be supported by a flat cast iron bench plate fastened to the workbench. [Figure 6]

Figure 6. Dollies and stakes

Most stakes have machined, polished surfaces that have been hardened. Use of stakes to back up material when chiseling, or when using any similar cutting tool, defaces the surface of the stake and makes it useless for finish work.

Hardwood Form Blocks

Hardwood form blocks can be constructed to duplicate practically any aircraft structural or nonstructural part. The wooden block or form is shaped to the exact dimensions and contour of the part to be formed.


V-blocks made of hardwood are widely used in airframe metalwork for shrinking and stretching metal, particularly angles and flanges. The size of the block depends on the work being done and on personal preference. Although any type of hardwood is suitable, maple and ash are recommended for best results when working with aluminum alloys.

Shrinking Blocks

A shrinking block consists of two metal blocks and some device for clamping them together. One block forms the base and the other is cut away to provide space where the crimped material can be hammered. The legs of the upper jaw clamp the material to the base block on each side of the crimp to prevent the material from creeping away, but remains stationary while the crimp is hammered flat (being shrunk). This type of crimping block is designed to be held in a bench vise.

Shrinking blocks can be made to fit any specific need. The basic form and principle remain the same, even though the blocks may vary considerably in size and shape.


A sandbag is generally used as a support during the bumping process. A serviceable bag can be made by sewing heavy canvas or soft leather to form a bag of the desired size, and filling it with sand which has been sifted through a fine mesh screen.

Before filling canvas bags with sand, use a brush to coat the inside of the bag with softened paraffin or beeswax, which forms a sealing layer and prevents the sand from working through the pores of the canvas. Bags can also be filled with shot as an alternative to sand.

Sheet Metal Hammers and Mallets

The sheet metal hammer and the mallet are metal fabrication hand tools used for bending and forming sheet metal without marring or indenting the metal. The hammer head is usually made of high carbon, heat-treated steel, while the head of the mallet, which is usually larger than that of the hammer, is made of rubber, plastic, wood, or leather. In combination with a sandbag, V-blocks, and dies, sheet metal body hammers and mallets are used to form annealed metal. [Figure 7]

Figure 7. Sheet metal mallet and hammers

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