There is no better sense of accomplishment than building something all your own. To quote a personal hero of mine—the mans-man of the century—Nick Offerman once said, “What we’ve lost sight of is that performing manual labor with your hands is one of the most incredibly satisfying and positive things you can do.” Offerman is most well-known for his portrayal of Ron Swanson on the television show Parks and Recreation, but he’s also an incredibly talented handyman who showcases his craftsmanship with a wood-based medium. Fine-working may be something of beauty, but steel work can be just as impressive, especially with the right level of attention to detail put into each step along the way. Something as simple as fabricating custom hardware can be incredibly fulfilling and surprisingly artistic. (Not to mention, thrifty.)
When Fabricating Custom Hardware Just Makes Sense
In an aftermarket stocked to the brim with innovative parts for a seemingly endless array of applications, you might be wondering why on earth you should spend time making things you could simply buy. However, premade aftermarket options won’t always cover the demands. And besides, pre-existing solutions can leave a lot to be desired—in both form and function.
For example, engine and transmission mounts may not accommodate your exact application and combination. Switch panels may not be in the configuration you really desire or the design may not appeal to your style. And of course, there’s always the problem that what you need simply isn’t available. (As anyone passionate about restoration will tell you.)
One thing to keep in mind is that although fabricating your own parts can be a real money-saving technique, it’s still an investment. When you consider the specialty tools and appropriate materials necessary, those first few projects you take on could honestly outweigh the cost of simply buying what you need. It will also take a considerable amount of time to build parts from scratch, especially when you are first learning. (So, if you’re a strict time-is-money kinda person, maybe DIY ain’t for you.)
However, when it comes to fabricating custom hardware —and trust us, at some point you will need something fabricated—paying someone to do it for you is incredibly expensive. Besides, just think of all the doors that will open up when you conquer this skill. Not only will you be able to tackle more creative projects on your own builds, but you can easily make a little extra money fabricating parts for other builders as well.
Tools Open Doors
There is a whole lot of truth behind the saying “you only need a little to make a lot.” With enough attention to detail and a solid plan, you really can go a long way with sheer willpower and skill. However, when it comes to fabricating, having the right tools on hand is everything.
In the automotive field, you’re dealing with shaping hard materials, so you need to have at least a few specialty tools on hand. In all truth, an angle grinder, drill, and welder will cover most needs. However, a chop saw, drill press, band saw, bench vice, and metal break will take you a lot further. Of course, hammers, bits, blades, and finishing tools like belt sanders and metal files will also be a necessity to a job well done.
Where to Shop and What to Spend
Most of these tools can be sourced from your local supply store, like a Home Depot or Harbor Freight. However, when it comes to some of the bigger ticket specialty items, like a sheet metal brake, you should turn to a trusted name like Eastwood or a tool supplier that suits this demand specifically.
As for financial investment, expect to part with a few thousand dollars if you purchase everything from name brands at retail prices. So, if you’re looking to save some money, consider sourcing some second-hand tools from durable names like Dewalt and Milwaukee.
Additionally, some of the off-brand tools from places like Harbor Freight can be serviceable in their own right. I have a few power tools from them including a welder and an angle grinder. And in my experience, the trick to having success with these less expensive options is to purchase better-quality consumables, like welding wire, drill bits, blades, and grinding discs. (The cheap brands can’t seem to nail these parts down and they fail very fast.) Whenever I use these tools, like a flux welder, I use Lincoln-brand flux core welding wire and DeWalt-name drill bits and grinding disks.
Exactly which tools you use will change, based on the materials you’re working with. As mentioned above, generally when fabricating custom hardware, you’ll be employing hard metals. However, in many cases wood, plastic, and flake boards are used as well—often for interior fabrication, like mounting speakers or fabricating center consoles. But while these softer materials are generally easier to work with, they shouldn’t be underestimated. You should put just as much care and attention to detail into every step of fabrication, regardless of the medium.
When you’re building parts that need rigidity—or you simply like a more industrial design—you’ll be employing metal. It’s important to keep in mind though, not all metals are created equal. Although you’ll likely be working with steel or aluminum, you must balance thickness and strength if you want a custom part that’s safe and long-lasting. This can be tricky, as you need to weigh it against the demands of the piece you’re attempting to build.
For example, sheet metal can be used for a lot of jobs like building panels for switches and gauges. But when you move up to fabricating mounting solutions for drivetrain components, you need to look toward plate steel or aluminum. A sheet metal gauge can help you in some situations, but ultimately, you need to do your homework, fleshing out what the influencing factors will be. Functionality and flexibility need to be taken into consideration, as well as pressure, temperature, and weather.
Where to Shop and What to Spend
Similar to our discussion on tools, who you source your materials from often depends on who is local. Major retailers like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Ace Hardware supply sheet metal as well as some thicker metal stocks, but if you have a dedicated metal supplier nearby, you’re much better off heading there. Besides having more options to choose from, they’ll also be able to sell the materials at much better prices. Scrap parts can be used but need to be approached with caution, as they can have a lot of imperfections, making it hard to judge the structural integrity.
Practice Makes Perfect
Additionally, all of those characteristics that contribute to a metal’s worthiness will determine how difficult it will be to manipulate. Bending, cutting, drilling, grinding, and welding will all be directly affected by these contributing factors. Truly, this is where fabrication starts to evolve from a process into an artform. It can really test your will to continue and may lead you to reach for thinner, more malleable materials. You have to be careful though, and keep a reasonable mindset.
Say you’re working to build some engine mounts, bumper mounts, transmission cross members, or something similar. Thin metals are not an option, as the finished product absolutely needs the proper amount of structural integrity. Do you really want to risk injury (or worse) simply because you lost your patience during the process?
If you’re new to fabricating custom hardware, consider starting small, so you can build up experience and be motivated by progress. Everyone’s skill level is different, so it’s essentially impossible to set a timeframe—especially when you’re still learning the ropes. (Besides, there’s a creative process involved, with a lot of attention to detail. You wouldn’t tell a painter how long it should take to complete a portrait, right?) Regardless, expect to set aside several hours for some trial and error, and a healthy dose of aggravation.
Making a Design
While the tools and materials define what’s possible, you’re going nowhere without a plan. Taking (multiple) measurements and putting them down on paper is an essential part of the fabrication process. And having something that you can physically mock up before you begin building that final product is instrumental to fabricating custom hardware that actually fits the first time.
Personally, I like to use cardboard to make a mockup of my design. I start by drafting a concept on a piece of paper and then transferring it to the cardboard in realistic proportions. (An old box or something you have lying around will work just fine. It just needs to be strong enough to hold up a rigid shape.) I cut out the pieces individually and build an actual cardboard version of my original design, as it allows me to better visualize the final fit and finish before I start working with a less forgiving (and more expensive) material, like steel.
A mockup allows me to see if anything isn’t lining up right, so I can make the necessary changes in design sooner than later. It’s definitely not foolproof, but cutting and gluing cardboard is much easier than chopping and welding metal. Plus, I can take my cardboard segments and use them as templates for marking up the steel.
If you don’t have cardboard, a variety of mediums can be used, like scrap wood or thin scrap metals. But the general idea is to use something much cheaper and easier to work with than what will be used on the finished product.
Once you get to actual process of fabricating custom hardware, you’ve hit the fun part. But remember, making mockups and having a solid plan will only go so far. Sharp attention to detail is critical, since accuracy and precision is necessary for quality parts and worker safety.
Don’t blast through cutting and bending processes. Take your time as you shape, and make sure each step is perfectly calculated. If need be, dry fit it over and over… and over again. Make sure you keep the finished product in your mind and follow that design along the way. Honestly, the best advice will always be, “Measure twice, cut once,” but prepare to do both three, four, or even five times before getting it perfect. Keep in mind that once it’s done, you don’t just want something that performs well. You want a custom part that’s nice to look at and you can show off to your non-fabricating friends!
Obviously, safety is an issue in any project where heat, metal, and powerful tools are involved. Cutting off fingers, serious burns, and other major injuries are a very real threat during this process. Although, being overly cautious and terrified of hurting yourself can sometimes be just as dangerous as over-confidence and neglectful behavior.
Be careful, yes.
But pay attention to the level of craftsmanship and enjoy the work. Feel each move you make and keep yourself completely aware of the process from start to finish. Like our buddy Offerman says, there’s some serious satisfaction to be found in manual labor. And that is especially true if the finished product is something stamped with your own unique, personal style.