Essential Tools For Amateur Custom Fabrication

Most of us love to tinker on, and tune, our cars. Whether it’s a tune up on the daily, refreshing a component on a classic, or replacing parts on a racecar, this hobby requires us to use our hands and get a little dirty from time to time. If you’re lucky enough to have a home with a garage or barn where you can do some wrenching, you may end up even putting together a shop replete with a large toolbox, pneumatic tools, and if you’re really lucky, a lift. Don’t forget the beer fridge/steak freezer, and shop radio!

In addition to the typical wrenching and mechanical knowledge required for racing, most of us will want or need to customize our machines to our liking. Materials like sheet metal, aluminum, and plastics are easily available at hardware stores and can be used to create switch panels and other custom interior features. Fabrication can include anything from wiring, to metal brackets and custom face plates for auxiliary switches, fire extinguisher pulls, and battery kill switches. Over the years, I’ve made a number of custom parts for my race cars and they’ve stood the test of time. Luckily, for the amateur to intermediate craftsman a lot can be done without welding and metallurgy. Below is a list I’ve compiled of the essentials needed to do some of this custom work.

Work Table

I designed and built my own work table. Due to space constraints, I made it fairly narrow as far as work benches go, but I made it deeper than most I’ve seen on the market. In addition to the workspace, I put a small shelf on the left-hand side where I can put the tools of the project to the side when not in use. That way, the work space is only taken up by the project at hand and the very tool necessary at the moment.

I’ve also drilled some holes in the back of the table — these hold the post for my adjustable lamp and my stepped drill bit (I first learned of these watching Paul Jr. on Orange County Choppers. It might be my favorite drill bit). At any given time I can move my lamp to either side of the work bench, and that adaptability comes in really handy depending on the length of the item on which I’m working.

There are a lot of other benches out there available for purchase. All you have to do is have them delivered and put them together.

Nevermind the mess, there’s a method to my madness!

Vise

This thing has taken more abuse than I ever imagined throwing at it. Whether it is to hold pieces of sheet metal that I’m bending, or suspension components that I’m reconditioning, it’s been essential. No more laying things on the floor with a drill or cutting wheel next to my foot. I got one with pipe jaws below the regular jaws so that I can get a clean grip on cylindrical objects. The anvil on mine is a little on the small side so if I were to do it again, I’d look for something with a  larger surface for making small hammer adjustments to metal. Keep it greased, and keep the jaws properly screwed in and it’ll last you a long time.

Jaws. Need I say more?

Tools for Measuring and Mock Up

The old adage of measure twice and cut once stands here as well. First and foremost, you’ll need cardboard or some kind of thick paperstock to draw and cut into shape. It is your friend. You’ll find yourself going between the car and the work bench numerous times, so having a lightweight, foldable piece of paper on which to create your designs is essential. Any time you need to make a plate that has contour, or you need to cut the brackets from the same piece of sheet metal, you’ll be happy you designed it all on paper first. So save those shipping boxes, milk cartons, etc.

I use a square, ruler, and calipers to make my measurements as close to perfect as possible. Once I have the design on paper, I transfer it to sheet metal using the paper as a stencil and mark up the metal with a Sharpie. Then, I check everything again before I make my first cut or hole.

Nothing super fancy here, but it gets the job done!

Cutting tools

Here, you’ll see I have an assortment of cutting implements. I have piles of drill bits made from different materials. Some of them are better at starting holes than others, and some of them are better for hard metal versus soft sheet metal. Small ones always end up breaking over time, so get yourself a bunch. You won’t want to make the trip to the hardware store in the middle of you workflow.

I use a high-powered, variable-speed drill with reversability. This thing has helped build three race cars so far and I love it. I have no problems with running extension cords, but many folks like to have battery power for ease. I’ll probably get a smaller drill soon to fit into spots where this big old thing has been a little ungainly.

Smaller rotary tools come in handy for fine work and taking down sharp edges. Hacksaws for easy cuts and an angle grinder to make major cuts. In addition to cutting wheels, I have a sanding wheel to help clean up the edges of any sheet metal plates I’ve cut. Cutting down on sharp surfaces makes the car much better to work on. I’ll admit, the angle grinder always makes me a little nervous at first. It’s just so indiscriminate about what it cuts through and requires a strong grip to keep it from bouncing back at you.  Follow the directions and leave the guard on. A little bit of insurance to keep your fingers where they will be most useful to you (aka attached) goes a long way.

You can really get a lot done with simple cutting tools. They don’t need to be high dollar either.

Always keep a good stock of drill bits. You don’t want to have to run to Lowes every time you break a bit.

Safety

Needless to say, messing around with power tools, heat, and metal means that proper gear is a must. Through the years, I’ve had molten weld, broken drill bits, and shattering cutting wheels fly at me, and it’s never been exciting or welcomed. I always wear eye protection, and I always leave the guard on my cutting wheel. I’m always on the hunt for a good set of safety goggles that cover a lot of my face and still has good ventilation to keep from steaming up and blinding me in the middle of cutting and welding.

Good heat resistant gloves that cover the forearm, and an apron to keep metal shavings and filings out of your skin will help. There’s nothing quite like showering after using an angle grinder and feeling your forearms burn from all the metal filings burrowed deep in your skin. Some people like to wear ear muffs, but years of heavy metal concerts have made me a little hard of hearing as it is, so I don’t wear them as often as I should. Finally, keep a fire extinguisher on hand. One never knows what will happen in the shop and having at least one really good one available could save the project, the garage, the house, and your marriage!

Never forget about safety, and don’t skimp on these items when you buy. You’ll only end up wasting your money and buying something else.

Bonus points go to the reader that can tell me what’s wrong with this extinguisher.

Assembly

I use ¼-inch bolts of varying length with corresponding nylon or regular nuts for most of my fabrication. They are strong enough for most in-car applications and can easily be bolted or removed using 11mm sockets and wrenches. I have numerous washers of varying outer diameters for this nut and bolt combination. If I had money to throw at filling this cabinet, I’d raid the metric section of my hardware store! When selecting assembly hardware, the questions I ask are: “How easy is it to do and undo in a pinch” and “How strong of a hold will it give me?” Any time I need to mount something like ballast or something heavy duty, I go with Grade 8 hardware. It’s more pricey but a racecar requires materials that will survive abuse.

It’s good to have something to organize your washers, bolts, and nuts in like this cabinet. You can find some affordable options at Harbor Freight or Northern Tool.

Metal

Raw pieces of metal can be purchased in bulk or as needed from your local hardware store. I don’t mess with aluminum, mostly because I want spare material I can weld with a general POS welder. I don’t have the money nor the skill to weld aluminum, and steel is way cheaper to purchase. I buy it in sheets of varying gauges from 22 to 16, depending on what I’m using it for. I also keep the detritus from finished projects or cancelled attempts, just in case I need small pieces for fabrication. Rods and pipes can be useful as well, but most of the stuff I create requires good old sheet metal.

I like to hang onto old pieces of metal. You never know what little piece might come in handy.

Don’t forget a broom and vacuum as well to keep your work area clean! Anyway, that’s a pretty abbreviated list to help you get started, hope it helps and happy fabricating!

About the author

Kasra Ajir

Having competed, raced, or trained with SCORE, SCCA, NASA, BMW CCA, and more, Ajir is well seasoned in the various series that pollinate the grassroots and professional auto racing world.
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