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Equipment Hub: Cutting metal on the farm

Andy Overbay for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 May 2018

As farmers, we frequently find ourselves serving as our own service and repair departments. With apologies to highly trained and experienced service personnel reading this, there are times when we are better trained than the employees at a local dealership.

Clichés gain traction when there is more than a little truth to them: for example, “Good help is hard to find.” This holds true on the farm, in the factory, in the dealership – and everywhere else, for that matter.

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This truth leads many of us to be more self-reliant and, as a result, to be more dependent on the tools in our shops. One tool I have considered but have never pulled the trigger on as a purchase is a plasma cutter. Therefore, this article may be a bit of a learning process for both of us.

On the surface, it seems a torch is a more universally useful tool. Traditionally, plasma cutters were useful on mild steel parts, providing faster cutting up to about the 1-inch- thick range. Improvements in plasma cutter technologies have pushed the limits of a plasma cutter out to the 3-inch range.

The comparison between torches and cutters usually involves mild steel since an oxy-fuel torch cannot be used to cut aluminum or stainless steel.

If you routinely work with those materials, you need a plasma cutter in your shop. Plasma cutters also cut thinner materials faster than a torch. As we do more and more for ourselves, productivity and time savings need to be taken into consideration.

While I hate to say you can be more precise with a plasma cutter, because that would really depend on the end user’s skill, I think it is safe to say one advantage of a plasma cutter is a thinner cut, especially on thinner metal.

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Another advantage is: You do not have to warm up the material you are preparing to cut; just pull the trigger and cut.

That said, you do have to have air and electrical supplies, so a plasma cutter does not have the portability of a torch. You can load up a torch in your pickup or in your loader bucket and carry it right out to the field where your downed equipment rests.

This is probably a good place to inject that caution needs to be taken any time you handle torch tanks. You realistically are hauling around a pressurized pipe bomb, so make sure however you haul a torch, you have it firmly secured and are protecting the tank outlet valves.

Besides portability, torches give you the opportunity to apply heat to materials that are not going to be cut. You don’t work on older equipment long before you run into a stuck nut or bolt that needs to be heated to break the hold rust has on its threads.

An item I use a good bit on the farm is my chop saw. A chop saw operates much like a right-angle grinder with the advantage of working from a fixed position.

Chop saws offer the advantage of giving me a straight precise surface for welding or assembly. Chop saws are relatively inexpensive and simple to use. You do need have a place to store your saw in between uses, but that can be said for about any useful tool.

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For more freehand cutting, a metal circular saw can be a handy tool to have around.

These saws operate very much like the circular saws you may have used to cut lumber. There are limits as to the thickness these saws can handle, but a good friend has one, and he claims his saw is one of his all-time best buys.

Speaking of good buys, I recently invested in a plunge saw to reach a pesky piece of metal in a tight spot. Plunge saws have a multitude of blades available, and you may need to experiment some with the correct blade for your needs. Once you have the correct blade, I think you will be pleased with the results.

Because they are made to fit in tight spots, plunge saws can be very precise in their cuts, but they are not foolproof. If you place them against something you don’t want to cut, you may be in trouble.

Finally, the old hacksaw has some variations that can help you slice through your metal project. Of course, you can use the old hand hacksaw and get great results, and the old tried-and-true saw can also give you the opportunity to evaluate your work before you go too far.

For my time and money, though, the reciprocating saw armed with a fine-toothed metal blade is a lazy man’s choice when a hacksaw is called for. Blades for a reciprocating saw are easy to replace, and you need to be sure to seat the saw’s body against your material so the vibration doesn’t walk the blade off-target.

As you can see, there are several choices to slice through metal around the farm. Some are much more of an investment than others, and they are not necessarily interchangeable.

Your best bet is to evaluate the need for metal cutting in your shop and select the tools that meet your needs, your expertise and your available time the best.

Regardless of your choice, always wear the correct personal protection so you can slice into the situation safely.  end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

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