Working with Brass, Part 1 – Cutting Brass – Dug’s Tips 13

Home » Working with Brass, Part 1 – Cutting Brass – Dug’s Tips 13

Various tools for cutting brass rod, tubing, and sheets Brass is a metal that looks good with wood, is easy to work, and can be soldered. You can use it for specific parts or create entire automaton with it! If you are going to use brass, probably the first thing you’ll want to do is cut some. It comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Let’s take a look at some of the more common formats and how to cut them. Remember to wear safety glasses when using any of these techniques.

How to Cut Brass Rod

When using wire cutters, cutting pliers, or bolt cutters, place the wire or rod deeply into the jaws of the toolCutting Brass Rod with Cutting Pliers
For smaller sizes of wire and rod, wire cutters will do the job. For larger gauges, you may need to use a larger pair of cutting pliers or bolt cutters for the really big stuff. With any of these tools, place the rod as far into the jaws as possible to make the cut. Some wire cutters leave the cut rod with a sharp, unsightly end. You will probably want to file, sand, or grind the end of the freshly cut rod so that it is flat.

Using two hands to cut with a hacksaw. Extending the index finger of the hand that is on the handle seems to help.Cutting Brass Rod with a Hacksaw
Place the rod to be cut in a sturdy vise. Try to make the cut as close to the vise as possible to minimize vibration. The hacksaw is a two-handed tool. Place one hand on the handle and your second hand on the end of the hacksaw frame. The saw cuts when you are pushing the tool away from your body. Start the cut with short strokes using the part of the blade nearest the handle. Once there is a groove for the blade to sit in, use both your arms and shifting body weight to make each cutting stroke. Not much downward pressure is needed, and then only when pushing the saw. A long, steady stroke that uses the full length of the blade is preferable to short, frantic stokes. Pay attention and slow down as you come close to cutting through the metal so the saw doesn’t cut something it’s not supposed to.

How to Cut Brass Tubing

A miniature hacksaw and a small mitre box are used to cut brass tubingSawing Brass Tubing
You can use small and large metal saws to cut brass tubing. I’d recommend doing it in a small hobby mitre box or a groove you have cut into a piece of wood. Place the tubing in one of the mitre box grooves and begin the cut. As the saw makes its way through the tubing, it will begin to cut two walls at once. This can cause the saw to bind, making sawing difficult. To avoid this, slowly rotate the tubing away from you so that you are only sawing through one wall of the tubing at any given time.

Using a tubing cutter to cut brass tubing. Tighten the tool a little and spin it many times before repeating the process.Using a Tubing Cutter
You can buy special cutters designed to cut metal tubing. The tool is clamped to the tubing and a circular blade progresses through the metal. Fasten the tool where the cut is to be made. Spin the tool around the tubing several times. Turn the knob a little to bring the blade against the tubing, and rotate again. Repeat this until the tubing has been divided. Don’t tighten the knob much or the tubing may end up with a crimped end. If this should happen, a tapered reamer can be used to spread opening. File the crimped end off or use a stationary belt sander to finish the edge. Cut the piece a little long to account for any amount that may need to be filed or sanded away.

Cutting Brass Sheet

Cutting brass sheet with straight-cutting aviation snipsCutting Brass Sheet with Shears & Snips
Brass sheet can be cut with metal shears and snips. The type I often use are called aviation snips. These come in three varieties: right-cutting, left-cutting, and straight-cutting. These usually have green, red, and yellow handles respectively. Despite the name, the straight-cutting variety can be used to cut curves — outside curves at least. When cutting a circle, trim the corners off the piece repeatedly until it starts to look like a circle made of straight cuts. Then, make the final curved cut using the inside of the jaws. If precision is required, it’s a good idea to cut outside of the desired line, then use a file to finish the job.

Cutting brass sheet sandwiched between two sheets of thin plywoodCutting Brass Sheet with a Hacksaw
Straight cuts in brass sheet can also be made with a hacksaw. Place the brass between two sheets of scrap plywood and clamp all three pieces in a vise. The wood supports the metal during the cut. If you need to see a marked line on the surface of the brass, place a sheet of plywood on the back side of the brass only. Be mindful to only exert downward pressure when pushing the saw.

A jeweler's saw and bench pin will allow you to cut complex shapes from brass sheetCutting Brass Sheet with a Jeweler’s Saw and Bench Pin
With practice, a jeweler’s saw used in conjunction with a bench pin will allow you to cut very intricate shapes out of brass sheet. The V-shaped notch in the bench pin is used to support the metal on both sides of the blade. The saw is held vertically, with the handle on the bottom and the saw teeth facing away from you. You basically look down on the saw as you make a cut. Here are a few rules of thumb I’ve found helpful.

First, make sure the blade is taught in the saw frame and the slant of the saw teeth point down toward the handle. Rub beeswax or a commercial lubricant such as ‘Cut Lube’ on the back of the saw blade. With the metal resting flat on the bench pin, start the cut with the saw at a 45 degree angle, the top of the saw frame pointing away from you. Once a groove for the blade has been established, bring the saw upright so that it is perpendicular to the material being cut. Use long, slow, rhythmic strokes and don’t force the saw. When cutting curves, turn and guide the metal into the blade. Never place a finger in front the blade — even if it is some distance away. These thin blades break often.

Cutting Brass with a Rotary Tool
A handy motorized rotary tool can also cut brass rod, tubing, and sheets. See Tips article number 6, 21 Rotary Tool Tips and Tricks for Automaton-Makers, for details on how to use this tool to cut metals. Be sure to clamp the rod in a vise, put on heavy gloves, and wear eye protection.

This article only covers some of the many ways to cut brass. There are more techniques to discover used in a variety of trades and crafts! I hope you’ll find and share them.

Dug’s Automata Tips, Techniques and Tricks
A quarterly column by automaton-maker and enthusiast Dug North
Copyright 2014 Dug North

Warning: The topics covered in this column include the use of tools and materials that have the potential to cause damage to property and/or bodily injury. Your safety is important and it is your sole responsibility. Always read and follow the safety instructions that come with tools and materials you use. Wear safety glasses, use guards and other forms of safety equipment, follow safety precautions, and use good judgment. Seek the guidance of experienced outside sources whenever required.

Further Reading
Complete Metalsmith: Professional Edition by Tim McCreigh: Amazon UKAmazon US
Tools and Their Uses by U.S. Bureau of Naval Personnel: Amazon UKAmazon US

Brass Rod: Amazon UKAmazon US
Brass Tubing: Amazon UKAmazon US
Brass Sheet: Amazon UKAmazon US

Cutting Pliers: Amazon UKAmazon US
Hacksaw: Amazon UKAmazon US
Mini Hacksaw: Amazon UKAmazon US
Hobby Saw Mitre Box: Amazon UKAmazon US
Tubing Cutter: Amazon UKAmazon US
Aviation Snips: Amazon UKAmazon US
Jeweler’s Saw and Blades: Amazon UKAmazon US
Bench Pin: Amazon UKAmazon US
Cut Lube: Amazon UKAmazon US

Dug's Automata Tips:

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Working with Brass, Part 1 – Cutting Brass – Dug’s Tips 13
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  1. John D. Brittan says:

    Thanks for your help in advance.

    I need to cut 7 pieces of brass buss bar that are too long for my truck.
    Currently they are 15’ long by 1/2” x 8”.
    I just purchased a 7” Diablo non Fer blade to accomplish this.

    I’m using a Makita worm drive saw.
    Any further suggestions before I begin?


  2. Jo says:

    You are a blessing. I love how quick and explanatory your sentences are. It’s like there’s no excess, and it’s a pleasure to read and learn by. Thanks for including pictures and links to specific items you personally use. (I’m in the States, but it still gives me great ideas for what to purchase on my own Amazon site).

    I’m not interested in shaping brass for automatons. I’m interested in shaping brass because I love Moroccan design, especially brass lighting fixtures. This info you wrote is gold, pure and simple. I keep googling and can’t find any in-person classes nearby for learning the stuff you’re teaching here (it’s all blacksmithing and jewelry, and I’m sure that stuff would help to learn but I’m tragically impatient).

    THANK YOU for this article.

    • Dug North says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I had to internalize “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White in graduate school. Perhaps it helped!

      I have taken classes in different areas (jewelry, machining, clock repair, welding) to get a broader understanding of working with brass. Overall, I think you will find that most of what you learn in jewelry classes will apply.

  3. Ej says:

    What hand tools would you recommend for cutting 1/4 inch brass?

    • Dug says:

      It depends on if the cut is straight or curved. A hacksaw is probably the choice for straight cuts. A jeweler’s saw or power scroll saw can be used for the curved cuts. If the cut radius isn’t large, a band saw can be a great tool for cutting brass too.

  4. amanda thompson says:

    Thanks so much for explaining these different methods so thoroughly. I also love brass as other Arya does. I am learning to metalsmith and brass is so affordable compared to silver, and especially gold. I find a lot of people, especially in the jewelry community are snobby about brass because it tarnishes. I love the look of different patinas that you can get on brass and copper. Additionally, some of my favorite contemporary metalsmiths use brass and I love the kind of ancient, yet modern looks they achieve.

    Your tips about using a mitre box or groove in wood are very helpful as well as explaining how to use a tube cutter. I have a mini tube cutter, but I haven’t spent much time using it and found it challenging. I want to make some tube beads and I am more confident to give it a shot.

    I need to practice working more with my jewelers saw. I have to admit that that is the biggest thing that I struggle with and I break a lot of blades. I tend to be impatient so I would much rather cut with shears and clean the edges up with a file or grinder. I had no idea that there were different shears for cutting in different directions, but that totally makes sense.

    My biggest struggle with using shears is cutting an angle cut into it without overcutting into the piece. An example is this morning I was cutting out some feather shaped pendants and I was trying to make little notches like real feathers have, It kept getting smaller and smaller as I cut too far. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thanks again!

    • Dug North says:

      Thanks for the kind words. You might try using shears for the bulk of the cutting, but stop short. You could then try to use the jeweler’s saw to get into the corners and finish the cuts. Be sure to use wax or other lubrication suitable for jeweler’s saws. Finally, that isn’t an operation that can be rushed. Let the saw do the cutting!

  5. Lud says:

    i have a 3mm thick brass plate. its 51mm wide. i cant cut perfect mitres by hand. So judging by your info above, it can be cut with a dropsaw?

    • Dug North says:

      In theory, but something about that makes me nervous. You don’t want cut off pieces of brass getting swept up into the blade and blade guard. A good quality miter box with a mounted/guided saw would probably do very well. I’m think something like this:

  6. Harper Campbell says:

    It’s interesting to know that when it comes to cutting brass that there are different ways to go about doing it, and each one will have it’s benefits to it. I am glad you pointed out that when it comes to sawing the tubing that slowly rotating the tube to help only cut through one wall at a time. This will be helpful when it comes to the different crafts that I use brass for.

  7. Dave Anderson says:

    I appreciate all of the demonstrations of how to cut different types of brass. Like you explain there are a lot of different types of brass, so there are also a lot of different instruments that you need to cut it with. I think that before starting a project it would be a good idea to make sure that you have all of the necessary tools. Once you know you have all of the tools that you will need it will be much easier to get the job done.

    • Dug North says:

      Agreed! We try to include a photo in each article showing the tools and materials used.

  8. Arya says:

    Thanks for this, I have an almost unhealthy obsession with brass! Could you offer any advice on soldering to brass and what materials to use to do this? Whenever I’ve tried the solder never seems to stick.

    Look forward to your next blog!

    • Dug North says:

      Hi Arya,
      Brass is generally pretty easy to solder. Here’s the key: preparation. You want to make sure your pieces fit together as closely as possible. The solder should only form the thinnest of films to join the two pieces. It shouldn’t really be used to fill big voids. Make sure the pieces are also very clean. Use abrasive papers to make them bright, then clean them with alcohol. Add flux, then heat the metal (not the solder). Test the temp with a piece of solder until it flows. Use the heat to draw the solder through the joint (it moves toward the highest heat). I have had good luck with Tix brand solder and flux.

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