Bending & Forming Metal
& Softening metal:
a basic how-to for artists and crafters
by The Whimsie Studio craftsmen
Fine metal craft for over 25 years
Metal Craft Information

updated Jan 24, 2023

Bending and Forming Metal
Forming Wire
Straightening Wire
To straighten a longer (18" or more) piece of wire, clamp one end securely in a vice. Grasp the other end firmly with a pair of pliers. Allow the wire to go quite slack and then snap it taught. The snapping will stretch out the kinks and bends. Depending on the amount of straightening that the wire requires, you may have to repeat the process. For 8 gauge wire and thicker (6, 4, 2, etc..), the vise maneuver will only work with longer lengths (4 feet or more). Wear gloves and eye protection when 'snapping' wire.
To remove kinks or bends from shorter pieces of wire work it with your hands or a pliers. It is also possible to roll short, relatively straight pieces of wire back and forth between a board and a table top to straighten them.
Bending Wire
Wire can be bent and formed with the hands to some degree. If a sharp bend is required, the wire can be bent with a pliers. The sharp bend can be made even sharper by tapping on the bend with a hammer while it is held in the pliers or in a vise. Sharp bends in thick wire (6 and 8 gauge) are best accomplished with the wire held in a vise. Tap on the bend with a hammer or press on it with a scrap of wood to sharpen the bend.
The thicker the wire the more force will be needed to bend. In addition short piece or tight radius bend may be more difficult to bend without hand tools. Once bent wire becomes stiffer, less bendable & holds its shape. Thinner wire bends more easily than thick. By using some small pieces of wire to practice the feel of the particular metal will quickly be learned. Experience is the best teacher for craft.
There are commercially available wire bending jigs that use pins set in assorted holes around which you bend the wire. A similar arrangement can be improvised by hammering nails into a board.
Softening metal:
Soft aluminum wire and sheet is the softest that any metal will be per it's thickness. It cannot be softened any further.
Stiff metal can be softened by heating up with a torch to very hot and allowing it to cool. This is called annealing.
This is about 800 degrees for aluminum (be careful not to heat higher as it melts at 1200)
Annealed metal may need to be buffed up afterward to get it shiny again.
Copper brass and aluminum may have to be "pickled" to remove fire scale- this is
an acid solution.

Metal will harden as it is being worked and may need to be softened again.
The thicker any wire is the harder it is to bend in a tight curve.
For something like delicate stemware we suggest pre- bending it around a dowel that is slightly smaller.
This way you can use more force - like rolling it up on a flat surface or held in a clamp.
Then spiraling it on to the stemware- in an open coil and then adjusting the coil. (see open coil below)
Radius Bends and Wire Coils
Coils (and therefore circles) can be made out of wire by wrapping it around a cylindrical object called a mandrel. Mandrels can usually be improvised from objects found around the home or studio ranging from wooden dowels, sturdy straight sided cans, scraps of pipe, etc. Because the wire has a certain amount of spring to it, choose a mandrel that is smaller than the inside diameter of the desired coil. This is best determined with some experimentation.
Once the coil is formed, it can easily be cut with a wire cutters into circles or arcs. To put a radius bend in a length of wire, bend it only part way around the mandrel.
Forming Sheet Metal
Flattening Sheet Metal
Sheet metal that has been coiled often has a resulting curve or ripples that can easily be removed. A rolling pin, large diameter wooden dowel or section of plastic pipe can be rolled across the face of the metal while it is lying on a flat surface. First roll one face and then the flip side, repeating as necessary, to flatten the metal. Large diameter curves or bends can be removed by reverse bending it against a curved object of similar diameter. A cardboard core or plastic pipe is good for this.
A good first step in forming sheet metal into a three dimensional shape is to make a pattern out of heavy paper or poster board. It is easy to make a mistake in length or over look a surface when transiting from two dimensions to three. The pattern can be used to 'form' a prototype of the object which can be checked for accuracy. It is a lot easier and less expensive to modify or remake the pattern to correct and error than it is to start over with a new piece of metal.
The commercial/ industrial machine used to make sharp bends in sheet metal is called a Box and Pan Bending Brake. As the name implies, it is used to make box and pan shapes. Metal clamping blocks hold one side of the sheet while the hinged 'brake' forces the other side upward to make the bend. Bending brakes range in size from small ones for model-making to gigantic machines for bending things like the sides of air craft carriers.
It is possible to make a simple bending brake that approximates the effectiveness of the commercial versions. This home made brake uses two clamps and two boards. Clamp the metal sheet between the two boards making sure that the boards are evenly aligned and the metal is being held securely. Roll the 'sandwich' firmly against a table top to achieve a 90 degree bend. With some trial and error and by varying the thickness and dimensions of the boards and the placement of the clamps, you will be able to make multiple opposing and compound bends.
Narrow bends such as a lip or flange along the edge of a piece of sheet metal can be bent with a pliers. Draw a line where the bend is intended to be. The secret to this technique is to only partially bend a pliers' width of the metal at a time as you progress incrementally down the bend. The process is then repeated until the desired full bending is achieved. If you try to bend the whole length at once with the pliers it will not bend sharply or in a straight line.
Making Cylinders
The machine that is commercially available for forming sheet metal into cylinders is called a 'Slip Roller'. Slip rollers range in size from small versions for making 2 foot long sections of heat duct to huge machines for making pipes for tunnels. A slip roller uses three rollers firmly set in place. Two of the rollers clamp down on the sheet metal. As they turn, they force the metal tangentially against a third, free-turning roller which causes the sheet to continuously bend upward thereby forming the cylinder. One of the first two rollers lifts or pivots so that the cylinder can be 'slipped' out of the machine.
Cylinders can easily made at home using found cylindrical objects as mandrels. Scraps of pipe and round containers can all be used. Simply hold one edge of the sheet metal against the mandrel and roll it firmly on a table top. Any deviation from the cylinder at the start or end of the sheet can be corrected by bending it with the fingers or tapping on it with a hammer while the cylinder is still on its mandrel.
Doming or Shaping by Hammering
Another useful technique for working with copper or brass sheet is to hammer it into a domed or shallow bowl shape. This is accomplished by repeatedly denting the metal with overlapping hammer blows while it is laying on top of a 'sand pillow'. Sand pillows have been traditionally 6"-12" round in shape, made out of two circles of soft leather stitched together and firmly packed with sand. Dense canvas or denim works well if the sand is coarse and relatively dust free (like play sand). A discarded blue jeans leg works if the open ends are firmly twisted and tied with string so the sand does not escape. Remember, the sand must be packed firmly for best results.
The best hammer to use for general doming is the standard household hammer with a smooth, slightly domed, rounded edge face. Hammers with pointed or ball shaped heads can be used to make a dimpled texture.
Begin the doming process by cutting the desired shape slightly larger than the finished size. Hammering will tend to reduce the outside dimensions. Hold the piece with one hand or a pair of pliers against the pillow and hammer away. Begin with light overlapping blows in the area that is to be domed. You will quickly gain a 'feel' for the process and the material. For a flat topped (or bottomed) dome shape, only hammer around the outside of the piece. For an all over doming, spiral your blows from the out side inward.
Deep doming or hammering any vessel deeper than a tray or plate in thin (23+ gauge) sheet metal is difficult. Repeated hammering stretches the metal, makes it thin and hardens it. It is possible to 'anneal' the piece thereby making it soft again by heating it to red hot and then quenching it in water. The heating will greatly discolor the metal and give it a layer of fire scale. The piece must be cleaned before continued hammering. Traditional smithing of deep vessels in copper, brass, silver and gold begins with thick (~1/8" or more) metal sheet that is hammered and annealed repeatedly.
The hammering process will cause the edge of the piece to wrinkle or 'flute' which can be removed by hammering the very outer edge while it is held against a hard surface. It can be made to lie flat with dome side up by shaping it with your fingers or tapping it gently with the hammer held at a slight angle along the outer edge.
Evidence of the individual dents can be smoothed out by burnishing the piece with a hardwood ball or cabinet knob. Forcefully rub the ball back and forth across the concave side of the piece until the dents are smoothed out.
Doming, even if only around the edge of a shape, will greatly increase the shape's strength.

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