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Selection of air tools
Mig-O-Mag 3 phase 350amp welder


Boatbuilding books frequently espouse the alleged advantages of aluminum when it comes to the collection of tools necessary to successfully complete a boat. On the surface, that is probably true. Or not. In reality, a comprehensive suite of robust industrial-grade tools is almost indispensible. Yes, you can get by with mass produced tools, for a while, but you'll soon discover that cheap tools are in fact very, very expensive - when you factor in the fact that you need 10 of them to do the same work that one decent industrial tool would have accomplished without breakdowns. The most precious commodity is your level of motivation and confidence, and stoppages due to tool malfunctions are costly in terms of both.

A Minimal Set of Tools for Working Plate Alloy

MIG welder
Metal Inert Gas (MIG) is the only practical process for welding a relatively large (bigger than 3m) plate alloy boat. Tungsten Inert Gas (TIG) welders have their place, but they are comparatively slow, cannot weld plate beyond around 6mm thick (which is rarely used anyway), have high heat input (which distorts the metal), and require a much higher level of welding skill which is truly beyond most amateurs. Stick welders of the type sold in small convenience stores are completely useless - they cannot weld aluminum. Expect to pay between AU$2000 and AU$4000 for a decent new MIG unit with a remote wirefeeder. This is the second biggest outlay after the metal plate itself.
100mm or 115mm Angle Grinder
While bigger units can certainly take on bigger jobs, we are mostly concerned with the grinder's ability to get into tight corners. Remember that you're almost never actually going to be cutting with this tool - you'll be de-burring fillet welds.
Auto-Darkening (Sensing) Welding Helmet
Yes, it is possible to use that old $20 flip-down welding helmet that's been in the family since WW2, but I can almost guarantee that you will be thoroughly sick of missing the intended weld root 50 times per day because you cannot see what you're doing until the weld arc illuminates your hands' position. Expect to part with AU$200 to AU$500 for one of these.
Jigsaw, Circular Saw, and Drill
Again, investing in quality units will pay reliability benefits. By now you've probably heard the tall tale about being able to work aluminum with "woodworking tools", but the fact is that your $39.95 discount store jigsaw with its standard blades will get through about 15cm of 5mm-thick 5083H321 alloy plate before its blade is forever gummed up with re-solidified alloy and its motor is rasping its last breath. Instead, invest in semi-industrial or industrial tools, and find specialised carbide-tipped blades which are specifically designed for aluminum cutting.

Almost Indispensible Tools

If you're constructing anything bigger than an open dinghy, you will benefit from access to the tools below:

Pipe Bender (ram type)
A hydraulic ram pipe bender is a relatively inexpensive piece of equipment at around AU$250 for a 12t size. They will perform basic pipe and bar bending, and you may find lots of unanticipated uses for that capability around your boat. Don't expect to be able to pull off small radius bends in thin-walled pipe though.
After a while, you will grow sick of having to break out the circular saw every time you need to cut a flat bar. Properly mounted shears can cut through relatively thick material with ease.
Rolloc Sander
The professionals' secret. Once you've tried this device, there is no going back. It can be used to delicately round off a thin weld, and then it can brutally grind down an amazing volume of material without settings changes or pauses to find a different tool. Unfortunately, it requires an air compressor and that opens up another (expensive) can of worms. If the budget will stretch to another $2k for a small low-speed air compressor and some basic tools, this is an excellent investment that truly helps to make the difference between amateurish and professional-looking results. The Rolloc sander is the central tool in the picture at the top of the page. To its right is a small but powerful right-angle air drill (much more robust than 99% of all electric drills), and to its left is a carbide-tipped air-powered grinder. It looks almost toy-like and out of place in a serious toolkit, but once you hear the unearthly noise and see it shaving through heavy gauge alloy as if it's cardboard, you'll learn to respect it more than possibly any tool except perhaps a circular saw with its guard removed (don't!).

The trouble is that storing all that hardware is almost impossible in a typical suburban home, which brings us to the topic of facilities.



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