Metalworking is craft and practice of working with metals to create individual parts, assemblies, or large scale structures. The term covers a wide range of work from large ships, bridges and oil refineries to delicate jewellery. It therefore includes a correspondingly wide range of skills and the use of many different types of metalworking processes and their related tools.
Metalworking is an art, hobby, industry, and trade. It relates to metallurgy, a science, jewellery making, an art-and-craft, and as a trade and industry with ancient roots spanning all cultures and civilizations. Metalworking had its beginnings millennia in the past. At some imprecise point in the distant past humankind discovered that certain rocks now called ores could be smelted, producing metal. Further, they discovered that the metal product was malleable and ductile and thus able to be formed into various tools, adornments and put to other practical uses. Humans over the millennia learned to work raw metals into objects of art, adornment, practicality, trade, and engineering.
Not all metal required fire to obtain it or work it. Isaac Asimov speculated that gold was the "first metal. His reasoning is that gold by its chemistry is found in nature as nuggets of pure gold. In other words, only gold, as rare as it is, is found in nature as the metal that it is. There are a few exceptions as a result of meteors. All other metals are found in ores, a mineral bearing rock, that require heat or some other process to liberate the metal. Another feature of gold is that it is workable as it is found, meaning that no technology beyond eyes to find a nugget and a hammer and an anvil to work the metal is needed. Stone hammer and stone anvil will suffice for technology. This is the result of gold's properties of malleability and ductility. The earliest tools were stone, bone, wood, and sinew. They sufficed to work gold.
At some unknown point the connection between heat and the liberation of metals from rock became clear, rocks rich in copper, tin, and lead came into demand. These ores were mined where ever they were recognized. Remnants of such ancient mines have been found all over what is today the Middle East. Metalworking was being carried out by the South Asian inhabitants of Mehrgarh between 7000–3300 BCE. The end of the beginning of metalworking occurs sometime around 6000 BCE when copper smelting became common in the Middle East.
The ancients knew of seven metals. Here they are arranged in order of their oxidation potential:
The oxidation potential is important because it is one indicator of how tightly bound to the ore the metal is likely to be. As can be seen, iron is significantly higher than the other six metals while gold is dramatically lower than the six above it. Gold's low oxidation is one of the main reasons that gold is found in nuggets. These nuggets are relatively pure gold and are workable as they are found.
Copper ore, being relatively abundant, and tin ore became the next important players in the story of metalworking. Using heat to smelt copper from ore, a great deal of copper was produced. It was used for both jewelry and simple tools. However, copper by itself was too soft for tools requiring edges and stiffness. At some point tin was added into the molten copper and bronze was born. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Bronze was an important advance because it had the edge-durability and stiffness that pure copper lacked. Until the advent of iron, bronze was the most advanced metal for tools and weapons in common use.
Looking beyond the Middle East, these same advances and materials were being discovered and used the world around. China and Britain jumped into the use of bronze with little time being devoted to copper. Japan began the use of bronze and iron almost simultaneously. In the new world things were different. Although the peoples of the New World knew of metals, it wasn't until the arrival of Europeans that metal for tools and weapons took off. Jewelry and art were the principal uses of metals in the New World prior to European influence.
Around the date 2700 BCE, production of bronze was common in locales where the necessary materials could be assembled for smelting, heating, and working the metal. Iron was beginning to be smelted. Iron began its emergence as an important metal for tools and weapons. The Iron Age was dawning.
By the historical periods of the Pharaohs in Egypt, the Vedic Kings in India, the Tribes of Israel, and the Mayan Civilization in North America, among other ancient populations, precious metals began to have value attached to them. In some cases rules for ownership, distribution, and trade were created, enforced, and agreed upon by the respective peoples. By the above periods metalworkers were very skilled at creating objects of adornment, religious artifacts, and trade instruments of precious metals (non-ferrous), as well as weaponry usually of ferrous metals and/or alloys. These skills were finely honed and well executed. The techniques were practiced by artisans, blacksmiths, atharvavedic practitioners, alchemists, and other categories of metalworkers around the globe. For example, the ancient technique of granulation is found around the world in numerous ancient cultures before the historic record shows people traveled seas or overland to far regions of the earth to share this process that still being used by metalsmiths today.
As time progressed metal objects became more common, and ever more complex. The need to further acquire and work metals grew in importance. Skills related to extracting metal ores from the earth began to evolve, and metalsmiths became more knowledgeable. Metalsmiths became important members of society. Fates and economies of entire civilizations were greatly affected by the availability of metals and metalsmiths. Today modern mining practices are more efficient, but more damaging to the earth and to the workers that are engaged in the industry. Those that finance the operations are driven by profits per ounce of extracted precious metals. The metalworker depends on the extraction of precious metals to make jewellery, build more efficient electronics, and for industrial and technological applications from construction to shipping containers to rail, and air transport. Without metals, goods and services would cease to move around the globe on the scale we know today.
More individuals than ever before are learning metalworking as a creative outlet in the forms of jewellery making, hobby restoration of aircraft and cars, blacksmithing, tinsmithing, tinkering, and in other art and craft pursuits. Trade schools continue to teach welding in all of its forms, and there is a proliferation of schools of Lapidary and Jewelers arts and sciences at this- the beginning of the 21st Century AD.
Casting is an example of achieving a specific form by pouring molten metal into a mold and allowing it to cool. Hot forging is an example of moving heated metal into a specific form by deforming it with tools such as hammers or hydraulic presses while the material is at forging temperature. Drawing copper wire to a specific size is an example of forming by the use of mechanical tooling and mechanical force.
Cutting is a collection of processes wherein material is brought to a specified geometry by removing excess material using various kinds of tooling leaving a finished part matching a set of specifications. The net result of cutting is two products, the waste or excess material, and the finished part. If this were a discussion of woodworking, the waste would be sawdust and excess wood. In cutting metals the waste is chips or swarf and excess metal. These processes can be divided into chip producing cutting, generally known as machining. Burning or cutting with an oxyfuel torch is a welding process not machining. There are also miscellaneous specialty processes such as chemical milling.
Cutting is nearly fully represented by:
Drilling a hole in a metal part is the most common example of a chip producing process. Using an oxy-fuel cutting torch to separate a plate of steel into smaller pieces is an example of burning. Chemical milling is an example of a specialty process that removes excess material by the use of etching chemicals and masking chemicals.
There are many technologies available to cut metal.
Cutting fluid or coolant is used where there is significant friction and heat at the cutting interface between a cutter such as a drill or an end mill and the workpiece. Coolant is generally introduced by a spray across the face of the tool and workpiece to decrease friction and temperature at the cutting tool/workpiece interface to prevent excessive tool wear. In practice there are many methods of delivering coolant.
Milling is the complex shaping of metal (or possibly other materials) parts, by removing unneeded material to form the final shape. It is generally done on a milling machine, a power-driven machine that in its basic form is comprised of a milling cutter that rotates about the spindle axis (like a drill), and a worktable that can move in multiple directions (usually three dimensions [x,y,z axis] relative to the workpiece, whereas a drill can only move in one dimension [z axis] while cutting). The motion across the surface of the workpiece is usually accomplished by moving the table on which the workpiece is mounted, in the x and y directions. Milling machines may be operated manually or under computer numerical control (CNC), and can perform a vast number of complex operations, such as slot cutting, planing, drilling and threading, rabbeting, routing, etc. Two common types of millers are the horizontal miller and vertical miller.
A lathe is a machine tool which spins a block of material so that when abrasive, cutting, or deformation tools are applied to the workpiece, it can be shaped to produce an object which has rotational symmetry about an axis of rotation. Examples of objects that can be produced on a lathe include candlestick holders, table legs, bowls, baseball bats, crankshafts or camshafts.
The material may be secured in the lathe with a chuck and/or one or two "centers", of which at least one can be moved to accommodate varying material lengths. In a metalworking lathe, metal is removed from the workpiece using a hardened cutting tool which is usually fixed to a solid movable mounting called the "toolpost". The toolpost is then moved around the workpiece using handwheels and/or computer controlled motors, while the workpiece is rotated. Modern CNC lathes can do secondary operations, like milling, by using driven tools. When driven tools are used the work piece stops rotating and the driven tool executes the machining operation with a rotating cutting tool.
Drilling is the process of using a drill bit in a drill to produce holes. Under normal usage, swarf is carried up and away from the tip of the drill bit by the fluting. The continued production of chips from the cutting edges pushes the older chips outwards from the hole. This continues until the chips pack too tightly, either because of deeper than normal holes or insufficient backing off (removing the drill slightly [breaking the chip] or totally from the hole [clearing the bit] while drilling). Lubricants (or coolants) (i.e. cutting fluid) are sometimes used to ease this problem and to prolong the tool's life by cooling, lubricating the tip and improving chip flow.
Taps and dies are tools commonly used for the cutting of screw threads in metal parts. A tap is used to cut a female thread on the inside surface of a pre-drilled hole, while a die cuts a male thread on a preformed cylindrical rod.
Grinding uses an abrasive process to remove material from the workpiece. A grinding machine is a machine tool used for producing very fine finishes, making very light cuts, or high precision forms using a abrasive wheel as the cutting device. This wheel can be made up of various sizes and types of stones, diamonds or inorganic materials.
The simplest grinder is a bench grinder or a hand-held angle grinder, for deburring parts or cutting metal with a zip-disc.
Grinders have increased in size and complexity with advances in time and technology. From the old days of a manual toolroom grinder sharpening endmills for a production shop, to today's 30000rpm CNC auto-loading manufacturing cell producing jet turbines, grinding processes vary greatly.
Grinders need to be very rigid machines to produce the required finish. Some grinders are even used to produce glass scales for positioning CNC machine axis. The common rule is the machines used to produce scales be 10 times more accurate than the machines the parts are produced for.
In the past grinders were used for finishing operations only because of limitations of tooling. Modern grinding wheel materials and the use of industrial diamonds or other made-made coatings (cubic boron nitride) on wheel forms have allowed grinders to achieve excellent results in production environments instead of being relegated to the back of the shop.
Modern technology has advanced grinding operations to include CNC controls, high material removal rates with high precision, lending itself well to aerospace applications and high volume production runs of precision components.
Broaching is machining operation used to cut keyways into shafts.
Welding is a fabrication process that joins materials, usually metals or thermoplastics, by causing coalescence. This is often done by melting the workpieces and adding a filler material to form a pool of molten material that cools to become a strong joint, but sometimes pressure is used in conjunction with heat, or by itself, to produce the weld.
Many different energy sources can be used for welding, including a gas flame, an electric arc, a laser, an electron beam, friction, and ultrasound. While often an industrial process, welding can be done in many different environments, including open air, underwater and in space. Regardless of location, however, welding remains dangerous, and precautions must be taken to avoid burns, electric shock, poisonous fumes, and overexposure to ultraviolet light.
Brazing techniques include, flame brazing, resistance brazing, furnace brazing, diffusion brazing, and inductive brazing.
Soldering is a joining process that occurs at temperatures below 449 Celsius. It is similar to brazing in the fact that a filler is melted and drawn into a capillary to form a join, although at a lower temperature. Because of this lower temperature and different alloys used as fillers, the metallurgical reaction between filler and work piece is minimal, resulting in a weaker joint.
Marking out (also known as layout) is the process of transferring a design or pattern to a workpiece and is the first step in the handcraft of metalworking. It is performed in many industries or hobbies, although in the repetition industries the need to mark out every individual piece is eliminated.
In the metal trades area, marking out consists of transferring the engineer's plan to the workpiece in preparation for the next step, machining or manufacture.