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Small tools and machines deliver big benefits

These bread-and-butter tools offer efficiency and cost savings.

Features | July 1, 2022 | By: Jeff Moravec

A dual-feed electric grommet machine from Stimpson is used to install grommets in vinyl banners. The operator simply places the banner material into the machine, uses a laser pointer to position the material, and steps on a pedal to actuate the machine. Photo: Stimpson

The “right tool for the job” has long been a maxim for success. Marine fabrication can involve the use of large, complex tools, but those are not the bread and butter of most operations. It’s the smaller tools used daily, over and over, that can often determine if a shop is efficient and effective or not—tools such as grommet machines (both manual and automated), hot knives and foam cutters. 

When it comes to these smaller tools, fabricators need to find the right mix of quality, durability and price, as cheap tools that won’t hold up end up costing more in the long run than better, more expensive ones.

“With small tools, everything is about maximizing time and labor,” says Jay Hanks, owner of Allerton Harbor Canvas in Hull, Mass. 

Advantages of portability

“For the marine industry, whether you’re on-site on the dock replacing a bimini top, or on a deck covering deck furniture, smaller machines and tools work best because they set up and travel well,” says Sam Cheatham, senior vice president of HSGM Heat Cutting Equipment & Machines Inc. in Duncan, S.C., which sells and distributes products manufactured by HSGM GmbH in Walluf, Germany. These heat-cutting tools are designed to cut while at the same time sealing the edges of synthetic materials such as rope, webbing and netting. HSGM GmbH Germany also produces a line of soldering equipment and polystyrene cutters for cutting foam using heated blades, wires and nichrome bands. 

“Our smaller heat-cutting machines also need little or no setup,” adds Cheatham. “When you’re ready to cut, just plug in the unit and make a blade selection that suits your project and begin your cuts.” 

Many fabricators have experienced the challenges of cutting on-site projects without a good work surface. Cheatham says there is a heat-cutting attachment available that can help remedy the situation. “The SF cutter foot can be installed on the handheld unit and the table-style unit. This tool is used for simulating a worktable style cut while on-site.”

While handheld units offer portability, there are some advantages to higher production table units, Cheatham says, because the units have a potentiometer dial for setting different temperatures for different synthetic product thicknesses and blade sizes. “The handheld units are intended as an intermittent style of use due to there not being any possible venting or having a potentiometer set up but are still a very popular choice.”

For more frequent use or larger jobs he recommends the table-style units because they can be used for longer periods of time without overheating. 

Fabricators like tools with versatility. At Allerton Harbor Canvas, they use this hydraulic grommet/punch setter.

Heat-cutting basics

When cutting with heat, the key is understanding what you are cutting, according to Cheatham. “Is your material 100 percent synthetic? Blends will not cut thoroughly, and natural fibers will burn,” he says. “You need to check the MSDS [material safety data sheet] to make sure that what you are about to cut is safe, and take proper precautions, like making sure you have the proper ventilation and always wear a proper mask.

“Then there is the flashpoint,” he adds. How does this product react when heat is applied? Does it produce fire or flame? Does it just melt and make a mess, and its finish is unacceptable? After this has been established, a fabricator needs to decide which style of cut would suit the project best. A tabletop surface cut, an air rip style cut or the downward guillotine cut? “Then the most important thing is the selection of the proper blade style for your cuts.” 

 Cheatham says the thickness of the material being cut also comes into play because the product naturally pulls energy and heat from the blade tips at the cutting surface. “If this happens, the potentiometer-style table models are the better option because the heat can be increased to remedy this loss of temperature through the different potentiometer settings.” 

The type of surface a fabricator cuts on also makes a difference. Cheatham says that when doing surface cuts, it’s important to cut on a nonconductive surface. “We recommend using a beveled sheet of glass. Glass is nonconductive and can be easily cleaned with a razor, window cleaner and a rag.” 

If you can’t find a tool, make your own! At Allerton, they fashioned a binder caddy that eliminates the need to unwind a spool of binding, which will otherwise twist. Photos: Allerton Harbor Canvas

Heat prevents fraying

Many fabricators find fraying seams can be an issue during and after cutting. Heat-cutting tools solve that problem by sealing the edges while they cut. 

“When you cut with a knife blade or razor,” says Cheatham, “you need to hurry to pin the seam edges due to it unraveling and then rush to get the product to a sewing machine. But a sealed heat-cut seam can be laid aside and sent to the machine at your leisure, requiring no pinning. As a bonus, you can seal two pieces of synthetic fabric with a sealing blade, although it’s not a permanent seal. It will hold together soundly enough to get to the sewing machine and can be separated by pulling the seam apart if need be. The boat-top industry loves this feature, as do many other industries due to the seal-as-you-cut capability, eliminating the fraying problems of standard cold blade cuts.” 

There are some small tools that a lot of fabricators simply can’t live without. At Marine Tops Unlimited, that would be a heat knife. Photo: Marine Tops Unlimited

Hot knives are a hot item

Someone who makes frequent use of heat-cutting tools is Carl Van Damme of Marine Tops Unlimited in Omro, Wis. “We pretty much cut everything with a heat knife because we do acrylic fabrics, and that way they don’t fray. We have probably 10 heat knives around the shop, and we use them all the time.”

Van Damme says heat knives are relatively straightforward to use and easy to maintain. “The blade may need to be filed a bit, and when they get dropped, they get bent, so you have to be careful there.” 

Van Damme’s shop, which is in its 40th year of operation, also has installed a couple of industrial air purification units above its cutting tables. “Cutting with heat does produce a kind of smoke,” he says. “We run those purification units a lot of the time to pull the smoke away and make sure no one is inhaling it.”

These heat-cutting tools from HSGM share a basic function, including a temperature control unit (top right), but different kinds of blades are used to perform specific tasks. Photo: HSGM Heat Cutting Equipment & Machines Inc.

Grommet choices abound

When it comes to installing grommets for various uses, a lot of fabricators start with simple manual units, but many often move up to automated pneumatic or electric machines.

“The hand-drive units provide basically a kind of mold for the grommet that you hit with a hammer,” says Keith Gentilin, director of sales and marketing for Stimpson, which produces grommets, washers, eyelets and other metal products from a 278,000-square-foot facility in Pompano Beach, Fla. “It’s got a handle, the grommet sits upside down on the base, you just take the handle, stick it in there and hit it, and it sets.”

Those setups “are pretty common and work very well,” says Gentilin. “A small job is done pretty quickly, and you can move it around anywhere, so it’s preferable to having a machine in a shop if you’re trying to do work on a boat cover or something like that. For grommets and snaps, the ones we make are modular so you can take the tools out and replace them with other tools and use the same handle and the same base.”

With a manual press, Gentilin notes that volume is a limitation. “You can only stick so many grommets in there,” he says. “The other limitation is the size of the grommet. There are manual presses that can set some pretty large size grommets, but they are few and far between and then tend to be so pricey that it’s almost pointless.” 

This tool in use at Allerton Harbor Canvas is a power nipper for cutting polycarbonate. Photo: Allerton Harbor Canvas

The advantage of automated units is that they can cut a hole and set a grommet at the same time in thick material, regardless of the size of the grommet, says Gentilin. “Not all of them are automatically fed but some of them are, and of course that changes the volume situation. The operators do not have to put the grommet and the washer in there with their hands; they can just press a pedal and the next grommet comes and feeds itself and puts it into position.

“Hand-fed equipment is fantastic for smaller jobs and repair work, especially if you don’t have a big budget,” he adds. “But when it comes to large volume, if you are making hundreds and hundreds of tarps and there are grommets every 6 inches, you’re going to want a machine that can feed the grommets automatically. You’ll wind up saving money in the long run despite the initial cash outlay.”

Allerton’s Hanks agrees with that assessment. He uses an Edward Segal Inc. automatic portable machine. “It makes things a lot easier than the prior system we had,” says Hanks. “It took several steps; you’d take a round hole punch, punch the hole, put the grommets in a die and then hammer it until it’s done, and it would take several hits to set a grommet.

“The machine we use now punches the hole and sets the grommet all in one swoop,” he says.

“You can do more than 300 grommets in an hour, where it would have taken three hours to do it before.” 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

SIDEBAR: Other helpful tools 

Besides heating-cutting tools and grommet machines, Jay Hanks of Allerton Harbor Canvas finds the following small tools invaluable on a day-to-day basis:

  • A rechargeable electric scissors used to make clean and easy cuts on clear windows
  • An air supply unit that cools down the needle when sewing polycarbonate
  • A power nipper for cutting polycarbonate
  • A homemade binder caddy that eliminates the need to unwind a spool of binding (which will otherwise twist)

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