Tips and Tools for Working with Brass

building with brass gearbox header

Working with brass

One of the first metals used by humans, brass is valued for many reasons. It can easily be manipulated into an array of shapes while still retaining high strength. It possess high wear-resistance, electrical and thermal conductivity, corrosion resistance, and it is antimicrobial. Beyond these qualities, brass also is widely used for its alluring color. Brass exists in a range of attractive colors, from darker red and brown hues to richer yellow and gold hues. Because of its elegant appearance, brass is a common choice for decorative and architectural applications, and for items designed for visual appeal.

Working with this metal is relatively easy. With some foundational knowledge and a few simple tools, you can take advantage of the formability and aesthetic of brass.

Follow these instructions by instructables contributor and Online Metals customer Blipvert who discusses tips and tools for working with brass while building a brass gearbox.

Brass  Alloys

  • C230 “Red Brass” – This alloy is significantly stronger than yellow brass and also has excellent corrosion resistance. Typically used in jewelry, pens, decorative parts, light fixtures, steam iron parts, sprinklers, and weather stripping.
  • C260 “Cartridge Brass” – As you might guess, this gets its name because it is the alloy of brass typically used to make ammunition cartridges. It is also the most ductile of the yellow brasses, with good finishing capabilities and corrosion resistance. Typically used in architecture, electrical parts, fasters, and ammunition casings.
  • C270 – With a mixture of good strength, formability, and corrosion resistance, this alloy is mostly used in tubing. Typically used as fasteners, heat exchangers, pump cylinders, and tubing for other industrial projects.
  • C272 – With a mixture of good strength, formability, and corrosion resistance, this alloy is mostly used in tubing. Typically used as fasteners, heat exchangers, pump cylinders, and tubing for other industrial projects.
  • C280 “Muntz Brass” – Known for its attractive golden color, spectacular corrosion resistance, and strength. This material is similar to bronze but has a lower cost, and it is stronger than other brasses as well. Typically used in marine applications. The hull of the famous sailing ship Cutty Sark is plated with this alloy of brass. It’s named after the man who popularized the alloy.
  • C314 – A free machining brass that has superior thermal and electrical conductivity to other alloys of brass, this alloy offers good strength and corrosion resistance as well. It is typically used in hardware, electrical components, fasteners, screws, and other industrial applications.
  • C330 – With a mixture of good strength, formability, and corrosion resistance, this alloy is mostly used in tubing. It is also easier to machine and work than other forms of brass. The poles that firemen and Ghostbusters slide down are overwhelmingly made from 330 brass.
  • C353 “Engravers Brass” – It is called this because it’s easy to machine, resists corrosion, and polishes to an exceptional sheen. Beyond usage in brass placards and signs, it is often used in nuts, gears, door hardware, and furniture drawer handles.
  • C360 “Free Machining Brass” – The most commonly used alloy in bars. The presence of lead in the alloy creates a highly machinable material that can easily be cut and shaped into whatever you need, which is where it gets its name. It is not so good, however, at forming operations.
  • C380 “Architectural Bronze” – The name here is a misnomer, as this is brass, not bronze. It polishes up to a great finish, resists corrosion in non-marine environments well, and it also machines comparably well to c360. It is typically used in architectural applications and ornamental hardware.
  • C385 “Architectural Bronze” – Like C380, the nickname for this metal is incorrect, as this is brass, not bronze. It polishes up to a great finish, resists corrosion in non-marine environments well, and it also machines comparably well to c360. It is typically used in architectural applications and ornamental hardware.
  • C464 “Naval Brass” – The extreme corrosion resistance in marine environments lends this alloy its nickname. It has an extremely high corrosion resistance, good strength, fair machinability, and excellent resistance to zincification. It is typically used in marine hardwear, wearplates, bushings, fasteners, condenser tubes, and, true fact, cannons.
  • C485 “Naval Brass” – This alloy is very similar to C464 and valued for the same reasons. However, there is better machinability due to higher lead content than c464. This alloy is typically used in marine hardwear, wearplates, bushings, fasteners, condenser tubes, and, again a true fact, cannons.
  • C770 “Nickel Silver” – Nickel Silver is neither nickel, nor silver. It’s also often called German Silver for historical reasons, but again, it’s not silver, and was not discovered by Germans. This alloy has good strength, a silvery appearance, and excellent resistance to corrosion and tarnish. It is typically used for decorative and ornamental applications.
  • C796 “Nickel Silver” – Also not nickel, silver, or discovered by Germans. This alloy has good strength, a silvery appearance, and excellent resistance to corrosion and tarnish. It is typically used for decorative and ornamental applications. The main difference between the c770 and c792, is that the c770 is almost exclusively used in sheet whereas c792 is often used in round bars.

Brass compatible tools

FFET0GSGYR36D6F.LARGE

  • Compound Aviation Snips – ideal for cutting sheet metal. Yellow handled snips are made to cut in a straight line and in wide curves. Green handled snips are designed to make straight and right (clockwise) cuts, whereas red handled snips are designed to make straight and left (counter-clockwise) cuts.
  • Calipers – a device used to measure the distance between two opposite sides of an object
  • Step drills – drills clean holes in thin sheets
  • Twist drills – not as good a step drills for thin sheets, but produce more exact hole sizes
  • Center punch – lightly punch centers before drilling to keep the drill on track
  • Files – smooths and rounds corners, removes small amounts of material
  • Deburring tool – clean way of making softly rounded edges
  • Tinsmith or ball peen hammer – different than a woodworking hammer, and used to make round or smoothly indented surfaces
  • Drill press or electric drill – You’ll want to get bits that are rated to drill metal

For soldering

Propane torch with cylinder
Silver solder with flux – No cadmium or lead or other undesirables
C-Clamps or vise metal tool with movable jaws that are used to hold an object firmly in place while work is done on it, used for bending sheet metal

Cleaning and polishing

Ultra fine sandpaper
Cleaner or polish

Layout and Cutting

Start by using paper, a cereal box, or spare cardboard to cut out templates. This ensures that all components will be uniform. You can model your design in a CAD/CAM program if desired, especially with project that is complex and precise.

Now you have two options, you can either glue the templates to the surface then remove them at the end of the work. Or, you can secure the template on the brass sheet stock and draw an online of the template with a fine-tipped marker. Mark the centers by punching holes with a center punch.

Cut along the outline of the brass sheet with aviation snips. If you don’t own aviation strips, use can use a hacksaw, saber saw, jigsaw, or bandsaw as a decent alternative. In Blipvert’s instructable, he uses a power jigsaw to turn corners in order to preserve the extra brass stock segments. After the shape is cut, deburr and file the edges.

Drilling

A step drill is preferable to make the neatest holes, and a chain drill (followed by smoothing the edges with a round file) a good tool for creating larger holes. However, a regular drill is a solid alternative. You can deburr the holes using the deburring tool if you choose.

Bending

Sheet metal is traditionally bent with a benchtop or floor sheet metal brake, sheet metal pliers, or a press. Blipvert uses a vise with soft jaws, which he made from HDPE plastic scrap, along with a ball peen hammer for small bends. With these tools, clamp the brass squarely in the vise and gently hammer and mold the sheet until it reaches the desired bend.

If you are working with tight tolerances, keep in mind that the minimum bend radius tends to be the thickness of the stock. Bending a larger radius, on the other hand, can be done by clamping a solid rod of wood or metal next to the sheet and forming it around the bend. Bends for longer sheets that can’t fit within the vise jaws can be done by clamping two pieces of angle iron around it and lightly using a hammer to work it into the desired bend. Lastly, if accidental bending occurs in a section of the sheet you wish to keep straight, simply hammer the section on a flat surface until it reaches its original form.

Soldering

Silver soldering makes very strong, almost invisible joints if done carefully. Here are key points to consider:

1. Fit. It should be snug with no ragged edges or gaps.

2. Clamp. Use flame proof clamps. Alternatively, you can use wire to tie pieces together. You can also clamp some wood between the metal and the clamp itself. Brass heats up quickly and transfers heat quickly. That extra wood acts as a buffer and makes sure that your clamps don’t get hot quickly and burn you.

3. Flux. It is important that your surface is free of oxides in order to produce a good joint. Therefore using flux to rid of any oxide and prevent new oxide layers from forming during soldering is important. Something as simple as a q-tip can be used to apply the flux where it is needed.

4. Safety. Be sure not breathe in the fumes as they are acid vapors and are dangerous to inhale. Use a face mask or well ventilated area when soldering with brass.

4. Heat. Brass melts at 1660 degrees Fahrenheit (904 C) so even those you won’t melt the brass while soldering, heating it to higher temperatures or for an extensive period can leach the zinc out and weaken the metal. Therefore, be careful to use just enough heat and heat the metal evenly by moving the torch back and forth along the joint to drive off the flux.

As you are soldering, repeatedly remove the torch and touch the solder wire to the joint. If the process is close, the solder wire will stick but not flow in. Continue to evenly heat the brass until the solder it pulls into the joint when they touch. Follow up with a few more passes to make sure you have a secure connection.

5. Cooling. Brass doesn’t quench harden so you can cool in down in water if you choose.

6. Clean. After soldering, remove any remaining acid residue. Blipvert uses a simple dish soap, a toothbrush, and water to do this.

7. Discoloration. Learn to accept slight discoloration, because a copper hue as a result of soldering is unavoidable. In order to revive the brassy color, polish the metal with sand paper, or as Blipvert uses, Bar Keepers Friend powder.

building with brass gearbox

FXDTCD4GYUY0EMH.LARGE