At a minimum, performing quality work using sheet metal as a roofing material requires two things: experience and the proper tools. With all the proper tools and equipment, but without experience, you’ll have no jumping off point. Likewise, an experience sheet metal roofer without the proper tools is simply a fish out of water.

This basic maxim holds true in many industries, but is particularly noticeable in those requiring skilled labor, such as in machining, engineering work, or trades such as (in this example) sheet metal roofing.

The sheet metal worker is responsible for cutting, shaping and forming panels of sheet metal, often in stainless steel, aluminum or copper, before they can be worked and locked into place to form a functioning metal roof that is properly affixed and seamed. A lot of work goes into that craft, however, and many specialized tools fall under the purview of the sheet metal roofer.

One of these is known as a sheet metal brake, but don’t let the name fool you; these devices are not meant for slowing down speeding panels of steel. What they’re used for is making fairly precise bends in sheets of metal, typically at the edges.

By and large, sheet metal brakes are used to shape large sections of metal before they can be more precisely cut and formed by the roofers themselves. For this reason, most metal brakes are fairly large, freestanding devices. Here’s a quick categorization of them along with how they work.

Types of Sheet Metal Brakes: How They Work

Despite the name, a brake is not a brake. They may all be used for making bends in metal (in some way or another) but brakes exhibit a fair degree of variability. Some types of brakes only allow the worker to make creases and folds at the edges of a sheet of metal, whereas others allow for more complex forms and bends. The following are some of the most common types of metal brakes.

  • Cornice brake: Cornice brakes are designed to make bends and folds on large sheets of metal, but they are typically only useful for making simple bends. With the use of a cornice brake, a sheet of metal is fixed to a stationary, slat surface and held in place via the aid of a clamping bar. The sheet of metal can then be manipulated in this fashion via the use of a bending leaf which forces the sheet over the clamping bar and forms it into shape. While this method can be simple and is effective for making relatively precise bends to the edges of sheet metal panels, this type of bending brake is limited in the forms and nature of the bends that can be produced.
  • Box and pan brake (also known as a finger brake): Another type of metal brake is known as a box and pan brake, which may also be called a finger brake. These types of brakes allow for the creation of more complex bends and shapes (boxes and pans) that could not be created via the aid of a straight brake or a cornice brake of more limited functionality. These machines contain manipulable “fingers” that can be rearranged to alter the shape of the box and pan bends produced by the device.

Using a box and pan brake, complex folds and shapes can be created in steel and other metal sheets, including but not limited to boxes and stepped designs. For any project requiring more complex bends, a box and pan brake is much more universally versatile than most cornice brakes.

  • Press brake: In addition to cornice brakes and box and pan (finger) brakes, there are sheet metal brakes known as press brakes. They can also be much more complex than these other types of brakes and can make correspondingly complicated or complex shapes in metal.

Press brakes use a punch and die to make desired forms or bends in metal. The machines vary, but may use mechanical, hydraulic or even pneumatic presses in order to operate the punch. As for the dies, some common types are V dies (for making simple bends), 90-degree dies (for making right-angled bends) hemming dies for making acutely-angled folds to close seams at the edges of sheets, curling dies (for making curved bends) and many others.

The power and versatility of the dies that can be used with press brakes make these tools, like box and pan brakes, much more utilitarian than simple cornice brakes.

The value of most brakes, even the simplest of cornice brakes, lies in their mechanical advantage and their ability to quickly and efficiently produce bends, seams and forms in large pieces of sheet metal. For this reason, brakes are often used to create the bends and forms in metal panels used in the construction of roofs

However, that power and versatility comes at a cost. Generally speaking, brakes are large, heavy, (mostly) stationary devices that cannot be easily moved between locations. While they are powerful and effective, they are not particularly convenient or portable.

These limitations have made other, more utilitarian tools as valuable if not more valuable to most sheet metal roofers and other craftsmen, particularly when a fine degree of precision is required to complete a job.

Sheet Metal Brakes: Not the Be-All and End-All

For the itinerant sheet metal roofer or any other craftsman who plies his trade via this medium, there are much more affordable, convenient and approachable alternatives to brakes, many of which provide similar utility.

The following are some of the classes of metal bending tools that, like sheet metal brakes, are used to form and shape sheet metal, albeit their mechanical action might differ from most brakes, and the tools themselves are much smaller.

Sheet Metal Benders

In addition to brakes, sheet metal roofers and other craftsmen who work with sheet metal might make use of tools known as sheet metal roll benders. These benders, like brakes, are used to make fairly precise bends and alterations to sheets of aluminum, copper or stainless steel. However, many benders are significantly smaller and lighter than brakes, making them much more useful when portability is concerned.

In fact, some benders are specifically designed to be small and portable. Benders like the Stortz Pocket Bender are highly useful for roofers that need to bring “bending power” with them on the job site or up on the roof where a brake just can’t go.

The Stortz Pocket Bender, for example, is small and compact enough to fit in a tool belt and can go with you where you need it to. It uses stout, sturdy, half-inch stainless steel rods with laser markings for making precise bends at the edges of metal sheets. Though smaller and less robust than brakes and other benders, this tool is particularly handy for making bends at the ends of metal sheets and can make bends from ¾ of an inch to 2 inches deep.

In addition to the Stortz Pocket Bender, we sell a variety of other sheet metal benders in our own name as well as from Wuko, Freund, and other manufacturers, some of which bridge the gap in utility between brake and a smaller, more convenient pocket bender.

Benders like the Stortz Perfect Bender S-150 are capable of making bends of up to 110 degrees and are designed so as not to scratch paint past 90 degrees, making them perfect for bends up to 6 inches on painted or finished panels of metal. Their main working parts, including the rods, are made from stainless steel so they are engineered for reliable performance in any conditions. Tough and practical, benders like this are more portable than brakes and can work with steel up to 24 gauge and stainless steel up to 26 gauge.

Benders like these are practical chiefly for making folds and bends along the edges of sheet metal, and by “rolling” them along the edge of a sheet, eaves and seams can be efficiently and effectively started. In a way, you can think of them as portable sheet metal brakes. When you’re looking for fine precision, however, you might want to call for a pair of sturdy sheet metal pliers.

Sheet Metal Pliers

Sheet metal pliers, which are not necessarily or categorically considered sheet metal bending tools, are highly versatile, practical sheet metal forming tools nonetheless. Because some pliers and seamers are specifically designed to start or complete seams, they can be effectively used to produce bends or precise alterations of sheet metal, whether along the edge or at the corner.

Sheet metal pliers, tongs and seaming pliers can be used for a variety of forming applications as well as getting a better grip on sheets of metal to work them into place. For example, tools like the Steadman Offset Tongs available on our website are highly useful for getting a good grip on or arranging or manipulating a piece or panel of sheet metal. Pliers like this can also be used to make bends of up to 1 inch deep along the edge of a sheet.

Other tools, like the Stortz 90° Seaming Pliers available on our website, are engineered to deliver more precise performance. These pliers are designed with a 90 degree bend to make it easier to access hard to reach bends and to start seams. They’re also available with differing depth insertions, which will affect the size of the seam you are able to create with them. Tools like these also feature nice bonuses like coated handles so you can enjoy a better grip and the diminished occurrence of hot spots.

Other more specialized tools like the Stubai Double Seaming Pliers are expertly designed to make it easier to create mechanically locked seams, especially in tough places. By compressing the grips, the jaws lock together along a single axis instead of rotating around a fulcrum, “clamping” down on the seam and locking it.

Of course, this is a highly specialized tool. Other general sheet metal tongs and pliers with jaws of varying size and depth can be used for less specialized jobs, like making rough alterations and bends in sheet metal. Sometimes the job requires a custom solution, and for reaching into tight spaces and making uncustomary form alterations to a panel of sheet metal, sometimes pliers are the only solution. They also happen to be excellent at working in tight spaces where benders and (of course) brakes can’t reach.

Cutting Tools and Other Essentials

Pliers, tongs, sheet metal brakes and benders are only some of the tools that roofers and other craftsmen use and rely on to pursue their trades. In addition to bending and forming tools, any sheet metal worker might also have need of the following categories of tools in the course of a normal day.

  • Cutting tools: Sheet metal roofers don’t just need to make bends and seams – they also need to cut metal to shape. For that a pair of tin snips is a crucial tool, but sometimes nibblers do a better job, and they produce no edge deformation.
  • Decoilers: Sheet metal is often stored in coils that are heavy, ungainly, and store memory. Decoilers are designed to safely manage and pay off the load of sheet metal in a controlled fashion.
  • Gutter tools: Runoff has to go somewhere, and for that, specialized gutter forming tools and outlet saws are necessary to create a gutter system to effectively manage rainwater.
  • Marking tools: They say to measure twice and cut once, and that maxim holds true in sheet metal roofing. Here at Stortz, we provide a wide variety of marking tools so craftsmen can do just that.

If you want to learn more about the various kinds of tools that sheet metal roofers use, or you’re looking for a new bender or pair of aviation snips for yourself, you’re in just the right place. For well over a century and a half Stortz & Son has been the craftsman’s go-to resource for tools and advice.

You can learn more or do your shopping right here on our website, but we’re also never more than a phone call away. If you need advice or recommendations, don’t be a stranger. Just give us a call at 888-847-3456 and we’ll be more than happy to help!