When your project involves working with sheet metal, you need a good tool to bend, fold, or shape the metal. You can do it by hand, use a vise and hammer, folding bar, or even better use sheet metal bending pliers. They do a better job!
In this article, I look at sheet metal bending pliers, what they are, how to use them, and some of the best ones on the market.
What are sheet metal bending pliers?
Sheet metal bending pliers are a type of sheet metal pliers for bending and shaping sheet metal. They go hand in hand with tin snips.
Bending pliers look like regular pliers with wide flat-blade jaws for gripping and manipulating metal sheets.
Other names for sheet metal bending pliers are hand seamers, sheet metal hand brake, or Fairmont tongs. Sheet metal workers just call them tongs because they often use them to safely grip and move metal sheets around the job site.
Some people, however, think that hand seamers are the same thing as sheet metal brakes. Hence use the names interchangeably. That’s not true although both of them are types of sheet metal bending tools.
A sheet metal brake is a large tool for making longer-run bends whilst hand seamer pliers bend metal in small increments. Moreso, sheet metal brakes are like a workbench whereas a hand seamer is just a hand tool or a type of pliers for shaping sheet metal.
Hand seamer pliers are good for bending small sheet metals into desired shapes. They are a must-have where detail is needed in forming metal.
Hand seamer uses
As I have mentioned, hand seamers have multiple uses including bending, folding, flattening, straightening, gripping, and pulling sheet material. They can be used in any trade or project that involves sheet metal work.
Most applications of sheet metal seamers are in HVACR installation, roofing, siding applications, hemming, remodeling, and shaping flanges. Even flooring. You can use them as tongs to grab flooring sheets.
In the RV building industry, sheet metal bending pliers are the second most important pliers for sheet metal after tin snips. RV manufacturers use them to bend and shape aluminum siding.
HVAC technicians use hand seamers quite often in sheet metal ductwork to bend square ducts, make lips on plenum boxes, and hem sharp edges.
Sheet metal roofing is also another application where fairmont tongs find tons of uses. Roofers use them to manipulate, hem, grip, or safely pull roofing sheets. They also use them to bend and shape rain gutters.
How to use sheet metal bending pliers
The following are steps for using sheet metal bending pliers.
Step 1: Select the appropriate sheet metal bending pliers
Hand seamers come in different sizes for various sheet metal gauges. Make sure you select the appropriate hand seamer for the sheet metal gauge you will be working with.
Step 2: Prepare the workspace
Set the metal sheet on the work table. Clear the table so that you have enough working space.
Step 3: Set the bending depth
The bending depth refers to how deep the pliers go into the metal before making a bend. It is measured from the edge of the material.
You can bend sheet metal at different depths depending on your project. However, most hand seamers can only bend metal between 1/4″ and 1-1/4″ from the edge.
Some seamers even have seam depths marked on the jaws. This helps in setting the depth of bend more accurately and faster. You do not need to mark the metal sheet before bending it.
Seam depth markings or notches on the jaw are one of the important features to look for when buying hand seamers. They enable you to make precise bends without using a tape measure
Step 4: Bend the sheet metal
Clamp the sheet metal at the correct depth and leverage the pliers against the workbench to bend the metal upwards.
If the length of the sheet metal is wider than the width of the jaws, start making the bend from the center. Then bend the rest of the length in small increments
However, it is best to use hand seamer pliers to bend sheet metal pieces with lengths that are not wider than the jaws. This produces the most accurate bends.
Ideally, a sheet metal brake is suitable for making bends that run long.
Step 5: Inspect the sheet metal bend angle to ensure it is correct
Check to see if the bend is correct and at the desired angle. The typical angle of bend is 90 degrees but some sheet metal projects will require you to bend the metal more or less. It depends on the needs of your project.
You can use a speed square to measure the angle or estimate by mere observation. The choice is yours.
Buying Guide for Best Sheet Metal Bending Pliers
There are so many features to look for when shopping for sheet metal forming pliers but these are the most important ones.
1) Comfortable handles
Hand seamers or sheet metal tongs require a firm hand squeeze on the handles to grip the stock firmly. As such, your hand is bound to get a beating if the handles are not comfortable enough.
Good sheet metal bending pliers should have soft ergonomic handles that are comfortable and easy on the hands. The soft contoured grips do it for me all the time.
2) Locking feature
The locking mechanism on a hand seamer locks the jaws onto the stock so that you can focus your effort on bending and manipulating the metal. It also provides good leverage, especially when forming heavy-duty panels.
3) Calibrated jaws
Jaws that have the seaming depth scale marked make it easy to bend sheet metal accurately. You don’t have to pre-mark the stock. Just set the stock to the right seaming depth and you are good to go.
Some bending pliers scales stamped on the jaws in inches while others notched at equal increments (typically 1/4″). Whatever the case, sheet metal pliers with calibrated jaws make sheet metal forming so much easier. It is the most important feature I look for.
5) Jaw width
Although you can use hand seamers to bend long sheet metal pieces in small increments, you get the best results when the length of the metal is not wider than the width of the jaws.
So choose sheet metal seamers with a jawline that is larger or equal to the length of stock you will be bending.
If budget allows, you can get a few bending pliers with different jaw lengths. The two common hand seamer jaw widths are 3 inches and 6 inches.
6) Jaw depth
Like jaw width, sheet metal forming pliers come with different jaw depths. Jaw depth or throat depth is the length of the jaw from the tip to the back of the jaw. It is also known as seaming depth.
The seaming depth of a hand seamer determines the maximum length of sheet material you can bend from the edge.
It is good to make sure your seamers have sufficient bending depth for your sheet metal works. To be safe, get the seamers with the most depth so that you can use them to bend a wider range of lengths.
Best Sheet Metal Bending Pliers
There are many types and brands of sheet metal bending pliers on the market but these lead the pack.
1. Malco S2R Hand Seamer – Best value for money
- Drop forged, high-impact steel jaws
- Jaw width: 3″
- Jaw depth: 1-1/4″
- Ergonomic handle grips
- Jaws close flat
- Made in USA
Malco S2R is a professional quality set of sheet metal bending pliers. It is well built, sturdy, and best of all made in the USA. In fact, the “Made in USA” is stamped on the handle to eliminate any doubts.
These Malco sheet bending pliers have 3″ wide jaws with 1-1/4″ depth. The jaw plates are thick enough to bend most sheet metals including 21 ga galvanized steel and 24 ga mild steel.
The jaws have V-notched depth markings graduated in 1/4″ increments. These notches enable you to set the bending depth accurately without marking the workpiece beforehand. Also, the jaws close flat to ensure a secure grip without damaging the workpiece.
Everything is cool about Malco hand seamers but what stands out the most is the intuitive thumb lock and the comfortable handle grips.
The lock allows you to conveniently latch the jaws onto the stock with your thumb. This makes it easy to operate the Malco seamers with one hand.
The ergonomically contoured handles make the grip extremely comfortable. You can use the tool all day long without getting bruises on your palm.
Overall, the Malco S2R hand seamer pliers are the best bang for the buck. They work well and are built to last long. You can use them to do a range of sheet metal tasks including turning flanges on ductwork and any HVAC work involving sheet metal.
Malco hand seamers are available in various sizes and styles. Some of the alternatives include the 6″ Malco S6R hand seamer (best for autobody technicians), and offset handle Malco seamers. The Malco offset hand seamer is commercial sheet metal workers’ favorite tool for bending metal in tight spaces.
2. Irwin Vise Grip Sheet Metal Bending Pliers – Best locking hand seamers
- High-grade heat-treated alloy steel construction
- Uses classic vise grip locking mechanism
- Jaw width: 3-1/8″
- Jaw length: 1-3/4″
- Jaws do not close flat
Locking pliers have a permanent place in the toolbox of any technician. They clamp down on workpieces really hard until you release the lock.
There are many types of locking pliers for different trades. Locking sheet metal benders are used to bend and form sheet metal.
The 8″ Irwin Vise Grip original locking sheet metal pliers is arguably the best locking hand seamer. It uses the original locking mechanism to lock down tightly into sheet material. The locking mechanism is a patent of Irwin Vise Grip.
The jaw blades of Irwin Vise Grip hand seamer don’t close flat like the Malco seamer. Instead, they pinch together at the tips and spread apart gradually towards the back.
This however does not make the Irwin hand seamers bad for forming sheet metal. In fact, many tin knockers swear by them because the non-flat grip provides the tightest grip. The pliers clamp and hold flat materials tightly to provide the strongest grip. Actually, the grip is so strong that you can use the pliers to securely grab and pull sheet materials across the job site.
Lastly, Irwin Vise Grip sheet metal benders also make very good DIY quacker clamps for holding photography lighting reflectors. They are the best hand seamers for DIYers.
3. Fairmont Tongs Seamers (MT14000) – Most durable
- Length: 9-1/2″
- Jaw width: 3″
- Jaw depth: 1-1/8″
- Smooth grip
- Made in USA
Fairmont MT14000 hand seamers are made by the Fairmont brand. They are constructed from two pieces of forged steel, making them as tough as a tank and nearly unbreakable.
These USA-made forged sheet metal tongs are 9-1/2″ long with 3″ wide jaws and 1-1/8″ deep. You can use them to straighten bent panels and for any professional HVAC installation project that involves sheet metal work.
The best thing about Fairmont sheet metal tongs is that they are made from two pieces of forged steel. This makes them more durable than other seamers which have multiple linked parts. The jaws of these tongs close flat and flush and the handles are spring-loaded.
If you want simple hand seamers which will outlive you and that you can use for both personal and professional sheet metal work, it is the Fairmont forged tongs. They are available in both straight and offset handle designs.
4. Klein Tools 86522 Hand Seamer
- All-steel construction with nickel-chrome plating
- Jaw width: 3 inches
- Jaw throat: 1-1/4 inches
- Automatic lock
- Made in China
Klein Tools make some of the best pliers and the Klein 86522 sheet metal bender seems like one of them. Although made in China, these seamers seem to be good quality and sturdy right out of the package.
They are constructed from heavy steel and nickel-chrome plated to prevent rust. The plating also keeps the pliers looking nice and shiny for a long time.
Klein hand seamers 86522 have 3-inch wide jaws that offer a 1-1/4 inch throat depth. The jaws are marked in 1/4inch increments for precise bending measurements. You can use them to bend up to 24 gauge stainless steel and any other pliable sheet material.
These sheet metal benders from Klein Tools have comfortable contoured handle grips just like the Malco S2R. They make the tool very comfortable in the hands.
The most outstanding features of the Klein 86522 hand seamers are the self-locking mechanism and the compound-leverage fulcrum.
The self-latching mechanism locks the jaws onto the workpiece to make operating the seamers a one-handed job. On the other hand, the compound action multiplies the effort you exert on the handles to minimize hand fatigue.
Generally, Klein 86522 seamers are great for bending thin sheet metal and sheet material. If you love Klein Tools, these can be a nice addition to your collection of Kleins. They will bend, fold, and shape with ease thin gauge sheet metal, mesh, rain gutters, duct work flanges, and any pliable sheet material that comes your way. Good thing is that you won’t pay for them through the nose. You can also get the offset version if you work in spaces that are too tight for a straight hand seamer.
Sheet metal bending pliers or hand seamers are must-have tools for bending and forming sheet metal. They beat bending metal with vise grips and hammer, hand, or teeth. You can even use them to pinch the hems you make with a folding bar . You only need to get the right set for the job.