2016 July 30     Tech   Metal & Shop


Some people think of a shop press as something that sits around in a shop corner, collecting dust.

There has to be some good use for one of these big, heavy, klunky things, doesn't there?

Indeed, there is.  Let's take a look at one of the most under-appreciated shop tools.

(Stuff being pressed with massive amounts of force... you know there's gotta be a Disclaimer first.)

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In This Article

The Basic Press

Press Tonnage

Why You Need Accessories

Free & Homemade Accessories

Off-The-Shelf Accessories

The Press Brake


The Basic Press

The basic shop press is a steel frame with a bottle jack. 

Here's how the press operates.  Something gets held in place, while something else gets moved selectively by pressing on it.  So, if you had a wheel bearing that needed to be pressed out, the bearing itself would be moved while everything else would stay... if you do it right.

The shop press has a steel "apron" or "bed" where you set the workpiece.  Usually this is made of a couple pieces of steel C-channel, joined by welded crosspieces.  On most presses, the apron or bed is held in place by a couple of heavy-duty steel pins or bars.

Press Tonnage

The cheapest shop presses can exert about six tons of force.  These are marginally useful, but you'll find there's a lot they can't do. 

A twelve-ton press can do more.  It can even press many types of wheel bearings.  Problem is, cheap 12-ton presses don't last long.  I learned this from experience.  A 12-ton press is great for a lot of stuff, but only if you get a good one.  That said, many jobs can quickly become "20-tonners" anyway. 

A 20-ton press can do more types of wheel bearings.  There are a few where it works just barely;  there are even a few bearings that require a 50-ton press.  Presses greater than 20 tons get expensive, though.  If I were seriously looking for a shop press nowadays, I would just get a decent 20-ton press

At first I thought the $200 to $300 presses were good, until mine wracked.  You have to watch the design and the materials.  Bolted ones seem to wrack more easily (go out of square).  Cheap "freight discounter" presses (you know what I'm talking about) tend not to live up to the "20-ton" rating.  If you really want a 20-ton press, here's one that's much better.  The higher price buys you something that was actually designed to withstand the intense forces.

Twenty tons is 40,000 pounds of force.  On a bearing surface of one square inch, that's 40,000 psi.

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Why You Need Accessories

The apron is a couple pieces of wide steel channel with a big space between them.  You can't really just throw something across that gap and press it in any useful way.

You'll need an assortment of plates, drivers, and dies for that.  A lot of people don't bother with these, which means their shop press sits unused in a corner.  Then they wonder why they bought it.

Very often the pressing operation requires a support that's as close to the thing you're pressing out as possible... while not getting in the way of it.  You will need something like that for almost everything you press.  That means you'll need a variety of plates, drivers, etc.

There are two ways to obtain these accessories:  make / scrounge them, or buy them.  You'll probably need both types.

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Free & Homemade Accessories!

Some of these you can make yourself, often for free.

One of the cheapest, easiest ones:  saw up some short lengths of 4x4 lumber.  For the typical 12-ton press, they would be about ten inches long.  Make at least two of each.  All the better if you can square up the edges so they're not rounded at all. 

Most types of wood have low crush strength perpendicular to the grain.  Douglas fir is about 700 psi;  pine is even lower.  White ash is about 1,100 to 1,200 psi.  (Live oak, if you can get it:  2,800 psi, not bad.)  The blocks don't have to be made of live oak to be useful, though. 

Some bushings and bearings will press out easily.  There are a lot of things you can press or bend with only a few hundred pounds, maybe half a ton.  You could use a press to clamp glue-ups for some types of wood projects.  You could use a press to set hammer handles, or press out old ones.  Plenty of uses!  Wood blocks could help here.

Here's another use for wood blocks:  temporarily holding the plates parallel while getting ready to bend something.  (Disclaimer.)

Don't try this if your arbor plates lack well-defined flat edges that are good and square with the faces.  (If you don't know why that is, a shop press is probably not something you should be operating.)  The plates shown here are not ideal for this;  time for some better ones.

Metal Accessorieswith one of these and some metal stock, you can make all sorts of custom spacers, drivers, and collars for a shop press.  So much the better if you can weld

Start assembling a bin full of these types of parts.  A lot of this can be made from junked steel items that you can scrounge up for free.  Some people even save worn-out bearings and use them to press out other bearings.  The bearing you use for the driver should be a little smaller in diameter than the bearing you're pressing out.

One highly useful accessory:  get a short length of pipe that fits over the press ram.  Weld that length of pipe to the dead-center of a rectangle of heavy steel plate, maybe 1/2" thick.  Drill into the side of the pipe, tap it, and fit it with a bolt that can act as a set-screw.  This gives you a flat press driver that's already centered, so you don't have to mess around each time you want to press something with it.

Some people take this a step further, making custom sheet-metal bending jigs.  For example, let's say you're building a wagon or making custom shelf brackets.  Being able to bend quarter-inch steel into right-angle brackets is a very handy skill to have. 

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Off-The-Shelf Accessories

First of all, you should have at least a good pair of shop press plates.  These are also known as bed plates.  There are probably other names for them, too.  (Larger sizes here, here, and here.)  These are pretty much required if you want to use a shop press for more than a decoration. 

The ones shown here are probably cast iron.  These are included with some presses, but there's always the possibility they could crack or shatter.  Based on the tensile strength of cast iron, well-cast plates should be able to withstand normal use in a 12-ton press... but then again, maybe they won't!  And the problem is, by the time you know for sure whether your plates were any good, it would be too late.


The steel plates are a must-have.  Here's another good source where you can get steel ones. 

Another hugely important accessory:  bearing & seal drivers.  Get yourself a kit like this or perhaps this one.  You can never have too many different sizes of these.  They're difficult to make yourself, and various cheap or free substitutes (such as extra sockets) are never as good as the right ones.  With bearings, you have to press on exactly the right portion, or you could ruin something.  That generally calls for "precision machined", as opposed to "scrounged up from the dirt in front of your garage".

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The Press Brake

This is a special kind of accessory, so I figured it should have its own section.  The press brake is basically a dedicated bending jig for steel.  You could bend quarter-inch steel easily in a twelve-ton shop press.  On narrower pieces, you could even bend 3/8" steel. 

Yep, there are various DIY press brakes you could build.  However, by far the easiest thing I've seen would be to buy this kit and weld it up yourself.  I know from experience that rounding up and cutting all the steel parts for a project is very labor-intensive (and more costly than first expected).  I haven't yet tried this kit, but someone has already done most of the work for you.  That kit is made in USA out of heavy-duty steel, the way it should be.

A press brake is essential if you make stuff out of steel.  It adds yet another dimension of usefulness to the already-useful shop press.

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If you're into DIY metalworking, automotive repair, or just fixing lawnmowers and stuff, a shop press can save the day. 

The shop press offers a lot more precision than you'd get from just hammering on stuff.  To make the best use of your press, you'll want to assemble a collection of accessories for it.  Then you won't leave it sitting in the corner collecting dust, the way so many people do. 

Pressing bearings, bushings, and roll pins... straightening bent stuff... even custom-bending metal... the shop press has no substitute.  If you can, get a good one.  You might not use it every day, but when you need a shop press, nothing else will do.

I hope this article was helpful or at least entertaining;  if so, please help me out by using the links on here to purchase any of your stuff.  It helps me keep this website on-line and bringing you helpful articles like this one. Thank you in advance.


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