What is Sheet Metal? Your Guide to the History and Production of Sheet Metal

Wow! Who ever thought sheet metal could be so interesting? What is sheet metal and why should you find it as interesting as we do?

Sheet metal is nothing more than metal formed into thin sheets, typically by rolling or hammering. But it isn’t anything less than that, either.

Sheet metal is a versatile material for building and fabrication with a history dating back millennia. Would you believe Leonardo da Vinci developed an early version of the rolling mill? This set some key precedents for modern sheet metal production.

You can learn all about this if you keep reading this article.

The Origins of Sheet Metal

Sheet metal production didn’t really start with da Vinci, even though he made some critical innovations in the process. The idea of sheet metal and even some rudimentary forms of it came along much earlier.

Metalworking in general goes back at least to the fourth or fifth millennium BCE. Metals found in nature were worked using unheated stones and other primitive tools. Later, metal would be processed with heat, much like today.

Ancient Egypt

Egypt was one of the dominant civilizations of the ancient world. We know a fair amount about it in part because so many of its relics were preserved and subsequently collected and studied by archaeologists and other scholars.

Ancient Egyptians worked with a surprising number of metals, including gold, copper, silver, iron, lead, and tin, along with the alloys, bronze, brass, and electrum (a mixture of gold and silver).

There is an abundance of metallic jewelry and other artifacts produced by the ancient Egyptians. Most of it was found in sarcophagi since more common objects often were melted down for reuse.

It would take volumes to explain the Egyptians’ knowledge of and uses for metalworking and metallurgy. Artifacts preserved from the Old and Middle Kingdoms show their skill not only in making sheet metal but also in metal casting.

Leonardo and the Renaissance

So, let’s move forward a few millennia to 1485 when  the great artist and inventor Da Vinci sketched a rolling mill. Just prior to this, other metal workers had found a way to liquefy steel, so the innovation spirit was catching on in Europe.

Things started moving into high gear after that, with da Vinci’s rolling mill prototype coming to fruition, using two heavy cylinders to press different types of metal and alter their thickness.

This was followed by a period with some failures and a lot of experimentation right up to the rise of industrialization.

The Beginning of Modern Sheet Metal Manufacturing

The sheet metal process we know today began around 1760, at the start of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. However, the rolling mill developed at that time aren’t all that different from the ones in use today.

During this time, though, the assembly line, press brake, and other new technologies dramatically increased the output of sheet metal. From this point, a series of other inventions followed in quick succession.

Industrial Inventions and Innovations

There were quite a lot of inventions and innovations preceding and throughout the 19th century, first in Europe and then North America. Here are a few of them that we consider significant to the evolution of sheet metal.

The Hydraulic Press

In 1770, Joseph Bramah, a prominent figure in the machine tool industry, introduced the hydraulic press.

It was the first practical application of hydraulic principles and proved to be a major source of power during the Industrial Revolution, including for rolling mills, due to hydraulic presses’ ability to shape their products.

A hydraulic press, as well as a steel sheet, was presented to the public at the British Great Exhibition in 1851. This had been set up to show off the wonders of industrialization.

Hydraulic presses can be used to draw, form, turn, bend, and stamp metal sheet parts. These applications make it well suited for producing coins.

Coin Production Techniques

By this point, strips of sheet metal were being used as material for coins, with circles (“blanks”) being punched out and then pressure stamped. A few more processed. A few more processes were applied before the coins are ready for circulation.

In 1783, Swiss engineer Jean-Pierre Droz perfected the process by allowing the simultaneous production of the obverse and reverse sides simultaneously. This surely set a new precedent for assembly-line production.

The Bessemer Converter

The Bessemer converter, invented by Sir Henry Bessemer in 1856, was a crucible in which impurities were removed from pig iron (a type of iron with a high carbon content) so that it could be converted into steel.

Steel was a material that had previously been costly and time-consuming to manufacture. So, needless to say, this was a boon to sheet metal production–especially since steel would only grow more popular as sheet metal material.

What Is Sheet Metal Used for Today?

What is sheet metal made of? Many metals can be made into sheet metal–including aluminum, brass, copper, steel, tin, nickel, and titanium.

In the U.S., sheet metal comes in different gauges–the larger the gauge, the thinner the metal. Sheet metal can be as thin as aluminum foil or as thick as a corrugated metal roof or the steel cladding on New York City’s Chrysler Building.

What are some of the industries and products that use sheet metal today?

  • Food vats and bins

  • Mailboxes

  • Air conditioning ducts and furnace flues

  • Guardrails

  • Airplane wings and fuselages

  • Car bodies

  • Medical tables

  • Fan blades

  • Storage cabinets

  • Ductwork

  • Various pieces of hardware

These are just some examples. Many items can be custom fabricated using sheet metal. If you need sheet metal fabrication of any kind, just let us know.

A Finished Sheet of Metal

Sheet metal is a thriving industry today. We don’t always pay attention to this fact since sheet metal components are often hidden under a coat of paint (like a car body) or other parts (like a false ceiling that covers the ductwork in a basement).

But with metal’s longevity, ease of use and manufacturing, and recyclability, sheet metal is sure to get more and more use.

And, by the way, employment in sheet metal work has grown by 8% in the last couple of years. The job requires only a high school education. The median annual salary is $48,460. Not bad!

We’ll try to keep you posted about any other news related to our industry, so stay tuned.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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