Beading machines are one of the most versatile tools around, and are ideal for doing edging and detail work on sheetmetal panels. They are known by many names—bead rollers, beading machines, bench machines, rotary machines, Jennies, and swaging machines—but they all have one distinguishing feature: a pair of round dies that are used to roll distinct shapes into sheetmetal panels.
There is a broad range of machines available, both manual and power-operated, starting at less than $200, with prices topping $7,000 for some high-end machines. With such a broad range of offerings, how do you decide which machine is right for you? In this article, we'll take a look at several different machines, explore their features, and demonstrate a number of the processes these versatile machines excel at.
For many buyers, price is an important consideration. With a minimal investment, you can get started with a machine that will make beads and steps, which are the two features these machines are used for most often. Be sure that you get a machine that works with the metal thickness you will be using, and check that the throat depth of the machine is adequate for your application. A machine with a 24-inch throat will reach the center of a 48-inch piece of metal, which will allow you to make fullsized floorboards, and should be large enough for nearly any automotive project. If you don't plan to make such large panels, a machine with a smaller throat may fit your needs nicely.
Having a machine powered by an electric motor offers some important benefits. It lessens the effort of hand cranking the machine, but more importantly, it allows you to keep both hands on the work, which is extremely important for delicate work. Store-bought machines with an electric motor usually cost over $1,000, but a clever builder could easily adapt a motor to an existing machine. It's highly desirable to have a speed control for the motor. Some machines have a dial to control the speed, but it's even better to have a foot pedal that can adjust the speed “on the fly”, so you don't have to take your hands off the work.
If you have access to a lathe, you can make your own dies, but of course it's a lot more convenient to purchase ready-made dies. For that reason, you should carefully evaluate the dies available for any machine you are considering. Most dies are made of steel, but for some operations plastic dies may be preferable. One example is when working with soft metals, like aluminum. Plastic dies are far less likely to mark aluminum panels, so keep that in mind as you are shopping. A recent development in beading machine operation makes use of a flat, soft urethane die (like a skateboard wheel), which is ideal for certain uses, such as embossing.
The beading machine is a key piece of equipment in many street rod shops, and I'm amazed at the ways clever builders develop new designs of bead-rolled patterns, and their discovery of new processes and tooling. You'll see a few types of unusual tooling in this article, such as a simple fixture that allows you to roll rings from tubing or sheetmetal shapes.
While function drives many of the applications of the beading machine, very often you can incorporate a distinctive design element in the work you do, and a few free-thinking individuals are doing amazing artwork with these versatile machines. Let your imagination soar as you plan future projects for the beading machine, and I'd love to see any innovations that you develop.