The Art of Metal Spinning

Metal spinning artisan helps tractor restorers solve parts puzzle

Ancient Arts

Above: Jack Hodgin’s metal lathe, with a trio of rollers resting against the tailstock. A disk of metal (Jack typically works with aluminum, copper, brass and steel) is placed against the pattern, secured and then spun. Rollers are used to create lips and beads. Using pegs inserted into holes in the handles and then into a bar in front of the lathe, the roller handles are braced to generate maximum leverage. The spinning action of the roller against metal eliminates friction that might otherwise result during that process.

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It's a quandary faced by every restorer: Sooner or later, the need arises for a part that's out of production, unavailable and beyond the talents of the average hobbyist. At times like those, craftsmen adept at dying arts come to the rescue.

With yet another tractor restoration project on the front burner, I was recently confronted by the need for a custom-crafted part. This time, I would need the assistance of a person skilled in metal spinning. You don't hear much about metal spinning anymore, but it's an old craft. Metal spinning was introduced in this country in the early 1600s but traces its roots back as far as 3,000 years.

Simply explained, in metal spinning a sheet metal disc is fastened between centers in a spinning lathe. A pattern is placed at the headstock of the lathe center, and the piece is then formed by applying varying amounts of pressure on tools (rollers on long handles) positioned on the rotating pattern. Metal spinning is a useful (and necessary) process in creating cups, domes, bowls or anything that is both round and has depth.

Having worked as an Industrial Arts teacher for 32 years, I am aware of the process. In a basic metals class, my students completed a unit introducing them to the metal spinning lathe. My current project, however, involves much more detailed turning, well beyond my basic knowledge.

Fortunately, I had heard about a man at Liberty, Ind., who performs metal spinning. After I tracked him down, he invited me to visit his shop, where he boasted of holding the parking spot reserved for the "employee of the year." Jack Hodgin has a sense of humor: He is not only the owner but also sole employee of his business.

Jack worked with metal spinning on a part-time basis for many years before he decided to try doing the work full-time. "I always wanted to be my own boss," he says, "so I decided to buy some equipment and work for myself." This October Jack will celebrate 22 years in business. A combination of solid problem-solving skills and resourcefulness has been every bit as useful as specialized equipment. Jack's approach is simple: "If someone else made it, why can't I?"

His equipment, however, is complex … and old. Unlike the sophisticated, high-tech equipment used at large commercial operations, most of the major equipment in Jack's shop is antique. His Peck Stow & Wilcox Co. throatless shear was manufactured in 1912; his Prybill metal spinning lathe was converted to three-phase service. To cut flat, square sheets of metal into circles ready for the spinning lathe, he uses a Pexto circle cutter dating to the 1940s. Another piece he relies on: an antique, hand-operated, 18-station Rotex punch used to punch holes from 5/32 inch to 2 inches in diameter. The Rotex itself required restoration before it returned to service. "Many hours of restoration were spent on that machine," Jack recalls. "A lot of new punches and dies had to be made."

Metal spinning on the level Jack performs it is not quite a lost art, but independent commercial metal spinners are hardly a dime a dozen. Jack knows of fewer than a dozen in Indiana. Today, such work is more typically done by stamping. But the only way to achieve the intricacies and unique features of some pieces is through metal spinning.

Although a big part of Jack's output involves parts for street lights, he's done extensive custom work in antique tractor reproduction parts for hobbyists from coast to coast, including lines as varied as Silver King, CO-OP, Massey-Harris, Ford, Case, Farmall and John Deere. He's crafted John Deere 630 air cleaner tops, John Deere muffler tops, carburetor bowls and air caps, as well as Farmall F-20 air cleaner tops and F-12 brake covers. Those parts are manufactured for retailers; Jack does not sell them direct. Custom-made individual parts are expensive, he notes, because a pattern must be turned before the actual piece can be made.

When a person works with sheet metal spinning at high speeds, caution is a top priority. Jack has a healthy respect for the danger that's always present in metal spinning. "When you're working with metal, a day doesn't go by without a scratch or a cut," Jack says. "The biggest danger, of course, is a piece flying out of the lathe. But knock on wood, I still have all my fingers."

- For more information:
Jack Hodgin, (765) 458-7548. 

The Art of Metal Spinning: A Step-by-Step Guide to Hand-Spinning, by Paul G. Wiley, 2004. 

Bob Crowell lives in Batesville, Ind. He and his wife, Linda, represent Farm Collector, Gas Engine Magazine and Steam Traction at antique tractor shows throughout Indiana and the upper Midwest.