G. Phil Poirier, owner of Bonny Doon Engineering, recently taught an incredible week’s worth of classes on metal forming with the hydraulic press here at Rio Grande: Two days of beginning hydraulic forming followed by two days of intermediate hydraulic forming. I was able to join the intermediate class and spent two days with Phil and his two terrific assistants, Peter Gilroy and Brooke Barlow.
Years ago, when I was pretty new at Rio, I watched Lee Marshall, the founder of Bonny Doon, turn a vase literally inside out using the “Old Gold” press. The metal simply moved, like silk; it didn’t tear, crease, dimple, fold, or stretch out and lose shape—nestled in urethane, it just simply turned inside out. Clearly, it made a big impression (no pun intended) on me.
This many years later, Phil and his staff have pushed (okay, pun intended) the limits of hydraulic forming steadily outward with improved presses and ingenious, innovative tools and dies and techniques.
Working with Phil, Brooke, Peter, and my classmates, I learned how to design and cut a stepped acrylic die, and why making it stepped is important (stepping the die helps support the metal in deeper draws).
—And why we then backed the acrylic with a brass plate (a backing adds strength and lengthens the service life of the die).
—And why sharp corners present a challenge when drawing metal (because the metal, though willing has far fewer places to go as it draws down from a sharp angle). Oh, and PS, Bur-Life, Bur-Life, Bur-Life!—this stuff is a godsend in making the metal slide easily along and down into the die!
—And what the difference is between a conforming and a non-conforming die (in a conforming die, two mirror-image parts come together with metal between them; in a non-conforming die, urethane pushes the metal into the die.) You can also carve dies out of steel using carbide burs and drills in a flex shaft (use carbide rather than high-speed steel, Phil says, you’ll get the lower torque you need for detailed work on steel). Although the class didn’t try this, we watched Phil work on a die that he later used in the class to show the incredible detail that’s possible with these dies.
—And why “earing” happens—nope, that isn’t a typo and yep, in this class, “earing” isn’t a piece of jewelry (because the metal has a grain—the directionality of its crystals—it stretches more easily in one direction than the other so that, when you deep-draw it, you get these little “ear lobes” at the outer edge of the metal).
—And how to use creative folding to combine textures, shapes, and techniques. Take a look at the heart I made using a T-fold to expose a textured silver interior (my favorite from the class!).
Whew, and so much more…so many small tips, tricks, and tidbits of know-how that help me be that much more practiced in the work I’m doing. Two days went by so fast!
Phil says that the point of the hydraulic press is “to take away 80%-90% of the ‘grunt work’ of hand-forming metal,” leaving the fun parts of design and imagination…yeah, and just enough muscle-work to remind us why we LOVE our hydraulic presses. In making this little (and, yes, rather stubby) egg-shaped box, my arms and back sure had a workout.
The classes—both of them—are coming again this fall and, if you’re intrigued by the possibilities that hydraulic forming offers, you won’t want to miss it. Get a spot soon, they disappear fast; then go and amaze yourself wielding 20 tons of force. Hey, and let me know what you thought, what you learned and what you’ll do with your new knowledge.