Trick Tools serves quality-minded restoration shops
Pella, Iowa — It’s a piece of equipment that harkens back to old-world coachbuilders, requiring a craftsman to methodically pull a piece of metal between polished wheels attached to a large, sturdy frame. With successive motion and increasing tension on the wheels, what was just a flat piece of metal slowly takes shape as a roof skin, say, or part of a fender. It’s known as an English wheel, and it’s used to produce compound curves and smooth out hammer marks in hand-formed metal.
For the custom shop looking to “chop here, section there, tweak this, and massage that” and push the envelope to produce something nobody else has, having the right fabrication equipment can help them do it with less time and effort, said Bruce Van Sant, owner of metal fabrication tools manufacturer and distributor Trick Tools, which mainly serves restorers and builders of race cars and aircraft.
Van Sant said he’s seen more interest recently in metal-shaping, with talented younger car restorers jumping in and learning new skills with little trepidation.
“Sometimes older people will look at an English wheel and say, ‘Wow — you have to have a lot of talent to use one of those.’ And I always respond with, ‘You don’t really have to have any talent to start. Everybody starts somewhere.’ You just have to have a willingness to start and figure it out as you go with something simple and keep progressing,” he said.
Van Sant, who also owns Van Sant Collision Repair across the street, started Trick Tools as a side business in 1995 with one high-end computerized tubing bender machine that he displayed at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Trade Show to great acceptance from race car builders. They asked him to supply other equipment, such as tubing notchers and sheet metal brakes, and he created his first online catalog in 1997.
Although he said he focused on high-end equipment at first, the line expanded to include mid-quality equipment and hand tools to reach a broader customer base. Today’s company includes a receptionist, three full-time salesmen, a marketing and graphics person, a warehouse manager, and two shipping clerks working out of a 25,000-square-foot warehouse built in 2009.
Trick Tools’ catalog features a full line of metal-fabrication tools, including the $9,000 MetalAce 44F Imperial English Wheel, which is a massive 2,000 pounds of cast iron with a 44-inch throat. The design recalls that of old-world coachbuilder equipment, and it’s painted and pinstriped in red and gold at the collision repair shop across the street.
Van Sant said a few years ago he bought the company that manufactured the MetalAce line, which illustrates the goal of the company: to serve the hardcore metal fabricator and not try to sell unrelated products. Each product in the catalog is sold as “Guaranteed No Junk,” which means it has been hand-chosen as a quality item and when available, made in the U.S. The difference in quality in a Chinese knockoff is not always readily apparent, he said, particularly looking at a photo in a print or online catalog.
“The import tools have their place — I started out with them myself,” Van Sant said. “If you don’t use them very much, you can get by with that. But there’s a reason that Snap-on and Mac and those types of tools fill the professionals’ shops. There is a difference, and it’s not necessarily apparent to you initially, but as your skills develop and you start pushing the tools harder, you require that kind of quality.”
The company’s Ron Covell Signature Series English wheel, also made by MetalAce, has design features based on Covell’s preferences, Van Sant said.
“He wanted the kick wheel to be very close to the floor so you can adjust it by keeping your heel on the floor and pivoting your foot, so you can use your toe to move the wheel, instead of having it higher off the ground like most of the machines,” he said.
Compared to the standard English wheel in the catalog, the Signature Series wheel has a small footprint and greater portability, but with the strength of a cast-iron wheel and the ability to shape up to 12-gauge material, Van Sant said.
“It’s been a popular item for us because Ron Covell is kind of one of the masters of metal-shaping,” he said. “He’s got over 50 years of experience, and he’s a pretty big name in the industry.”
And for builders of custom headers for race cars or performance street machines, the Icengineworks header fabrication kit, introduced at the 2014 SEMA Show, has grown more and more popular. Consisting of a set of round modeling blocks that can be snapped together to configure all kinds of straight sections and bends, and a cutting jig to transfer the design to steel tubing, the kit cuts header-fabrication time and produces less wasted material, Van Sant said.
“You can completely design your header; you can figure out exactly how many welds and splices you’re going to have before you ever grab a piece of steel tubing,” he said. “And you can even quote that to a customer: ‘I know how many splices I have; it takes me ‘x’ amount of time per splice.’ And it’s just a matter of cutting and welding after that and replacing the plastic sections with steel sections.”