Making Rivets

Author Tom Mix

When I was a young lad just starting to scratch build locos I couldn’t afford many special tools so this required some head scratching to come up with construction methods that were simple…and cheap.

This article describes my second version of a rivet “machine.” My Compact 5 lathe came with a steel block for the tool bit holder. I had another tool holder so this block was set up to be the base for the rivet maker. The block was factory drilled for a bolt and clamping nut and this is used to tighten the block to the X-Y table on my Unimat mill.

Note how the front top edge of the block was drilled to hold a capped brass plug with a 2-56 hole drilled and tapped for a set screw. The capped brass is the female part of punch. The “fence” was made from brass shapes from the scrap drawer. The fence is also drilled 2-56 for a lock screw when positioning the fence the correct distance from the indentation in the brass plug. Note the half moon recess in the fence to fit up close to the plug when the rivet line is close to an edge. The Jacobs chuck holds the male part of the punch. The different components laid out show the assemblies.

With the set up in view you can see how this will work. First of all let me explain something here; when reading about making rivets years ago the philosophy then was that the male and female rod and die had to be hardened steel. This was gospel. But that method gave only one size rivet head for each die set. A steam locomotive had several sizes of rivets, the cab had very small ones, cylinder insulation cover sheets had really tiny ones, the smoke box had large sizes and the tenders had rivets that were in-between. Plus, sometimes rivets were pointed and not round. When I started experimenting with making rivets the method explained here was the easiest and cheapest to work with.

You can see how there are different sized rivets on the cab of this Northern Pacific W-1.

With a small hammer I tap an indentation into the top of the brass capped plug with a steel rod that has a point filed in a lathe chuck. This point will be to the head size of your rivet project and when tapped on the brass plug this will be your male and female die. And no, after punching strings of rivets on your tender sides the brass plug indentation doesn’t wear that much so that the rivets change size down the row. Note in the pictures of my tender sides that they all look the same. I have even built a tender for a 2-10-4 that is larger than many box cars. It has very large slab sides. When getting towards the end of that much punching, or pressing, take your pick, no size change could be noted.

When you have the rod point to your size, and the indentation hammer tapped into the brass plug, tighten the rod in the drill chuck, get your eye down close to them and carefully align the X-Y table holding the clamped block and plug, with the rod point. While holding the lever down with the rod point in the dimple hand spin the drill chuck to further zero the alignment. Now file a recess the distance from the dimple indentation of what ever the spacing is in your rivet line. (See drawing) This recess is used to space the rivet impression by moving the sheet along the fence and letting the dimple drop over the edge of the filed recess. Set the fence to the correct edge distance and run a scrap piece of sheet brass, or styrene, through to check the size and spacing. Is the indentation too small? Chuck the rod and file another point slightly larger, round it a bit, whack the rod again in the same indentation, align rod point and dimple, and try it again. Once the set-up is done you can press rivets with a surprising amount of speed.

If you have a different spacing for the same rivet head size you can file another recess opposite from the first and run the brass sheet in the opposite direction.

This rivet making will work with styrene sheet too. Just don’t be too macho when pressing or the point will go right through the plastic! The girder bridge is styrene with pressed rivets.

Note in this picture that if you need a double row with staggered rivets you will need to file another recess as shown to allow the first punched row to slide by without distorting the work. The drawing shows where to file.

The 0-8-0 fire box shows this close together and staggered rivet rows and also there are two different sizes of rivets. The larger ones actually represent stay bolts.

The 2-6-2 lignite smoke box shows both close staggered rivets along with the straight rows as set with the fence.

The tender for this 2-6-2 shows the close spaced top and bottom single rows. The side evenly spaced vertical rows (prototype) were pressed on scribed lines with each vertical space set with the fence and pressed horizontally along the length of the tender sheet doing both tender sides with each setting.

The 4-8-2 cylinder cover shows how tiny some rivets can be. All the different sizes shown in the photos represent the ease of making your rivets by simply filing another rod with the point size you need then using the same rod to hammer tap into a brass plug.

A high walk way tank car was built with even a different rivet size and you can see that even a circular piece of brass, or styrene, can be punched as seen on the bottom of the dome representing a flange.

I usually machine out several brass capped plugs to have on hand. The capped plugs are thick enough on the top portion so that I merely machine off the old dimple and recess(s) then hammer tap a new dimple and file new recesses.

The photos and drawings give a little more information. You don’t need the same mill that I have, any small mill or drill press will work. As long as you can lock the head to the vertical post it will work. For the block use a chunk of brass, aluminum, or even steel that can be drilled for a lock bolt. You will need an X-Y table to properly align the punch and die. I have seen articles about some versions of rivet pressing where the modeler used a finger lifted falling hammer to punch rivets which seems to me would be difficult to control the individual rivet impressions, besides being quite tedious and slow! A lever press of some type is much better, and faster!

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