Planning to open a Fabrication and Speed shop in a few years, what tools should I plan on picking up?

This fall I’m returning to school to get some education in welding to further my skillset for this absolutely ridiculous job market and the mid term goal will be to open a small shop in my garage for custom automotive work. The primary work that I’ll be accepting will be for roll cages and reasonably priced custom exhausts, intake fabrication, and will likely be doing intercoolers and radiators. Right now I have a very small list of tools that I want to get to make this go smoothly.

Planned parts:
Welding table with guides and clamps
Multi process miller welder
Tube Bender
Metal Band Saw
Belt grinder and sander
Plasma Cutter
Exhaust coupling and welding clamps
Two post lift
Used manual mill
Drill Press
stuff to do composites (vacuum pump, mixing and measuring cups, vacuum chamber, consumable materials)

I’m hoping to spend a low amount of money

Looks like a great start, if you can find a knee mill to replace the drill press and tube notcher you’ll increase your shop capabilities.

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I’m probably going to snag one of the Central Machinery Variable Mill Machines from Harbor Freight when I do it. The mill is definitely something I’ve got to get because I’ll need it for making brackets the right way and since I specialize in BMWs right now I’ll need it for some of the custom mounts I plan on making for my turbo x3 that I’m working on and it’ll give me the opportunity to sell them as a product line when I get the testing completed.

Good list. I agree with the mill recommendation over a drill press and tube notcher. A decent mill will immediately make the tube notcher obsolete and provide much more utility. I have a Bridgeport 2J mill; I wouldn’t necessarily recommend something this large (unless space isn’t an issue). I don’t have any experience with the smaller machines, but I know some people have had good luck (check out brands other than Harbor Freight)

Welder: I have a Miller 220 multimatic. It’s fantastic, but I admit there are cheaper versions that can get the job done just as well.

Metal Band saw: I use a Milwaukee portaband (the Bauer Harbor freight ones are good too) with a “Swag off-road” table and foot pedal. Probably my most used tool in the shop. Incredible for small brackets and stuff. Portaband Table Pro Model - SWAG Off Road

Two post lift: buy used. You can get a good one for under $2500.

Plasma cutter: I have one, but rarely use it. I prefer the torch for most things. Unless you have a good air compressor, I’d steer away from a plasma setup.

If you plan on doing any sheetmetal work, you’ll need a break. The 36" harbor freight one gets the job done with some modifications.
Along this same line, I would highly recommend electric sheetmetal shear or nibblers. I don’t like to grind on stuff as much as possible to keep the dust down. The bandsaw helps with this a lot too.

If you’re making brackets, get a "swag offload press finger brake. (and a HF press) 20 Ton Brakes – SWAG Off Road

I swear, I don’t work for swag lol, they just make good tools, but their tubing bender is by far one of the best I’ve ever used: SWAG REV 2 Tube Bender – SWAG Off Road

Space dependent:

  • Engine hoist for lifting heavy stuff
  • Pallet jack also for lifting and moving stuff

I’ll add more if I think of stuff or of course feel free to ask questions. I have quite a bit of experience in custom automotive fab (mostly jeeps and classic cars)

I’ve got a 2 ton engine hoist and a pallet jack definitely makes sense. I’ll add them to the list.

Joe: A couple of thoughts…Multiprocess welders are fine, if you have a couple, or welding is not a huge part of your work. If it is, and the welder goes down, you are down for days to months waiting on it being repaired. I’ve got two machines in my shop…an old Econotig and a 211. That covers three processes for me, plus I’ve got three OA torch systems for certain types of work, that come out as needed. Also, going multiprocess is going to set you back some serious coin…better than 3K$ for the machine and cart. If you are thinking about TiG, then you are pushing 5K. You can find used machines, but you need to take care looking at those. Unless you have a good idea how they have been used and treated, it can be a crap shoot on how it will work out for you.

Milling machines…The HF one is special order and there are no readily avialable parts, other than a drawbar. That should tell you something right quick. Additionally, it has a very small work envelope. Total vertical is about 8". Once you put a vise on there, you have about 2 inches for your part and tooling. You would be much better off looking for something like an old Clausing 8520 or similar knee mill. You will be less likely to run out of vertical clearance and shouldn’t have to spend more time changing setups than actually making chips. Bide your time and search a reasonably wide area for a good deal on a used mill. Don’t be afraid of a 3 phase machine, as a vfd is only 3-4 hundred bucks and will give you significant speed control beyond what the machine itself has.

Composite work…I would hope you are thinking about two things here…a separate, climate controlled workspace and only working with room temp cure systems. We have our composite shops temp controlled as well as pressure controlled to prevent composite particles from trimming and sanding getting into other areas of the facility. We use high temp systems, and any sanding or grinding of the parts has to be done with a very high flow vacuum system to keep that dust out of the air and off all aircraft in the building.

If you are willing to bide your time and travel some. you can find good deals on known quality and supported equipment out there. I picked up a Niagara 42" power shear a few years back, because a guy needed it out of his work space and everyone was afraid of it being a 3 phase machine. Likewise, I picked up my Tennsmith brake and slip rolls for decent prices, due to people downsizing shops. I spent more on trucking for my Wells 1270 band saw, than I did for the saw itself. There are lots of places to look, if you don’t limit yourself too much.


It is very likely that when I do the shop it will be a large steel building with built out insulation and everything. I would be surprised if I don’t do a small composite/paint studio on one side and auto/fab shop on the other side. Going to most likely do this whole thing in sections starting with the fab side and it’s looking like I’ll need to teach myself all of the skills which kind of sucks, but the job I just accepted is too good to not accept in my hopes of getting the businesses started.

Definitely going to try to find a better quality used mill and overhaul it from the ground up and I’ll try to find a decent metal lathe and band saw. The composites stuff is really the least of my worries. I think that work will mostly be prototyping and 3d scanning and eventually finding someone that does composite work as a specialization and giving them a space to do their work kind of the same way that barbers have their chair in the shop.

I don’t know how everything is going to work out and I have a second business that will probably be starting up along side it that I’ve been planning for about 10 years now.

Thanks for the reply, sorry it took so long to respond to you; work has been crazy. Took a job in an automotive production plant and ended up having to just stop going because of all of the cut corners and incompetence I was watching for 8 hours a day.

Again, thanks!

Hey there Joe,
This job market is responsible for a great many small business startups, I applaud you for taking the leap.
The only comment that I have that hasn’t been noted above is the amount of welding experience that you have already; prior to the current education that you are seeking. I would add the caveat regarding roll cage welding. Keep in mind that roll cages prevent injury and death to the driver, as well as others on the track. I’m not mentioning this to dissuade you from opening your shop, rather just something to keep in the back of your mind. MIG and TIG welding can be very deceptive, look prettier than a diamond in a goats butt, but in actuality have minimal penetration or integrity.
Like I said, this is all just to think about … wishing you all the best with your shop, Jeff

I do a lot of custom automotive work, a cnc plasma really opens a lot of doors. Not to mention the amount of side money they make when doing signs and what not.


Yeah it was between that and a CNC mill so that I could primarily make billet brackets and stuff.