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Aircraft Sheet Metal

Aircraft Sheet Metal, I

Working with sheet metal, especially the thin sheets used in aircraft construction, can be a daunting experience for the first time builder. One of the problems is that when you ask advice from those in the industry, the response only makes matters worse, as many assume a certain level of knowledge of airframe construction.

What takes, for example, an air force technician several years to learn, must be picked up to some lesser degree in a matter of months by the home aircraft builder. Which can be a real challenge for some.

Learning to drill in sheetmetal will take some time, obtaining the necessary skill must be done on a piece of scrap metal. This will avoid costly mistakes on your precious new aircraft parts!

Those of you with a background in metal/ aluminum and or aircraft construction or maintenance will find this the easy part of building your dream.

Working with sheet metal

Drills, drill bits and holes. An aircraft is basically thousands of rivets and bolts flying in close formation. These rivets squeeze various parts together, inserted through holes, many of which the builder has to drill. The industry calls these rivets, bolts, screws etc. "fasteners". The drilling of these holes is quite an exact science, and how well you drill them affects the structural integrity of your aircraft (now are you scared!).


First, select a good air drill. This is hugely important. It should be light, balance well and have a progressive trigger. This allows the drill to start nice and slowly, not fire off like a machine gun. Chuck the drill bit tightly, hold the drill bit as perpendicular as possible, and use a drill stop. Two little additions to your tool box here.

Drill stop

The drill stop is a little spring thing that fits to the drill bit, and stops the bit shooting through the hole when it breaks through, preventing you drilling your or somebody else's finger, the underlying structure etc., etc. The other is the 90° cup jig. This wonderful little tool is a simple cup, with a hole in its center. You fit various collars into this hole depending on the size of drill bit you are using, and once the cup is seated on the work, you drill down through the cup at exactly 90°. Adjust the air pressure to suit your style and type of drill

Chuck size

Most drills have 3/8" chucks (the maximum size of drill shank the jaws will accept), but just to annoy you, the mandrels of hole saws and large diameter drill bits only fit into 1/2" chucks. Now, most drill presses have this size of chuck, but hand drills are also available with 1/2" chucks, and very useful they are too.

If you are buying a drill press, make sure the 1/2" chuck accepts a 1/16" bit. Some don't, and its infuriating when you want to drill a hole in a bolt head for locking wire or whatever.

Drill speed

Aluminum is supposed to be drilled fast (high r.p.m.), but actually I find medium speed is fine, with a sharp bit, and you can keep better control. Steel, on the other hand should be drilled slow.

Drill bits

Aircraft Sheet Metal Drill Bit

Good quality drill bits are worth it. But a word of caution. A good quality drill bit will grab, and try to pull the drill towards the work. Be ready for this, and always clamp firmly the work in a drill press. In your toolbox you should have #40, #30, and #11 drill bits.

Don't bother to try and sharpen these, its not worth it. I would now never be without a box of titanium and cobalt drill bits (1/16" to 3/8"). Don't even think of drilling steel or stainless with anything other than cobalt.

Bit size

So lets try and figure out what size (diam.) of drill bit we should use. The diameter of the rivet or bolt is what sets the hole diameter or vice-versa. But in a perfect world you could not get a 1/8" rivet, for example, into a 1/8" hole; the hole would have to be slightly bigger. Also Avex and solid rivets swell slightly as they are installed, so they need a bit of room for this.

Drill identification

Just when you thought you had these wonders of the imperial system figured out, they throw in "clearance drills". As if that's not enough, they give these strange numbers and, to really confuse everybody, letters!

These appear to have no logic, and few people know what they mean. Clearance drills are the bits that are a teeny bit larger than the actual drill bit size, and provide final drilling to allow for swelling etc.

Well, there is a little book called the Standard Aircraft Handbook. In there are a number of tables, mostly incomprehensible, but one which gives drill bit sizes in fractions, numbers/letters and decimals. It's just invaluable.

Start drilling

So you are standing in your workshop, your wife or husband or whoever is wondering why you have spent all this money on a box of bits, and you have to start drilling. What do you do? All sheet metal parts are punched at #40. So you drill out first with a #40 bit. For 1/8" solid or Avex rivets, use a #30. For 3/16" solid or Avex rivets, use a #11.

Pop rivets

For stainless "pop" rivets and bolts, stay with the exact size. Ah Ha, I hear you cry, you just said in a perfect world the hole must not be exactly the same size as the fastener. Well, it isn't a perfect world, and as you drill, you will certainly create a hole very slightly misshapen or oversize due to chattering, too much wine the night before or whatever.


With the bolts, drill out to the exact bolt size first, try it, and if it slides in, fine. If its an "interference fit" (posh word for did you use a hammer to get it in), use a clearance drill, or better still, use a reamer.

Original text by Murphy Aircraft technical department

Written by EAI.

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