The truth about machining is that it is just a process of material removal. Anything that makes this process easier and allows you the ability of rapidly reducing the size of you material is a huge plus. Hacksaws and files do this in a manual fashion, the horizontal metal bandsaw, mill and lathe allow you to do this with higher speed while still maintaining precision.
The horizontal metal bandsaw opens up your options with regards to stock choice. For example you can cut an axle down and use the metal for your projects or just store the metal for a rainy day. You would not consider this if you had to cut the material by hand (believe me, I used to use a 6" grinder and a hacksaw). This is the reason why the Chinese / Taiwanese 4" x 6" metal bandsaw have skyrocketed in popularity. For the price these machines cost, I can't blame people for buying them - but I often wonder what the trade-off is in hours to get them to perform.
So what is it that you need to look for in a horizontal metal bandsaw for hobby use? I am no expert but this was my list:
- Useful capacity
- The ability to cut angles by moving the saw armature, not the stock
- Ability to use coolant
- A solid vice
- A powerful motor
The ability to move the armature to cut angles means the saw can be placed against a wall with the stock clamped and there is no need to move the saw. Saws that require you to move the stock need to moved from walls as the stock bumps into them when cutting angles.
The option to use coolant means extra life for your saw blades. You may choose not to use it, but if you are doing repeated cuts in a hard material, this option will really shine through in the cut quality and life of the blade.
A solid vice is a must-have feature in my books. A quick action vice is an even bigger bonus but many cheaper machines do not have this feature. A solid vice allows you to grip awkward shaped objects tightly and prevents the stock from rolling in the jaws and damaging your blade. This especially necessary if you have course toothed blades and a strong motor.
The powerful motor means you can cut through tough materials without bogging the saw down. It also allows the machine to run cooler and therefore extends the life of the machine. I have seen many photos of smoking metal bandsaws because the motor was cheap garbage with overly-generous horsepower ratings. Unfortunately, if you buy Asian you are often rolling the dice as to wether the ratings are true.
I know many people don't care too much about rigidity in a saw but for me this was important. The larger the capacity of the saw, the more rigid you want it. Rigidity allows you tension the saw blade enough to keep it tracking straight. With flimsy saws, the more you tighten, the more you alter the shape of the frame, making a square cut difficult to achieve. Woodworkers are more used to this issue with wood bandsaws but metal bandsaws also suffer from tracking issues if the saw is not rigid. Many saws provide you with a means of adjusting the blade guides which goes some way in fixing tracking issues, but these are no substitute for adjustability AND rigidity.
So are horizontal metal bandsaws with auto down-feed worth it? The answer is yes, providing the makers don't compromise on the other features I mentioned. When you are using a metal bandsaw for hobby use, it is not often that you will need to cut pieces of metal at the saw's maximum capacity. For my saw, I can cut a 50mm metal bar in about a minute. I don't believe that the auto feature will save me enough time to make up for other features that I would prefer to have. The other problem I see with automating certain functions is that people don't pay due care and attention to what is going on since they assume the machine will function properly 100% of the time. If by chance the blade starts tracking incorrectly due to low blade tension, then before you know it you have cut a slot into your vice because you were not present.
If you do decide to buy a horizontal metal bandsaw, do yourself a favour and buy a decent bi-metal blade. The blades that come with most machines (except for expensive European or Western machines) are garbage. The difference between a cheap blade and a quality blade are night and day. If I bought an Asian machine, the very first thing I would do before running it is to throw the unused cheap blade in the rubbish and install a decent blade by a reputable name like Starrett or Lenox. You should also keep a small oil bottle handy with cutting oil. This will make your bandsaw blades live a longer, happier life. Good luck bandsawing!