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General Tap and Thread Cutting Recommendations for Beginners

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Irwin sent me a Hanson tap and die set a couple of years ago, and it is a fantastic piece of kit.

This is one of those tool samples that I do not expect to part with it – it’s part of my semi-forever tool kit.

Every part of the Irwin tap and die set is well-made – the handles, taps, dies, drill bits, and all of the accessories.

But, I would never use this set to cut new threads unless I was in a pinch. It’s part of my mindset, that a tap and die set like this is more for repair work than fabrication.

To start off, the cutting tools are made from high carbon steel, whereas I typically prefer to buy high speed steel thread cutting taps (I mainly cut internal threads).

These tools will hold up to use – which is why Hanson has had such a strong reputation over the years – but it’s not the best approach for anyone looking to get into metalworking.

If you’re starting to design your own parts out of metal, this is not the best way to get started with thread cutting tools.

Let’s say I strip a hole in a piece of machinery. I might use the tools in this kit to drill out the hole and tap a new one. Or maybe I would move the hole if needed. If handle stud or similar became gummed up or the threads got a little mangled, maybe I’d use one of these dies to clean it up.

A long time ago I bought an inexpensive Kobalt set. I opened it for my first project or two, saw it didn’t have what I needed, and it say untouched since then. I gave it away a few years ago.

My most-used taps are the ones I purchased separately, as needed at first. I started with just plug taps and eventually also purchased 3pc sets, with taper, plug, and bottoming taps. I bought just the wire gauge and letter drill bits I needed, and eventually purchased a large drill bit set.

Gearwrench 77pc Tap and Die Set

Gearwrench makes a budget-friendly tap and die set – this one is under $104 at Amazon right now.

I purchased the same tap and die handle set years ago – and they’re good, but I haven’t touched them in a while. A ratcheting handle isn’t a good way to start out with.

Like the Irwin Hanson set, the Gearwrench set comes with a lot of stuff that you might need, but not in the same way as you might think.

In another post, James commented:

I’m just getting into more metalworking, including thread tapping

I have chatted with a lot of readers over the years, and quite a few ask about the size of the kits they should buy.

I REALLY don’t think tap and die sets are as beginner-friendly as they seem, at least not for custom fabrication or beginner metalworking types of tasks and projects.

Here are of my thoughts and recommendations for beginners, which come from my answers to the most common questions I’ve seen over the years:

Don’t cheap out on taps. Yes, you can buy a no-name 60pc set for $30 and similar at online marketplaces, but how good will any of those tools be? Breaking a tap in a part can ruin your day. If the tap isn’t precise, it can ruin your part. It’s not worth it.

Buy as you go at first. If whatever parts you’re designing only require a single tap size, you’ll get more out of buying a good tap handle and just the tap or two that you need than by sinking money into a set.

Smaller tap and die sets rarely come with drill bits, and so you’ll need to buy that anyway. Will you also need a bottoming tap? That’s more that you have to spend beyond the set.

Buying as you go, or maybe a few sizes at a time, will usually help you budget for higher quality tools.

Pay attention to materials and coatings. I buy uncoated high speed steel taps, which are a step up from high carbon steel taps.

It sounder strange, but I pay attention to coatings only so that I can avoid them.

High carbon taps are great for a repair assortment, where you might use a tap a couple of times as-needed. But if you’re working on a project that requires more than a handful of taps, high speed steel stays sharper for longer and tend to be stronger, helping to reduce the chance of breakage.

Titanium nitride can provide benefits when applied to quality tooling, but do you need it?

Different coatings and surface finishes provide different benefits – and potential disadvantages – when working with various materials.

Because of this, I tend to simply stick with uncoated high speed steel with a bright finish.

A lot of coatings are great for working with steel, and there are special coatings for working with aluminum.

Just plain HSS has worked out well for me so far. It won’t deliver the same life as coated tooling, but I don’t have to worry about buying and using different cutting tools for different materials.

The same goes for drill bits.

You’ll see a lot of websites advertising that black oxide-finished drill bits are more durable than standard HSS drill bits. That is true, but it depends on the material. A lot of general advise is for working with steel. I still prefer uncoated HSS for use on aluminum.

Individual drill bits in smaller sizes are inexpensive enough that you can try things for yourself, but I’d still recommend saving money and going with uncoated HSS taps at first. I’d avoid high carbon steel unless it’s for a non-critical project and you don’t have plans for more.

High carbon steel is sold at a good price point for taps you might never use, which is why it’s found in a lot of high part count repair sets.

When in doubt, most metal tooling suppliers will have some good reference information on their websites and in their product catalogs.

Avoid home center brands. For the most part, the metalworking cutting tools you can buy at home centers and hardware stores are good. But what you can find at industrial suppliers are better.

If you’re just starting out, browse through MSC’s sales flyers, at the least to get a sense for what’s out there. The discounts vary, with not much variety on general purpose taps right now.

McMaster Carr is very beginner-friendly, in how they have highly effective search filtering and reasonable prices.

I was looking for a particular tap on a different supplier’s website today, and I had to sort through less relevant results and then dig into a manufacturer’s catalog to sort out differences. McMaster can help you narrow down the selection fast, and they provide a good amount of hand-holding as to how to choose based on different criteria.

3pc sets are a good way to get started if you don’t otherwise know what you need. Here’s a filtered list of results at McMaster. Play around with the search configuration as you please.

For instance, if you know you’ll be cutting a lot of 1/4″-20 holes, the 3pc set is under $18 and comes with taper, plug, and bottoming taps.

Taper taps can make it easier to start taps, plug taps are good for general purpose use, and bottom taps allow you to cut threads closer to the bottom of a hole.

Plug taps are a good do-it-all, and are what you usually get in repair and starter sets. Taper taps are good to have, and bottoming taps are more of a “you’ll know when you’ll need it” style.

Don’t forget the drill bits. Sometimes I overthink the drill bit selection, but not usually. For instance, 36 gauge is a typical go-to for drilling a hole for a 6-32 tap, 29 for 8-32, 21 for 10-32, 7 for 1/4″-20, and F for 5/16″-18. I rarely stray from this. Stick with online tap and drill bit charts – here’s a good one from the Little Machine Shop – and stray when you have reason to.

I started off with just a couple of drill bit sizes – as needed.

If mating two parts together, I am more diligent about clearance hole sizing when working with thicker materials. The same F size drill bit that creates a hole for tapping to 5/16″-18 in aluminum can be used for a close fit for 1/4″ diameter hardware.

I didn’t worry much about close vs free fit drill sizes until I bought my first wire and letter gauge drill bit index. If you’re not sure what this means, all you need to know is that there are different classifications of drill bits beyond the fractional ones you’ll find at the home center.

To summarize things, there are fractional drill bits, such as 1/4″, numbered drill bits, such as 7 (0.201″), and letter drill bits, such as F (0.257″). Here’s the Wikipedia entry.

In addition to fractional drill bit sets, you’ll find 1-60 wire gauge size drill bits, and A to Z letter drill bit sets. A complete set might have 115 pieces give or take.

Good drill bit sets are pricey – if you’re just starting out buy what you need at the same place and time as your taps. Avoid the desire to buy a huge set of no-name drill bits.

Again, I typically stick with bright-finish uncoated HSS drill bits in jobber length. As for drill bit lengths, you’ll probably find out if and when a shorter or longer drill bit is needed.

Advice for Your First Hand-Cut Taps: A good rule of thumb is that you turn the tap half a rotation forward and then a quarter turn back. This usually breaks the chips, which helps to prevent jamming. If a tap breaks off in your part, you’re in for a terrible time.

Use cutting or tapping fluid appropriate for the material being worked on, take your time, let the tool do the work, and don’t force or rush things, especially when working with smaller taps or in harder and less forgiving materials.

Tapping threads with a half step forward and quarter step back process can get tedious, especially if you have a lot to do, but it’s a rule of thumb for good reason.

Once you get a feel for the process, you can consider more advanced (and pricier) styles of taps that can handle faster and even machine speeds.

It’s okay to practice on scrap material – isn’t that what small cut-off are for?

Reader Opinions and Advice?

What would you share with someone just getting started in metalworking or thread cutting with hand taps?

I’m stubbornly of the opinion that sets are great for repair work (and maybe occasional very light use), and not at all for new fabrications. Do you agree with this? Or do you know of a beginner friendly starter set?