Metal Up Close: Hand-seamed panels

The tool is an extension of the hand. For anyone installing standing seam metal roofing, the hand seamer almost has to be a part of the hand.
Many metal roofers argue the old way is the best way — a hand seamer will do a better job than a mechanical seamer with any material for standing seam metal roofing, if the operator knows what he’s doing. Architectural standing seam metal roofing is used in all sorts of applications — residential, commercial, and institutional — and in wide variety of substrates — steel, aluminum, copper, zinc, titanium, terne, and stainless steel. Some are being used bare, some painted. For function, the roof is only as good as its seam.
Mechanical seamers were developed to save time and labor, which they do. But very few installers trust the seam from a mechanical seamer as much as the old reliable hand seamer.
Mike Winters, owner of Mike’s Metal Works in Bozeman, Mont., says using a hand seamer is about “intimate contact” between the craftsman and the roof panel. “A good sheet metal worker sees more with his fingers than he will ever see with his eyes,” he says. “On some of the smaller jobs, it’s all I use. A mechanical seamer won’t work when you’re finishing detail work like roof to wall transitions, hips, double locks on hips. I use a hand seamer on everything except the longer field runs, anything longer than six feet. We work our roofs into artwork.”
The bottom line is mechanical seamers can’t get into every place a roof needs to be seamed. Those contractors who are doing the job right have learned where those places are and put their hand seamers to good use. That’s the best way to assure the job is done right.
“We use a hand seamer only when we have to,” says Mike Wilson, sheet metal superintendent for CEI Roofing in Howell, Mich. “We use a mechanical seamer except with specialty project, like if there’s too much radius. And for a four-foot panel, it’s not worth it to break out the big mechanical seamer.”
Wilson recalls one job where CEI was forced to use a hand seamer for an entire roof — the mechanical seamer was in need of repair. “It didn’t take that much longer, but it was a lot more work for the men,” he says.
Wilson says the mechanical seamer leaves a smoother seam, so it’s better and faster.
R.H. Marcon Inc. of State College, Pa., uses the hand seamer on every job — to start standing seam roofing panels for the mechanical seamer. The hand seamer also gets a workout in places where mechanical seamers can’t reach. “It’s easier to get the panel started, especially at the eave, with a hand seamer,” says Fritz Wild, of Marcon. “We also use it for short pans or where you run into a hip or a high wall. When you run into a wall, you lose that last couple feet, so the hand seamer comes in handy.”
Hand seamers also are durable. Wild says the hand seamer used by Marcon’s two metal crews is the one they bought when they got into metal — in 1985. Back then, the company rented mechanical seamers for each job. He says it didn’t take long to realize a mechanical seamer would be a good investment.
Hand seamers come in various sizes, with blades starting at 3 or 3-1/2 inches wide and running up to 14 inches. Winters has eight different hand seamers for roof work and would prefer to use them over mechanical seamers anytime, except that the mechanical seamer is considerably faster and requires less elbow grease. “Still, you’ve got to follow that seamer up and down the roof to make sure it’s working correctly,” he says, noting the mechanical seamer needs to be adjusted for different gauges and substrates.  “It could take several hours to get the machine dialed into the metal you’re working with, so it seams correctly,” he says.
Winters says mechanical seamers can run into problems where there are clips or transitions. If the roof panel isn’t seamed properly at any point, you can un-seam it and make the necessary adjustments. That’s not a big deal if you are using a hand seamer and notice the problem right away. It’s easy to deal with if you’re watching the mechanical seamer and catch the problem before the seamer runs 20 feet up the roof. Then, you could be faced with un-seaming that 20-foot portion of the roof. “If you want to do it right you may have to remove the panel,” Winters says.
Some believe doing it right means using a hand seamer, especially when working on areas more susceptible to standing water or ice buildup. “Hand seaming just does a better job,” says David Crocker, owner of Crocker Architectural in Oxford, Mass. “You get a tighter seam and it’s easier to do with specialty profiles. It’s an old, old tool, the hand seamer and the mallet.”
About 90 percent of the standing seam work done by Crocker Architectural is with copper, while the remaining 10 percent is painted steel and aluminum. “We like working with copper,” he says. “You can solder copper, but with painted steel and aluminum, you’re depending on a sealant to keep it all watertight.”
For curved projects, Crocker recommends using a hand seamer, as opposed to a mechanical seamer. “The electrical seamer can run right off the roof,” he says.
Installers say it doesn’t take much training to work with a hand seamer.
“It’s not real hard to use, but there is a little knack to it,” Wild says. “Most anyone with sheet metal experience can handle it. If you’re conscientious enough, smart enough, you can pick it up in about an hour’s worth of learning.”
Wild says the crews use the seamer on panels made of copper from Revere Copper, aluminum from Petersen Aluminum and Una-Clad, and steel from Integris Metals. Wild says copper is the easiest to work with, because of its softness. Aluminum is next easiest, and steel, “is the worst to work with,” Wild says. “You have to take a little extra time, be a little more precise. When you’re starting out, if you don’t get it on right, you can screw up the bend, maybe wreck a panel, but it doesn’t happen very often.”

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