How to Work with Rivets

Not that long ago, welding machines were a fantasy; rivets were one of the few ways to effectively join two pieces of metal. Some of history’s greatest structures — the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower and the Titanic — owe their existence to this type of joinery, and rivets remain an integral part of metalworking to this day.

A rivet is a permanent mechanical fastener that consists of a smooth cylindrical shaft with a head on one end. Installation used to require two people: One would insert the rivet (which was often heated to a very high temperature) through a punched or drilled hole, and the other would hammer the tail, deforming or “bucking” it to 1-1/2 times its original shaft diameter. (The end opposite the head is called the buck-tail.) The result was an incredibly strong fastener that was capable of supporting both tension loads (loads parallel to the axis of the rivet shaft) and shear loads (loads perpendicular to the axis of the rivet shaft).

Though the concept remains the same, modern rivet installation is easier and requires only one person. Here’s how you can put these classic fasteners to work in your projects.

A rivet gun draws the blind rivet’s mandrel through the rivet, which causes the tail of the rivet to expand. Different-size inserts are interchangeable based on the diameter of blind rivet you’re using. This RHT300 Twister rivet gun from Arrow Fastener has a pivoting head to allow for working in tight spaces.

Rivets for DIYers
In almost all DIY applications, you’ll use what’s referred to as a blind rivet, which consists of a tubular rivet with a mandrel inserted through the center (photo below). Blind rivets are sometimes referred to as pop rivets, but a true Pop rivet is a brand that’s sold by Emhart Teknologies. Although most blind rivets look the same at first glance, there are important differences that you need to understand in order to safely use them.

Blind rivets (shown enlarged for detail) come in a variety of sizes, styles and materials, but they all share the same common features.

Blind rivets are sized by two measurements: the actual diameter of the rivet and the thickness of metal that the rivet can hold (referred to as the “grip”). Dozens of specialty blind rivets are available; the most commonly used ones for DIY applications are:

  • Dome head — This is the most widely available and commonly used style. The dome-head flange offers a good bearing surface and is suitable for many applications. These rivets are typically available in 3/32-, 1/8-, 5/32-, 3/16- and 1/4-in. diameters.

  • Large flange — This head style offers a bigger bearing surface than the dome head and is best for joining compressible or brittle materials such as wood or plastic to metal. Large-flange rivets are commonly available in 1/8-, 5/32- and 3/16-in. diameters.

  • Countersunk head — These rivets are used in special applications that require a flush surface and are typically available in 1/8-, 5/32- and 3/16-in. diameters.

The rivet that you choose must be made from the same type of metal that it will touch — different metals can react to each other and corrode over time. The most commonly available rivet materials include:

  • Aluminum rivet/aluminum mandrel
  • Aluminum rivet/steel mandrel
  • Aluminum rivet/stainless steel mandrel
  • Steel rivet/steel mandrel
  • Stainless steel rivet/steel mandrel
  • Stainless steel rivet/stainless steel mandrel
  • Plastic rivet/plastic mandrel
  • Copper rivet/brass mandrel

Once you’ve purchased the correct rivets, installation is simple (as shown in “A Simple Rivet Project,” below). Start by clamping together the two pieces you want to join. Drill a hole that matches the diameter of the rivet through both pieces. Insert the rivet into the hole, slide the shaft of the rivet gun (photo 2) over the mandrel and squeeze the gun’s handles together. As you draw the handles together, the jaws within the gun’s shaft will grab the mandrel and pull it through the rivet, causing the tail to expand. It may take a couple of squeezes to fully draw the mandrel through the rivet; you’ll know that you’ve successfully set the rivet when the mandrel breaks away.

A Simple Rivet Project
The outdoor candle chandelier shown above is constructed from 16-gauge steel stock that’s commonly found at home-improvement or hardware stores and assembled using 1/8-in.-dia. steel rivets. I used a wooden form to help shape the hoops, and except for two welds — one for each hoop to join the steel into a continuous hoop — everything else was riveted together in just a few hours.

Drill holes for the rivets in the flat stock that will serve as the main support straps.

Clamp the bottom hoop and the support straps together. Use the holes you’ve already drilled in the straps as guides for drilling holes through the hoop. Insert the rivet into the hole, slide the rivet gun onto the rivet’s mandrel and squeeze the gun handles together.

The final result is four neatly spaced rivets that securely fasten the straps to the hoops.

Once you’ve attached the top hoop to the straps, use rivets to fasten the candle bases to the straps.