Learning to Weld (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 27 Feb 2016

Learning to Weld

I'm learning to weld metal junk into art!

I've wanted to learn to weld since I was a teen-ager at an LAAS star party, lusting after somebody's beautiful homebuilt 10" telescope on a compact metal fork mount. But building something like that was utterly out of reach for a high school kid. (This was before John Dobson showed the world how to build excellent alt-azimuth mounts out of wood and cheap materials ... or at least before Dobsonians made it to my corner of LA.)

Later the welding bug cropped up again as I worked on modified suspension designs for my X1/9 autocross car, or fiddled with bicycles, or built telescopes. But it still seemed out of reach, too expensive and I had no idea how to get started, so I always found some other way of doing what I needed.

But recently I had the good fortune to hook up with Los Alamos's two excellent metal sculptors, David Trujillo and Richard Swenson. Mr. Trujillo was kind enough to offer to mentor me and let me use his equipment to learn to make sculptures like his. (Richard has also given me some pointers.)

[My first metal art piece] MIG welding is both easier and harder than I expected. David Trujillo showed me the basics and got me going welding a little face out of a gear and chain on my very first day. What a fun start!

In a lot of ways, MIG welding is actually easier than soldering. For one thing, you don't need three or four hands to hold everything together while also holding the iron and the solder. On the other hand, the craft of getting a good weld is something that's going to require a lot more practice.

Setting up a home workshop

I knew I wanted my own welder, so I could work at home on my own schedule without needing to pester my long-suffering mentors. I bought a MIG welder and a bottle of gas (and, of course, safety equipment like a helmet, leather apron and gloves), plus a small welding table. But then I found that was only the beginning.

[Metal art: Spoon cobra] Before you can weld a piece of steel you have to clean it. Rust, dirt, paint, oil and anti-rust coatings all get in the way of making a good weld. David and Richard use a sandblasting cabinet, but that requires a big air compressor, making it as big an investment as the welder itself.

At first I thought I could make do with a wire brush wheel on a drill. But it turned out to be remarkably difficult to hold the drill firmly enough while brushing a piece of steel -- that works for small areas but not for cleaning a large piece or for removing a thick coating of rust or paint.

A bench grinder worked much better, with a wire brush wheel on one side for easy cleaning jobs and a regular grinding stone on the other side for grinding off thick coats of paint or rust. The first bench grinder I bought at Harbor Freight had a crazy amount of vibration that made it unusable, and their wire brush wheel didn't center properly and added to the wobble problem. I returned both, and bought a Ryobi from Home Depot and a better wire brush wheel from the local Metzger's Hardware. The Ryobi has a lot of vibration too, but not so much that I can't use it, and it does a great job of getting rust and paint off.

[Metal art: grease-gun goony bird] Then I had to find a place to put the equipment. I tried a couple of different spots before finally settling on the garage. Pro tip: welding on a south-facing patio doesn't work: sunlight glints off the metal and makes the auto-darkening helmet flash frenetically, and any breeze from the south disrupts everything. And it's hard to get motivated to out outside and weld when it's snowing. The garage is working well, though it's a little cramped and I have to move the Miata out whenever I want to weld if I don't want to risk my baby's nice paint job to welding fumes. I can live with that for now.

All told, it was over a month after I bought the welder before I could make any progress on welding. But I'm having fun now. Finding good junk to use as raw materials is turning out to be challenging, but with the junk I've collected so far I've made some pieces I'm pretty happy with, I'm learning, and my welds are getting better all the time.

Earlier this week I made a goony bird out of a grease gun. Yesterday I picked up some chairs, a lawnmower and an old exercise bike from a friend, and just came in from disassembling them. I think I see some roadrunner, cow, and triceratops parts in there.

Photos of everything I've made so far: Metal art.

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[ 14:02 Feb 27, 2016    More art | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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