“Webster’s dictionary* defines ‘wedding’ as ‘the fusing of two metals with a hot torch.’ Well, you know something? I think you guys are two metals — gold medals.” Michael Scott (Steve Carrell), The Office, Season 3, Episode 16, “Phyllis’ Wedding.”
Last Friday, I knew about as much about welding as Michael does about giving wedding speeches — or using the dictionary. Which is to say, of course, not much. To be fair, in writing and editing content for EAA for years, being around and sometimes involved in multiple build and restoration projects in my life, I certainly picked up a few things and developed sources and resources I could trust, but I’d never actually welded anything to anything else.
I may never have done any welding, but I did have a wedding once, and so it was that my wife Muffy and I attended an EAA SportAir Workshop over the weekend to see what we could learn. EAA offers workshops on a variety of topics both here in Oshkosh and at select locations around the country. These workshops include everything from the fundamentals of aircraft instruction to working with specific materials like composites, fabric, and sheet metal. Our workshop was on TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding and spanned two days in the building on the AirVenture grounds that we know as Paul’s Aeroplane Factory.
Our class was taught by self-described welding nerd Shaun Walker. He estimates that he has at least 10,000 hours over more than a quarter century spent behind the visor of a welding helmet, he teaches welding professionally at Wisconsin’s Madison Area Technical College, and guess what he does for fun? He welds at home as a hobby, fixing whatever might sort of possibly need fixing, and, as a side gig, produces some absolutely remarkable artwork, including a stunning take on Van Gogh’s Starry Night that substitutes the post-impressionist’s canvas and brushes for stainless steel and a high-voltage torch.
Watching Shaun teach is like walking into a rock concert just as the band launches into their biggest hit. He’s animated, gregarious, and unfailingly upbeat and not afraid to get loud about it — if it helps, imagine a mix of (a much happier) Sam Kinison and Brian Doyle Murray, with a healthy and homey Wisconsin accent. He’s also a welding genius, not just in terms of hands-on skill, but also the physics, metallurgy, and electronics that go into it. He knows as much about welding as I wish I did about just about anything.
The class started at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday when the weatherman had warned us about 2-4 inches of snow that turned out to be a full foot. A lot of the public roads hadn’t been plowed, but I was proud and not at all surprised to see that our facilities team had already taken care of the roads leading to the Aeroplane Factory. A couple of students were delayed a bit by the weather, but, once they got there, the class was full with about 18 people. Most of them were EAA and airplane people but, surprisingly, a couple of them weren’t – one gentleman in particular was building a drag racer and came to the class because he knew that EAA was a credible source for training.
We started the day with a few hours of presentation and a bit of video. The jargon was over my head at first, but Shaun stepped through it at a good pace, and put, as expected, a heavy emphasis on safety. We took notes and asked questions and then it was time to get hands-on. We were each issued a helmet and gloves, and anyone in short sleeves (not uncommon in Wisconsin, even given the blizzard) was given a welding jacket. Shaun carefully went over the sensitivity settings for the helmets which have visors that automatically darken to save your eyes from the literally blinding light of the torches. (The fact that the helmets are like a real-world equivalent of the peril-sensitive sunglasses from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series was a nerd reference I kept quietly to myself. Never let it be said that I can’t read a room.)
Shaun showed us how to remove the tungsten electrode (the welding equivalent of the needle on a record player) from the business end of our torches and, using a bench grinder, shape it appropriately for the first material we’d be working with — carbon steel. With electrodes shaped and installed, we opened the valves on the big and vaguely intimidating canisters of argon that were plumbed into each of our Lincoln Electric welders. Argon, the inert gas that puts the IG in TIG, is used as a shielding gas when doing this kind of welding. It’s pumped out of the end of the torch creating a column around the electrode which keeps the welding area clean and insulated from oxidation and other contaminants that might, as Shaun put it, cause you to have a bad day.
With the argon flowing and the torch ready, we powered up our machines and set them up per Shaun’s instructions, choosing the welding mode and setting the maximum amperage. For our first try, we were just going to run beads across a single piece of scrap carbon steel — that whole “fusing of two metals” thing would come a little later.
We brought our torches down to the requisite tiny fraction of an inch – imagine the thickness of a dime – above the steel and depressed the foot pedal to send power to the electrode and gas out of the nozzle. A tiny but wildly intense arc of manmade lightning crackled from the torch, instantly heating the steel. And, in my case, because I was dazzled by the whole thing (I may have yelped the first time, but the helmets do a lot to muffle sounds), almost instantly burned a hole straight through the steel. Then, I found out what happens if you touch the electrode to the material you’re welding — what happens is you must stop and head back to the grinder to reshape the electrode. Pro tip: if you go into this workshop with as little experience as I had, pick a seat close to the grinder.
I quickly settled into a routine, making all the mistakes in the book — holding the torch at the wrong angle, moving too fast, moving too slow, holding it too far away from the metal (a dime really isn’t all that thick, after all), and generally defacing several pieces of scrap steel as I tried to get the hang of it. I knew welding required a lot of skill, but I was completely unprepared for the level of fine detail and finesse that was demanded. Staring through my peril-sensitive helmet at the miniature hellscape of buzzing electric heat, watching for the material to melt just the right amount, then pushing the bead and adding filler wire (kind of a mix between solder and putty) with rhythmic and microscopic consistency while varying the amperage as needed with my foot — that’s when I learned that welding is more than a skill, it really is an art.
Next, we practiced welding two pieces of carbon steel together using various types of joints, first tack welding them in a few spots to hold them in place before starting the serious weld. Over time, we moved on to other materials. Stainless steel was next, then 4130 chromoly steel tube (the bones of so many airplanes), and, finally, the next day, aluminum. Each task, each new material meant different machine settings, different techniques, different filler wire, and a chance to start fresh and make different mistakes. The pacing worked well for me, as a great way to capture and hold my fragile and fickle attention is to keep putting new and shiny objects in front of me — and then asking me to melt them at 11,000 degrees.
I enjoyed it, but I never got good at any of it.
That said, I did get better at it. Consistently. And, more importantly, I never got overly frustrated. Honestly, this surprised me a bit. In my younger days, I might have folded my arms, officially declared that welding was stupid, and stomped off, probably to go play Zaxxon or watch Star Wars again.
But this was different for a few reasons. First of all, I knew in advance that I wasn’t going to be great (or even good) at it immediately, so I’d set my expectations really low and given myself permission to fail as many times as I needed to, trusting that Shaun wouldn’t let any of those failures lead to shocks, burns, or blindness. He kept things safe, well-organized, and upbeat, constantly answering questions, doing demos, and throwing out the occasional well-earned high five.
Second, my wife was there, and, in addition to having the real mechanical aptitude in the family,
she, obviously, has the patience of a saint (if you doubt that, marry me for a day.) When I run low on patience, she always has some I can borrow, assuming I have the presence of mind to take it. That patience not only kept me centered, it manifested itself when she decided to skip 4130 and aluminum, and just focus on making steady and impressive improvement on her stainless steel welds. She found the beauty in it, as she does with so many things. I didn’t need a welding class to be reminded of her good influence on me, but I’m glad for the chance to celebrate it.
And, finally, after each attempt, I could see, initially with Shaun’s help and then on my own, exactly what I had done wrong. I knew how to do it right, but I just didn’t necessarily have the dexterity, finesse, and eye-hand-hand-foot coordination to do it. I’m a drummer, my car has a manual transmission, and I’m a pilot who loves to fly taildraggers — my hands and feet aren’t strangers to working together. With practice, I know I can get there, and it’s okay that it’ll take more than just one weekend.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have moments of progress and pride. I struggled with filler wire like crazy on the first day, but, when we switched to aluminum, it got easier – maybe because the weld pool was bigger and somehow smoother to work with. That inspired me to jump back to steel and make some real improvement. That led to another happy moment when I realized I was completing one step, the tack welding, almost automatically. That was a part of the process I had down pat, flipping switches, turning knobs, lining up the material, and zapping it with the torch in key places without even giving it a thought. That, as they say, was not nothing, and it was certainly a far cry from the guy who allegedly yelped the first time he turned on the torch.
I also got good at cleaning and notching 4130 tubing to create really tight-fitting joints — granted, I then utterly destroyed them with my torch, but that gave Shaun the chance to demonstrate how it’s possible to fix even the most apocalyptic welds. (But if you’re building an airplane and you make a weld as bad as my earlier ones, please just start over.)
The weekend wrapped up with class surveys and a reminder of the discounts available to SportAir Workshop attendees from our ridiculously generous sponsors at Lincoln Electric and Aircraft Spruce & Specialty. Yes, I’m absolutely biased because I work at EAA, and my desk is only about 25 feet from the marketing department. Call me a shill, but that doesn’t make the facts any less factual. The welders we used, Lincoln Electric Square Wave TIG 200s, retail for $2,400. If you spend $350 to attend the welding workshop, you get a $400 discount on the welder, plus you get a great foundation for how to use it. That’s a crazy deal that we’re lucky to offer. There were also plenty of phonebook-sized Aircraft Spruce catalogs available, along with a form to fill out and send in that grants exclusive discounts to all SportAir students.
Muffy and I took the course because we both wanted to learn more and try a new skill, a skill we might use in a project of our own one day. For anyone ready to start a project, the discounts alone makes it a no-brainer.
After a fascinating weekend of trial and error (and error and error and error), am I a good welder? No, not even close. About the best I can tell you is that, if you have two pieces of metal that look nice and aren’t stuck together, I can fix both of those things.
No, I’m not good at it, but, last Friday I didn’t know how to weld, and now I do. That was a big step for me — getting good at it will come with time.
*-For my fellow pedants, the current edition of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary actually defines the transitive verb welding as “…to unite (metallic parts) by heating and allowing the metals to flow together or by hammering or compressing with or without previous heating.”