Grinder and paint makes me the welder I ain’t, goes the rueful old saw uttered by just about everybody who hasn’t practiced enough to make pretty welds but winds up welding something anyway. Every farmer understands is that welding doesn’t have to be pretty to work. If you have a hot enough arc to get good penetration and you glob enough filler metal in there, it will hold.
My experience with welding has mostly consisted of borrowing an old Westinghouse stick welder from a friend for various projects. That, and cursing the technique when taking apart old machines and finding broken parts or stripped threads that were welded instead of fixed. It’s a story as old as Esau and Jacob: what good is a correctly repaired, serviceable piece of equipment five years down the road? I need to fix this tractor NOW, or these crops are gonna rot and there won’t BE a next five years.
Welding is like lots of things — music, for example — in that, given reasonable equipment, it’s easy enough that most people can do it well enough to please themselves, but to do it well enough to get paid for it takes a lot of work and experience. While we’re all familiar with what a welded metal joint looks like, you really have to try it for yourself to appreciate what a fascinating and mesmerizing process it is, using oodles of electricity to create an arc that melts steel into a tiny puddle that dances like a living thing and sticks solid metal together pretty much forever. Or blows a hole clean through it. Looking through the darkened glass of the welding helmet, the blinding arc disappears and the entire world shrinks to a pea-sized point where a dancing globule of liquid steel requires your entire, undivided attention. It’s meditative, or would be if there weren’t so many things to go wrong.
It’s possible to do quite a bit of welding not knowing what you don’t know. There are a jillion different kinds of steel, not to mention other weldable metals like aluminum and titanium. They respond differently to being turned to liquid and back to solid again, and knowing how the metal is going to distort and shrink is just one of the things that needs to be known. Different alloys and different thicknesses, different environments and surface conditions, different processes and machines and machine settings and filler materials and shielding gases or fluxes, all of these things are taken into account by the professional. And MUST be taken into account on a job where lives are at stake. A little porosity in a weld on a home shop project just means another spritz of Rustoleum; on a commercial aircraft engine or a construction crane it can mean grieving families. But if you’re welding the lawn mower handle you can just pull the trigger and twist the knobs until it works, or doesn’t.
Grinder and paint . . .
Of course, even for the hobbyist there are aspects to welding where ignorance is not bliss. A lot of steel out there is galvanized — coated with a layer of zinc — to deter rust. You can weld galvanized steel, but the fumes are EXTREMELY toxic. It would seem obvious that welding creates extreme heat that takes time to dissipate, electricity that could be lethal if you manage to complete the circuit with your own body, arc rays that can blind you or give you skin cancer if you don’t protect yourself. The list of safety precautions takes four pages of fairly fine print in the owner’s manual, much of it there to limit the manufacurer’s liability should you be stupid or careless enough to point the MIG gun at some part of your anatomy and pull the trigger. I personally wouldn’t consider welding on a gas tank or an acetylene bottle, but the fact that they tell you NOT to do it right there in the manual means that people have done it, and then they (or their survivors) sued.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m going on about welding — it’s not something a pipe maker usually does, never mind a clarinetist. The first reason is that I’ve had to take some time off to protect the high-wear body parts affected by pipe making’s repetitive motions. Thumbs, elbows, shoulders. If I’m not making pipes I need to do something. The second is that I’ve always wanted a decent welder, which is connected to the third reason. I decided that I need another, different belt sander/grinder, a 2X72, both to open up new possibilities and to make my current work less wearing. As manufactured items, these machines are quite expensive, but as do-it-yourself projects, they can be pretty affordable. Now, the trap I usually fall into when I ask myself “how hard could it be?” is that by the time I’ve made, say, a Les Paul-style electric guitar from scratch I will have spent at least what the factory-made item would have cost in tools and materials. This time I think the math works, I’ve done the how-hard-could-it-be thing enough in the past that I’ve got all the tools I need (including my newish milling machine) except the welder. After buying the materials and components, I can buy a nice welder and still save at least a grand compared to what a comparable turnkey machine would cost.
The grinder I’m building was designed by YouTuber Brian House (https://housemade.us) who sells plans and kits. I may go into detail in the future about the grinder’s construction and uses. I bought the material and hardware as a kit; anybody who has made something like this from scratch and needed one spring — which isn’t available locally and has to be ordered, comes only in packs of ten for 20 bucks and costs nine bucks to ship — will realize how much value Brian adds by putting all the bits and bobs in one box, not to mention cutting all the material to EXACTLY the right length. And not to mention excellent customer service.
Not only will will I have a handy new grinder (there might be some knife making in my future), I’ll have a welder. For all the times when welding something is the wrong solution, there are plenty of other times when it is the best one, and I have a few things lying around that need to be welded. For instance, my practice chair. Years ago, when I was still subbing in the PSO and preparing for my audition, I noticed one of the orchestra chairs in a corner backstage with a big X taped across the seat. A stagehand told me that it had a broken frame, so the X was there to remind them not to use it. When I asked if I could have it, he said sure, just don’t tell anybody I told you that.
Lacking a welder, I hacksawed some steel splints and lashed them on with hose clamps — crude but effective, as Spock would say. That repair allowed me to do all of my practice and audition preparation sitting in exactly the same kind of chair I would use on stage. Maybe that’s not a big thing, but sometimes big things are made up of a lot of little things. Anyway, that bodge job has been sitting there for years, a reproach to my inability to weld and fix it properly. Now I can weld in the splints and put the hose clamps back in the box of odds and ends where they belong.
Just as soon as I’m good enough.