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Welding! Welding is a glorious, mystery-infused, thoroughly bad-ass way to stick things together. Welders move in their own cloud of mythos and danger – they are dirtier, tougher, and sexier than other kinds of makers, and the things they build are big and strong and hold our world together. This positive stereotype permeates at all levels of pop culture: if a character is introduced while welding, you immediately know that they will be some kind of blue-collar superhero, or some kind of cliched contradiction – the welder quoting Hegel after winning the bar fight, or the classic trope of seeing a welder at work, and then, they flip off their helmet, and OMG IT’S A GIRL! A GIRL WELDING!

Over on Make: Projects, I’ve written a welding tutorial to get you started with barely any gear at all – simply three car batteries and some jumper cables give you the ability to perform basic stick (arc) welding.


Meg Allan Cole welds at my shop in this CRAFT Video about a typecase table with an homage to Flashdance.

Who doesn’t want to get in on this skill set?  Soldering makes electronic magic happen, knitting keeps you warm, but knowing how to weld will make attractive people of whatever orientation you are into swoon. Everyone wants to know how to weld. The biggest problem, for most people, is that you need access to a welding machine.

There are a few options here: you can borrow someone’s welding rig. I suppose welders are common on farms, but only 2% of Americans live on farms, and if you are one of them, you were probably out welding the cows and milking the corn within minutes of birth (I have only a vague idea of what goes on at farms, as you can see. Something with dirt, right?) If you live in the grittier, more industrial parts of cities, there are welding shops all over the place, but they are dark, scary places (part of their appeal) and if you were to walk into one, expecting to find dedicated tradesman open to the DIY spirit and eager to teach a snot-nosed kid, you will quickly discover that welders are dark, scary, busy people, bribe-able with beer, maybe, but not usually interested, at all, in teaching.

You can buy a welder. You can pick up a cheap 110v stick welder for about a hundred bucks (check big hardware stores, Amazon, or Craigslist) or a bare-bones, break-in-a-couple-of-hours MIG (wire feed) machine for under $150 (just saw some for that much, and lower, on Amazon. Do not buy them. They are garbage), but I know that many, many people cannot even afford that.

Also, if you are not sure about the whole welding thing and want to try it out, or just need to do a day of welding to finish that one big project, or need to repair things every now and then, buying a new piece of equipment is probably not the best course of action, especially since when it comes to welders (as it is with pretty much everything else), you get what you pay for.

The final option, and best for the poor or non-committed-to-welding maker, is to build a welder. There are many ways to do this, ranging from impressive feats of DIY electrical engineering all the way down to the easiest, simplest one: wiring together some car batteries. It is quick and uses stuff you either have lying around or can pretty easily obtain. Follow the instructions, and you can go from zero to welding in under an hour.

Caveats, cautions, and all that
Welding is dangerous! Even if you take every possible safety precaution, you will occasionally burn and cut yourself, and electric shocks and retinal burns are very common, even if you know what you’re doing — and you probably do not. Skimp on safety and you can blind yourself, suffer injuries that will make hardened ER doctors puke, and die in any number of closed-casket ways. When you’re starting out, wear a good, rated helmet, thick gloves, non-flammable natural fiber clothing (as much leather as possible), and boots. Later, when you have a couple of hundred hours of welding experience and the scar tissue has rendered you insensitive to pain (and pleasure — a downside of welding), you can do the weld in a T-shirt or gloveless bit, but at that point, you will know what you’re getting into (and trust me — UV-burned armpits suck).

One important bit of information that other welding tutorials leave out: At first, you will be horrible at this. There is a good chance you will not even be able to strike an arc, or if you do, you will not be able to maintain one. Or, if you can maintain one, you will burn through the things you are trying to weld or not really weld them at all. People tend to not document their failures online, and it is easy for the person who’s new at welding (or skateboarding, or juggling, or pretty much anything) to forget that the thing they are trying to learn is hard, and that the flaw is not in the instructor, but in the student. The flaw is in the student, but not in the way that you might think — remember that worthwhile things are hard and people do not document their learning curve or all of their countless failures. You will fail, but just keep trying and you will eventually get it right. It will just likely take longer than you think.

Lastly, welding is really not the be-all/end-all panacea for fabrication. It is difficult to do on anything except for steel, welded things are hard to take apart, and the heat tends to distort small or thin parts.

With all that said: on to welding!


Bio: Hackett is the founder and director of the Madagascar Institute, the Brooklyn “art combine” specializing in large-scale sculptures, guerrilla art events, and carnival rides from hell. He is also an Adjunct Professor at New York University, and a “TV personality.” The fall season of his show, Stuck With Hackett, premiered on August 18th on the Science Channel.

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Comments

  1. JamesW says:

    This is freakin’ awesome – thanks Hackett!

    p.s. – your show is a hoot!

  2. James B says:

    In my personal experience, getting the edges of the pieces to weld and where the clamp attaches, cleaned to bright metal is really important.  I don’t do much stick welding, so maybe it is different for this process, but ya really want the best mean free electron path you can get.  I even clean the clamp to bright metal every so often.  If 20 bucks is a bit steep for those bone shaking angle grinders from Harbor Freight, a good clean file will get the job done. 

  3. James B says:

    In my personal experience, getting the edges of the pieces to weld and where the clamp attaches, cleaned to bright metal is really important.  I don’t do much stick welding, so maybe it is different for this process, but ya really want the best mean free electron path you can get.  I even clean the clamp to bright metal every so often.  If 20 bucks is a bit steep for those bone shaking angle grinders from Harbor Freight, a good clean file will get the job done. 

  4. Anonymous says:

    I weld, but now after reading this, I’m welding while feeling *sexy*.  Thanks!

  5. Pete Rippe says:

    this is a great solution, i can’t wait to find my self in a situation to rig one up! and while the home depot versions are cheap and “unrepairable”, for the cost, the convenience of having a wire-feed MIG make it definitely worth it, especially since the last HDepot Lincoln model i saw had a 3 yr warranty, so thats 3 years use at $50-$60 a year. As stated above, be very cautious of craigslist, new is almost cheaper : )

    But i do take issue with the following line tho, “and electric shocks and retinal burns are very common, even if you know what you are doing”. If you know what you are doing, you will not experience either of these.

    You never weld without the appropriate filter lenses, which increase with welder power. Closing your eyes DOES NOT STOP RADIATION from reaching your eyes. Exposed skin will be sunburned after long use. Low end helmets can start as low as $25

    Electric shocks come from placing yourself in the circuit of the welder: this means you are not wearing gloves, and you are physically between the electrode and the work piece, should never happen. There is very rarely a reason to weld without gloves. They cost $8

    1. hackett says:

      Thanks for the comment, but I will have to disagree on being able to always avoid any kind of injury. Especially if one is just starting out, with no guide except for this How-to and others online, being told that welding is risk-free if proper precautions are met is setting up an inevitable and prob painful surprise.
      My first welding wound was a surprise: I was laying down what might have been my third rod, ever, fully geared up in safety gear. Something (bad hand position, improperly prepared plate, damp rod, universe tending towards entropy) caused a little sputter at the weld, and two little orbs of red-hot metal described a neat, perfect arc and went up the cuff of my glove, over the sleeve of my jacket and burned two neat holes at the base of my thumb. I still have the scar. Something like this will happen to you if you weld, esp when you are starting out. A common cause of retinal burn is when you are looking away from someone else who is welding, even with your back turned- the corners of your eyes can get as crisped as badly as if you were staring down directly at the weld. As far as shocks go: Even cheap gloves can be good insulators, until you get all sweaty from melting steel on a hot day. Soaked with sweat your gloves (or jacket, or shirt) can become a fine conductor, a little fact that does not become obvious until you jolt yourself.
      I posit that it is impossible to learn to weld and get good at it without the occasional (most likely minor, even forgettable) injury. Better to know this from the beginning and take it in stride than expect nothing and quit, terrified, after your first scrape or burn or shock. This is true of many things (or, at least, most worthwhile things) – who has never burned themselves on a soldering iron, or a hot glue gun?

  6. For the cost of the batteries you are probably better off just buying a cheap AC stick welder and running a 6011 or 7018 filler rod.

    I don’t like sounding mean but some of the stuff Hackett does and says really irritates me. Safety equipment is critical. Do not stick weld without a welding jacket, leather gloves, safety glasses and a welding mask. There is just no reason to not be safe.

  7. For the cost of the batteries you are probably better off just buying a cheap AC stick welder and running a 6011 or 7018 filler rod.

    I don’t like sounding mean but some of the stuff Hackett does and says really irritates me. Safety equipment is critical. Do not stick weld without a welding jacket, leather gloves, safety glasses and a welding mask. There is just no reason to not be safe.

    1. hackett says:

      Think you might have missed the point of the article- it is aimed at people who, for a host of reasons (no money, no space, curious but not ready to commit, just need to do a small amount of welding) will not/cannot buy a welder. I do not recommend that they go out and buy batteries instead (even though on a straight-up cost benefit analysis batteries might be a better investment, as you can use them for a bunch of things, esp when it comes to post-apocalyptic flourishing, whereas a welder is just good for welding and lighting cigarettes.) , but that it is much more likely that someone can borrow or obtain batteries, or that they already own them.
      As far as safety equipment:
      I lay out the irreducible core of what one needs to get welding safely. A mask, non-flammable clothing that covers exposed skin, and gloves. The helmet is the only thing that a cash-low aspiring welder needs to acquire: all the rest they prob already have, or can get, easily. I am always wary of any endeavor that requires a new wardrobe (that is a paraphrase of someone more articulate and famous), and with welding, as in many things, this is true. A welding jacket can be nice, but is not necessary, or even optimum- I would vouch for my old motorcycle jacket over one of the fancy Hobart cotton jackets. What you need is UV/heat/splatter protection, not a logo- again, reduce it to the core, to what is needed and important, not what the ad says. The part about safety glasses while welding is new to me, and seems a little over the top while welding, but they should be worn while chipping and brushing. Then again, what one needs is non-shattering eye protection, so a pair of all-plastic $3 sunglasses would do the trick as well.

  8. MacQueen says:

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  9. Jared Solomon M.D. says:

    You do realize how much you just simplified soldering, right?  You know, soldering and brazing, the technique that puts refrigerators, air conditioners, ice makers, and your plumbing together?  The joining of different metal alloys together?  We need a good How-To on brazing and soldering now…

  10. Jared Solomon M.D. says:

    You do realize how much you just simplified soldering, right?  You know, soldering and brazing, the technique that puts refrigerators, air conditioners, ice makers, and your plumbing together?  The joining of different metal alloys together?  We need a good How-To on brazing and soldering now…

    1. hackett says:

      Yes, I realize how much I simplified soldering, an attitude that comes from being really horrible at it. Like: years of attempts, and when I get a non-leaky connection I feel like the MacArthur people are going to stop by at any moment. I have gotten tips and lessons from professional plumbers, and I still am crappy at it. A good How-to would be fantastic, and I would be one of the first readers.

  11. hackett says:

    can the battery explode?

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