Zero to Make: Crash Course in Welding

Education Metalworking Workshop
Zero to Make: Crash Course in Welding

Over the next month-plus, David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’ll be regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

I was at a wedding last weekend, sitting at a table with old friends, people I knew well, but hadn’t seen in a while. We were discussing our most recent happenings. The update-a-thon got around to me and I told them that I was getting back to making things with my hands. When I brought up learning to weld, one of my friends’ eyes lit up. He had been thinking about learning to weld for a few years, in order to build a grill he’d been dreaming about for his bonfire pit. His girlfriend, and everyone else around the table, chimed in that he could just get one at IKEA or Costco or Amazon. They didn’t see the point in making it himself, but I knew exactly what he was talking about. A few months prior, I would have agreed with his girlfriend about advice for finding the lowest-cost solution. Now, however, I asked him about his welding plans, and surprisingly, was able to offer him a little advice.

David (right) with TechShop instructor Gregg Gemin. Photo: Andrew Taylor, TechShop

There’s something about the process of joining two pieces of metal together that captures people’s excitement and curiosity. Outside of a romantic idea of welding masks, torches, and flying sparks, I had no idea what I was getting into. Now that I’ve taken a few classes, I’ve learned enough to distinguish the different types of welds, their uses, and the fact that I have a lot of practice in store before my welds are worth anything. As Gregg Gemin, one of the welding instructors at TechShop, told me: it takes about a mile of welding before your welds are any good. That means I have well over 5,275 feet of welding to get out of the way – better to start early. Being able to describe the different types of welds was enough to help my friend get started. Here’s what I’ve learned:

MIG Welding
My first experience with welding was taking an MIG welding class at TechShop. At this point, I knew there were different types of welds, but I couldn’t tell which was which, and what they were used for. MIG welding uses a continuous wire feed (which serves as a filler to adhere the two pieces) as an electrode and an inert gas mixture (Argon and Carbon Dioxide) to protect the weld from contamination. From what I was able to take away, MIG welding is fast and, because of the automatic wire feed, is somewhat easier to learn.

Gregg spent a lot of time on safety and preparation, which are both important aspects of welding. There were a few other students in the course, each with a slightly different grasp of what they were getting themselves into. After Greg set up the table, each of us got a chance to handle the arc. Admittedly, my first welds were not very good. I was zigging and zagging all over the sheet metal, nowhere near the joint I was trying to weld. It took me a while before I was used to the darkness of the helmet and the feel of the torch through the gloves.

TIG Welding
Because MIG welding had an automatic wire feed, it was easy to focus on my welds (even though they weren’t very good) and the speed and angle that produced the different results. TIG welding was a slightly different process: I had to feed the filler metal into the weld manually while simultaneously controlling the arc (the part of the metal I was heating) created by the tungsten electrode. Even though this was a slightly more complex process, my welds were dramatically better – an improvement I credit to the MIG welding experience, even if it was just because I was used to seeing through the welding mask at this point. Based on my conversations with Gregg, the TIG weld can be more precise, but can take a lot longer and cost more than MIG welding

Gas Welding
After the original Zero to Maker post, one of the commenters, MauiJim, suggested I check out TM Technologies and their metalworking courses. I followed the suggestion and discovered that they ran weekend workshops on metalworking fundamentals and 4-day metalworking intensives out of Kent “The Tin Man” White’s workshop in Nevada City, about three hours northeast of San Francisco. Lucky for me, I was headed to Nevada City a few weeks later for a weekend trip to visit my girlfriend’s parents. Unlucky for me, however, there wasn’t a workshop running that weekend. I decided to reach out to the Tin Man anyway and see if he could manage a tour of his workshop. I sent him an email explaining who I was, my goal of going from Zero to Maker, and that I’d love to interview him for MAKE. A few days later I got this response:

Come on up. I’ll feed the bears first if you call ahead.

Understandably, I was a little nervous as I drove to the shop on Sunday morning. As it turned out, making that trip and spending that morning with Kent was one of the most enlightening experiences of my journey so far. Not only did Kent give me a lesson in Gas Welding (a.k.a. oxyacetylene welding), but he offered his point of view on the Zero to Maker concept – a situation he knew all too well. He’s watched the generational drop-off in metalworkers with growing concern. He’s become one of the world experts in gas welding instruction, not because he’s exceptionally great (which he is), but by default – he’s one of the few who still teach it. He also had great advice for me as a beginning metalworker:

My advice for someone getting started is to read some and watch some. Ask questions. Then decide what you want to do. Start simply. Learn to sketch, measure, mark, cut and file and sand. Learn also to drill, debur, fold and bend. Learn to rivet, bolt, and screw. Learn the metals and their applications. Then learn the hot stuff, after your shop skills are developed. Nothing worse than jumping in prematurely and setting your hair alight.

I asked him why he preferred gas welding to some of the more common methods I’d seen, to which he responded:

Gas welding is simple and portable and needs no electricity. Perfect cleanliness and breeze-free conditions are not required, as they are with MIG and TIG. Persons nearby do not necessarily need to be shielded from it, as they must be from arc rays. It is effective on several types of thin sheet and tubing, such as steel, aluminum, stainless, copper etc – and the same equipment is also appropriate for soldering, brazing, annealing, hot working, coloring, and in some cases, cutting – which the marvelous electric machines simply cannot accomplish.

My experience with the Tin Man and the instructors at TechShop were a fantastic introduction to welding. I still have a long way to go, roughly a mile to be exact, but I do have enough basic information to know where to go next. Enough to be dangerous.

Make: Projects Welding Primer – This is a fantastic tutorial for getting started. Even if you are planning to take a course, reading through this primer will give you a solid base of knowledge and understanding.

MIG Welding and TIG Welding Courses at TechShop – Like all their other classes, TechShop knows how to teach to the beginner. Even if you’ve never held a torch, these 2-hour courses ($60) are a great way to get a feel for the process under the guidance of an experienced instructor.

TM Technology Workshops – I learned a great deal after only spending a Sunday morning with the Tin Man. If I have the resources (time and money), I definitely plan on returning for one of his 4-day Metalworking Intensives.

Do you have other good welding resources? If so, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!

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