For many couples, Valentine’s Day means flowers, chocolates, or a special dinner together in a romantic setting. While there is nothing wrong with that, this year my wife and I tried something different. We took a couple’s welding class together, and it was terrific. Learning new skills and collaborating on a project can be the perfect way to spend an evening together.
I tried MIG welding once years ago. My wife did one arc welding project as part of a high school science and tech program. We were both interested in learning more, so when I found Staten Island Makerspace was running a Valentine’s Day couples welding class, it was too good to resist.
Including us, four couples took part in the class. The instructor, Scott Van Campen, has worked as a professional sculptor and metal worker for over 14 years. Each couple designed their own piece of art, and then used a plasma cutter and MIG welder to make it.
Arguably, this was the best Valentine’s Day date we’ve had in a while, so I thought I’d share our experience with you.
After a quick safety lecture and getting outfitted with protective goggles and gloves, we dove right in by learning to use a plasma cutter. These tools generate a plasma jet that can reach temperatures of up to 40,000°F by blowing a high-speed stream of air or other gas through an arc of electricity. The resulting jet of ionized plasma can cut through sheets of any electrically conductive material.
The plasma jet makes precise cuts with a narrow kerf (the material lost when making a cut). Most of the material from the cut is consumed, but a small amount of re-cooled “dross” on the underside of the cut is normal.
We started by holding the torch just off the edge of a 16 gauge metal sheet, and then dragging with the tip directly in contact with the metal to make a simple straight cut. Each couple took turns cutting off a section of the sheet for their project.
Next, we took our sections of steel sheet over to a work bench to sketch out our designs.
Anxious to dive in, each couple quickly settled on a design and got busy sketching directly on the sheet of steel. Soapstone chalk was used to draw on the metal due to its high temperature resistance, which prevents the heat of the torch from destroying the marks while cutting.
Collaborating on a design with your loved one can be a very fun experience. In our case, my wife wanted a bunch of grapes with the phrase “Wine is Life” in the middle. I wanted to make sure our design would include some interesting elements that had to be welded as well as cut. So we planned to bend a wide strip of metal into a vertical cuff to weld to the back and hold the piece upright with a wine bottle inside.
At this point, with our designs all sketched out, we headed back to the plasma cutter to cut them out.
Cutting Shapes with Plasma
Since this was a beginner’s class, I suspect the torch was equipped with a “drag cup” to help us maintain a constant distance from the work piece. This allows us beginners to drag the torch directly across the surface of the metal sheet instead of maintaining a set distance. This was a good thing, since unlike our simple initial cuts, we now had to precisely cut out shapes. It was challenging, but everyone rose to the occasion.
When you are starting a cut from the middle of the piece, you initially hold the torch at an angle to the material you are cutting. This helps prevent material being blown back into the nozzle of the torch at the start. Once the torch is cutting you hold it perpendicular to the piece. We found that pulling the torch towards you made it easier to control than pushing it away from you.
The bright light from the torch makes it hard to see, even with darkened safety goggles. Following the curves of the design could also be a challenge. Leaning to the side to watch from an angle helps, and also brings your head out of line with the tool so that it does not obstruct what you are trying to see.
My wife cut one side of the design and I cut the other, so we each got to try our hands at it. Even with a lot of small, detailed curves in our bunch of grapes design, we managed to do an acceptable job.
Next it was time to help our creations take shape.
Bending and Shaping
Next we took our cut out designs and did any bending or shaping we needed. Our own design only required that we bend a wide strip of metal into a round shape to form the stand. We used a section of pipe about the thickness of a wine bottle to help us. The 16 gauge sheet was pretty easy to bend. My wife and I took turns holding the piece and forming it into shape through a combination of whacking it with a hammer and using our hands.
Other couples had more complex shaping to do. Matt Gaor and his wife, pictured above, used a similar technique with a pipe to bend the petals of their flower design. They bent each petal over the pipe in one direction, then flipped the flower over and made a second curve in the opposite direction. Each petal bent in a different direction from the last, giving a nice organic look to their steel flower.
Now it was time to weld our pieces together.
The metal we were working with had a layer of rust on it. Normally when you are welding something structural, you need to clean both parts you want to connect to remove any dirt, oil, or oxidation. I was surprised to learn that for our lightweight art pieces, it was OK to skip that step.
We all got outfitted with auto-darkening welding helmets, replacing the darkened googles we used for the plasma cutter. Scott explained the necessary safety procedures and the techniques we would be using.
Once the welding torch lights up, it is very hard to see what you are doing. You get yourself set and practice the moves you are about to make with the torch before you start. Practice a move, then do it. Then move on to the next weld.
Scott described the sound of a good weld in progress as sizzling bacon. “If you hear a sound like water drops falling into hot bacon grease,” he warned, “that’s bad.” It means you are holding the torch at the wrong distance from the work piece.
Most of the welds needed were simple spot welds. A few were longer seams.
We included writing in our design, which can be done with a welder. One couple included a large “G” monogram, but our “Wine is Life” motto had the smallest letters of any of the designs. It was pretty challenging, and the results were only barely legible. I’m sure with practice, we could have done much better.
As with the plasma cutter, it was best to pull the torch rather than push it. We drew each letter from right to left, leaning our heads to the left side to watch what we were doing as best as we could through the bright glare of the welder.
All’s Well That Ends Welded
In the end, we were all pretty happy with our projects, despite being beginners.
The couples welding class concluded with a prosecco toast, and happy conversation. It was a great experience that left us feeling encouraged and interested in learning more. The next day I was browsing Craigslist for used MIG welders and plasma cutters.
The SI Makerspace has a really nice set up with lots of fabrication tools; you can make just about anything! If you are in the area, you should check them out, or look around and find a good makerspace near you.
Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and author of How Things Are Made: From Automobiles to Zippers. Andrew is also an electronics and robotics enthusiast and has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children's Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Enrichment in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.View more articles by Andrew Terranova