For one of the requirements of my college degree, I had to spend a semester building sets for theatrical productions. I like to think I held my own in my stagecraft class, though I was never exactly proficient. Even after I sent a staple through my thumb with an air-powered staple gun, I didn’t shy away from using any of the tools in our scene shop. Through my numerous cuts and pricks, the class introduced me to the wonders of hydrogen peroxide, and for this, I am forever grateful.
However, there was one activity in the workshop that always intimidated me, for the very fact that it was so mysterious. The activity took place behind a curtain, so I could only catch glimpses of sparks flying and hear the crackle of flames. I saw the gear they would use: an intimidating helmet that seemed to be a cross between a motorcycle helmet and Darth Vader’s headpiece, a heavy-duty apron, and huge gloves. It all seemed far beyond the reach of a novice like myself, someone who had enough trouble just trying to squeeze the trigger of a staple gun (not to mention pointing it away from my hand). But now as an aspiring man who has consumed bull penis, I realize that the intimidation factor can no longer be a valid reason to avoid something new. It’s for this reason that it’s time I find out how to weld. Well, that, and if I ever want to make my stage adaptation of Flashdance a reality, I might as well learn how the whole thing works.
The person who was often behind the welding curtain in college is my friend John, and today I visit him at his university in Maryland, where he is the technical director for the school’s theatre program and often welds in the course of building sets. Though he admits that he is in no way a master welder, it’s clear that he has a firm grasp on the technique and will be a great teacher. John defers to his uncle for the designation of “master welder,” and he and his uncle have generously supplied me with the tools I will use today. When John explains that his uncle once perfectly welded a tool kit to the back of his pick up truck, I know that he learned from the best of the best, a real man who probably scoffs at the mere mention of Amazon.com.
John explains that welding isn’t too far removed from soldering, though soldering is more akin to adhering one piece of metal to another, whereas welding involves fusing the two pieces together into one solid structure. There’s several different methods of welding; today, John suggests we try shielded metal arc welding and MIG welding. Even the names are daunting.
We start with shielded metal arc welding, or SMAW, which requires connecting two electrodes to a generator unit. The two electrodes, colored red and black, look like the ends of jumper cables. The black electrode connects to the piece of metal that will be welded, while the red electrode connects to a thin rod that serves as the point of contact for the weld. But before we can even turn on the generator, it’s time to suit up.
When John asked me to wear long sleeves and pants for today’s lesson, I figured it was for protection against flying sparks, but he explains the real reason: in addition to flying sparks and slag (the byproduct that splatters off the point of the weld), the light from welding is in fact ultraviolet light, capable of producing sunburn, as John found out during one ill-fated welding session in a tee shirt. Oddly enough, finding out this fact doesn’t frighten me but instead excites me to continue; perhaps I’m turning a corner in my anxieties after all.
The helmet is just as badass as the painted flames on its side claim it to be. It’s actually outfitted with technology in the lens so that when the bright UV light emanates from the welding point, the helmet will self-darken to protect the welder’s eyes. The sensitivity can be adjusted so that during welding, the whole room can go pitch black except for the tiny flame. I turn the sensitivity all the way up. After learning what the light can do to your skin, I shudder to think what it could do to my eyes.
Lastly, I put on an apron and gloves to protect me further from the heat and sparks. It may seem as though I’m wearing the apron too low on my body, but I’d like to remind you how detrimental a laptop on one’s lap can be to his little swimmers. Could you imagine the damage from a welding flame? As far as I’m concerned, I’m protecting the only thing that counts.
John demonstrates the process for me. After lowering our helmets, he secures the rod in the electrode and then turns the generator on. He swipes the rod on the metal like striking a match, which ignites the flame. When the flame appears, the view through my helmet goes completely dark save for the tiny tip of the rod, which glows bright.
After a minute, John stops and we remove our helmets to examine his handiwork. The welding has left a ring around the connection point of the metals that looks like tire tread. The slag that flew off the metal while John welded is splattered on the table like a Rorschach inkblot. Now that I’m behind the curtain, I can see how mesmerizing welding is, and it makes me even more excited to take my turn.
I think it’s beneficial that I’ve forgotten most of what I learned about electricity in school, because if I knew the sheer power that exists in my hands and what I could damage if I messed up, I wouldn’t be so cavalier about moving forward. But as is so often the case, my ignorance lends me confidence. It helps that John is a calm presence and a worthy teacher; he’s gone through this routine with his students before so it’s not as if I’m his guinea pig.
At first, I just find it difficult to get the fire started. After I swipe the rod on the metal, if I wait too long to remove the rod, it becomes stuck and starts fusing itself to the metal. If I pull the rod away too quickly, the light extinguishes as fast as it begins. It’s hard to find the right middle ground between the two extremes, but I’m at least able to get a sense of feel. There’s more of a finesse to welding than I ever would have imagined.
Though I haven’t fully grasped the technique yet, John suggests we move on so I can see different instances where welding would be appropriate. He places two slats of metal down on the table so that we can fuse them together on their adjacent sides. This type of weld is called a butt weld. A real man wouldn’t make fun of the name of this weld and neither will I. First of all, there’s absolutely no reason to be cheeky about it, and number two, such immaturity could lead to a major accident, and that’s a hole I might never get myself out of. In hindsight, I’m glad I kept my mouth shut.
John gives me a few more tips before I begin. As the flame grows, the rod dissolves rather quickly, so the welder needs to move the rod closer in order to compensate. This is part of the reason why I had such trouble keeping the flame going. Also, he instructs me to make little circular swirls along the path as I weld, like I’m decorating the border of a cake with a long curly q.
Despite my best efforts to make small circular motions with the rod, on my first try, the rod gets stuck to metal almost instantaneously. This time, however, I’m able to pull the rod off with some force and continue on. I’m proud of my recovery until John turns off the generator, the view through my helmet lightens, and I finally get a good look at the rod to see that it’s completely engulfed in flames.
I calmly yet quickly drop the fiery rod into a nearby bucket of water to extinguish its flames. It’s not until much later, long after I’ve left, that I think about how oddly relaxed I was in a situation where a single wrong move could have resulted in disaster. Does it mean I’m starting to reap the benefits of this manly journey? Is John just that good of a teacher that I’ve become even-keeled through osmosis? Or was I just ignorant of the severity of electrical fires? I’m guessing it’s a little bit of each.
After testing my mettle on the not-at-all-humorously-named butt weld, we attempt the T weld, which, as its name implies, creates a capital T shape between two slats of metal. This proves to be the most difficult weld because as you try to keep the flame on its correct path, you also have to fight against gravity to hold the pieces perpendicular to each other. In this scenario, John finds it beneficial to switch to MIG welding.
Instead of a rod attached to the electrode, MIG welding utilizes a technique more akin to a hot glue gun – a wire is continuously fed out of a handheld device, and the welder can control the speed by squeezing a trigger. It requires finer control than using the rod, and it’s much easier to avoid sticking to the metal. Though after a few tries I still haven’t mastered the distance I need to keep between the wire and the metal, I’m now starting to make adjustments on the fly instead of abruptly stopping every time I mess up. I’m not sure that I could weld a tool box to the back of my imaginary pick up truck after an hour of practice, but welding is no longer this mysterious activity that only happens behind closed curtains.
I was surprised to find out how much precision is involved in welding. I expected it to take more brute strength to fuse two pieces of solid metal together, but in actuality, it utilizes skills that would more likely belong to a calligrapher than a weightlifter. And as in any activity that requires fine motor skills, when I was calm and felt under control, my lines were much stronger. John may have had the best advice, given by his former teacher who advised him to “take a shot of Jack Daniels before he welds.” Though I would have opted for Johnnie Walker, I can see the appeal.
It’s so easy to exaggerate the unknown to grand, terrifying proportions, especially for someone like me who thinks of worst-case scenarios for the most innocuous situations. But the worst-case scenarios so rarely come to fruition. When I was welding, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t the greatest at it or that I hadn’t taken a five-hour safety lesson prior to starting – I had a blast anyway. So next time I start to feel overwhelmed by a new activity, I can just think back to this day and how much fun I had when I wasn’t overthinking it. And if that doesn’t work, I can just think to myself, “it’s actually called a butt weld.” That should do the trick.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
Getting one’s hands dirty has to be a perfect encapsulation of masculinity. Though I was wearing protective gloves (and an apron, and a technologically advanced helmet), there was no denying the core of this activity: I was literally fusing together metal. Before today it seemed like a Superman activity that couldn’t be accomplished without tons of training and natural ability. And because it was so foreign to me, it was even more fulfilling than the woodworking I did a few challenges back. The fact that it goes better with whiskey shows that it belongs in the upper echelon of manly activities. 4.35.
NEXT WEEK: In the spirit of Halloween, I investigate my hometown’s most famous urban legend.