Sparks Flying

Mid-April brought spring heat to the Bay Area. The hipsters decamped all afternoon to Dolores Park and other San Francisco denizens happily drove to the beach. I spent the pleasant weekend in a dark garage wearing a face mask, gripping a welding torch, and covered under a heavy coat and gloves. Sparks periodically flew over my head. Although I was indoors all day, I still got an unfortunate tan on my neck from the plasma blasts.

I quite enjoy putting stuff together, and of all the stuff-joining techniques, there’s nothing more burly than welding together hot steel. I had no idea what welding involved or even what I wanted to weld, but I needed for a long time to learn. Fortunately, The Crucible in Oakland offers all sorts of welding classes along with the space and equipment to weld. I solicited advice from my welding friends on whether I should learn oxy-acetylene, MIG, or TIG welding. The collective response was that oxy-acetylene is easy enough that I did not need a full-day class; TIG welding is great for slow, meticulous welds; and MIG welding is good for quick, practical welds.

So I signed up for weekend intensive MIG-welding course at The Crucible. MIG stands for Metal Inert Gas. Saturday morning at 10am, I joined four others students in the back of the Crucible warehouse. Our instructor – and sculptor and Napa farmer – an affable guy named Colin – got us situated in bays on our own MIG welding rigs. In about an hour, all of us were welding together small pieces of steel.

On the one hand, I was surprised at the simplicity of MIG welding. A box the size of a dorm refrigerator generates low-voltage (10-20V) but high-amperage (3-6A) current that charges up an internal spool of fine steel wire sheathed in a conductive copper coating. When the trigger button on the welding nozzle is pressed, the welding box simultaneously feeds out the steel wire, conducts current from the MIG wire to the welded metal – heating both quite hot, and blows an inert gas (carbon dioxide) around the welding nozzle to cool quickly the nascent weld and prevent the nozzle from clogging. MIG welding is the hot glue gun of the welding world.

On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to burn the hell out of this other hand. The welded surface gets so hot and bright that it readily melts, ejecting sparks in all directions, mostly right back at my face. Fortunately, I wore protective equipment: two suede elbow-length orange gloves, a suede beige coat, and a full-face welding mask with a dark rectangle visor. With the visor down, I could not see anything unless I turned the torch on. The typical procedure: abut the two metal pieces to be welded, position the welding nozzle, nod to jerk the mask down over the face which turns the world dark, and press the trigger, praying that you are welding something. It is easy to weld; it is hard to weld well.

We learned a lot more than just MIG welding. Almost as scary is the plasma cutter. Like the MIG welder, the plasma torch uses high-amperage electricity to fire a 4-inch long plasma torch that can cut through an inch of steel and send sparks flying. I used the torch to cut free-form shapes out of steel sheet metal.

The grinding room has all sorts of ancient belt-driven contraptions to cut, grind, buff, and polish metal, as well as take off your hand. Everything generates torrents of scary sparks. For those that don’t like bolted machines, you can also use hand-held rotary grinders. Colin mentioned that a hand-held grind did cut through his glove and cut open his hand.

We spent Saturday learning how to use the equipment and practice welding. In the afternoon, we each built a cartoon robot. I finished the day nauseous from the rust smells and jittery from all the grinding. Be careful!

Saturday night featured an intermezzo of a party at Supperclub that lasted until 3am. I hit bed drunk at 4am and work again at 8am. Ug, it would be a tired and hungover day of welding. The most amazing Irish musician played her accordion Sunday morning in the 16th and Mission BART station.

We had all day Sunday from 10am-6pm to work on a project of our own devising. I had recently built a light-up headdress that looked like a rack of antlers. Why not make a similar sculpture of a metal deer skull whose antlers could each hold a tea candle? In the morning, I combed through the scrap bins and cut out the skull with the plasma torch.

Every cut and weld required four times the work to grind, buff, and clean up. Welding leaves so much slag! I drilled holes through a sheet of metal and then got back to the plasma torch to cut out 16 two-inch discs to hold the candles. More grinding smoothed the rough edges and polished the disc faces.

Sunday afternoon, I was ready to weld and much accustomed to the rig although my welding mask today did not fit well, causing much cursing. I welded wire pipe as antlers to the deer skull and topped each antler end with a perpendicular circular disc. Actually the order was different, but you get the idea. After bending the antlers and polishing the whole piece, I happily finished my project by 5:30. I carried home a metal set of antlers on the BART and mounted it on my balcony. So happy with the day’s accomplishment!

Welding isn’t so scary anymore. If I don’t want to trek back to the Crucible to use their MIG welders, I can enroll at the Menlo Park Tech Shop. I’m so eager to take more Crucible classes. In their fire sculpture class, I want to build a set of burning antlers that I can wear on my head. In June, the Crucible offers a neon class in which I could make a bunch of bright signs. Each class expands my set of skills. The combination of techniques (neon + welding + sewing + programming) spurs my creativity and brings me closer to realizing some of my longstanding visions.