Some of my earliest memories were of gluing paper together to make something in kindergarten. My materials then were pieces of construction paper cut with blunt-point scissors and a big tub of paste. Nowadays I get the same feeling each time I stick two pieces of metal together using my welder.
Welding can be both fun and profitable for anyone with a desire to create something from an assortment of raw materials. Long gone are the days of huge stationary steel cabinets which took up garage space and guzzled 220-volt power. Now a welder can be a handy tackle box-sized “buzz box” or “wire-feed” unit which runs on 110-volt house current and can be carried from place to place with one hand. For the home hobbyist or general light-duty farm use, a small machine is usually just the ticket.
Growing up in a very rural area I was first introduced to welding by my dad. He was a general contractor who remodeled old houses, pastored a country church, and was always being called on to provide general handyman services for people of our small community… always refusing any pay for his services. A man with minimal formal education, Dad could study a problem or need and then scribble out a simple drawing on a small notepad he carried in his shirt pocket. Next, he would visit his pile of pipe, angle iron and sheet steel in the corner of his small backyard shop and collect the necessary supplies. A few minutes to a few hours later he would have built the necessary tool, part or other gizmo needed to solve the problem at hand.
My first recollection of him welding was with me sitting on a garage stool made from a truck wheel, a two-foot piece of flat steel bar, and an old cast-iron farm-implement seat. That sturdy stool was one of Dad’s first welding projects some time long before he helped mom create me. Now some 45 years later that stool still sits in his workshop and is as sturdy and comfortable as ever. In addition to making all sorts of necessary items, Dad also made rotating clotheslines and decorative plant hangers from discarded farm equipment. He also developed a reputation for his homebuilt utility trailers and custom trailer hitches.
My point here is that anyone can learn to weld. Dad had no formal training yet even today can still keep up with the most experienced tradesman. I’ve never taken a welding course outside his impromptu lessons in the garage behind our house growing up, but I’ve chopped and boxed classic truck frames, repaired trailers, replaced rust with patch panels on antique automobiles, repaired tractors, and built my fair share of plant hangars and barbecue grills, and novelties made from horseshoes and nails. And while it’s not my primary interest, I’ve made more than enough money welding for customers to pay for my equipment and supplies for my own use.
First Step to Learn Welding
The first step is to determine the type of projects you are interested in tackling. Will you be making trinkets and gifts as a hobby in your workshop? Or do you need a small portable machine to take out to the driveway or field to repair a trailer hitch or farm implement. If your interest is hobby stuff and welding sheet metal such as vehicle body panels or lawnmower decks, a small wire-feed machine will likely serve your purpose best. For larger steel repairs you’ll need to consider a more capable machine, and a portable stick welder with either a 110- or 220-volt power requirement is just the ticket for a minimal investment.
There’s a lot of advanced welding methods and equipment—MIG and TIG for aluminum and stainless steel, gas metal arc, carbon arc, and more recently atomic hydrogen. But these are for the advanced welder and will not be addressed here. My goal is to share some information for the novice or hobby welder, and convince the non-welder that it’s time to take the rod (or reel, for the wire-feed welder) in hand and eliminate the need for hiring an expensive shop or custom on-site truck-mounted unit to handle simple everyday metal repairs.
Along with stick and wire-feed welding there’s also oxy-acetylene, or “gas welding”. The beauty of “gas” welding is that you can use the same unit to both cut and weld metal. While oxy-acetylene welding has some limitations when working with thin sheet metal, the ability to both cut and weld with the same equipment often makes it the first option for many beginners. Perhaps I’ll address gas welding in a later article.
Select a Welding Machine
Arc welding includes any method which uses electricity to create an arc. This can be stick welding, also called “buzz box” welding, which uses a consumable welding rod to both create an arc and provide additional filler metal to the weld. It can be Metal Inert Gas, also known as MIG, welding which uses a wire-feed unit with a shielding gas. A simpler, less expensive version of MIG welding is a wire-feed unit which uses flux-core wire. I’ll discuss the pros and cons of shielding gas a little later.
In any form of arc welding the material being welded is essentially melted together by a powerful arc of electricity. As an example the metal is attached to the negative power supply, then the welding tip (either the wire in a wire-feed unit, or the tip of the welding rod in stick welding) is attached to the positive side of the supply. When the positively-charged tip is brought into close proximity to the negatively-charged metal to be welded an electrical “arc” will occur. That arc is what super heats the metal to a melting point, allowing the pieces to be melded together. That arc is what also creates the blinding glare and intimidating “buzz” associated with welding. As a little boy I found watching the intense glare of the arc (through a welding helmet’s dark shielding glass of course) and hearing that powerful buzz combined with the shower of sparks created by the molten metal every bit as enjoyable as fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Some more expensive welding machines allow the user to change the negative/positive polarity with the flip of a switch for enhanced performance depending on the material being welded. But for basic welding around the home or farm a basic AC machine is all that’s required.
Anyone who has experimented with different methods tends to agree that MIG welding is about the easiest process to learn and master. The arc flash and associated “buzz” sound is less intimidating than with stick welding. The machine feeds wire into the arc zone at a pre-determined rate which eliminates the need of the person doing the welding having to gauge the speed at which to introduce new material into the weld and move accordingly.
MIG welding can be broken down into two basic types: shielding gas assist or flux core wire. Most machines will operate using either method. If you wish to have cleaner appearing welds, or you intend to paint or put some other applied finish coating on a welded joint, then you will want to go with a machine which offers a shielding gas option. The residue left behind when using flux core wire is hard to clean and can cause problems with paint adhesion down the line.
Basic machines with a shielding gas option can be found readily for $200 to $400 and require only 110 volt household current. “Shielding gas” is a non-combustible gas which is purchased in a pressurized bottle and used in conjunction with MIG or TIG welders. The gas is fed through the welder and delivered at the welding tip where it creates an invisible gas “shield” over and around the weld bead being formed. The gas helps create a much smoother and appealing weld bead. The gas purchased for use in MIG welding is generally an Argon and Oxygen mix. In this case the wire used in the welder should be solid core wire. Wire is sold in rolls and is easily installed in the body of the welder through an access door on the side of the machine.
For general repairs and hobby work welding with a flux-core wire is much simpler and cheaper. Flux-core welding wire has a small ribbon of welding flux incorporated in the center of the wire. Flux is a solid material which has the consistency of poor quality concrete and creates a gas when super heated. The gas reacts just like the Argon/Oxygen mix does in gas assist welding, displacing natural oxygen and creating an invisible gas pocket for the weld to form in. Benefits of welding with flux-core wire is that the machine is easier to carry from place to place without having to lug along the welding gas bottle and accompanying gauge and hose, and you save the cost of the gas. A 110 volt wire-feed welder armed with a roll of flux-core wire is a self-contained, carry anywhere with great ease metal joining machine.
Capabilities of a wire-feed unit center mainly on the question of how thick metal the machine will weld. The maximum recommended thickness of material is clearly stated in sales materials accompanying any new machine. Similar details can usually be found somewhere on the machine itself, usually inside the side access panel. In all honesty, considering the low cost of a new wire feed welder there’s no reason to look at buying a used machine which might have some unseen problem. I’ve used the same inexpensive machine for the past 10 years or so without a single issue.
Once you’ve purchased a wire-feed welder and familiarized yourself with the machine, begin to practice on some scrap pieces of sheet steel, angle iron or tubing. First, and this applies with any welding project, make sure the metal is clean and free of any rust, oils or grease. Dirty or rust-coated metal is a real challenge to work with and the weld will not be as strong when finished. I’ll cover wire brushes and other welding tools near the end of this story. Next set the machine to the suggested temperature and wire speed for the thickness of material being welded. A suggested guideline will be in the owners manual which comes with the machine. Begin by overlapping the pieces of scrap metal to be joined.
Hold the welding tip at a 45-degree angle from the L formed by the joint with the tip of the wire which protrudes from the nozzle approximately 5/8ths of an inch from the metal. With your welding helmet or shield in place, and I’ll talk more about helmets later, pull the trigger on the welding nozzle. Immediately the wire will advance and the arc will form. Start slowly moving the nozzle along the length of the joint to be welded while maintaining the distance of the nozzle tip from the metal surface. Some people push the weld along, while others prefer to move the tip away from the weld already laid down. There’s no right way, just differing opinions among welders, both professional and amateur. There’s no way to verbalize how fast or slow to move the tip. Only trial and error will give you a feel for the pace you should move. That’s where the practicing on scraps comes in.
While there’s a learning curve, it’s very small and you’ll be amazed how quickly you’ll start making perfect welds. See the accompanying photos for examples if ideal and less-than-ideal weld beads. Now start practicing, and as soon as you can halfway make a consistent bead start getting creative about trinkets and gadgets you can weld up for fun. Experiment with adjusting the weld temperature and wire speed during this time. You’ll quickly develop a love for welding and wonder how you ever went so long without doing it yourself.
The goal is a clean, strong weld joining the two pieces of metal with good penetration.
As your skills improve you can move to 90-degree angles, vertical welds, and thicker metals. Once you can lay down a good bead take a welded practice piece and attempt to break or rip the weld apart. You’ll quickly find any problems with penetration or adhesion. Correct penetration will come with practice and increasing the power setting until you reach the right point for the metal being joined. A general rule-of-thumb is that you should be able to turn over the welded pieces and see where heat has transferred through the metal and is evident by discoloration on the opposite side from the weld.
If you choose to use shielding gas, connect the feeder hose and bottle per the manufacturer’s recommendation. With the bottle valve open and the power switch off, pull the trigger on the nozzle and listen for the gas exiting at the tip. That lets you know the gas is flowing correctly. When welding, the gas should begin leaving the tip a moment before the wire arcs to the metal being welded.
The first welder I remember seeing was a dinosaur of a machine in my grandpa’s blacksmith shop. The welder was about half the size of a modern refrigerator, had a couple big brass adjustment handles on the front, and a row of plug-in receptacles down the length of the machine with each hole marked with a different number. A heavy wire lead with a clamp on the end was used to attach to the metal being welded. The other lead, the one with the rod holder on the other end, was plugged into the machine in one of the holes in the row depending on the amperage you wished to weld with. The machine was not portable, took up a lot of space, and was downright scary to use.
At home my dad had a newer machine, the bright red Lincoln® … about a third the size and much simpler with an on/off switch, one big black plastic power adjustment knob, and the two wire leads. You could easily mount an optional wheel kit on the base and have a more portable tool. But still you had to have a 220 outlet nearby. He used that welder for about 25 years, and the day it quit working he drove to the nearest farm supply store and bought a new one by the same manufacturer. He’s now reaching 20 years with that machine, and it’s given him tremendous service in that time.
I’m not one for name dropping, so I’ll just say that there are several manufacturers making quality welding machines these days. No matter what tool or piece of equipment you purchase, a little research online and talking with friends or experts in the field is a good way to help make up your mind on brand. As you’ll likely see in the photos, I use a Miller stick welder. It so happens I live just a few miles from a Miller dealer and at the time I was shopping for a machine the store happened to have a whale-of-a-deal on this nearly new unit. I’m sure I could have been equally happy with a Lincoln or any other brand as long as it functioned as it should. My welder is about half the size of my dad’s machine, and I tote it around on the lower level of a roll around cart. My MIG welder sits on the top shelf, with an assortment of welding clamps, metal markers, rods, helmets and gloves along for the ride. My MIG unit works off of 110 household current, while my stick welder is a 220 unit. I weld a lot on vehicle frames so I need the extra ability over a less expensive 110 unit. I have a 40-foot 220 cable extension cord made up to allow me to take my welders anywhere in my 30X40 shop or out in the driveway to work on bigger equipment.
As with MIG welding, the first step is to familiarize yourself with the welding machine and its capabilities as described by the manufacturer. That knowledge ensconced inside your head for future reference, it’s now time to start welding. With stick welding a major concern is welding rod selection. Rods commonly found at hardware or farm supply stores will be marked with “E6011” or “E6013” or maybe “E7020”. The “E” denotes the rod is suitable for electrode arc welding. The first two numbers tell the tensile strength of the rod material when a weld made with the rod is stress relieved. The number “60” stands for 60,000 psi and so on. The third number denotes the welding position the rod is designed for. A “3” means flat welding, a “2” means fillet or butt joints, and a “1” means it is suitable for all positions. The fourth number gives insight into the type of coating and other advanced information not required for the hobbyist or non-professional welder. But those details can be found on a website of a welding machine or rod manufacturer.
I’d suggest you start with a good all-purpose rod such as an E6011. It will handle most home or farm repairs from a lawn mower deck to a front end loader bucket. Next you’ll want to select the right rod size. To begin with choose a rod approximately the same thickness as the material being welded. As skills improve you can move to welding much thicker material by making multiple passes and building the weld. But that comes after some practice.
With welder and rods in hand and the machine turned off, insert a welding rod into the rod holder clamp in the end of the welding lead. Attach the other clamp to the material being welded. Adjust the setting on the machine per the manufacturer’s recommendation for the thickness of material. With the rod tip at least a few inches from the material, turn on the power switch. You will hear a very definite hum as the machine powers up. Now, with your helmet or shield in place, slowly move the tip of the rod toward the joint to be welded. While a MIG welder will arc when the wire advances and touches the metal, with a stick welder you will have to “scratch” the metal with the rod tip to initiate an arc. This is one of the most difficult aspects of learning to stick weld. Scratch the tip and move it away from the metal too fast or far and you’ll break your arc. Scratch too slowly and the rod tip will adhere to the metal being welded. A back-and-forth motion will usually break the adhesion, but sometimes you must turn off the machine and forcibly free the rod from the material before starting over. Again practice with some scrap metal and make sure the surfaces are as clean as possible.
Once you have an arc, slowly advance the rod along the joint to form the weld bead. You might use a little back and forth motion or make the tip travel a tiny circles overlapping the area just welded with each pass. With any welding, watch the weld as if forms and see that both pieces of stock being joined are melting and the rod (or wire) is being added to the bead to create additional material in the joint. With stick welding, the rod will melt and fall away into the molten puddle requiring you to continually move the remaining rod tip closer to maintain the arc. Stop welding when a rod is used up to the point of only having a couple inches of flux coating showing near the holder. At that point you can replace the rod and weld some more. But remember the remaining butt of the old rod will be extremely hot so use caution.
Remember practice makes better, and more practice makes perfect. With the basic understanding, now all that is left to do is to weld and enjoy your new found skill.
Before ending, I’d be amiss if I didn’t discuss related gear that goes along with welding. First and foremost is eye protection. The intense radiation generated by a welding arc can quickly cause irreversible vision damage. A new welder will likely come with a hand-held welding shield at least. Hang it on the wall to use when a grandkid or neighbor wants to watch you weld some day. Invest in a welding helmet which covers your face and neck. Not only will the lens provide adequate vision protection, but the rest of the helmet will protect your face and neck for painful and harmful radiation burns. The latest and greatest advancement in welding has to be the auto-darkening helmet. Old style helmets had to be lowered just prior to striking an arc, and raised to view your work once the arc had been broken. But an auto-darkening helmet can be lowered in place and still allow a normal view through the lens until the split-second the rod or wire tip arcs. Instantaneously the lens goes black and your eyes are afforded the necessary protection. And as soon as the arc is broken the lens will reverse the process and lighten to allow you to review your weld.
Next in line of importance would have to be welding gloves. While not mandatory, these thick long gloves will provide protection from both radiation from the arc and the sparks which are a part of the metal joining process. They’re also handy for turning and handling recently welded metal. Other optional welding attire includes leather or heavy canvas shirts, pants or aprons. Avoid welding while wearing tennis shoes, and don’t tuck your pant legs into your boots. While modifying the frame of a classic truck a few years ago I dropped a glob of molten metal from a weld down directly on top of my tennis shoe. The molten metal burned through so fast it was as if the shoe wasn’t even there. And in a worse case, my dad was welding one time with his jean legs tucked into his cowboy boots. A large molten glob of metal dropped from a weld bead and slid down his pant leg into his boot. Before he could remove his boot the metal had melted his nylon sock into arch of his foot. The severe burn and subsequent infection took months to heal. You’ll also want a wire brush for cleaning metal edges prior to welding, and a slag hammer for removing the slag, a welding by-product, from the top of flux-shielded welds after they cool.
Avoid welding while standing on a wet surface, and make sure your work area is well ventilated. These are basic things, but with any project you sometimes get in a hurry and jump into things without engaging your common sense. That said, welding is a fun and rewarding skill. You’ll find countless uses for welded projects for yourself and friends, and there seems to be less and less shops that offer welding services these days. Once you’ve improved your skills adequately, you might consider doing some paid jobs for other people. What’s better than a hobby that can pay for itself?