Mixed Media Fine Arts

Burn This Metal – (Sculptural) Welding

Welding is often associated more with industrial work than creating fine art - which I get; the fabrication process is fundamental for building metal structures. And, taking a look around, there are metal structures everywhere: Buildings, transportation, equipment, fixtures and furnishings. Metal is ubiquitous. We are so immersed in metal it barley occurs to us to notice it beyond its functionality. That’s part of what draws me to the material. The varied A-Z types (aluminum, brass, bronze, copper, gold, lead, silver, steel and zinc) can be endlessly formed and combined to create dimensionality, color and textures that naturally align with the complexity of contemporary life. There is also a rogue beauty in the industrial aesthetic. Welded art has a definite edge.   


History (Classical and Personal)

Initially art reacted to the societal impact of the first industrial revolution with a nostalgic, romantic focus on nature. Later the realists came along and shifted the focus to the depiction of the harsh realities associated with industrial change. The second industrial revolution brought us functionalism, the Art and Crafts movement and Modernism. (Yes, I completely skipped over about a hundred other important art movements. My prerogative. This is a blog posting not an art history class.) Anyway, now we live in an entirely industrialized civilization. We are post-industrial. We are digital. But, welding remains essential to our manufacturing technology. It is both a wholly integrated into our future trajectory and completely retro in its metallic presence.  

My particular awakening to metal came when I stumbled into a small welding studio in NYC where a brushed aluminum table displayed gorgeous torch-cut pieces burnished to a luster. I was smitten. Not too long thereafter, my friends and I took to meeting up at the Garage after drunken East Village crawls. The Garage was an abandoned gas station turned alternative studio, gallery and performance space at the corner of Avenue B and Second Street. All around the perimeter was a welded fence of scrap metal and junk. It was dazzling. Even for those who didn’t really get it, the place was iconic. Inside were towering metal sculptures, welded seating and tables – all made from cast off and discarded metal. A hive of welders, farmers and musicians turned out bicycle repairs, organic produce and late night music with beverages. I couldn’t get enough of the place. I was smitten all over again.


Welding Basics

So, what I’ll do here is to give you a brief overview of a couple of welding methods. Before we talk about how to weld though let me suggest one thing: Welding may not be something you want to pick up exclusively from reading blogs or watching YouTube videos. A good rule of thumb is that if a process can maim and/or kill you, you should probably acquire a modicum of formal training. At the very least, shadow someone who knows what they are doing or take a short class to learn how to safely use the equipment. If you buy your own equipment ask the dealer about classes they offer to customers. That being said, the basics of welding can be easily and inexpensively learned. Plus, welding is a gas  (that’s a little welding joke).

I refer to sculptural welding in the title of this blog post because that is the point of view I want to provide in this blog. There are no real technical differences between artistic welding and industrial welding – we use the same tools and steps to create our pieces; but it can be frustrating as an artist to only read information from that industrial point of view and have to translate motorcycle or muffler repair to an artistic endeavor. So, this post will discuss the technical process of welding and other metal/mixed media processes, as applied in a studio setting.

Welding is the joining together of metal parts by melting metal pieces together often with added filler materials. If a filler material is used, the filler is melted with the metal and pools between the pieces. There are several traditional welding techniques and, like most things, there are benefits and drawbacks to each method. I’ll provide a brief overview of two welding methods: oxy-acetylene and MIG. These are the two easiest forms of welding to learn and a great way to get started.


Oxy-acetylene Welding

I learned to weld with a blowtorch, using an oxy-acetylene outfit, and I still love this method most of all. Basically what you are doing here is heating up two pieces of metal with a flame to the melting point so that it puddles into a shared molten pool.  That small puddle is then moved smoothly along the path where you want to weld the metal pieces. The size of the metal, the tip size of the torch, the welding gas pressure, and the speed of travel affect the weld bead but all the strength and beauty of the weld happens entirely by controlling the leading edge of that small puddle.

With oxy-acetylene welding, the first thing you will do is to crack and open the gas flows and set your oxygen and acetylene regulators to a 1:1 ratio. Be sure you have leather gloves and appropriate welding goggles in place. With your torch you’re your workspace, you are ready to light the torch; this is done by opening the acetylene control valve and using a striker to light the (acetylene) gas.  Once lit, the oxygen control valve is opened slowly, which will adjust the flame. Too little oxygen (carbonizing flame) and you’ll see small pieces of carbon smoke from the flame. Too much oxygen (oxidizing flame) and you will see only the inner cone of the flame and a small narrow envelope around it. You want to use a neutral flame (1:1 ratio) to create a uniform bead on steel and create a strong weld. The neutral flame has a clear, well-defined inner cone and a feathered outer envelope without any white streamers. Your focus should be on the cone of the neutral flame when you are welding. The two pieces of metal will turn cherry red and will then melt together into a mutual puddle. After you have established your puddle, you can add a little filler rod to make this a smoother process.  Don’t linger once you see the puddle but try not to panic either. Move the puddle steadily along, melting and joining the two metals as you go. The main thing to learn here is what the puddle should look like to create a strong, consistent welds and how to smoothly add filler and move that puddle along.

Keep in mind; you are using explosive gas so you need to learn and follow the safety measures associated with using oxy-acetylene before you pick up the torch.  Be sure you understand how to appropriately open and close the valves ignite the torch and bleed the lines when you are finished.  Also remember you are using a pressurized flame that will burn your skins fast and fierce. Wear leather and use all other appropriate protective gear (see previous blog posting: Love the Fire - Respect the Burn for more details). The School, of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) has published a good introductory guide to oxy-acetylene welding and cutting with safety tips, equipment handling and process.  http://www.artic.edu/webspaces/portal/irfm/IntroOxyAcetylene.pdf .


MIG Welding 

The basic idea with the MIG is the same as with all welding processes. You want to heat the steel to a temperature where it will fuse, then stick it together in a way to make sure it stays stuck. Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW) – in this case MIG (Metal Inter Gas) welding - uses an electrical current instead of a flame to weld the metal. The wire-fed welding torch is easy to use. Your filler wire is fed automatically through the welding torch at a constant selected speed. An electric arc is formed between the wire electrode and the metal you are welding causing them to puddle and weld. You use MIG wire and a shielding gas (either pure Argon or a mixture of CO2 and Argon); or, without any gas, using Flux-Core wire. The wire is held on within the welder using a tension nut to keep the wire tight and steadily spooling.

If you are using gas, the first thing you will do is to set the regulator (15-25 PSI). Next, clip on the ground clamp, making good contact to a clean spot on the metal. Turn on the power. Set your speed and amperage to control the heat.  Speed determines how long you want to linger in the area as you weld and amperage determines the amount of power you are using as you weld. Steady your arms - think of the way a tripod provides stability. Aim the torch with your finger on the trigger. The wire sticking out of the tip of the contact tube should be small (1/4 to 3/8). Lower your helmet. Point the nozzle at a 45-degree angle and press down on the trigger.  You will want to practice both pushing the bead and dragging it, as they will give you a wider or narrower bead (respectively). Either way, try to keep the wire directed at the leading edge of the weld pool.

As I mentioned, you can skip the gas and use Flux-core wire instead (FCAW). With Flux Core the wire has flux material inside the core of the welding wire, so you don’t need shielding gas. The process for welding is generally the same but there are a lot of sparks and slag generated so double safety dressing is suggested – and pay attention to where the sparks fly. Also, you’ll have to chip and grind your weld to remove the resultant slag. This is not my personal favorite but sometimes is the best choice. Argon gas is inert but it is heavier than air and in sufficient concentration displaces the oxygen in the air. In other words, you need proper ventilation.

MIG Tip #1 - You’ll find is that the cleaner the metal, the better the weld. If you like the patina on your metal, you can clean only the areas you want to weld (so they are free of dirt, paint and rust) plus a spot for the ground clamp. Basically, no ground – no weld. This is the first thing to check if you are unable to strike an arc. MIG Tip #2 - Use the suggested settings for metal thickness (they’ll be printed on the welder). If you are burning through the metal, turn down the voltage – if you are not getting a spark, turn it up. MIG Tip #3 – To learn how to MIG a welding bead you need to get the rhythm. It helps to pretend you are making cursive (small caps) e’s or u’s as you weld rather than just moving in a straight line. When you are learning you either tend to rush or linger. Using this trick will help you move at just about the right speed for making a good weld bead. You’ll soon learn the sound of a good weld too, which is steady and not sputtering. MIG Tip #4 - Trim the wire at the start of each weld (using MIG pliers or diagonal cutting pliers). A clean sharp tip will greatly improve penetration. It’s easy to ignore this tip, especially when you are learning and have to stop a dozen times per weld - but it really helps. Here are resources for additional specifics (recommended settings etc.): http://www.hobartwelders.com/elearning/  and http://www.millerwelds.com/education/basicMIG/index.htm


Burn It Up

This blog post provides a good foundation for welding basics, specifically for welding steel. Let me know if you have specific questions or you want to hear about particular things. There are numerous other processes at work in my studio that we’ll get to eventually including TIG welding, Plasma Cutting, grinding, drilling, soldering, glass cutting, and a rich assortment of methods for patina application.  In future blog posts, I’ll be showing you some of the projects that are underway in my studio and will provide more information about how to set up your studio, work with metal and create metal and mixed media sculpture. Resolve to burn with the fire (of creativity and torches) every waking hour.