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This bit of uncontrolled welding sculpture gives me a place to use up small scraps and is teaching me far more than I expected about running beads in directions other than flat and left to right, or right to left.
Click image to enlarge

Learning to Weld 4

Practice, practice and equipment realism

Text and photos by Tom Hintz

Posted - 12-20-2010

When I first began this Learn to Weld series I had hoped to be working on learning vertical welds and stuff by now but reality set in and lots more practice is the mission of the day, week and maybe months. Since starting this learning series I have corresponded with several pro welders, each with many years of full-time professional experience and all of that coming after a couple years invested in learning the trade.

Even though the intent of many here is to eventually be a decent hobbyist welder, the process for learning the basic skills remains pretty much the same as for a pro. The learning process itself is an important fact that all of us on the hobbyist side need to recognize and accept.

Practice, Practice and Practice some More

A major reason that the learning process takes so much time is that much of laying strong, good looking welding beads is based on controlling the stick or gun correctly. This is a core fine motor skill of welding that simply cannot be taught, it must be developed. Certainly a good instructor can teach what your hands are supposed to be doing but getting them to do that consistently takes hours and hours of practice. Learning to put down good looking beads with good penetration can take frustratingly long periods to accomplish. Complicating this process is how different metal thicknesses and the positions of the pieces being welded change how a good bead is created.

With the MIG welder we have to learn about the relationship of amperage and wire speed. I was fortunate enough to have a real pro welder watching me early on. One of his first pointers that surprised me (but works every time) is that when the MIG is popping-sizzling-popping-sizzling, try turning the wire speed DOWN rather than up. Poof! I had a nearly constant sizzle with my Lincoln Pro-Mig 180 Welder and was able to dial the machine in to achieve that more easily from that point on. One lesson learned, with what I suspect could be several hundred to go!

My "sculpture" (left) has kept my interest and forced me to learn to see the puddle better in more situations as well as controlling the gun and arc length through more bead angles. All this practice also taught me that buying the big spools of wire (right) is way cheaper.
Click images to enlarge

Sure the early lessons often cover what appear to be very simple aspects of welding. However, learning them as well as APPLYING the theories behind them in real world welding situations is crucial to producing strong, safe welds later on. Another thing my pro welder friend had me do was start building “something” out of the scraps I was generating while practicing butt welds. I was welding small pieces of metal together and then beating them with a sledge to judge the strength (penetration to a large extent) of the weld. Adding those pieces to my ever-stranger bit of ‘sculpture” forced me to run beads in different positions and occasionally different directions. Before long I was getting more comfortable in more situations and better able to focus on the puddle, gun position, arc length and what the sound was telling me. All of these need tons more practice but I am recognizing more errors and am getting better at fixing them.

Economy of Scale

A byproduct of all this practicing is eating up consumables, particularly wire. I had been buying 2-lb spools but have now gone to 10 and 12-lbs spools. Where a 2-lb spool cost around $12.00 (12-20-2010) I was able to purchase 12-lb spools (Lincoln .030”) for a bit under $40.00 if I catch a sale locally or on line. That is a huge savings that lets me do more practicing without killing a part-time welding budget.

Using my scraps to “build” practice objects also extends the steel budget. Here also I am not spending a lot on steel but using what I do buy more completely keeps me practicing – and learning – more.

All of the practice making this type of butt joint enabled me to create the "sculpture" shown above. This is the last butt joint effort and you can see that despite beating this piece over nearly to the vise, the joint stayed closed. Now, I have to learn to do that consistently! (More practice)
Click image to enlarge

Soon after the fast approaching holiday season I hope to spend more time practicing and learning a little more about welding, stick and MIG. Like most hobbyist welders I have no aspirations of making a living with this skill but rather to just have a good time learning and being able to make projects for myself.

Being realistic about what we want to do with welding also requires being realistic about the equipment we buy. When I started NewWoodworker.com I thought that it would cater to the new and intermediate woodworker. Within the first year I was running into home-shop woodworkers with CNC routers and laser engraving machines in their basement shops! So I should not have been surprised when I began hearing from hobbyist welders that really do have trailer-mounted, generator-driven welding machines. As you might suspect they are definitely the minority but they are there. The vast majority of hobbyist welders have entry-level welders and need to realize that. Understanding the capabilities of the machines you buy is not only crucial to how easily you can learn these skills but also how safely you can weld later on and as the materials gets thicker than 1/8”. There is nothing wrong with having a 115V welder if you understand and remain within that machines capabilities. You also have to be realistic about the thickness of the materials with which you can anticipate working. Get that right and you are better able to buy and use a welder that fits your situation.

Have a good Holidays, keep practicing when you can and stay realistic if you are about to dash out for a post-Christmas, get-the-welder-you-didn’t-get shopping trip!

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