Pursuing your interest responsibly
Text and photos by Tom Hintz
Posted – 12-8-2010
One of the things that surprised me while starting NewMetalworker.com was the unexpectedly large number of hobbyist welders. I knew there was a healthy home-based welder community but the percentage of hobbyist vs. pro input I have received so far has been revealing to me. Welding is a very interesting pursuit with tangible rewards in terms of a greatly expanded range of potential projects along with a new ability to fix or modify things in ways that just are not possible with glue and screws. However, venture into virtually any of the welding-related Internet forums and it is clear that some experienced welders are getting something other than warm fuzzy feeling about hobbyists. It would be easy to say that veteran welders are just bullheaded or clique oriented but the truth is they have some valid and very important points.
Self-Taught vs. Schools
One point some veteran welders make is that a novice welder is better served by learning the skill in a school setting than on their own or using web-based education systems. It is hard to argue against that kind of logic because they have a good point. There are aspects of welding that probably would be at least faster if not easier to learn with a good instructor looking over your shoulder.
To be sure, lots of local community and full-on colleges offer welding courses that can be taken in the evenings. I am not going to guess at what such classes might cost in your area but as a rule this type of community-based education is not overly expensive. How those prices are holding as the current economy is best determined by you in your area. It seems likely that dramatic cuts in their funding could reduce the number of these classes or increase their tuition.
Aside from learning faster another argument is that you learn proper technique while limiting the bad habits you might pick up accidentally on your own. Again, not much room for argument here. But several welding manufacturers are offering on-line welding instruction and/or information resources that can help a novice welder stay on the right path. The current state of the Internet means clear video and photos can be used to support these educational efforts. There also are many stand-alone videos and books that can help smooth the welding learning curve. I suspect that these educational resources will grow in the near future.
The problem with structured welding classes for many in the modern world/economy is keeping that time slot open to attend. Longer workweeks and second jobs are not uncommon these days. Then there are the consistent demands of family that also have to take precedence. The cost of structured classes might also be a factor but perhaps not so much if you feel that you can afford to buy a welder in the first place.
Only you can make a reasoned decision on whether you can take a class or want/have to go it alone. I fall into the latter group as evidenced by my working on this story at 3:15 am on my 31st (I hope) wedding anniversary.
Learning on your own, at your own pace can be much easier in terms of scheduling but makes you responsible for learning everything you need to. Learning to stick two pieces of metal together is one thing. Learning to produce a weld that actually is as strong as it can be is way more difficult as is learning to distinguish between a good and bad weld. There are also many subtleties like what wire or stick to use when, how fast to move along, what electrode movement pattern to use, how to deal with positions other than flat, controlling heat correctly and when to weld where on a project to limit heat-induced distortions. All of these can be described well in print but actually seeing physical things being done is often indispensable.
The folks manufacturing welders want the largest number of customers possible so they produce a wide range of welding machines that fit the varying interests within the potential customer base. The range of machine types and their capabilities are at the same time important and confusing. Many veteran welders will suggest larger more capable machines but these come at considerably higher costs. I had one veteran welder infer that nobody makes money with a base level stick welder. I know that is somewhat of an overstatement because I have seen two of the best welders I have known use these little buzz boxes for the occasional job in a pro shop. The veteran welder making the statement was largely correct though as even the pros I watched had far more sophisticated welding machines that they used most often.
Hobbyist welders do not have a need for high-end welders but that has nothing to do with what they WANT. I know home-based woodworkers that have enough high-end equipment to shame some pro cabinet shops and metalworking is no different. While some hobbyist welders will fulfill their welding desires with reasonably sized machines others will want and will get exotic equipment just because they are interested in learning those types of processes. Either concept of the home welding shop is fine as long as they understand that owning a big fancy machine does not automatically make you a big fancy pro welder. You have to be realistic in your equipment needs as well as your skills in using it. Another controlling factor for hobbyist welders is the constraints of the available budget.
A crucial part of being a responsible hobbyist welder is a realistic understanding of your capabilities as well as those of your welding equipment. Sure not being able to make a difficult weld is frustrating but more importantly it can be extremely dangerous. Welding up a crack in your neighbors shovel is a relatively safe repair. Trying to weld in or repair a trailer hitch can easily be disastrous for your neighbor, their family and anybody else in the area should that weld fail. There also is a very real liability issue resulting from a failed weld that could land you in court or worse. You could also be in violation of local, state or federal regulations by not being certified by the appropriate authority. Keep in mind that the “appropriate authority” is never defined as a neighbor, friend or relative that thinks you are a great welder.
I think that it is a good practice for hobbyist welders to at least know of a local pro welder to which they can refer friends and relatives when their welding needs exceed their capabilities. I enjoy sitting down to burn up some wire or a few sticks as much as anyone but we have to be realistic in the projects we attempt.
Welding is fun and being able to join two pieces of metal is rewarding. However, even good basic welding skills do not translate into bolting your welder onto a truck and making a living at fusing metal for others. Maybe it is the welding fumes but this hobby does seem to elicit fanciful day
dreaming now and then. Wanting to go pro is a legitimate aspiration but formal training is the only way to achieve that kind of broad-based welding skill set. For the vast majority of us, remaining a hobbyist welder with honest perceptions of our welding capabilities as well as those of our machines is the best way to enjoy this hobby.
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