Becoming the best danged welder on the block
"Welder wanted" signs abound in many areas of the U.S., and welding instructor Marty Rice believes there's never been a better time to pursue a welding career. How do you make your welding career the best it can be? Following certain guidelines can help.
In recent articles I've asked why in the heck you'd want to weld, and I've discussed what companies want from workers, so now I figure I'll discuss welding itself. I'm writing more for new welders, but it never hurts to hear this information again, even if you're an old hand.
First, my obligatory story of something stupid I've done, seen, or had happen to me. I'd been pondering the millions of stupid things I've done when I had a totally freak accident hit me the other day.
I was sitting in a really nice pizza joint enjoying a night out with the family, when I paper-cut my freaking eyeball! I'd put way too many hot peppers on my pizza, and when I went to wipe my brow, the side of the napkin sliced right across my cornea. I've been stabbed, cut myself with everything from a pocket knife to a butcher knife, ripped my flesh open on sharp steel, and cut myself to the bone when a glass door shattered on me, but nothing bothers me more than a danged paper cut!
A tiny paper cut on my finger makes me scream more than anything, and it was a major feat to suppress the urge to scream in that pizza joint full of people. I internalized it instead, letting out a scream in my head that would've made a B-grade horror movie producer proud.
The reason I tell you about my misfortunes and close calls is to remind you that all it takes is a split second to put you in a world of hurt! Be careful on the job, don't get into a comfort zone, and be thankful for every second that you are in good health.
A Long, Long Time Ago …
I remember when I started welding school way back in the day (man … that was in the 70s! "A long, long time ago ... I can still remember when …" as Don McLean sang.) I was completely overwhelmed with all of the metallurgy, theory, and practical application that was thrown at me. I didn't think I'd ever come close to learning it all. The instructor would tell me stuff, and he might as well have been speaking in a foreign language because I didn't understand a dad-gummed thing.
But then it finally started clicking, I began grasping the basics, and that's when I was hooked. Welding is something that gets in your blood; once you do it you get a feeling of pride and accomplishment that is very satisfying. After learning the basics, I again was frustrated to find out I hadn't really learned diddly-squat. I had to learn much more, and looking through some of the technical manuals pretty much told me I would never learn it all.
A Light Bulb Moment
That's when I realized there's no way you can learn everything about every process, but you can learn enough to become a good craftsman. Learning is a lifelong process, and there is always something else to learn about welding, especially with the new processes and innovations in the trade.
I really enjoy learning. Learning rocks. It can motivate you to set goals. Goals make life worthwhile. No goals and you've got one boring existence.
I still get overwhelmed sometimes as a teacher, because I worry about not teaching enough. I want to do the very best I can to pass on the knowledge and tricks of the trade that my teachers and mentors passed on to me. So over the years I've realized it is best to teach the basics and try to customize as much as I can for the individual person. Many different paths are available to welding students. Much of the time a path takes a different route than expected, so it is important to keep an open mind to learning.
This Welder's Experience
My career is a prime example of the twists and turns a welder's path can take. I started out working on oil field and agriculture equipment in a shop. I then worked in a black iron shop fabricating for construction, performed actual construction in the Ironworkers union, and then began teaching high school and college. I spent most of my career as an ironworker, stick welding (SMAW) structural steel with 7018 low-hydrogen rod. When I started teaching I was very familiar with stick and MIG (GMAW), but had TIG (GTAW) welded pretty much zero times. I had to get with it and learn TIG if I planned on teaching it to someone else!
I've written about my mentor and buddy Ralph and how he impressed on me the need to stay current and always be open to learning opportunities. Ralph even went to a refresher course when he was in his 60s, so it didn't bother me a bit starting with the basics and boning up on my TIG skills.
I tell my students, just like Ralph told me, that there are welders and there are dobbers. A real welder knows not just how to run a bead, but also the metallurgy and theory that go with it.
Specialize in a process, but be open to doing something else. I had to endure some pretty crummy jobs but used them as a stepping stone and got a lot of good experience from 'em. Then everything was great until, poof, no more work. So I had to pack a suitcase and chase the jobs. That was the last thing I wanted to do. I liked where I lived, and I had to leave family and friends behind. That sucked, but I ended up with more money, a great job, and nice place to live.
Right now there are more opportunities in the welding field than I have ever seen. Now is the time to go out and get into a heckuva lucrative career. The key to doing so is becoming the best danged welder on the block.
Here are just a few of the ways I tell my students they can make this happen.
Before anything else, learn everything you can about safety!
- Always use gloves when you weld. I don't care what they do on TV. No gloves will eventually get you burned or shocked (another thing that makes me scream like a little girl).
- Don't let your skin be exposed to UV rays when you weld. Skin cancer is one of the most deadly and prevalent cancers. Why take the risk of inviting it with repetitive burns? Protect your skin from the sun the best you can when working outside in the field also. Sunburn is another invitation for skin cancer.
- Always use a hood, even just for a tack weld. That thin little onion skin of an eyelid ain't gonna block out those UV rays.
- Know that slag can bounce 35 feet, and always check the area for flammable or explosive hazards before striking an arc. If you're working up high, look underneath you before you cut or weld.
- Make sure you aren't gonna flash anyone before you strike the arc.
- Always remember that containers can be toxic, flammable or explosive.
- Never work in a confined space without proper precautions and someone there with you.
- Relax your hand and watch the puddle. Learn the proper speed, electrode or gun angle, and temperature to use.
- Learn all you can about the process you plan to use, but learn the basics of all the major processes—MIG, stick, and TIG, as well as robotics, FCAW, friction stir, and others.
- Study metallurgy to learn how you are affecting the base metal you are welding on.
- Learn to read prints—not just welding symbols, but blueprints for the shop and field.
- Learn about the filler wire you are using. What's it made of? What diameter should you be using for the base metal thickness? What are its characteristics? What are its recommended current settings? AC? DCEP? DCEN?
- Check that your welding lead connections are tight, and check them for bare or worn spots. Use compressed air to blow the dust out of your machine monthly.
- Always clean the base metal.
- Always chip the slag and brush the finished weld, even if someone tells you it's not necessary.
- Don't daydream when you're running a bead, even if it's repetitive work. Especially don't daydream when you're running a bead up high!
- Keep on learning, learning, learning, and practice by burning, burning, burning.
Don't forget to pay yourself first. Save 10 percent of everything you earn and make sure you do so by having it deducted out of your paycheck. Get an IRA, and max out your 401(k). You danged sure don't wanna weld all those years and have nothing to show for it.
Questions for the author can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org