March 11, 2008
Two community college weld instructors and a student collaborated to create a welded metal art sculpture for a silent auction benefiting the college's foundation.
At the start of each term, welding instructor Larry Clevenger tells his students that there are two sure-fire ways of failing his class. After 11 years of teaching beginners the basics of welding, Clevenger has learned the hard way: He warns students not to hand him something hot without telling him (which has, in fact, happened, much to Clevenger's chagrin), or weld the coupon to the table (which also has happened, much to the student's chagrin, as he spent the next two hours grinding the part off). Any student who commits these transgressions will surely fail. Right? Well, not exactly.
See, Clevenger actually didn't fail these students. No, it turns out this quick-witted weld veteran has a soft spot for his students, but he does admit to lowering grades for such regrettable actions.
Clevenger and colleague Mike Merriman have taught welding at Rock Valley College (RVC), Rockford, Ill., for more than 10 years. They know they have helped build a solid program that offers certification in mild steel, stainless steel, and aluminum, and they also have programs that deal with INCONEL® alloys and magnesium.
The facility holds 28 welding booths that accommodate gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW), gas metal arc welding (GMAW), and shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) and eight separate grinding booths. However, Clevenger and Merriman, like so many others in their position, feel compelled to update the program's curriculum and make it more visible within the community.
They aren't satisfied with the school as it is; they want so much more.
Merriman, who also teaches aircraft mechanics through the college at the Chicago/Rockford International Airport, would like to add fabrication as a program offering. He also would like to transform the look of the welding facility to make it more instructor-friendly. Right now the 28 booths are a little small and wind through several corridors, making it difficult for the instructors to keep an adequate watch over everyone at one time. Sometime down the road, Merriman would like to incorporate robotics training and include a metal arts class as an elective.
"There are a lot of things that we'd really like to do, that we really need to do," Merriman said.
Four years ago Nancy von Lugossy's curiosity about metalworking and 3-D art got the best of her, so she decided to enroll in a basic welding class at RVC.
By her own admission, von Lugossy was clueless. She had no idea that welding involved electricity, and she was lost during an introductory video on SMAW in Clevenger's class, which made numerous references to an arc. She was the only female in class and felt immediately intimidated at what she had started. Finally she worked up the nerve to ask Clevenger to explain what exactly an arc was. Clevenger was curious what someone with so little knowledge of welding wanted to accomplish by taking the class.
"He asked, 'Why are you here?' I told him that I wanted to learn how to stick metal together and work in three dimensions. So he explained it [welding] and I decided that I'd stick with it and give it a try," von Lugossy said.
"Larry was nice enough to give me an independent study within that class, where he showed me how to use all of the different tools," von Lugossy said.
She continued with SMAW, but Clevenger let her veer off into other things independently, especially with the plasma cutter. She liked that plasma cutting was simple and that it allowed her to be creative and free-flowing with the movements.
"That's what she stayed with for the rest of the class, the rest of the six weeks was cutting those … things," Clevenger said.
Those "things" were actually leaves, part of a benefit project honoring the Jane the Dinosaur exhibit at Rockford's Burpee Museum.
"Of course, being left-handed it just looked like she was awkward, but it came out a leaf!" Clevenger said with a laugh.
As von Lugossy continued learning, she took a liking to GMAW. Before she knew it, she had purchased two GMAW machines, one set for stainless steel and the other for mild steel, and, of course, a plasma cutter.
"It's [welding] not something that was ever on my radar. As a female artist it's just not something that would ever have occurred to me to do. It's hard work and it's not for someone who is afraid of hard work," von Lugossy said.
About a year ago, the college approached Merriman to contribute an item to an annual silent auction benefiting the Rock Valley College Foundation. Viewing this as an opportunity to shed some light on the welding program, Merriman decided to offer up a custom-made metal art sculpture, and he knew just the artist for the job. Rather than make something in advance, Merriman, Clevenger, and von Lugossy decided it would be best to create a design based on the winner's input.
Nancy created paper models of what the winners said they wanted, which was a sculpture mounted in rock that depicted a flowing flame. From there the team sheared a sheet of 11-ga. stainless steel into six strips, each 3 in. wide by 4 ft. long. Each strip was rolled individually to give it its own unique shape. The strips then were tack welded together to form three 8-ft.-long strips, which were then satin-finished.
"We found that when we put the metal in on an angle in the roller, it would give it a different twist. If Nancy wanted it twisted a little more, we'd tighten the roller down until she was happy with it," Clevenger said.
Merriman and Clevenger bored three holes into a 1,200-lb. rock and fabricated a plate with three rods to be placed into the holes. Once it was time to position the strips, von Lugossy directed her instructors to hold the strips in various locations until it was just right.
"They literally did this an hour at a time until we got it. Then we would try marking it with numbers so that we could put it back together when we disassembled it. Then the next time we would put it back together, it wouldn't be quite the same. So we'd make it again and then grind the marks off. It was a process," von Lugossy added.
After the strips were positioned, tack welded, and welded to the plate, they added high-strength epoxy to the rock's holes, lowered the plate with the strips attached into the rock, and let it set. The hardest part for Merriman and Clevenger throughout the entire process was actually figuring out what the sculpture was supposed to be.
"They don't understand why people like it. While we were making it, they just couldn't understand what it was," von Lugossy explained.
Clevenger countered, "It's a bunch of twisted-up metal! To me, I've got to have something straight, flat, and shiny."
Merriman and Clevenger, two guys who are used to making things following blueprints, had a hard time with von Lugossy's spontaneous approach to the project. Ultimately, they adapted as best as they could to von Lugossy's go-with-the-flow attitude, while von Lugossy garnered an appreciation for her instructors' knowledge and expertise.
"You have to know what you are doing before you start, especially with metals, which is something I maybe need to learn," von Lugossy said.
This year will bring another opportunity for von Lugossy to learn from Merriman and Clevenger as the trio plans to collaborate on another sculpture for this year's silent auction.
"The more I learn from these guys, the braver I'll be to try more freestanding stuff."
Merriman and Clevenger hope projects like this and students like von Lugossy will help pique the interest of the community and, in turn, help them grow the welding program.
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