Reviving the past

Welding students restore ironwork to Victorian-era YMCA building

The FABRICATOR April 2003
May 15, 2003
By: Bob Hollingsworth

When he looked at the outside of his building, Bellingham, Wash., YMCA Director Dave Harding realized he faced a challenge.

The original Bellingham, Wash., YMCA building.

The YMCA's main downtown facility was located in an early-1900s, four-story building. In recent years the interior had been remodeled and upgraded to suit the needs of the club's members.

The challenge was the exterior.

The brick building had been modernized in the 1960s with a decorative aluminum skin. Harding had the skin removed in 2001 to expose the original brick surface.

But after the aluminum was peeled off and Harding studied pictures of the original building, he realized that the Victorian ornamental ironwork that had enhanced the front and entrance of the building was missing.

As a nonprofit entity that serves a broad cross-section of the area's population, the YMCA's budget always is tight. But with his friends' help, Harding was able to have a horizontal canopy installed above the sidewalk and the main entrance restored, but that's as far as the renovation could go.

No money was left for ornamental ironwork.

The YMCA in the 1960's modernized with decorative aluminum skin.

Dave and I have spent time together on a racing sailboat in the waters off the Pacific Northwest. As deck hands, we have had long days, lonely nights on watch, and often a wet and cold environment. However, on occasion we get to go below to the galley and talk with the crew. On one such occasion Dave presented his proposal to me, during a race around Vancouver Island.

He asked if my welding students and I in the engineering technology department at Western Washington University would be interested in taking on the ornamental ironwork project. My interest was immediate.

Once I returned to Bellingham, I met with associate professors Arunas Oslapas, a design expert, and Nicole Hoekstra, whose specialty is finishing. We promptly assembled a team and swung into action.

Choosing a Design

Oslapas held a design contest for his 20 students. Design submissions ranged from modernistic to artistic, with metal cutouts of mountains, trees, and salmon, to traditional renditions. Harding and his executive advisory board reviewed the designs.

After extensive negotiations and debates, the advisory board chose a design by student Ecih Aprecio. The board felt that her Victorian format, which consisted primarily of vertical members in a grid, best represented the early-1900s character of the building.

With the dimensions of the building panel areas in hand and the design drawing on the table, Hoekstra provided construction drawings.

At this point, four students from my welding class volunteered to take on the fabrication and welding job as a special project. Jo Hirose, Matt Hoffman, Andy Noble, and Jeff Tetrick had entered the welding program earlier as novice welders. Now they were ready to build four panels that needed to be 77 inches high and 72 feet long.

The students had trained at the university's welding lab, which comprises three interconnected rooms in the basement of a six-story lab and classroom building.

The lab is equipped with both local and general exhaust ventilation. It includes nine oxyacetylene welding stations, seven shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) booths, two tables for plasma and oxyacetylene cutting, two gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) setups, a gas metal arc welding (GMAW) booth, one dual-shield GMAW gun, and one GMAW spool gun.

Other equipment includes an ironworker abrasive wheel cutoff saw, a combination vertical and horizontal belt sander, manual benders, a drill press, an arbor press, and hand tools. The facility is pickup truck-accessible via a ramp to the basement.

The Bellingham YMCA today.

Tools, Materials, and Procedures

Tools for the ironwork project included Miller Electric GMAW equipment pushing 0.035-inch wire, an abrasive cutoff saw, an oxyacetylene torch, a drill press, numerous hand tools, and clamps.

The steel was 1- by 1- by 1/8-in. square tubing, 1/2-in. hot-rolled round stock, and various pieces of angle iron for the mounting brackets.

The longest panel measured 22 ft. and was built in two pieces to facilitate transport and installation. Dimensions were held to 1/16 in. on the diagonals. The pickle-fork assemblies were prefabricated in a jig.

Components for each panel were laid out on the floor and lightly clamped up to long pieces of 3- or 4-in. square tubing and I beams to control movement. Then the components were aligned and trued up. Next the prefabricated pickle-fork assemblies were positioned. After that the clamps were locked down, another trueness check was made, and the assembly was lightly tacked up.

Welding progressed incrementally, moving from side to side to avoid creating large heat-affected zones (HAZs).

The four welding students put approximately 240 hours into the project. They had the opportunity to meet with their customer, Dave Harding; university Loss Control Officer Paul Mueller; and John Stimson, Paul Yuska, and Jack Cunningham from Dawson Construction Inc., Bellingham, Wash., who would use their crane to install the new exterior on the YMCA building.

Lessons Learned

In addition to applying their skills to a large welding project, the students said they gathered much experience and knowledge from their work with the YMCA.

For example, the students developed an understanding of change orders as building attachment points were modified to reflect the underlying structural steel skeleton of the building beneath the brick facing. They gained an appreciation of the importance of making safety and health an integral part of the job.

"Initially I thought of the project as being a good time to gain hands-on-experience welding," Hirose said. "I ended up learning that there is much more to a welding project than meets the eye. A lot of communication, design, redesign, and thought go into projects such as the YMCA ironwork. From this project I can take with me the experience of teamwork, pride, and communication.

"I'm a future educator in technology education, so this experience has taken me a step ahead of others," Hirose said. "Many times tech ed teachers are able to study only theory. I was able to jump in and get my hands dirty."

After the four welding students completed the fabrication and welding, the four panels were moved one block to the finishing and paint lab.

Dawson construction workers install the finished assembly.

Here Hoekstra had her students abrasive-blast every inch of the steelwork with Kleen Blast®, a nonsilica material. Next they primed and painted the steel using Ameron PSX® 1001, a single-part, nonisocyanate, industrial-strength finish.

After Hoekstra and her team completed this phase, a Dawson driver arrived on campus with a flatbed truck to load the panels and take them one mile to the YMCA, where they were installed on the building's exterior.

A final postinstallation analysis declared the project a positive experience for the students as well as for the YMCA. The YMCA now has beautiful exterior ironwork at the bargain-basement price of less than $1,800; the university has gained much positive publicity, including a front-page article in the Bellingham Herald newspaper; and the citizens have a major downtown building they can be proud of and which serves as a focal point for the revitalization of Bellingham.

"The YMCA builds strong kids and families, and the WWU team has built strong and beautiful ironwork, which will grace our renovated facility for many years," Harding said.

Bellingham YMCA-Whatcom Family YMCA, 1256 N. State St., Bellingham, WA 98225-5016, 360-733-8630.

Ameron International PCFG, 13010 Morris Road, Suite 400, Alpharetta, GA 30004, 800-926-3766, fax 678-566-2697,

Kleen Blast is a registered trademark of Kleen Blast Abrasives, 2600 Old Crow Canyon Road, Suite 200, San Ramon, CA 94583, 800-356-7323, fax 925-831-9183,

Miller Electric Manufacturing Co., 1635 W. Spencer St., P.O. Box 1079, Appleton, WI 54912-1079, 920-734-9821,

YMCA photographs courtesy of the Bellingham, Wash., YMCA.

Bob Hollingsworth

Contributing Writer
He is a member of the Practical Welding Today editorial advisory board. He taught welding, safety, and health at Western Washington University, Bellingham, Wash., and traveled with the 2006 WWU Mini Baja team as faculty adviser.

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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