American Heli-Arc welds for general industry, racing, and even art
December 16, 2008
Tom Young has lived an unconventional life full of opportunities that happened because he could do what others could not: He could weld.
Tom Young knows people. He knows Dan Pastorini, onetime Houston Oilers quarterback and today a race car owner and driver for the SCCA Pro SPEED World Challenge circuit. He also knows Richard Fielden, an artist whose public sculptures and other works dot the Houston metro area. They both know him as friends and business partners, and their relationships started because Young could do what they could not.
He could weld.
Young owns American Heli-Arc, a shop specializing in, as the name suggests, gas tungsten arc welding (see Figure 1). GTAW is the Cadillac of welding processes, and Young and his two employees—Chris Williams and Hal Cort—are known for having finesse with a welding torch. They work in a 4,000-square-foot shop with black and white checkered tile and retro signs overhead: Think the movie set of "Grease" with a hard edge. The business serves everything from the art market to classic cars and racing as well as industrial work in the petrochemical industry, medical sector, and elsewhere (Figure 2, Figure 3, and Figure 4). The shop even offers welding classes and churns out a few pieces of metal art. And all of these areas, as disparate as they are, have one thing in common.
They need skilled technicians in GTAW.
Before opening his shop in 1982, Young put in some significant hours behind the welding torch. Wherever he went, he found full-time employment and then some, and even took classes during his off hours. Early on he approached his trade with common sense. The more training he got, the better he became, and the better work he could get.
After a stint traveling in California and earning a two-year degree from Los Angeles Trade-Tech College, he took a nightshift position at one of Caterpillar's Illinois plants and enrolled in more classes during the day. At Richmond Community College, Decatur, Ill., Young passed his first class's objectives in one week, welding in all of the common test positions, 1G to 5G, so he spent the rest of the class helping other students.
"The instructors asked me why I was there," recalled Young. "I said Caterpillar valued education."
The school valued his expertise too, and after one semester the college offered Young a job. So for the next two years Young spent more time awake than most people. He taught school in the morning; between jobs he worked at a garage welding up race cars and bikes. ("You get racing friends when you're into welding," he said.) He then went to Caterpillar by mid-afternoon, clocking out by 11.
Young gravitated to GTAW at his first welding job in the 1970s. The Houston petrochemical plant where he worked had stick welders joining massive members at one end of the shop, and Young didn't sugarcoat the experience: "It was hot, dirty work."
At the other end of the shop were workers in clean uniforms welding small-diameter pipe, some of it high-end alloys like titanium, aluminum, and stainless. "Back then they didn't have foot controls," Young recalled. "You had to be sure to hold the cup over the end of the bead, so as not to allow nitrogen to suck into the weld. There was a lot of art to it."
The art landed him in Houston in 1982, where he launched American Heli-Arc. As Young saw it, Houston was a good place to settle. "Aerospace, oilfield, the computer industry, and the medical industry are big business here. They're absolutely huge," he said, adding (and speaking like a true Texan), "we have the biggest of the biggest right here in Houston."
As Young's expertise with GTAW grew, so did his reputation among racers—be they on bikes, cars, or even boats. He's worked with Pastorini on souping up Lamborghinis for the track; he's also worked with him on a team that engineered and fabricated the Spirit of America, one of the world's fastest drag boats. (Imagine going almost 200 MPH over water.)
Young's shop has introduced a fair number of innovations to the racing world, such as the side-drive drag-bike racing wheel that distributes stress throughout the wheel width, which is important for the extreme stresses a drag race puts on a bike (see Figure 5 and Figure 6).
A conventional wheel holding a 9-inch-wide tire has a flange that extends out a few inches each side from the center hub. "But what if you have a 12-inch-wide drag-race tire on there? We're getting bigger motors and longer chassis," Young said. "When the tire gets that wide, the sides of the tire become unstable because it's unsupported.
"This side-drive aluminum racing wheel is shaped almost like a barrel. Instead of having a hub in the center of the wheel, you have a hub on one side and the other." This stabilizes the tire and allows the driver to go from nothing to full-out without significant shaking.
About a decade ago Young started offering welding classes. Like his previous teaching gigs, he shows students the process basics and fundamental techniques, but he also helps companies develop efficient weld processes.
It started with a student from one of Young's customers who needed to weld an elliptical cylinder head. The company's process specification called for GTAW on a small-diameter head, gas metal arc welding on the larger one. GMAW required double-sided access, while the GTAW head required access on a single side.
"I got into teaching this guy, and then I wondered why he was MIG welding one and TIG welding on the other one," he recalled. "I asked him, "Why do you use MIG on the larger diameter?' "Because it's much faster,' he told me. "OK, why do you weld it on two sides?' "If we weld it on one side, it generally leaks,' he said. I said he wasn't gaining a thing! You have to change the machine, you have to change processes, and you're doing more passes."
Young showed the welder how to set up the cylinder heads on a rotisserie positioner, which rotated the workpiece during the weld and allowed the welder to sit during the process. And he used GTAW throughout. Unlike the weld produced by GMAW, the resulting GTAW bead required little if any finishing. As Yong recalled, "We cut the welding time it took for the job in half, and it looked better."
American Heli-Arc has a memorable entryway. Attached to the door, a unique octagon of brushed stainless steel stands guard.
"I've always been a frustrated painter," Young said.
He first dabbled in art, fabricating small lamps and sculptures, simply to get more use out of shop scrap. Young conceded that he uses art more as an outlet for creativity than for business purposes, but that doesn't mean he turns down work if it comes in the door.
This includes work from Richard Fielden. The artist has sculpted various Houston landmarks, including a bronze baseball sculpture outside Minute Maid Park and a work called "Tree of Life" at Texas Children's Hospital. In 2003 Fielden came to Young to weld a stainless steel sculpture, titled "The Gift," to be placed inside Houston's Memorial Hermann Hospital's atrium to commemorate the organization's organ donation efforts. The two figures represent the spirit of donors rising to support the lives of others (see Figure 7).
Fielden's original design involved a bronze casting—too heavy and expensive, so the artist came to American Heli-Arc for a better option. "We were able to bend and form the sculpture out of thin stainless, which was a lot simpler and cheaper than a big bronze casting," Young said.
Regarding American Heli-Arc's shop door, Young made the octagon out of stainless steel brushed with sandpaper. The eight sides represent the eight stances taught in certain martial arts, which Young practices in the little spare time he has (see Figure 8).