Gear up for welding

March 11, 2004
By: Marty Rice

I'm sitting here at this computer realizing how much I hate sitting here at this computer. I'm just not a sit-in-a-chair type of guy. I tried it once between jobs. I interviewed for an inside sales position for a company that sold welding supplies. I'll be danged if they didn't hire me, even though I didn't have a lick of sales experience. They said something about me being a welder with the gift of gab, possibly working.

Well, I figured I would be sitting at this lush desk, leisurely answering the phone as people called me with their welding questions. I would then refer them to the correct product. But after a couple of days of training, I was in for a rude awakening.

Desk Jobs—The Real Story

I had gone out and bought a thousand bucks' worth of suits—maybe not a lot to you Armani wearers, but a lot for a guy who wears a suit to church only on Sunday. That was a lotof loot for a guy who wears blue jeans and a work shirt most of the time.

I was uncomfortable as heck walking into that building the first day. The tie was cutting into my neck as if someone was choking me. Those skinny little socks in those penny loafers (something I hadn't worn since junior high) felt as if I had no socks on at all. And to top it off, it was hot as hell that day! I'll tell you what—I admire those of you who wear suits to work each day. You have some kind of tenacity to put up with those clothes. And especially you women, having to wear those stupid high heel shoes just because it's "fashionable!" I don't know how you do it. When I went outside dressed in my suit that first day, I felt like a bug under a magnifying glass. I expected to burst into flames by the time I hit my truck.

Then there's the wintertime. Man, that wind cuts right through you. When I wear a suit and dress shoes in the winter, my toes are so cold I think they'll fall off, and I might as well be naked for all the protection those pants give me.

Well, the third day I was informed I was going to be cold-calling at least 80 people a day. That means I was going to be calling a bunch of grouchy welders, bosses, and owners and trying to sell them products over the phone. Plus, my cushy office I was expecting turned out to be a cubicle about the size of a shoebox. I was doing role-playing with a dang fake telephone to my ear as my supervisor pretended to be a difficult customer. She was giving me a really hard time. That is when I had an out-of-body experience and saw it was time to quit.

I floated out of my body and looked down at my pitiful self in that suit. I looked uncomfortable as heck. Then I saw myself talking on a fake telephone, for goodness sake! That was it. I floated back down into my body, and promptly drug up (ironworker slang for quit). I politely told my trainer that I belonged behind the hood, not selling them.

The Welding Shop

And so I went back into teaching. Thank goodness welding teachers can wear jeans and work shirts. I have to dress up every now and then, but most of the time I'm my comfortable, jean-wearing self.

So how about the clothes we wear as welders? One bad part of being a welder is that we're always burning or ripping our clothes. Just walking through my shop can ruin a pair of pants. Just ask the counselor who caught a brand-new pair of $150 slacks on a freshly cut beam while using my shop as a short cut. My students and I had to stifle our laughter as we watched him walk away cussing us in his newly vented pants.

I've burned shirts and jeans the first day I've worn them. That hurts. No one replaces or gives you money to compensate for ruined clothing; it's just part of welding. One senior student ripped his shirt and had his mom make me buy him a new one. Because of him, my safety sheet now includes the phrase, "Not responsible for burnt or ripped clothes." The student received a pretty good ribbing from his classmates for having his mom come to his aid.

Forgo the Burn

So if you're going to weld, just plan on buying plenty of replacement clothes. One way to prevent a lot of the burns is by wearing leathers. These can be sleeves that cover just your arms, sleeves with a bib that covers your front and arms, aprons that cover your chest down to your shins, and full leather jackets. There are even leather chaps and boot covers, but I've rarely seen them worn. Leathers pretty much keep the sparks from burning your clothes. However, they are cumbersome and hot.

Cotton sleeves and jackets are a lightweight alternative to leather, but even with starch sprayed on them, sparks sometimes will burn through them. I've heard of several new products being developed that promise to be lightweight andfireproof.

Little Red Dealies

You must have a hat if you're going to be doing any overhead or vertical GMAW. (GMAW was MIG before the same people who renamed the library the "learning resource center" got hold of it. It's still MIG in the field.) GMAW produces thousands-of-degrees heat droplets that can go right through clothing en route to burning the heck out of your skin. We call these droplets "red dealies" in my shop, because years ago a student said he didn't want to weld with MIG anymore because "those little red dealies hurt!"

In previous articles I've talked about the fact that you can win an ugly-hat contest with most of the welding hats available. However, when it comes to welding hats, function is more important than fashion. You want a welding hat to cover your ears, especially if you are cocking your head as you weld. Nothing hurts more than one of those "little red dealies" going down your ear. You actually can hear it sizzle as it burns the heck out of your inner ear. Now I have seen a couple of students unfazed by this occurrence, as a molten droplet went in one ear and came right out of the other!

These Boots Are Made for Welding

Next we talk about footwear. One student received a third-degree burn on the inside of his foot because he was wearing a pair of low-cut boots with loose laces. A glob of molten aluminum rolled right inside his shoe and welded his sock to his foot.

I've suffered blisters and aching feet from not wearing the right footwear, usually because I went the cheap route and bought a $20 pair of boots. One good piece of advice I got from a fellow ironworker was to buy a pair of RedWings®. Most ironworkers wear them because they are comfortable and durable. (I'll expect my royalty check in the mail, RedWing.) There are other good brands out there, too.

A while back ran an article about buying U.S.-made products "Made in the U.S.A." As far as I'm concerned, the work boot market is one that the U.S. has cornered. I have yet to see a work boot made in another country as good or comfortable as the U.S. brands. I'm talking about boots that offer steel toes for the shop or no steel toes for the field. Boots that still are comfortable after eight hours spent standing on steel or concrete. The U.S.-made brands resist heat and cold, can take a sharp piece of tie wire running across them with only a scratch, and can handle molten slag landing on the leather.

Another good piece of advice is to caulk any visible threads on work boots with silicone. It keeps the weld spatter from burning the threads.

The key word is comfort. A comfortable pair of boots can prevent backaches as well as aching feet. That $20 pair I had caused blisters all over my poor little toes. Fortunately, they lasted only a few months. Sure, you'll pay $100 or more for a good pair of U.S.-made boots, but you get what you pay for. Besides, they'll pay for themselves if you keep them long enough. After all, you'll be buying a $20 pair over and over.

Now add to the boots a nice pair of inserts. These are worth their weight in gold. Again, don't skimp on the price. I bought a couple of those $1.50 inserts, and they lasted about two days. When I peeled them out of my boots, they looked like tissue paper! Then I got wise and bought a good pair with an arch and padding, and it was like walking on air. (Actually, I waswalking in the air. Up on a steel beam, but in the air, nevertheless.)

This advice goes to those of you working in the offices also. A good pair of shoes with good inserts will help you more than you can imagine.


Now there is also overkill. Don't do like my one student who came into my shop a few years back looking like something from outer space. He was covered in leather from head to toe, and he had paid a couple hundred bucks for the outfit. I told him what he needed and had him return about $120 worth. Just get what you need for the job.

Invest in quality protective clothing and gear that make your job more comfortable. Saving a buck at the expense of safety and comfort isn't worth it.

Marty Rice

Marty Rice

Contributing Writer
High School Career Center in Texas
Marty Rice is a welding instructor at a high school career center in Texas. He is an honorary member of the Ironworkers Local 263.


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