What is welding anyway? What is it that I do?

It’s that thing with the sparks and the dark mask, right? Well, kinda…But not exactly.

Having a dark mask on, a welding rod in your hand and being surrounded by noise, sparks and equipment will not make anyone a welder. So, the woman in the 80’s movie Flashdance is an actress that you do not want to hire to weld up any metal structure.

I was not inspired by the movie to become a welder. I did not watch movies when I was a child and I was too young when it came out to care about a dancing welder chick. I would like to publicly blame my mother for becoming a welder. She is responsible for my fascination with Tonka trucks, cranes, Legos, how things work and how to fix them…She pushed me to be a strong, independent girl and taught me (and herself) how to fix bikes, plumbing, switches and other things…

This desire to know how things work, how things fit together, how things can be fixed or built brought me to a crossroads. I was ready to go back to school after my daughter was 3 and I had to choose. In my head, I had two choices: welding or engineering. With a kid I actually wanted to hang out with for the next 4 years, I chose welding school. A program that would be mostly hands-on with no homework over an intensive 4-5 years in university for an engineering degree.

After 2 months in school, I realized that welding on its own could be really boring. Like turning off your brain and becoming a machine. I spent 7 months in welding school, in a 12 sq ft cubicle with 2 welding machines. My days consisted of cutting 12-inch-long pieces of steel to then take them to my booth and weld two of them together in different positions, with different processes or different welding rods. After a few months, I found a way to forgo the cutting of the 12-inch-long pieces altogether by getting the other students to do it and just welding all day. I would play with the machines to be able to find the perfect settings by myself (a lot of students asked more experienced welders to do it for them).  At 5 months, I asked to take apart an old welder to see how it worked from the inside. The teacher was surprised and said no one had ever asked to do that. This information blew my mind because most of the work available on Northern Vancouver Island consisted of mobile welding of logging, fishing and mining equipment.

How was I supposed to go 3 hours into the bush with a welding machine and not know how to get it running should it go kaput?

As I was coming to the end of my welder’s certificate, I was offered a job building aluminum boats. I only worked there for a few months but I learned to weld aluminum and fabricate and fit very complex shapes out of aluminum. If you have ever seen the entrails of a boat, you know that there are no straight lines and that trying to fit anything and make it look straight is a challenge.

From there, I went on to work for an oyster farm outfit that fabricated and fixed all kinds of equipment that went out on the water and on the beach. We did a lot of prototype work and modifying existing equipment to make it more streamline and automated so that the workers did not have to have any kind of skill sets to be able to process oysters in the most efficient ways possible. There, I learned to build cranes, modify aluminum and steel boats. I also learned a valuable lesson; like welding helmets, hammers and grinders don’t float.

From there, the experiences just started piling up and I realized that changing welding shops periodically was invaluable for my versatility and expanding my skill set. I became proficient in producing structural steel in a fast, accurate and efficient way. In most structural steel welding shops I worked at, I was one of the few that got to assemble and weld. It takes two types of strengths to do both. One must be able to read blueprints efficiently and be meticulous to assemble structural members but to weld the pieces together, one needs to be a qualified and certified welder.  In Canada, there is a separate certification system for any construction (structural) welding. Which means that even if you have been a welder for 25 years, you still have to do certifying welding tests for each process, each position and each metal. These CWB (Canadian Welding Bureau) tests are done every 2 years. I have been doing these tests for the last 10 years and I still get nervous every time.  It continues to feel like my whole career hangs in the balance.

As well as building schools, retail outlets, hospitals, government buildings and bridges, I have done a lot of repair work in my 15 years of welding. I must say that some of my favourites have been fixing cracks on big machinery. (see my Crackfest in Cumberland blog)

The first time I was asked to fix a crack on an excavator bucket, I have to admit I was surprised. I had no idea 1 ½” (38mm) thick steel could rip like that. It reminded me of broken plastic.  “Chasing cracks” (finding out where cracks start and end) became one of my specialties despite my aversion to lying under greasy, dirty machinery in a puddle of mud. I am lucky that being independent, meticulous and obsessive has proven to be strengths in the trade I have chosen. I have had opportunities that a lot of welders in the area have never had because my employers trusted the quality of work I would do even if left to my own design.

I have built frames and structures for the most discriminating and meticulous customers, where 0.5mm was the accepted tolerance with the most complex or compounding angles or curves that need to fit in really tight spots. Where mistakes are not an option.

But I have also had to fix (or add a piece to) a truck on the way to Transportation Inspector. Where the conversation would go like this: “When is your appointment? – Oh. Like right now.”

Or having only one day to do all the modifications, to fix all the cracks, along with: “Oh, and can you do this and this and this?” on a fishing boat that is leaving the next day for another season out at sea…That has always puzzled me: there is 2-3 months of down time but the repairs all have to be done in one day. The day before the boat leaves port. So weird.

I do understand that hiring a mobile welder to come to where you are would not the cheapest expense but it sure beats having to reel in the nets by hand after one moth at sea or having a whole logging operation stop for a week while the broken excavator boom gets welded back together.

I am sure I am leaving out a lot of other things I can and have done.

Welding is like sewing with fire.

Basically, if it made of metal and it is broken or needs to be built, I can weld it. Even if it looks like this. 🙂

It would take a while but it can be done.

Next week, I will explain creative welding. Stay tuned….