Steel and Sparks

Today is my day off from the job I don’t have. I meant to write way before this, because getting here was a pretty interesting adventure. But I haven’t had access to a computer for an interminable length of time (read: 2 weeks) and out of general scientific interest as to how long this would be manageable for I wasn’t hurrying about getting one. In case anyone reading has managed to avoid having their ear talked off about this by me already, I quit my job, moved to San Francisco, and became a full time volunteer for a group of artists called the Flaming Lotus Girls. They make amazing large scale fire art mainly from steel, and primarily for Burning Man though previous pieces crop up occasionally in other places (one is at EDC in Vegas right now)

I am not an artist. I have a very active imagination but it has a full tiime job already keeping me entertained. Fortunately there is pretty much zero need to be an artist except at the very earliest stages of this endeavour, and those are long past. The conceptual phase is long over, the design phase is nearing its last breath, and soon it will all be pure construction. I’m not good at the “what shall we build?” questions, but I am a lot better at the “how the hell do we do this now? We need it to what? Seriously?” type of scenario.

As one might imagine this whole construction process involves a lot of sticking bits of metal to other bits of metal, and so one of the many skills I need to acquire and clearly don’t have is the ability to weld. There are approximately 8 million other such skills, but since this is the one that gets the most press I will talk about it first. Of the 4 main types of welding (TIG, MIG, Oxy-acetylene and ARC) the one we use the most is MIG. MIG has a reputation for being easy, and from the perspective of what you actually need to do in order to be MIG welding this is technically true.

Here is how it works (if you know how to weld skip 2-3 paragraphs): The welder is a big machine that contains a roll of wire which is fed out through a gun-like thing. It is also attached to a tank of gas. At the same time this wire is being fed out two things happen, a current runs through the wire in the gun and the gas feeds through. The current needs somewhere to go, so there is also a ground clamp that extends from the welder which needs to be clamped to either the metal table you are welding on or the piece you are welding itself. So when you pull the trigger on the gun to feed the wire, the wire touches the metal and completes the circuit, and promptly melts. The gas forms a shield around it as this happens to prevent impurities in the metal. This results in you having a flow of really hot melty stuff which is sticking to your metal and presumably doing so in a constructive manner.

The contents of the wire coil and the gas tank both vary depending on what you are welding. There are settings on the machine to vary both the heat and the speed at which the wire emerges from the gun, and these are determined by 3 factors – what type of gas you are using, the thickness of the coil of wire in the welder, and the thickness of what you are trying to weld. But once you have all the machine operation stuff down essentially it should be a straightforward point and shoot. MIG is reputed to be the glue gun of welding. So I probably should have tried using a glue gun first.

Its not that easy. Depending on whatever wire speed you are supposed to be using and the thickness of the metal you are working on you are supposed to be welding at different speeds, a thinner or thicker bead, a certain distance from the metal. If you move too far away you get a surface weld where the bead just sits on the top and doesn’t penetrate. If you move too close you can’t see what the fuck you’re doing and you potentially weld the tip of the gun to itself, thus fucking it up. If you stay too long in one spot the metal gets too hot and warps, if you move too quickly the bead is too thin. Not to mention that you are doing all this while wearing an eye shield that essentially cannot let you see anything except the area immediately around the spark from the contact lest you go blind. Basically this requires immense amounts of practise which I have not had. But since this sculpture is about 50 feet long I guess I will have it soon.

Things that did not occur to me about welding but are really fucking obvious:

1. Metal is fucking hot afterwards. Even the bit you didn’t weld over on the other end of the metal. Because its a fucking conductor. The instinct to touch things that are not actually glowing with your bare hands is an indication that perhaps I will someday earn a Darwin award.

2. Sparks fly everywhere. They also burn when they hit your skin. So if you have not yet bought work boots and you wear trainers with mesh they will quite happily burn a hole right through your sock and cause you to jump out of your seat swearing like the Nazis just came over the ridge while you were taking a piss.

3. The UV light that causes you to need the eye protection is, well, UV light. As in sun. As in sunburn. Yes thats right, I got sunburnt indoors. A first even for me.

Sometimes it is good to be reminded that simple and easy are not actually synonyms.

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