Archive for the 'Flaming Lotus' Category

Dust, dirt, and more sparks

There are always sparks. The list of ¬†productive things that can be achieved in a metal shop without generating sparks is exceptionally short. In fact so far it consists of “sweeping the floor”.

My welding is improving, though to be fair its not like it could actually go the other direction. But I’m also learning a lot of other things. These things fall mainly into 2 categories, the first of which is “how to use this big/small/dangerous looking machine with the big saw/rollers/giant hammer/gun-like attachment” and the second of which is “what machine exactly is it that I use to make this thing into this thing”. Chances are that if you need to do something with a lump of metal, someone else has had to do it repeatedly ten thousand times for some arcane purpose lost in the mists of time. Or for a really obvious purpose like making cars, whichever. Either way the result is that there is a machine or a tool for absolutely bloody everything. If there isn’t one it probably isn’t because none exists but rather that we are too cheap to buy one.

Specifically, I have learned many different ways to cut things of varying types and thicknesses, many different ways to grind things, how to bend pipes and how to figure out when you have bent a pipe sufficiently for the purpose as opposed to way too fucking much. That’s actually quite a lot of things, before you get all unimpressed with me and my bending of pipes. I also very specifically learned how not to put things on a truck, but I won’t get into that. It involved the sacrifice of one windshield to the gods, and a couple of hair-raising moments.

Everything in the universe is boring if done enough times, even really cool things. In terms of the shop, chances are that if you aren’t bored of it yet you probably aren’t any good at it yet. Things that you may actually manage to be ok at before becoming deathly bored of them include cutting stuff with an oxy-acetylene torch, mostly because it takes a really long time for melting steel to get in any way old. It just looks amazing when molten steel drips in yellow globs through the cutting table and you know that you and your trusty blowtorch have made that metal heat to 5000 degrees fahrenheit just so that you can blast a hole in it. There is something immensely satisfying about that. (Yes, I know I have issues. But I am sure even emotionally well-balanced people think molten steel is awesome).

Things which do become swiftly boring include beveling a 45 degree angle on some mild steel shapes so that they can be welded together. This is surprisingly hard to do quickly and accurately, especially when said shapes are their exact measurements for a reason and if you fuck it up by taking too much metal off the first time you cannot simply cut the end off and start again. Not that boredom is in any way the main problem with this activity, in fact its kind of cool when you realize you might actually have gotten the hang of doing it properly. Sheer effort is definitely up for first place, with incredibly sore wrists in the aftermath of spending a day with an angle grinder coming in a close second. Another important piece of information – this work is really physically tiring. A nugget of trivia which falls into the bucket of things I knew to be factual but did not truly understand the meaning of before experiencing it. While we’re on that tack another thing that has really sunk in both literally and figuratively is the fucking dirt.

Dust, oil, dirt, metal shavings, metal dust, paint… Every type of grime or stain imaginable is on my hands, trousers, face every goddamn fucking day. It’s disgusting. I need two showers a day just to avoid having to wash my sheets every morning. I cannot count how many times I wash my hands a day, but its one more than the number of totally pointless times I wash my hands because they are just going to get covered in more crap in 2 minutes anyway. I was told by a friend lately that after a whole summer of this I will probably have burned out on the whole workshop thing, and he may have a point. ¬†There is a lot to be said for doing real physical work that you can see actual results from immediately. But there is also a lot to be said for not having to use a scrubbing brush to clean your arms every evening.

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.