Light, Metal, Shadow: The Freedom of Welding

Column by Alex R. Knight III.

Exclusive to STR

I suppose my first serious exposure to the trade, craft, and art of welding came during a brief five-month stint I did working for a railroad company. Technically, my job title was that of forklift driver, loading and unloading rail cars when freight came in to a small ex-airport on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River. On days when no such freight arrived, I crossed that geographical (and imaginary political) boundary east into New Hampshire to go to work repairing and maintaining those rail cars – some of which, in a small percentage of cases – dated back to the 1960s or 1970s, though rarely do railroad cars last that long. Coupled with the almost endless battery of federal regulations the entire railroad industry is subjected to, after about 30 years of service, on average, most rail cars are relegated to scrap iron.

But during those three decades of use, such freight containers are also subject to a torrent of wear and tear. Parts become broken, bent, dented, warped, knocked out of plumb, and even occasionally vandalized (mostly graffiti). Some things can be merely hammered back into shape. At times that can only be accomplished after the metal in question is thoroughly heated first. Still other times things have to be cut, and often, the application of an acetylene torch is the best tool for that job. And of course, when metal must be patched, or fused back together, in comes welding.

That spring and summer of 2008 was a crash course in a number of things, but in retrospect, welding was chief among them. As I said, I wasn’t at the roundhouse every day, but when I was, I was often offered the opportunity to weld. A lot of the other guys working there – with the exception of a couple of very experienced welders – seemed to want to take a pass on it as often as possible. My attitude was almost instantly the direct opposite: I welded every time I was asked or given a chance to. I welded for practice when nothing else was going on. Some of the other new guys got spoken to about failing to take the time to practice welding during lunch break – solely because I had taken the liberty and formed the habit of doing so.

I didn’t become an expert. There wasn’t time. I held that job for five months, then moved on to something entirely different for more pay. But I did, by sheer coincidence (Or fate? Depends on your personal belief system.), happen upon what I found an especially interesting episode in the life of the late great Karl Hess – anarchist, writer, tax resister . . . and as I found out, welder.

In his posthumously published 1999 autobiography, Mostly On the Edge, Hess recounted how, out of both a love for motorcycles, and his waning career as a political speech writer for the electorally defeated Barry Goldwater, he instead sought out an alternative means of making a living by enrolling in welding classes at Bell Vocational School in 1967. Hess subsequently started K-D Welding with a biker friend, Don Breid. The two of them began repairing construction equipment all around the Washington, DC area at night, so there would be no interruption in usage during daytime work hours. Their working areas, based on Hess’s description, were exceptionally dark, other than a few sparse streetlamps. But the intense light of their arc welder was “like a sweeping spotlight at an airport.” One of the best (and most moving, I think) passages in this whole section is found at the bottom of page 223, where Hess says of his business partner, Don, “. . . he loved our nighttime light shows. We would talk about them till [sic] three or four in the morning. We weren’t hurried; we had lots of time to think and look. It was absorbing, colorful, and even inspiring. Welding was an extension of how we felt, an occupation and a commitment not of our intellect, but of our entire beings to the melding of light, metal, and shadow. It was the best job I have ever had, and because Don and I did it at such an unusual hour, we were able to command premium pay for it. If I could be a welder again, I would choose to do it just that way.”

It was quite some time after reading that before I acted upon it in any concrete sense, but it stuck with me like glue. Or, perhaps more appropriately, a thick bead of weld. March of this year saw me finally enrolled in a basic welding class offered via a small community college in Massachusetts, not far from my place here in Vermont.

The sessions were held for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday night for the entire month – the first through the thirty-first, precisely. They were at a vocational technical school separate from the college, where high-schoolers attended by day. The place was built in 1972, and the decor had seemingly never been changed. It had, however, been very well maintained. This was the very first thing I found both delightful, and comforting. It was like stepping back to an earlier, simpler time. Like coming home, in a way. It was also adjacent to a small airport. Complete, after dark, as it turned out, with Hess’s spotlight. The Connecticut River was also a nearby feature, broad and inviting.

The instructor’s name was Ron, and he had his own welding business in Athol, Massachusetts (Lysander Spooner’s birthplace!). He was a master of his craft par excellence, with over 30 years experience, full nuclear certification (when work of that nature was still in abundance), and luminary (if often controversial) customers like Bill Cosby and Stephen King on his resume´. In honor of that latter, I gave Ron a copy of one of my books. We started in.

I remembered Hess’s recollection of his first project at BVS, wherein he and the other students were asked to weld a pipe to a metal-topped workbench, and then, having successfully completed that, to add as many pieces of odd-shaped metal to it as possible in as many configurations as one could manage. This beginning was similar. Nine of us lined up at separate enclosed adjoining workbenches, each equipped with small Miller MiG (Mechanized Inert Gas) welders. Our mission? To simply weld the edges of small squares of steel together, clamped to the respective sides of a piece of angle iron. My booth had a very Hessesque metal pole in it, already welded to the benchtop, complete with assorted randomly welded on pieces. It made for a good grounding point – I knew from my experience years earlier at the railroad -- in order to complete the electrical field necessary to begin a welding arc. I grabbed hold of the welding gun, flipped my mask down (I should mention that the market has brought us a new industry standard in these over the last decade and a half; no longer are they equipped exclusively with opaque smoked glass which leaves the novice effectively blind until an arc can be achieved. Newer “helmets,” in welder’s vernacular, have light-sensitive electronically adjusted shaded lenses that are powered by a combination of solar panel and nickel-cadmium battery. This means one can see fine prior to striking an arc, and when one does, the lens instantly dims to the desired pre-set shade. In most applications, the setting is Shade 10.), and began to run a bead.

The initial results were pretty ugly; strong, but ugly. I thought if I welded all three practice pieces together, I might have a pretty good desktop letter holder. I have yet to do so.

Next came brazing pieces of scrap piping together using gas (acetylene and oxygen – though propylene is fast becoming a cheaper, safer, and less wasteful alternative) torches and brass brazing rod sleeved in a greasy white plastic flux. This was a welding discipline, I learned, entirely different from anything that relied on the penetrating qualities of an electric arc. One had to heat up the joint between pipe sections enough to melt the combination of brass rod and flux, then create a pool of molten metal and plastic which needed to be constantly fed while moving both torch and rod around the circumference of piping. My first attempt went amazingly well. The braze held solid, even after dropping the practice pieces unceremoniously in the scrap barrel.

The start of each class was Ron introducing a new welding discipline to the group: plasma cutting, TiG (Tungsten Inert Gas) – both with steel and aluminum, which is yet another skill entirely, and shielded metal arc (SMAW) or “stick” welding. This last was one I paid particular attention to, along with MiG. They are the two most frequently used methods when working with most common steels or iron.

We continued our practice sessions using a variety of various metal scraps out of a line of plastic stackbins sitting on top of the main “good” stock supply. It was mostly steel, some of it stainless, and consisted of plates, tubes, rods, grating – a little of everything castoff, in lengths of less than a foot in all cases. These we were free to fuse together in whatever combinations, using the discipline of our choice. At the same time, we had to think, each of us, of a small personal project we could build by the end of the month. We’d use the welding methods most appropriate – presumably the one(s) we found most useful or agreeable.

I found I really liked MiG – especially a Miller 250 I’d been using that ran a large, smooth bead out of the gun almost without effort – but my roots with the railroad (such as they were) had been in stick. So I based my pre-project practice sessions on that.

Unlike the railroad, however, in which there were only a couple of types of rods (electrodes, in proper terminology) we used, I learned there were any number of types and sizes for various metal compositions and thicknesses. Some of the more common ones were (are) 6010, 6011, 6013, 7018, and 7024. To an ex-“tax protestor” like myself, these sounded like nothing less than some of the more egregious and deceptive sections of the Internal Revenue Code. In this case, however, they were nothing short of some of the more essential tools of the welding trade.

My impromptu abstract sculptures – that’s essentially what they amounted to – were fraught with mistakes: Messy beads, welding too hot (too much amperage), welding too cool (low amps), getting the electrode rods stuck while arcing, using the wrong rod for the differing metals I was welding together. But betwixt and between some of the random guesswork, I was actually learning what worked and what didn’t. This was essential. I had a project to start, coming up soon.

I decided, very spur of the moment, to design and build a rifle rack (what else does a self-respecting freedom advocate build?). Using a yellow notepad Ron had given each of us (and I was pleasantly astonished to see it was from a supplier of welding gases my grandfather had done business with through his auto-body shop, way on the other side of Massachusetts, 35 or 40 years earlier), I hastily drew up a stick diagram, using measurements from a workbench nearby that looked comparable to what I envisioned in terms of height and width. Ron approved this design right away, and with some small suggested modifications, agreed to cut the necessary lengths of rebar and round bar stock for me to assemble through a combination of MiG and stick welds.

By the next class, my metal was delivered to me in a duct-taped bundle, and I began work – first with MiG, then stick. The rifle rack went together like magic. The welds were penetrating and strong. My mastery of creating good, lasting arcs had increased tremendously. And the whole thing was level and square. By the end of the next class, I was outside spray-painting it. My own progress amazed me.

My final assignment was to stick-weld shut a roughly 2” x 2” opening in one end of a rusty square pipe perfectly. Watertight perfect. Without grinding away any of the rust to increase weld performance. I took the pipe into the welding booth and about 40 thin 7018 rods later, I told Ron I wanted to test it. I took the pipe over to a deep sink while it was still glowing orange with heat, and poured water into it. It hissed, steamed, cooled . . . and held. I was pretty pleased with myself, but Ron was even more pleased: “I’m happier than you are right now,” he said, grinning broadly. “About three out of every 50 guys get that right on the first try, and you did it. You’re a good farm welder!”

“Farm welder” is a common trade term for a good novice welder – kind of like earning a brown belt in karate. I liked the sound of it. I had tremendous fun, and I’d gained a deep sense of satisfaction out of becoming one. And I had something (a new rifle rack) to show for it.

I find I now wholeheartedly share the sense of enthusiasm and joy Hess related in his memoir with regard to welding, and look forward to more and continuing experience. I also find that I already especially miss the dimly-lit welding booths steeped in grimy early 1970s decorum – evidence of years upon years of skills being honed and crafted, decades of heat and electric bacon-sizzle and fusion accompanied by long flickering shadows and dazzling blue-white light shows. More prosaically, perhaps, I can also appreciate the professional potential welding poses. It’s predominantly a cash business, and the demand for welding services of all kinds are steadily on the rise. Given Hess’s disposition with the accursed IRS, is it any wonder he saw welding as both a rewarding and lucrative means of surviving – even thriving – while government thieves and tyrants attempted to find ways to hurt and punish him for daring to be free?

Of course, Hess always continued his writing as well – nonfiction and poetry. Add speculative fiction to that in my case, and I’ll be happy to follow suit. I don’t know where welding will end up taking me – abstract sculpting, extra side money, self-employment? – but I do know I’m eager to go there, in any case.

But that is all in the future. What welding means to me at the moment is personal growth and the continuing journey of self-discovery.

And these things are nothing, if not freedom.

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Alex R. Knight III's picture
Columns on STR: 153

Alex R. Knight III is the author of numerous horror, science-fiction, and fantasy tales.  He has also written and published poetry, non-fiction articles, reviews, and essays for a variety of venues.  He currently lives and writes in rural southern Vermont where he holds a B.A. in Literature & Writing from Union Institute & University.  Alex's Amazon page can be found here, and his work may also be found at both Smashwords and Barnes & Noble.  His MeWe group can be found here.


KenK's picture

Keep your skills up Alex. A useful trade is a good thing to have. Like an insurance policy and investment combined into one.
I have a hard bound copy of Hess's bio. Amazing life he had.

Alex R. Knight III's picture

I will Ken, thanks, and you're right.  My copy of MOTE is hard bound too, and signed by Hess's son.  His life was very eclectic indeed, and contained multitudes.  :-)

rettafontana's picture

Nice column, Alex!

Alex R. Knight III's picture

Thank you, Retta!  :-)

Paul's picture

Good one. It is one of my regrets that I never took it up. I can do other trades, electrical, plumbing, even built a house, but not being a welder is a definite loss. Now too old to try any more, oh well!

Alex R. Knight III's picture

Never too late, Paul!  :-)  Hess was middle-aged when he started -- then started a business after that.  Life is no rehearsal.  Gotta go for it!