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First Stints as a Welder - Learning the Ropes

Before I go into the main welding processes I’m going to give a brief bio of what I’ve learned and the processes I’ve used and taught. I was working overseas after a hitch in the Army and after five years, was planning on moving back to my old stomping grounds in Texas. A buddy asked what I was planning to do and I told him I pretty much didn’t have a clue.

He said I oughta look into welding, that it paid well, offered a lot of freedom, and I could use my GI Bill to learn it. I just wasn’t cut out for college or a 9 to 5 job at the time because I was used to traveling and adventure. To be able to wander around whenever I wanted to go I needed a job that would allow me to do so. Not many jobs like that back then or now either for that matter. However, welding was one of those jobs. My buddy told me that if I didn’t like my boss or wanted to travel then I’d need only to ask for my check, grab my tools (called “dragging up” in the field) and take off to go weld somewhere down the road. (Something you can do as long as there are a lot of jobs, but not advisable in a bad economy!)

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That sounded good to me so when I got back to Texas I signed up for welding at a vocational college. Instead of staying for the Associate’s Degree I headed into the workforce once I got my Structural Welding Certificate. I worked at an Oilfield / Agriculture Repair shop, a Black Iron Plant, and then joined the International Association of Bridge Structural, Ornamental and Re-Enforcing Iron Workers. See: http://www.thefabricator.com/article/arcwelding/learn-your-trade-pay-your-dues

 When I was in the Iron Workers union I liked welding on the big jobs where there is a Superintendent (in charge of the whole job and all the different trades such as Iron Workers, Pipe Fitters, Boiler Makers, Sheet Metal Workers, Carpenters, Electricians, and Laborers.)

A General Foreman is in charge of all the foremen (called “pushers”.)

Pushers are in charge of a gang (crew.) In the Iron Workers we have a “Raising Gang” whose job is to unload steel from trucks, hook the steel to the crane, connect the beams and columns etc. The connectors put a couple of bolts just to make a sturdy connection, and then move on to the next connection. The “Plumbing Gang” come behind the connectors and aligns the beams and columns making sure they are “plumb” which is making sure the columns are true vertically. If a column was off ¼” on a high-rise, it would lean 1” every four floors…NOT good! “Level” is making sure the beams are true horizontally.

After the plumb gang does their thing the “Bolt-up Gang” comes in and puts the remaining bolts in and “rattles them up.” That is, they take a big, powerful, and HEAVY impact wrench and tightening the bolts to a specific torque rating determined by engineers.

Depending on the job there may be a “Welding Gang” or individual welders on one of the other gangs. The first big job where I was on a welding gang was a coal-fired power plant that the owners wanted built “earth-quake proof.” Every connection on that plant was welded solid and there were two welding gangs with fifteen welders (can be more or less) whose job was coming behind the bolt-up gang and welding each bolted connection solid. We even took the bolts out and plugged the holes with plugs we carried in our bolt bags! See Plug Weld def. below…http://www.keenovens.com/articles/welding-terms-2.htm

Structural welding jobs may also have a “Miscellaneous Gang” that does the miscellaneous work such as putting in brackets, elevator sill angles, bathroom partitions and other small jobs for the contractor. This is a “gravy job” working on the “gravy train” because it is way easier and safer than structural work. 

 It is also advantageous because the building is moving toward completion and enclosed so there are no “rain-outs” so you’ll usually get a “ringer”. A “ringer “is a 40 hour paycheck in construction. If rain clouds develop on a Monday or Tuesday I’m rooting for rain so I can go home and take it easy. If they pop up Thursday or Friday I’m hoping they’ll go away because I want my ringer!

Speaking of rain, I’ve written before about the “Three Shock Rule” on a misty or light rainy day. Most of the time you don’t want a rain-out because if you don’t work, you don’t get paid, so if it’s not too bad we’ll try to get the day in. Once your gloves get wet it is very easy for you to get shocked especially when you put the rod in the stinger. I HATE getting shocked and the first one I get I will let out a howling scream and then keep welding. On the second shock I will again scream like a little kid that just saw a scary clown in their closet but continue to work for the company’s sake. A few minutes after a third shock I will be in my truck driving home!

Anyways, I digress…My first welding was building up worn idler wheels from bulldozers. I’ve written about it somewhere but the memory ain’t what it used to be and I can’t find that article’s site. An idler wheel helps keep the track in line. The sprocket (which also has teeth that can be built up) propels the track either forward or backward and the idler wheel keeps the track in line on the opposite end from the sprocket. Steel on steel constantly wears down to the point where the teeth on the sprocket aren’t long enough to make contact with the tread and the idler wheel wears down to where the track can come off under heavy strain.

It’s WAY cheaper to re-build them than it is to buy new so there I sat running the rod back and forth, left and right, over and over. The job was so cold and boring that I’d look at my watch thinking it was about lunch time and realize I’d only been there an hour! Boring it was, but I actually learned a lot doing it. I learned to actually feel the rod as it fused into the metal. The ONLY way you can do this is to TOTALLY RELAX your wrist!!!  Sometimes I’ll hand my hood to a student and grab a rod getting ready to weld. As they look at me with that “what the hell is he doing???” look I’ll tell them to watch their eyes and then look away and run a good looking bead with my eyes closed. I can do it because I “feel” the rod fusing into the metal.

Doing the build-up welds, I could feel a slight give into the steel and I got where I could tie the beads into each other so well that they were completely flat and smooth across the surface, which is what you want with a build-up weld. There should be no gaps or valleys between each bead. Each bead should be washed in about halfway into the previous bead you laid.

I am going to stress here that if you want to be a good welder you HAVE TO relax your hand and watch the weld pool. I’ve been doing this gig for over thirty years and I STILL have to remind myself of that sometimes especially with Mig because you are holding that big gun and it’s just human nature to grip it hard.

{If you are just beginning to learn to weld you should first learn to run a good “stringer bead”, a straight, good looking bead with proper fusion into the steel. Next comes  “re-starts”, starting at the end of the “crater” and working back into the direction of the weld before proceeding back into the direction you were welding. Then  practice “tie-ins” where you run about half-way into a previous bead thus making the two beads one grasshopper.}

I also ran a lot of 7018 and 6011 there and after a year got on at a black iron plant fabricating beams and columns with FCAW / Flux Core Arc Welding. I worked with it for about three years and have a million stories about some of the crazy people I worked with there. I ended up quitting because of a bad motorcycle accident and one night was having a beer with a buddy when he told me he had joined the Iron Workers union. He showed me his paycheck as an apprentice and it was TRIPLE what I was making. The next day I was at the hall. They gave me a year’s credit toward a three year apprenticeship and I went to work as a welder the next day. 

Definitions: http://www.keenovens.com/articles/welding-terms.htm

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