It followed me home
November 20, 2015
I haven’t had to call the fire department. Yet. But it is a distinct possibility. I was running errands the other day and a welder followed me home. There isn’t some project that has been staring me in the face for years, saying, "if only you had a welder, you could fix that." But the idea of welding has been knocking around in my head for quite a while.
Until this week, I think I may have used a welder three or four times in my life. When something needed welding on the ranch, my uncle was very good at it. My job was to get out of his way. Since he died, I’ve been on my own. I’ve made a few repairs. They worked, but they are ugly welds, even by the diminished standard of "farmer welding." A few years ago, I had a tie rod break on one of the antique tractors. I guess I could have scoured the internet and bought one from a salvage yard. Or I could weld it back together.
I opted for the second choice. I used what could be the first arc welder ever made. It’s been in the farm shop for at least 60 years, the wiring is mouse chewed, and the labels have worn off the controls, which makes me reluctant to change settings. It’s the old-school system where you clamp a rod that is about 18 inches long into the handle, delicately strike it to the metal to get the arc flowing, and then move along the joint you are welding as the rod melts into the work. Unless you have the steady hand of a surgeon, the rod gets stuck to the work. It showers everything with sparks and profanity.
It’s an amazing process, and you get to do it mostly without being able to see what you are doing. Once the arc is there, it generates enough light that you can see through the dark lens of the helmet. But to get the arc established, you have to see what you are doing. And you can’t with the helmet on. There is supposed to be a nodding motion that will bring the helmet down as soon as you strike the arc, but in my case, the helmet just fell off. But my repair worked. I drove the tractor in the Miners Day Parade, and nobody noticed the crappy welding job.
I was so proud of my work I was glowing like molten metal, and not in flames. I concluded that welding had potential. But perhaps not with Thomas Edison’s prototype welder. There have been some changes in technology since WWII. I looked at new equipment a little bit, and then got distracted by other things, and that was that.
Last week, some cosmic force drew me to the welding aisle in Tractor Supply Company. I was in there to buy a $1.29 linkage pin to connect the snow blower to the tractor. And a welder followed me home. It was on sale. What can you do?
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One of the few benefits of being single is that you can buy a welder, drag it home, and assemble it on the living room floor without having to explain anything to anybody. Married friends could never get away with that. You know how that works. You get sent to the store to buy a quart of milk and come home with a welder instead. Then there is a "discussion" that usually ends up with disparaging references to the table saw you bought that other time that is still in the box.
Anyway, I got it all set up and hauled it out to the garage. I had gathered up some scraps of metal from the dark, raccoon-infested recesses of the barn, and commenced welding. The new technology is a lot different. Instead of the rod that shrinks as you go, the new version has a wire that feeds through the head. So the business end stays the same size all the time instead of the rod burning up. You just pull a trigger to get the arc going, and the wire feeds into the arc automatically. That’s not to say there isn’t some skill involved.
The first practice welds weren’t very successful. Too much wire, not enough amperage, and vice versa. There are some magic ratios of wire and amps. The metal scraps were all rusty, which didn’t help, and they had rough edges. But I got things to generally stick together. Not necessarily the right things, but things. For example, the vice-grip pliers I was using as a clamp are beautifully welded to a pile of scrap metal. The scraps I was trying to join together are still separate. There is much to learn.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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