Welding 101: Nowhere to go but up

Construction, metal work, heavy-duty mechanics, small engine repair, electrical systems, hydraulic systems, soil science, animal husbandry, plant nutrition, tissue-culture propagation: This is a partial list of essential skills for a Pemberton farmer, and of topics not covered in my Bachelor of Arts degree. Had I known I was going to go into farming, I might have chosen differently. However, I didn't, and here I am, writing about my recent introduction to welding.

Our farm is fortunate to have down the road a very supportive machine shop, to which we tow our broken metal things. I fight feelings of panic whenever he goes on vacation, or tries to retire, and so I have decided to learn how to weld. Dad has produced his textbook from a welding course he took quite some time ago, and I have been trying to sort out the theoretical basics (how does a welder work, exactly?) for a few months. All this has culminated in the purchase of a big red stick welder, which I wrestled into the corner of the shop a few days ago.

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Our supportive machinist has come up to the farm and given me lessons. He literally held my hand to show me how to "strike the arc" with the "electrode," or stick of steel. The idea is that this "arc" is hot enough to melt the metal in the stick and it then puddles on the metal to be fixed. I mangle several pieces of scrap steel, as I practice striking the arc, attaching pieces to one another, and making lines of molten metal. The thicker the metal you are working with, the more metal you want to melt, and the higher amperage you will need. There is only one dial on my welder and that is what it's for: melting more metal. It is possible that I have failed to grasp the nuances and subtle sophistication of welding, but that is the general idea. Metal melting. Bottom line.

And the moment has come to do an actual job. The steel arm of the Crop Chopper Mower is cracked and will surely break soon. I am going drop a weld in there.

Dad is supportive, as he is with everything I want to do, but I think in the back of his mind, he wonders if this is really necessary. He brings the injured mower to the shop for me and then returns to rotivating next year's potato field. Mom occupies herself on the other side of the barn, nearby in case I blow something up, and Jennie mumbles something about the greenhouse and disappears. I am left alone with my stick welder, a broken piece of equipment, and only the vaguest idea of what to do about it.

My initial effort did not go well. I had the amperage up too high and turned the crack into a hole. I jerked my hand back in surprise each time I struck the arc and then jammed the electrode down on the metal, where it became stuck. When I could not strike an arc, I stabbed repeatedly at the metal, forgetting completely about the calm scratching motion I was taught. My facemask kept slipping, my big welding gloves were stiff and cumbersome, and I was certain that I was making the problem worse.

In the end, I did fix the crack. There is an unnatural looking bubble of steel covering it. It is uneven, pitted and there are many scorched metal marks in the general vicinity of the job area where due to spastic motions with the electrode, arcs were struck. Dad didn't mind. He pronounced it fixed, and mom and Jennie looked surprised, but pleased.

I am comforted by the fact that, as with many of these farming skills, I can only get better at welding, even though I can tell that this learning curve will be steep and long. It is my hope that we do not lose too many of the people who really DO know how to do all these things. If we do, and one day we need food from them, we are hooped.

Anna Helmer is currently riding the Hurley/Highline circle route with her mom, and is remembering Anne Mustoe, teacher, writer, and bike tourer.

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