Playing with Fire: Welding for fun (and just for the hell of it)

06 Jan.,2023


Plasma Arc Welder

OK, bear with me: Welding just for the hell of it. Yes, initially invented for utility, welding serves as a means to an end. It evolved into a tool to build everything an advanced society needs, from stools and stoves to skyscrapers and jumbo jets. Steel pipelines delivering fuel and water span the globe. We’ve welded rocket ships that leave Earth, submarines that dive deep underwater, and walls to keep people in (and out). It's a career, a trade, a process, a thing critical to keeping humanity alive and thriving, and presumed to be purely utilitarian.

But it's not. Welding is also Zen, a form of art, a creative release. When paired with talent and drive, it's a skill to be honed in the same way world-class musicians and Olympians become elite.

Welding is coded in science, shrouded in mystery, and it looks easy in the hands of a master. That’s the trick, though, isn’t it? “An amateur practices until he gets it right; a professional practices until he cannot get it wrong.”

This proficiency at the highest levels of the trade, combined with the ubiquity of welding itself, often leaves outsiders thinking that it is either super easy or just a mindless task that grubby blue-collar folks do. Of course, neither of those ideas is true.

And one of the things that gives me great joy in this life is being part of the discovery process and witnessing when the lightbulb turns on for a welding student.

My wife, Darla, sits in on all the welding workshops we host, and she sees the same thing. I love when a new student comes into the shop. They sit through the introductory lesson on safety, machines, settings, consumables, and how-tos. When it’s finally their turn with the torch, they pull the hood down and strike their first arc. “Whoa!” is almost always the first word out of their mouth, along with an abrupt stop to pull back. The sensation is wholly new. They feel the power of the process. Their respect for the skill reaches another level, and their joy unleashes from trying something new!

In our welding workshops, we have welcomed high school kids, veterans, retirees, college students, mechanics, dealer techs, PhDs, surgeons, families, cosmetologists, urban farmers, automotive designers, engineers, and execs.

Two senior high school girls recently attended with their dad. When they realized how much science leads the process, they lit up. At first, they were hesitant; dad wanted them to learn to weld to fix up their first cars. (You know, utilitarian.) But they leaned in as I explained how the machine works, how the heat generates, and why the molten metal needs protection from our atmosphere. And when they realized we could create a sculpture of Slinky Dog from “Toy Story”? Game on!

My friend Mark Trostle is the head of Ram Truck and Mopar Design, and he brought his son Ethan to a TIG workshop. Thirty years in, Mark is an established designer at the highest level. And Ethan, a design student at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, hopes to follow in his dad’s footsteps. Neither is looking to become a welder—maybe not even as a hobby—but inspiration comes in many forms. And within four hours on a Sunday afternoon, we witnessed their curiosity and uncertainty transform into excitement and awe laying their first consistent beads! They talked about taking another workshop and bringing other family members; they now get why I’m so passionate about what I do daily.

Last year, Alan Raeder, an agricultural biochemist with a doctorate, signed up for two workshops. He wanted to explore another career option, learn about the fabrication industry, and brush up on his TIG skills to weld titanium bicycle frames. I pulled titanium pieces and talked him through the idiosyncrasies of TIG welding the exotic metal. Raeder had the hand-eye coordination required to excel, but eventually he found the bicycle fab industry didn’t provide the pay and benefits he needed. He is now a college professor of agricultural systems in Washington state; still, he built himself a titanium bike frame through a specialized workshop. Yeah, Raeder wanted to perhaps find a career in welding. Instead, he found that while it doesn’t always pay the bills, it's fun, relaxing, and an excellent tool when biking is your hobby.

Darla’s first time TIG welding was an epiphany for her. In 2020, I finally got her under the hood and behind the torch. After getting her set up and walked through the basics, I let her loose while I cleaned up the shop. I’d answer a few questions here and there, but mostly she was in the zone, dropping dimes. After five hours, she stopped, looked at me, and said, “Well, now I get it. I get why it's your Zen!”

Welding can be many things: a job, a career, a tool, entertainment, meditation, a lifestyle. It doesn’t have to be all things to everyone, nor is any one thing “required” for it to be useful. It can be whatever you want it to be.