Welding, pt. 2: Adding wood to metal

I worked with an expert welder for an upcoming article for Woodcraft magazine, titled, “Welding for Woodworkers.” And that’s what I covered in my first blog. Now my part kicks in: adding a wood top to our steel frame, along with some finishing touches for the overall table.

Just as I thought, dealing with metal is simple compared to wood. Abrasive pads remove the last traces of high heat, plus any scratches, and a coat of paste wax is all the finish you need, evening out the sheen and providing a bit of protection from finger grease and corrosion. There are awesome plugs that you just bang down into the ends of the steel-tube legs with a rubber mallet, and they come threaded for adjustable feet.

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As for adding a wood top, that’s woodworking, and takes a bit more time. I went with Port Orford cedar, a hard cedar that grows only in the Pacific Northwest. It’s got nice organic character that goes well with the steel below.

I milled up two thick pieces to make a 1-1/2-in.-thick top, to match the thickness of the steel frame parts. Than I added a little rabbet around the bottom edge to create a thin shadow line that separates wood and steel.

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After prepping the surfaces, putting a nice roundover on all the edges, and adding a few coats of polyurethane, attaching the wood top was a breeze. Kari Merkl had already drilled holes through the upper frame pieces before welding the frame together, so now I just drove long screws through those into the top. The cedar is pretty stable but there is enough wiggle room in the screw holes to allow for any seasonal wood movement.

That’s it, a mixed-media table in the modern style! For the whole story, including a variety of different pieces made with similar techniques, see my upcoming article in Woodcraft magazine.

Embrace the imperfections in the wood and welding.jpgthe-steel-and-wood-work-well-together

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The Willie Wonka world of Judson Beaumont

I don’t know a person who doesn’t love Judson Beaumont’s furniture when they see it. From tables and cabinets that melt and explode, to doghouses shaped like campers, the ideas are original, playful, joyful and and seemingly endless.

Long before I met him at a trade show, I was a huge fan. We were there to judge a student furniture show and hit it off instantly. Jud is compact and effervescent, like his furniture, and we had a blast appreciating young people’s work, and then bar-hopping and cracking wise that same night.

We never met again until last week, when I had the chance to drive up to his workshop in Vancouver, B.C., on assignment for Popular Woodworking magazine. I was looking forward to getting inside the Chocolate Factory.

Jud found his old industrial building almost 30 years ago, when he was a young art-school graduate with some furniture success already under his belt. He took a corner spot on the second floor, unboarded the windows, and went to work.  Over the years other artisans followed his lead, and today the place is chockful of over 200 of them, cross-pollinating each others’ work and lives, trading skills and ideas. Jud recruited his current casting/molding expert from the floor below.

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One thing I love about the building is how the owners and occupants have welcomed talented graffiti artists to decorate the exterior. Art is art.

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Inside his two giant workrooms, I found a small army of young assistants, busy bringing Jud’s creations to life. No Oompa-Loompas, because they come and go over the years, but talented and committed to Jud’s vision.

Like most of my favorite furniture makers, Jud designs first, free from constraints, and then figures out how to build it. It’s not better then being schooled in traditional furniture making methods, just different.

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So how he builds is not precious. Nail guns, plywood, and glue mostly, with the finished surfaces being where he spends his effort. He just does whatever makes sense, as long as the finished project is sturdy and impeccable looking in the end.

That means he can work quickly, focus on designing and finding clients, and rely on (somewhat) lesser skilled workers to do the heavy lifting.

I also found out that the seemly effortless designs are exactly the opposite. This is critical information for would-be designers, so listen up: It takes a hundred weird sketches and wacky experiments with the tablesaw and glue to come up with just a few workable ideas, and Jud has spent 30 years of Saturdays alone in his shop, just playing. Playing with a purpose.

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The sketching is critical he said, and you’ll get better at it the more you do. But you need to see ideas in real 3-D too, so miniature and full-size models are just as important. Dozens of false starts and funky attempts line the walls and windowsills of his shop. Some miniatures are so cool that they end up being sold.

If you do all that, and do it for decades, experimenting and building endlessly, you might get to travel the world like Jud, having children in Hong Kong dress up like your furniture and dance for you.

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For more about this real-life Willie Wonka, check future issues of Popular Woodworking magazine. The magazine tends to stick to traditional forms and methods, so I can’t wait to see what readers think. I can’t imagine them not appreciating Judson Beaumont.

Welding is easier than you think, pt. 1

I’ve been spending time with a local welder, Kari Merkl, working on an article for Woodcraft magazine, called “Welding for Woodworkers,” and I’m psyched to see how easy and affordable it is to get into the craft. Today’s small, user-friendly welders can join all sorts of steel parts, and then who knows what you might build: sleek furniture, junkyard sculpture, a tiny house or a tricked-out trailer.

I haven’t welded anything since a brief intro back in trade school 30 years ago, but I’ve always wanted to add welding to my arsenal. So I jumped at the chance to find a local expert and see what it takes to get started. Kari has been welding professionally for 16 years and teaching for 6, which makes her uniquely suited to break it down for beginners like me.

Watch Woodcraft mag for the full story, but here’s a taste of how easy and fun welding can be. I’ll do the basics first, then talk about adding wood parts in a later post. But keep following this blog because I plan to get my own rig and start building stuff with steel. If you’ve already beat me to it, let me know!

So welder first. You’ll be welding mild steel, specifically “cold-rolled,” which comes in lots of tubes and shapes with good dimensional accuracy and a nice, smooth finish. Other metals are harder to held and more of a next-level thing. But mild steel can do a ton of stuff, and be painted, power-coated or just protected with wax.

So for mild steel, MIG welding is the answer, at least for most of you. It’s the best combo of affordability, portability, affordability, and short learning curve. MIG stands for Metal Inert Gas, which just means the welding gun directs a stream of argon gas (with some CO2) into the welding zone to shield it from impurities in the air. Makes for much cleaner welds. But MIG is just a form of wire-fed arc welding, in which the work is grounded and then the welding wire touches the work, completing the circuit and instantly heating the wire and surrounding steel into a molten state, so it can bond together in a little puddle.

So there is a simpler wire-fed method, which forgoes the gas for flux instead. The flux is in the core of the welding wire, and creates a little shielding plume when heated. The weld isn’t quite as clean as MIG can do, but it’s still very effective.

Bottom line, you can get a gasless wire-feed welder for under $300 and for another $150 or so you can have a unit that does MIG, too! Here’s a great one that does both, from a very reputable company, Hobart.

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Voltage and the feed rate are controlled separately, as they should be, and the unit comes with the spool gun (with a few extra tips), some flux-core wire, and the grounding clamp–everything you need for flux-core-wire welding. If you add the tank of argon gas at some point, you can do MIG.

You will also need to prep your shop environment. If you can’t work in a separate room with nothing flammable for about 12 feet in every direction, you can shield the welding area with plastic welding curtains, as Kari is doing here:

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You’ll also notice the grounding clamp attached to a steel table, which in turn electrifies the workpieces being welded. You can also attach the clamp to the parts themselves, if you are welding on a concrete floor for example, or just put a steel plate atop your woodworking bench. The solid wood is spark proof too, but be sure there is no sawdust in sight or anything flammable, including open trash cans. And hang up those shielding curtains where needed!

You’ll also need some safety gear, like Kari has on, all thick cotton or leather, with a welding helmet.

Other than some practice and basic know-how, this is all that stands between you and welding! OK, you do need some way to cut metal, and your woodworking tools won’t work. Your wood-cutting bandsaw is way to fast for metal. So you’ll need a small metal cutoff saw (just over $100) or a horizontal bandsaw ($300-$400 new) designed for cutting metal.

Now to the basic technique. First of all, welding introduces tension and a lot of heat, so you need to distribute that heat and tension as you go or you will distort the assembly you are …assembling.

Basically, you get the parts squared up and clamped in place (there are cool welding clamps of this, or you can use any steel-jawed woodworking clamps) and then you first just make small tack welds at all the joints, moving systematically sound the assembly. Then you return to point A to make full welds. This balances the forces as you go, and lets the heat dissipate in each spot before you return.

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Mark used some cool magnet clamps to hold the parts in place squarely while she tacked all the joints together. This leg assembly got joined later to another one to complete the table base.
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You work your way around the assembly tacking one area at a time.
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Then you return to each area to do the full welds. This equalizes all the forces in the assembly as you go, and lets heat dissipate.

As for technique, it’s best to take a class and do lots of practice but here are the basics: you cut off the wire at about 1/4 in. away from the tip of the gun, tilt the gun about 60 degrees to the surface and pull it along ahead of the weld, trying to keep the tip of the gun about 1/8 in. off the surface. The tilted gun lets you see the weld area as you work.

 

You also need to swirl the tip of the gun as you go to create a wide, strong bead. Welding is a dance of sorts, between voltage, wire feed rate, and your own motion, as you move the molten puddle down the weld, and that dance takes practice. But you can do it!

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This is the angle and height you should keep the spool gun at, and this is about how wide a good weld should be. You can see the swirling action in the weld.
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A wire brush cleans say the slag off the weld, and 3M pads can do the rest of the polishing. A couple coats of paste wax completes the job. Then the frame is done!

Kari says the hardest part for beginners is learning to see the entire weld as you work, training your brain to see a bigger circle through the lens in the white light, and also just getting comfortable with the sparks, sound, and light. But she gets beginners to nirvana all the time, so you can do it too.

 

After spending a couple days shooting photos at her studio, I’m positive I can weld. Still I’m going to one of her classes this weekend to try it for real.

Stay tuned for part two, where I show some of the finishing touches to a welded frame, and how to add wood to it to make a nice coffee table.