By Gert van der Sanden, EAA 444493
I have badgered EAA about the fact that the only TIG welding SportAir Workshops were always in Atlanta, a bit far away for me. So when the e-mail arrived stating that there will be a TIG welding class in Oshkosh, I jumped on it immediately.
I have had a TIG welder for years but only used it to weld thick flat stock and 3/16-inch angle iron. And even then I was not particularly good at it. Cue the SportAir Workshop TIG class in Oshkosh, sponsored by Lincoln Electric and Aircraft Spruce & Specialty. Just what the doctor ordered.
The class was held in Paul Poberezny’s Aeroplane Factory on the EAA grounds with sign-in starting at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday. Actual class started at 8 a.m., running until 5 p.m., with a break for (provided) lunch. Part of the morning was consumed with introductions all around and the TIG welding basics. The instructor for the class was none other than Mr. TIG himself, Wyatt Swaim. Turns out Wyatt is not only an instructor par excellence, he is also a captivating story teller, as many of his stories showed, and has a wealth of knowledge to impart onto us humble novices.
After the class intro and TIG basics we went to our individual welding stations to practice on thin steel plates. All the necessary personal protection equipment was provided by Lincoln Electric, including safety glasses, cap and gloves, welding helmet, bandana, and welding jackets. The TIG welders used were Lincoln Electric TIG 200 Square Wave machines with Flexible TIG torches attached running argon as shielding gas.
We started by learning to make tack-weld spots, first without filler then with filler, progressing on to lap welds, without and then with filler, butt joints, and finally progressing to fillet joint welds.
Now, for those who have never TIG welded, your torch contains a non-consumable tungsten electrode. But, as we learned very quickly, it is non-consumable in name only. See, Wyatt insists that you try and maintain a dime’s thickness distance between the tip of the electrode and the piece you are welding. You are to keep this dime’s distance while at the same time moving your TIG torch forward over the piece to be welded and controlling the welding current with a foot pedal. Let me tell you, when I started, I could not keep that dime’s distance for the life of me.
Here is where the non-consumable electrode becomes a consumable. Whenever you touch the puddle of molten metal with your electrode it becomes contaminated. This means that the electrode actually will start to melt and loose its sharp point. When the point disappears the arc starts wandering all over, except at the weld joint where you want the heat to go. The proper procedure is to stop welding, remove the electrode from the torch, take the electrode to the grinding table, knock the contaminated end off and grind a new point on the electrode. At this point you can go back, reinsert the electrode in the torch, and continue welding.
When I started off on Saturday morning, I could not weld more than an inch worth before dipping my electrode tip in the weld puddle. And judging by the line at the three grind stations I was not the only one. But as the saying goes, practice makes perfect. A good friend of mine once said, don’t complain until you have produced a thousand yards of weld bead, meaning, you have to practice, practice, and practice some more. And practice we did, with the seemingly endless supply of steel coupons. I built up a mountain of practice pieces, trying to weld at different configurations and finding new innovative ways of welding my practice pieces together in new sculptures.
During lunch, EAA’s Charlie Becker stopped by and provided a show and tell of some of his personal TIG welding equipment as well as talking about his airplane project. We were all invited to stop by Charlie’s house and critique his welded airframes after the class ended.
Later that Saturday afternoon we progressed to, or tried, welding 4130 tubing. I believe the wall thickness was .031. That turned out to be a completely different beast and for the life of me, I could not reliably weld that darn tubing to the flat plates. At least not that Saturday when classes wrapped up at 5 p.m.
Sunday class started at 8 a.m., but if you wanted to come early, you could practice welding before class. Sunday’s curriculum was an introduction to stainless steel welding and aluminum welding. Again Wyatt provided a wealth of knowledge, tips, and tricks. It looked like welding stainless was a bit easier than the steel coupons from Saturday, but aluminum was more difficult. As the man said, practice, practice, and practice some more. And again, I practiced not only welding but electrode grinding as well. I dare say I have that part of TIG welding down pat.
My pile of parts steadily continued growing on Sunday and, yes, my electrode continued to be consumed, just not at as fast a pace as Saturday. The longer your electrode at the end of the day, the better you have become. And let me tell you, there is no covering up the noise and soot produced when you accidentally dip the electrode in the aluminum puddle. Oh, and remember to take your foot off the control for the welding current when you pull the electrode out of the torch — ask me how I know. Another tip, have a few electrodes ready at your weld station so you don’t spend as much time at the grind stations. Just pop out the contaminated electrode and pop in a sharp one sitting ready for you.
Charlie returned on Sunday to help with our welding class, a fact we greatly appreciated. He took the time to help with the one-on-one welding as well as doing hands-on demonstrations at individual work stations when the welding caused more holes than weld seams. For me that moment came when, in the middle of welding two pieces of aluminum together, the seam suddenly decided to part faster than the Red Sea did for Moses. After some head scratching I found that I had run the bottle of argon shielding gas dry. The bottle was replaced and the weld seams in aluminum continued to flow together again.
Sunday class officially finished at 4 p.m. with the opportunity to continue welding until 5 p.m. after handing out certificates of completion. My TIG welding certainly improved during those two days as can be seen in the before and after pictures.
All in all, it was a weekend well spent learning to TIG weld, pretty much from scratch, under the tutelage of Wyatt and with a helping hand from Charlie. I wholeheartedly recommend this course if you are thinking about TIG welding, or even if you already have some welding experience.