Learning to weld has been on my skills list for a long time. So last week, while the BLIZZARD OF THE CENTURY!!!!! raged elsewhere in New England, but still left me with 8″ to clean up and resulted in a broken plow, I decided to seize the opportunity.
I’ll state right up front that when judged by rational criteria, this was a poor decision. What I should have done was put the plow in my truck, take it to a local welding shop not five minutes away, and say, “Fix it and send me a bill.” I probably would have had the plow back in a few days, it probably would have been better than new, and it might have cost me a hundred bucks. Hell, I could have even scrapped the plow, paid $349 for a new one, and come out WAY ahead of where I am financially now. But no! That’s not how we roll here at APB. We’re all about self-reliance and personal freedom, and having to depend on someone else for your repair and maintenance work is anathema to me. So if the following makes no sense to you, well, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.
As soon as the bracket broke off my plow, I started thinking about which welder I was going to buy. I turned to the latest Harbor Freight flyer, looked for the most expensive welder they had, and figured I’d get out of the store about $250 poorer after the 20% coupon. But the more I thought about it, and the more input I got from Uncle Buck, the more I realized this would be a poor decision. Harbor Freight tools are fine for what they are, but I wasn’t looking for a throwaway here. Plus, welding is difficult, and you don’t need to have the tool fighting you while you’re learning.
In the end I settled on a Hobart Handler 140 MIG welder from Tractor Supply. It was on sale for $50 off, so I walked in with five crisp $100 bills and walked out with a new welder and 17 cents in change. I spent more than I wanted to, but in the end, I think I got a machine that will take me through most of the repairs and fabrication projects I can reasonably anticipate around the homestead.
For the uninitiated, MIG stands for “metal inert gas”, which is a welding process where the welder dumps a huge amount of current at low voltage into a thin wire electrode. The wire comes on a reel and is forced up a tube into the torch at an adjustable rate by drive rollers. The torch hose also has passages for gas, usually a mixture of argon and carbon dioxide, which is used to flood the weld area and exclude oxygen, making for better welds. Alternatively, the wire can be replaced with a flux-cored wire if you don’t have a gas cylinder, or if you want to weld outdoors in windy conditions that would blow the shielding gas away. I haven’t bought my gas cylinder yet, so I went with flux-core wire. After comparing YouTube videos on MIG welds to the poor-quality welds I was getting, I’ll be leasing a cylinder from the local welding supply house real soon now.
The bracket that broke off the plow was a pretty beefy piece of steel. It was 1/2″ thick plate steel, bent into a gentle S shape with a 7/8″ hole for the pin that controls the angle of the plow. It has to take a LOT of force, especially when you’re pushing snow while driving backwards and hit a rock or a tree. Given the low penetration of the original welds, I’m surprised the plow lasted as long as it did.
My original plan was to weld the bracket back on and call it a day, but I managed to lose the bracket while plowing after it broke. It’s a long story; suffice it to say, one of my neighbors is likely to find the piece in the spring. So off I went to my new favorite supplier – the “bargain barn” at our local steel fabricator. Bin after bin of offcuts and scraps to choose from, and lots of tube, angle, bar and rod stock in 6′ to 8′ lengths in racks that stretch up to the rafters. And everything is a just a dollar a pound! It’s like a toy store for fabricators. I poked around in there for a while and finally came up with a solution: I’d get an 1-1/2″x3″ heavy wall rectangular tube to use as a riser, plus a piece of 1/2″ thick flat plate to weld on top and form the tongue. Doing it this way would obviate the need for forging two bends into a hefty piece of steel and simplify the fabrication; alas, it robbed me of the chance to break in my new mini-forge, which will be the subject of a later post. Thirty-five dollars out the door, with enough extra to practice on.
To be honest, I had no idea how I was going to cut the metal. The fabrication n00b’s first thought is likely “hacksaw,” but I’ve put enough time into cutting bolts and bars with a hacksaw to know that it’s a bad way to spend an afternoon. I’ve also seen enough “American Chopper” to know that a cutoff wheel in an angle grinder works well for sheet steel, so I tried that. Like butter. Couldn’t believe how smooth the cuts were. Looks like I’ll be investing in a chop saw, which will result in even nicer cuts. And I thought boring the hole for the lock pin was going to be a hassle, but it turns out that I had a 7/8″ hole saw in the tool chest, so I chucked that into the drill press and cut the hole in a few minutes, with liberal application of WD-40, of course.
With the pieces cut to size and ground clean with a flap-disc grinder, it was time to learn to weld. It was awful. The visions I had of laying down beautiful creamy beads were shattered by the porous, splattered mess I was turning out. I went through the entire one-pound sample reel of flux-core wire just getting enough material to fill the area between the flat plate and the rounded corners of the tube stock. In hindsight, I can see that there was just too much space there; when it came time to weld the assembled spacer and tongue to the plow, I took the time to weld a length of 1/8″x1/2″ angle stock along each edge to take up the space and present a straighter joint for welding. This turned out to be a good idea and resulted in better welds.
Better, of course, is a relative term. My welds are for shit, but hopefully there’s enough of them to do the job. As they say, quantity has a quality all its own. But I have no idea how well the welds penetrated the base metal, if they did at all.
Clearly, I’m no welder. Yet. I really like metal work, and I plan to take this skill further. I’m in the market for a welding course; hopefully, the local tech high school or community college offers a Saturday course for beginners.
I really had no hope that this repair was going to work. I figured that the first snow bank I backed into would apply enough torque to pop my shitty little welds right off. Even as I was finishing up the repairs, the storm that would deliver our first 12″+ snowfall was gathering, and the welds were barely cool before I had to mount up and push some snow. I took it easy at first, being careful not to stress the joints. But eventually I worked up to back-blading the snow, which produces a lot of force on that swivel pin. To my great surprise, the welds held fast!
So, a successful repair, at least so far. And even if it doesn’t last, at least I’ve got the tools needed to try again, and best of all, a new skill to develop.