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Sparks fly: Welding turns out to be a delicate task

December 20, 2015

The Recorder

August 31, 2016

by Trish Crapo

WILLIAMSBURG — I lowered the rod toward the piece of metal on the table in front of me. “Ready to weld,” I called. Then, louder, “Strike!” The welding rod was like a sparkler on steroids. Electricity shot from it, creating sparks that flew against my dark mask as I tried to direct a line of molten steel across a piece of scrap metal. Suddenly, the rod spat and sputtered; grabbed, stuck. I had to “break” it from the scrap by pulling it quickly down and away.

Norman Ed, welding instructor at Snow Farm: The New England Craft Program in Williamsburg took the stick and demonstrated again how and where to hold it.

It turns out that welding, though loud, dirty and full of sparks, is actually a delicate task. It requires concentration, muscle control and finesse to lay down an evenly textured weld, or “bead.” And the safety helmet, while absolutely necessary to protect you from the ultraviolet light and flying sparks, badly obscures your view.

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“That’s not going to change,” Ed says, when people complain they can’t see. He demonstrates ways to adapt, including setting a solid stance against the worktable and leaning much closer than most of us have dared.

“You’re wearing safety gear,” he reminds us.

It’s the beginning of August. Temperatures are in the mid 80s to low 90s and we’re wearing long pants, long sleeves, hard shoes, leather gloves, helmets and caps or bandanas tied around our heads to keep sparks from landing in our hair.

During the school year, Ed is a sculptor and a high school art teacher in Johnstown, Pa., but he’s been coming to Snow Farm to teach during the summers for more than 20 years.

He brings competence, patience and a sense of friendly good humor to our class of five women, who range in age from mid 40s to early 70s, and one male — a high school junior.

“Anyone can do it,” Ed had said of welding in our first class. But the loud, fiery machine was more intimidating than most of us expected.

The stick welder uses high-voltage current to form an electric arc between an electrode — a rod of steel coated with flux to keep everything flowing — and the metals you are joining.

If you’re doing it right, you create a smooth pool of molten metal that you pull toward you, oscillating the rod slightly to create an evenly textured cocoon of molten steel. Because we are just making practice welds on a flat scrap, it takes me a while to understand that you’d be oscillating between the two pieces of metal that you want to fuse.

“Right now we’re just practicing,” Ed says. “We’re just enjoying shooting lightning out of our fingers.”

All that afternoon and the next morning, we learn how to use various pieces of equipment, including a plasma cutter, a device that cuts metal by shooting a jet of hot plasma through it; a MIG (or metal inert gas) welder for lighter projects; and an acetylene torch, which we use to heat metal until it is red-hot and pliable. It’s an exhilarating moment when a rod of steel you know to be firm and straight, seemingly unbendable, can be grasped with pliers and curled into a hook or a loop.

Ed also shows us how to use two kinds of grinders, a drill press, a cutter, a roller, a bending jig and various hand tools, like vise grips and the special pliers that are used to clean the nozzles of the MIG welders.

tl_files/pages/News/crapo.5.jpgMost of us have never set foot in a metal shop. Margaret Anderson of Ashfield, however, has taken welding at Snow Farm six times. She returns for the access to materials and equipment, and because, as an instructor at The Literacy Project in Greenfield and a home-schooling mom, she relishes the opportunity to come to Snow Farm, where, “My only job is to create.”

During this four-day workshop, among other projects, Anderson is creating a wedding present that joins the couple’s two favorite flowers — irises and Echinacea — in some fashion that not only depicts the distinct personality of each flower, but also symbolizes union.

Pat Pezzella, a middle school biology teacher, has brought a trunk full of heavy, rusted farm implements and wants to make, “Something bold that moves in the wind.”

 

The heavy parts Pezzella has chosen will mean she welds primarily with the arc welder, sharing turns on the machine with Joan Kritzberg, who plans to fashion an elephant from heavy pieces from the scrap pile. Kritzberg is an accountant and is stopping in at Snow Farm as part of an extended trip that will include flying from New York to Alaska.

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Faith Wint, a kindergarten and elementary school art teacher from East Longmeadow, works on a metal version of a folded, triangular sculpture she’d made of corrugated cardboard the first day of class. Cutting the straight lines and dashes (to create folds) that she needs makes her quickly adept at the plasma cutter.

Her son, Joe Wint, scavenges the junk pile for parts to assemble a dog that ends up being about the size of a small retriever.

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And me? What do I make?

That first day, Ed had us make impromptu sculptures using corrugated cardboard and hot glue guns. Sheet metal will behave similarly to cardboard, he’d told us, and the hot glue gun approximates a weld.

I made a sort of Calder-inspired mobile of kidney bean shapes interlocked with the thin strips of their outlines. It was okay. But it was a little cartoonish, a little benign.

That night, I sat in my room and drew. The friendly kidney beans became pointier. Whereas my cardboard shapes had floated bucolically around the pole I’d hung them near, these new shapes dangled menacingly in mid-air. I scribbled in the margin of my drawing: “Make it struggle more.”

Then it came to me. I would make a mobile based on a few lines from one of my poems: Why does the knife twist through the years/ waking two panics? / What is fear/ that it stores itself whole/ yet shreds time?

For the next two days, I made knives. I cut them from new sheets of steel, and I cut them from rusted scrap that bore the raised scars of previous welding practice. I pierced them with holes by bearing down with the plasma cutter. I bent thin strips of metal into spirals and twined them around the sharper pieces — evoking the word “twist” from my poem, but also, I hoped, providing a little protection to viewers.

It takes some coaxing from Ed to get me to bring the piece out of the cramped space near my worktable into the shop’s roofed outdoor pavilion where I can really see it. Even then, it takes me days to stop looking at it from the “front” all the time.

“Walk around the piece and look at it from another angle,” Ed says. “Try to sneak up on it. Walk away from it and come up the road with your head down, then look up at the last minute.”

He lifts one of the bars of the mobile right off and moves it to another place, shifting the entire thing off balance and creating more tension.

Right!

Tension was what I was going for. Then why did I keep trying to balance the rods horizontally?

Because I was afraid of what I was making.

And this is interesting. In the middle of what I’d thought of as an idyllic retreat — a chance to get away for a few days and learn a new skill — I’m having a genuine encounter with some of the darker parts of myself. I’m making something that really matters.

Snow Farm workshops

One day at lunch I sit with three women from Franklin County: Revan Schendler from Greenfield and Kiki Smith and Mary Barringer, both from Shelburne Falls.

Barringer is teaching a pottery workshop, her first at Snow Farm, and the other two women are in her class. Both Schendler and Smith are commuting daily from home, and have taken classes at the school before.

Commuting is an affordable option for locals. Classes at Snow Farm range in price, but, as an example, an upcoming three-day pottery workshop in September is $375 for the classes alone. Food and lodging in a double room brings the cost to $553 and single lodging brings it to $623. A weeklong found object assemblage workshop is priced at $570, with double lodging at $910; single at $975.

Schendler, who leads educational programs at the Franklin County House of Corrections, says that taking a class at Snow Farm is, “Better than a holiday. Better than a vacation … You don’t have to do anything except absorb information.”

“And eat,” Smith adds with a smile.

Snow Farm’s kitchen staff cooks three meals a day for overnight guests; commuters get lunch and can add other meals if they wish. Meals are delicious, wholesome, interesting and use locally sourced, fresh ingredients whenever possible. Vegan and gluten-free options are available.

Food aside, part of what draws Schendler and Smith back to Snow Farm is the quality of instruction.

Schendler describes Barringer as, “A teacher in the larger sense. I find that lots of what she says resonates with me in my life and the teaching situations that I’m in. And, so, it’s not just about pots.”

“For most of us, too,” Smith adds, “it’s a matter of having extended time put aside with no distractions, in a beautiful setting, and having time to slow down and notice.”

Smith teaches costume design in the theater department at Smith College. Many of the people I meet are teachers. Summers off makes the scheduling work well, and teachers can earn professional development credits at Snow Farm.

Schendler says there are opportunities for both internal and interpersonal growth embedded within the seemingly “practical” instruction. She wonders why more companies and organizations don’t consider a place like Snow Farm for team-building and professional development.

Barringer says she sees the mission of craft schools like Snow Farm to be, “To encourage a certain kind of learning that’s different than what happens in schools, and also a certain kind of engagement with materials and with yourself that is different from most people’s daily lives.

“It’s both a cliché and it’s an absolutely true thing about craft schools, that they do change people’s lives,” Barringer says.

Class continues

It’s Saturday, our third day of class.

Back at the welding studio, Kritzberg has finished her elephant and started a cat, fashioned from a flat scrap. Pezzella has finished her large assemblage and is making a smaller one, more like Tibetan prayer wheel.

Faith and Joe Wint have to finish up because Joe has another commitment that starts tomorrow.

He brings his dog into the yard and we assess it while he puts on and takes off a pair of dangling “ears” made of chain from the scrap pile. Without the ears, the sculpture looks leaner, more dangerous: a wild animal. With them, it’s a friendly dog. Wint takes them on and off a few more times and then goes in to weld them on.

And, aside from one round piece that I want to fashion to hang in the middle, my knife mobile is almost finished. I figure I will make that circle tomorrow and then I’m done.

But that last morning I wake up early with another idea. I see it clearly: four simple curved shapes more elegant than my kidney beans and much, much kinder than my knife blades. Back, underbelly and wings: a bird.

Before breakfast, I go down to the shop and make a cardboard model. Once the shop opens, I’ll have to work quickly, since we have just until four p.m. to finish up and clean the shop for the next class, coming in right behind us.

I cut my shapes with the plasma cutter, grind their edges and weld them together using the MIG welder. I’m too busy to notice how decisively I choose and use these tools. Although it’s only fair to say, I do notice that pieces of wire from the MIG welder stick out of my welds and I have not mastered an even oscillation. No one would mistake me for a good welder. Yet, my bird stays together.

Instead of dangling it as I’d originally envisioned, I decide to mount it from beneath on a heavy wire and weld that to a curved metal piece that resembles bark. As soon as I finish the weld and let go of it, though, the whole thing topples over.

Gravity has outwitted me. And I am seriously running out of time. A quick perusal of the junk pile yields a terrific find: a narrow bar of metal to which somebody else has already welded wheels.

Wheels are just what I need. They lend a surreal comedy to the piece that comes as a relief after days of edging around the knives. And the great thing, which will happen three weeks later, is that someone else will love this bird too, and offer to buy it.

At first I can’t imagine selling the bird but a friend tells me that, while some of art’s energy is in the making, a lot of it lies in the exchange.

“Take some beautiful photographs of it and then sell it,” my friend urges. So I do.

Do I miss the bird? Sure. But I also feel exhilarated. And I tell this story not to brag but to say: Art matters.

Sometimes when I tell people I cover writing and art as a freelancer for The Recorder, I can see their eyes glaze over, as if to say, “Right, fluff.”

But art’s not fluff. Art is power — very real creative power that any of us can access to make and change and do. Lightning can shoot from our fingers. We can make something that didn’t exist before: a dog from a pile of junked metal, a bird on wheels. If more people felt this power, we might not have so many people in psych wards or jails or rehab centers.

Lisa Oram, marketing director at Snow Farm, says that taking a workshop there is, “Almost a spiritual thing.”

Her 80-year-old mom came and took a workshop and subsequently began doing more adventurous things, like taking trips and other classes.

“Because she did something she’d never done before and it was positive, other things opened up for her,” Oram says.

“You just feel like you’re in a new place,” Oram says of Snow Farm.

“As you come up the driveway, the space is so wide open — I just feel like there’s an opening that happens.”

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