April 24, 2018
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That’s not rusty metal – that’s art

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

Julia Bayly

FORT KENT — Lately at my house it’s been all about the heavy metal.

No, I’m not talking about music by the likes of Metallica, Judas Priest or Def Leppard. I’m talking about real metal — big, rusty hunks of the stuff and quite frankly, the bigger and rustier the better.

To backtrack a bit, two years ago I decided to take up welding. It was one of those notions born from several factors — the knowledge that winters are long in northern Maine, that there was a surplus of metal laying around the farm and my late husband’s nifty welder was gathering dust in my shop.

So when the local adult education program offered a night class in introductory welding, I signed right up.

Much to my delight, this meant shopping. In no time I had outfitted myself with a brand new welding helmet — complete with snazzy flames on its side — leather gloves and steel-toed boots.

The first night I walked into class you could have heard a pin drop. I suspect my gender is not exactly the class’s target demographic — it was me and 10 guys attending — but to his credit our instructor never once treated me differently than the boys.

An exciting and mysterious world was unveiled in those first classes as we learned the theories and science behind fusing separate pieces of metal into one.

At its simplest, the art of welding is heating two pieces of metal to the point they melt into each other. Once the melted section cools, a strong permanent bond is formed — more on that in a bit.

Welding has been around for centuries and helped usher in the Bronze and Iron ages in Europe. Later, ancient blacksmiths used forges to heat and pound metal repeatedly until that bonding occurred.

Today’s welding tools and techniques are a bit more sophisticated, but the principal remains the same: heat, melt, cool, fuse.

We started off with “arc” or “stick” welding, so-called because we used an electronic arc to heat a welding rod — or stick — to melt the metals at the welding point.

I maintain the term “stick” is used because that is exactly what the rod does if you get it too close to the two metal pieces you are trying to weld.

Our instructor made it look oh-so-easy. Flip on the welder, grasp the prong holding the welding rod, quickly tap the rod onto the metal to create a spark and start laying out a smooth, shiny bead of molten metal.

Right off I had the spark production down. Lots of sparks. Impressive sparks that lit up the welding booth like a Roman candle. Not to mention lighting up my clothes once and at another rather horrific point, singeing my hair (the next day I ordered a leather welding jacket and cap — more shopping!).

After numerous false starts I began to get it down and my welds began to faintly resemble those of the instructor’s.

Flushed with success — not to mention with the heat thrown by the welding rods — I dove headfirst into the classroom’s scrap metal dumpster and hauled several oddly shaped chunks back to my area.

Several welds later I had … well I’m not exactly sure what it was, but I decided to call it art.

There was no turning back. From that point on anything metallic that did not move fast enough was getting welded together.

In search of bigger, more interesting materials I began to scour the old scrap metal piles dotting the fields and abandoned pastures in northern Maine.

I called friends, friends of friends whom I knew had hidden hordes on their properties, begging for any and all discarded metal.

The searches began to bear fruit — rusty fruit, that is.

One day, while hiking with my dog Corky I literally stumbled upon what can only be described as the King Tut’s tomb of metal.

There were old cogs, gears, plow blades, harrow disks, spring teeth, harvester tines — all fodder for my newly discovered artistic endeavors.

I swear I could actually hear the heavenly host from on high as the sun broke through the clouds and shot a beam of light directly on to that pile.

Piece by piece the treasurers — with the landowner’s blessings — were hauled back to my shop until an impressive mountain of steel was piled therein.

This is when the trouble began.

My raw materials are chunks of old farm machinery — old rusty items that are pretty darn heavy in and of themselves.

Weld two or three of these hunks together and you end up with a single object that is VERY heavy.

Once completed my objets d’art were something of a challenge to move.

Which brings me back to my point about strong welds and bonding.

It was a painful lesson the day I learned that just because a weld looks good, does not mean it is good.

I say painful because not only did my creation literally fall apart in front of my eyes as I tried to relocate it, it did so landing squarely on my foot.

Then there’s the little matter of the fumes produced by the arc welding process.

Weeks of intensive welding last winter resulted in one of the nastiest coughs I had ever had, which turned into a pretty good lung infection.

Problem solved thanks to the guys at the local NAPA store who found an air filter mask that fits under the welding helmet.

It’s a bit cumbersome and there’s no denying the fact I look and sound a lot like Darth Vador as I weld, but at least my lungs cleared up.

So, I’m still at it. And while I’m not sure I’d trust the structural integrity of my welds, they do seem to be holding at least long enough to move the creations out of the shop.

And if anyone out there has any rusty metal that needs a home, I have just the place for it.

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