Josh Welton gives a helmet demo during a welding workshop he hosted with attendee Pat Beard. She showed up for the TIG class she signed up for, but it quickly became obvious that MIG is what she needed to get comfortable. Images: Josh Welton
Welding is a hobby for some and a career for others. It can simply be a means to an end, some ancillary tool for an artist or a fabricator used to flesh out their vision; or striking an arc can be the entire reason you wake up every morning, stoked to head out to your rig, your shop, or your job. No matter how you use it or how often you use it, possessing the power to join metals feels special. It’s easy to become obsessed with playing with fire.
In spring 2020, with safety precautions in place, we began offering welding classes at our shop in Detroit. I really enjoy teaching welding, but my stint at the local community college was tinged with school politics that just didn’t sit well with me. We have the space and the machines to give a tailored experience to welders at any point on the spectrum, from novice to seasoned pro. By controlling the environment, we cut out any sort of distortion and can meet the student where they are, not where the syllabus says they should be.
Early on we framed the classes as small-group, four-hour workshops centering around TIG welding and building a planter. I thought we needed a simple weldment to focus our energy on, thus the planter. I gathered the pieces for a couple of basic designs that students could choose from, each featuring a few different types of weld joints, and walked them through the steps of prep, layout, and fabrication of said planters. As luck would have it, the four young men in the first class all came in at more or less the same skill level: a pretty solid understanding of welding with a basic knowledge of TIG.
At the beginning of class, I ask each student what they do and what they’re hoping to gain from the session. Their answers have become the biggest influence on how the workshops have evolved. They’ve become less about any sort of specific fabrication project and more about running beads and honing techniques. And Q&As! Just being there to answer questions about the craft and the industry has been a lot of fun.
The many interesting, intelligent, and driven folks we have hosted have been really cool! Our very first group comprised four young white dudes, and my most recent students were senior African American women. In between that we’ve had a married couple, teens, twins, a PhD chemist, an automotive exec, several artists, and hobbyists.
Husband and wife Todd and Katherine Brewer both took up welding a few years back. They started with MIG by taking a couple of classes at the Lincoln Welding Education Center in Cleveland. They stick weld, too, but really wanted help getting their TIG game off the ground.
Aiden was the youngest participant and probably needed my help the least! His dad works as a sales rep for Miller Electric, so even at just 15 years old he had a decent amount of hood time under his belt. Sometimes, though, it's nice to have a different voice from a unique perspective giving the same advice in a different way.
Alan Raeder has a PhD degree and was a chemist for an agricultural company, but he was looking to switch gears. Alan signed up for two classes on a weekend, and he was as interested in learning about the fabrication industry as he was about the skill of TIG welding itself. Turns out he wanted to get into welding titanium for bicycle frames. I dug out some titanium pieces and we talked through the idiosyncrasies of TIG welding the exotic metal. Right off the bat it was clear he had the hand/eye coordination required to excel.
Eventually he found that the bicycle fab industry doesn’t provide the pay and benefits he’d need, but he did build himself a titanium bike frame through a specialized workshop and even became a teacher himself, instructing in agricultural systems at a college in Washington state.
I also visited an artist at his home shop to help him dial in his personal machine. Alan Bodie is a master neon glassblower who bought a Miller Dynasty 350 to help with his installations. We’ve also talked about doing a collaboration together at some point.
The small classes, which are anywhere from one to four people, allow me to pivot quickly if need be. A few weeks back, Pat Beard showed up for the TIG class she signed up for, but it quickly became obvious that MIG is what she needed to get comfortable with. As a fellow artist, she’s actually turned her Detroit home into a gallery! Her paintings and portraits created with fabric are incredible. Pat’s brother is a welder, and that inspired her to have visions of sculptures in scrap metal. We waded through the basics of MIG welding, and by the end of the class, she was laying down some impressive beads.
My most recent pupil, Barbara Smith-Gibson, is a legit force of nature. She’s a retired Chrysler engineer, current artist, and student of life who is 80 years old! She earned an art degree from Wayne State in 2000, a welding certificate from Wayne County Community College in 2020, bought her own Miller multipurpose welding machine, and now is sharpening her TIG game for her art. She is awesome. Oh, and she was dropping dimes on stainless steel. If this doesn’t inspire you to keep learning more every day, then I don’t know what will.
The best part of every class is the energy each student provides, no matter their background or experience. And I dig the open-ended nature of these sessions, where my preconceptions are almost always hit with a bomb early on. And in every workshop for every student there’s that moment when you know a concept clicks—when the light bulb turns on—and the look on their face is fuel for my fire.
My work schedule is kind of all over the place, so we offer the classes when we can. That being said, I need the outlet, and enjoy being a teacher/instructor/batting coach. It keeps me sharp. It's funny how you think you know something until you’re forced to explain it from the ground up.
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The WELDER, formerly known as Practical Welding Today, is a showcase of the real people who make the products we use and work with every day. This magazine has served the welding community in North America well for more than 20 years.
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