Metal Fabrication Is Like Building a Cardboard Model
So, start by building a cardboard model.
Metal fabrication is pretty simple. It's what got me through the final drivetrain installation in the Drive's Chevy V8-powered project 1988 Toyota Land Cruiser (which is finished and on the road, by the way). Without the power of fabrication, stuffing the guts from one type of truck into another manufacturer's chassis is, with few exceptions, impossible. But it's not all welding. Fabrication amounts to assembling a puzzle out of pieces you fashion yourself.
But before you get into cutting up and welding chunks of metal together, you must figure out how everything is going to fit together. Ask yourself, for instance, what are you trying to accomplish? What kind of support will the affected parts need, and along which spatial planes or axes? Remember when you had to build a model of the Parthenon in grade school using big pieces of posterboard? This is the same thing.
After cutting whatever boxes you had laying around into little triangles and larger rectangular(ish) shapes, you build a cardboard model of what you're trying to build. This, based on the measurements you took (both exact and eyeballed) serves as the template for your metal construction. The actual fabrication component is like building the cardboard model, but with metal and a Mig welder instead of cardboard and masking tape.
When you possess the power of metal, you can make anything, capable of doing anything. The sky's the limit; literally. (Some of the most impressive metal structures come from aerospace technology). I'm awash with the convert's zeal because I tell you, metal fabrication will change your life.
I've found that when you're starting out, as I've been, it's best to keep things as simple as possible. Don't be too wowed by your friend's aluminum Tig welding capabilities. It took a long time for him to master that shit. What you need to do is get your basics mastered.
Think of it this way: when you're driving around in some weird, awesome car you built using square stock and a bunch of old parts, everyone will be impressed. While you're driving around showcasing your own awesomeness, Tig-man is cloistered deep within the confines of his studies, unlocking the secrets of the masters. No one will ever see these welds he's done, or if they're visible, only one person in 100 will say, "Hey man, nice welds!"
That's not to say that detail isn't beautiful. No, the minute is sublime when appreciated under scrutiny. But to experience true appreciation, one needs to think big picture. This is how you will come to believe, as I have, that welding is best enjoyed as a way to make something function. If you can do it really well, congratulations! It's always cooler to have aesthetically pleasing welds throughout a project. But the choice between pretty welds and functionality is clear: function tops form.
My attitude about cars in general most certainly coincides with my strategic thoughts on welding. For example, I love the smooth lines on a '49 Hudson. But a mid/late-'70s sedan with decent proportions... for the money, it'll be louder and faster than the Hudson will ever be. And again, I can't emphasize this enough, WAY cheaper. Especially if you're the type who'll need to stuff a more potent mill under the hood of that Hudson. Yep, the $1,500 '75 Monte Carlo will do, and you'll feel just as good – if not, better – while you're driving it. This is how, at a few points, I've ended up with boxy, under-powered Subarus. (I still have one, unless you're interested in buying it for way more than it's worth.) Not impressive cars, but cheap, spatially practical, fun to drive and easy to work on.
My point here isn't to go out and buy a wretched beater tomorrow. What I mean to say is that attaining a level of basic proficiency as a welder will do much, much more for your capacity to restore and improve project cars than by not learning to weld because you're afraid; because you think you have to become some sort of wizard at it. (Plenty of Burning Man welders out there are doing what they can to make an enjoyable statement without getting too deep into the weeds, er, details.) Welding is complicated in some respects, but it's not rocket science. There are a bunch of charts and shit. Charts!
However, there is a darker side to metal fabrication, too. You could be burned. You could be maimed. You could inhale concentrated welding fumes and pass out face down on your red-hot project. (Although that would supply you an entertaining story to tell every time someone asked about the scar. I'd make up a different story for each person who wanted to know. More fun that way.) Which is to say that the shit is dangerous.
When welding, you should wear a long sleeved shirt and pants made from canvas or heavy cotton, and it's not a bad idea to augment that with a leather jacket or heavy smock. You should have welding mask with a self-darkening eye slit, leather boots (no nylon sneakers, unless you want burns on the tops of your feet). You need a big, heavy pair of welding gloves. There are probably guys who will be all gnarly and just wear some goggles and a pair of gloves. But to hell with that. It's better to not be a dumbass and instead to protect your skin from damage. Sizzled facial features don't look cool unless you're going for theCharles Bronson tough guy vigilante thing. If that's the case, then by all means, sizzle away.
You should also clear the area around where you're working of any flammable objects. It would be a huge bummer if a red-hot globule of slag spattered onto the pile of oily rags at your feet. The resulting conflagration could have all the neighborhood children calling you Hamburger Man amongst themselves. No one wants that.
The big thing, according to Carlos Dos Santos, owner of Brooklyn Motor Works—he's the one who taught me how to weld, and Brooklyn Motor Works is his motorcycle repair and customization shop—is to use your eyes. "Watch the welds," he says, adopting the old school New York City accent he pulls out for talk on really industrial topics. "If you can't see the hot part and get a good idea of your penetration, you're not welding. You gotta use your eyes."
It's true. You have to be able to see what you're doing. I stitched up a couple pieces of steel and the welds were usable, but that's the best you could say about them. "You weren't usin' your eyes," Carlos observed, when he looked at the piece. My welds were much more presentable, and looked much stronger, when I refocused my attention to the center of that little puddle of magma that dances into shape the moment you touch a welding rod to grounded metal. As the puddle cooled, I made a note of where the edge was, and started the next puddle there. And so on, until the puddles formed a blue-tinged, domino-like row of shiny bubbles between two darker masses.
Of course, once in a while, things don't go all gravy. Maybe you lose focus and burn a little too deep into the metal, or too far from your last weld. Perhaps you run out of shielding gas and messy sparks fly everywhere as the disintegrating welding rod clashes with impurities in the metal and in the atmosphere. (Good way to get holes in your clothes, that one.) Once in a while, you might burn the living shit out of your hand when the intense heat created by electrons battling one another to the death walks its way up a thick piece of metal, zaps its way through the thick fibers of a welding glove, and stomps the nerve endings in your fingertips.
There are worse things that can happen, too. One of the OSHA reports from earlier this century is titled, "Employee Found Dead After Arc Welding Support Pole." I don't feel the need to elaborate further.
Look after your own safety, and you're golden. Welding makes you a better person, trust me. You become self aware. You remember those episodes of the A-Team, when a cigar smoking Hannibal supervised superhuman jury-rigging efforts by his eclectic team to glorious victory time and time again. You realize that you, too, can climb every mountain, ford every stream, to borrow from 20th century musical wizards Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein. So to speak. You'll definitely become more creative and get yourself deeper into "problem solving" scenarios.
Although I scoffed at perfection in proclaiming, earlier in this article, my devotion to usable fun, everyone is different. Those guys who do everything perfectly certainly have their uses (and charge handsomely for it). The bottom line? You do you. Be safe, don't be afraid, and go weld some shit.