Heavy Metal

Blinkin Large by Tedd McDonah
courtesy of Tedd McDonah

In his epic "The People, Yes," American workingman's poet Carl Sandburg wrote, "The fireborn are at home in fire." Sandburg was probably not talking about astrology, in which fire signs — Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius — are said to be the action-oriented among us. Zonies, whatever your sign, we are the fireborn. Maybe part of the perceived (okay, real) hell of summer is our commitment to deny that we're at home here. And maybe it's time to turn up the heat and own it.

It's time to weld.

Crucibles, ingots, stakes, tongs, mallets, coal — it all sounds so, well, medieval. And hot. This vernacular is more associated with forging, actually, that ancient tradition whereby man melts metal and hammers the bejesus out of it. Forge welding is a process whereby adjoining elements, like layers of steel, are heated in a forge, then hammered together. More or less.

Gas welding and arc welding differ in that similar elements are joined together in the process of applying a filler metal under localized high heat. A welded joint can actually be as strong, if not stronger, than the joined metals. A weld may look like glue, but welding is not like glue at all. A weld happens because of actual inter-atomic penetration. The metals all change, expand, and accept each other. More or less.

Both descriptions are gross oversimplifications of complicated chemical and physical processes. Metallurgy is a broad field, encompassing trade, science, and art. It involves both the practical and the aesthetic. Surely, welding is a metaphor for a human quest, something bigger than itself. But what?

ASU metals instructor Tedd McDonah supposes that some people derive a certain satisfaction from hitting or hammering, transforming a material that is not easily worked. Others may be drawn to working with precious materials. Still others may be drawn to the how of metalworking: How can I use (insert technique here) to actually make something cool?

McDonah is a strapping Wisconsin farm boy who looks like he might play center for the Red Wings. Naturally, he was resistant when a friend tried to persuade him to take an undergrad introduction to metalworking (read: jewelry) class. Then he heard he could eventually learn to make a knife (that's called bladesmithing in metallurgy jargon) if he got this prerequisite out of the way. He changed his major to art, met his wife (who is metals chair at ASU), and even made some knives, which are layers upon layers of metal welded together.

But knives are hardly the focus of his skills or work today, the breadth and depth of which are frankly overwhelming. As is the beauty of his work. As is his humility. On a tour of ASU's blacksmithing studio, he points out his grandfather's old trip hammer, which he brought back from Wisconsin last summer, as quietly as he shows his impeccably welded steel and found object piece, Heavy Duty Hanukkah Menorah.

Right now he's big into mokume-gane (translates to wood-grain metal or wood-eye metal), a process developed in 17th-century Japan. It's semi solid-state diffusion bonding, which is welding without filler material. With time and heat, molecules of dissimilar (usually nonferrous) materials intermingle with each other, are deformed, and some materials are removed. McDonah is interested in how this process produces results that look like water surfaces rather than wood grain. He spends his summers fishing the lakes of Wisconsin, and his inclination to express those experiences through metal is obvious in his work.

JC, a wry and soft-spoken industrial aerospace welder, became enthralled with welding as a kid driving her friend's go-kart. Her friend's father hadn't yet taken the go-kart in to have the linkage welded, so the driver had to reach behind the seat to work the throttle. "That always bothered me," she says, revealing intolerance for flawed design that, coupled with a natural affinity for metal sculpture discovered in high school, led to a lifelong pursuit of "the perfect weld."

Once, she almost bailed off a ferry ride to Alcatraz because the vessel was such an egregious example of shoddy welding. A good weld should have a methodical series of waves, like a roll of pennies leveled on a table.

Perfection is important to an industrial welder. Having professionally welded everything from huge aircraft cowlings that she could crawl into to a razor blade for an airbag (a prototype that failed, BTW), JC knows her way around a TIG welder. She has also worked with legendary Memphis Group sculptor Peter Shire and makes whimsical sculptures of her own that incorporate light and electricity. Her professional perfectionism in evident in gates, doors, and furniture that she's welded, together with those lamps that "look like they've been in outer space."

JC thinks people are drawn to welding because metal is the strongest element. "People who are in jail are behind bars," she says. "So if you can manipulate that, it's a sense of power in your life." Private by nature and appreciative of the anonymity found in welding, JC personally feels drawn to it because we just don't hear about famous welders. Let's face it, she says, "Welders pull their hoods down, strike an arc, and clear a room."

You want to do that? A city recreation center class, like one offered at the Phoenix Center, is a great introduction to welding. Mesa and Tempe often offer similar classes. And when you're ready to crank the gas, Mesa Community College offers a wide variety of structural and sculptural — oxyacetylene (gas) and electric (arc and MIG) — courses, which may even lead to certification.

Fireborn, are you ready to change, expand, and accept the heat?

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