Context –  Why?

A few years ago I read The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites and was taken aback by how difficult it is to create a seemingly simple appliance that we can purchase for under $20 and mindlessly use to easily add crispness, warmth, and texture to our foods.  Thwaites spent 9 months and almost $2,000 to deconstruct and then construct a toaster, breaking down the process into over 20 steps that involved melting iron to make steel and sourcing rare earth minerals from some of the most remote lands on the planet. In the end, his finished project looked highly volatile and like a waffle iron exploded all over it mid-bake (see below for his finished product).

Thwaites is disturbed by the way in which economic specialization has removed humans from the most basic understandings of the way in which the things we depend on were made.  He credits a quote from Douglas Adams as his reason for wanting to build a toaster; Adams writes "Left to his own devices he couldn't build a toast.  He could just about make a sandwich and that is it."  Left to my own devices, I can write a pretty sound essay, teach a class, organize a road race, prepare food and collaborate with my peers on projects to innovate in education - all well and good, but pretty removed from making anything useful for survival or practical for everyday use.  I think the maker movement is thriving for the same reasons the local food movement is thriving - people want to know the where and the how behind the things in our lives - we are increasingly interested in the processes and transformations behind goods because we know these processes are the key to the value of the finished product.  Personally, I'm increasingly feeling like my education was pretty limited even though I received a top notch liberal arts education, for which I am very grateful.  To be honest, I've never learned how change the oil on a car or make a fork or build a bookcase.  Instead, I've focused on exercises of the mind that have taught me to think, but there are so many more verbs that I want to add to my repertoire - I want to make, build, weld, construct, etc.  I want to understand how things around me came to be and this is why I took the "Intro to Metal" class at ADX.


1. Safety first: It turns out that working with metal is extremely dangerous.  You should always have a bucket of water nearby in case a stray spark catches something on fire.  In addition, the building your working in should have a ventilation system to clear our metal fumes and silica.  One should wear closed-toe shoes, pants and long sleeves (leather and denim are the best), a respirator, goggles, hearing protection and a helmet with shade grades that automatically adjust or that you can manually dial depending on the metal work.  Improper safety protocol reads like potential side-effects for heavy-duty drugs: Metal Fume Fever, Silicosis, blindness from UV radiation exposure, COPD and electrocution.  Also, never, ever work with plated metals or stainless metals - pretty much instant death.  Needless to say, I was nervous about the metal class going in and pretty much visibly trembling a half hour into the safety procedures.  

2. How to do the following: 

Sand metal: We learned that the easiest way to smooth/sand metal is to use a belt sander - sparks will sly and it's important to be properly protected.

Make a metal tube: Use the "slip roll machine" to roll 20 gauge mild steel up to 24" wide up to 1/8" flat.

Punch a Hole in metal:  Use the drill press for this task.  First, clamp your metal in place, adjust to the appropriate speed for your material and bit you will use to punch the hole, once started, lubricated the machine with a Simple Green/water solution to easing the process and prevent burning.

Cut Metal: You have a few options: 1) The sheet metal stomp shear or the finger break machine (looks like a paper cutter for metals): only for 16 guage mild steel.  Both machines make quick slices into metal, but are limited into the type of metal they can cut.  The horizontal bandsaw is the most fun (really) option for cutting metal.  First, set your metal in place, adjust the speed of descent of the blade to 1-2 and stop the blade right above the metal piece.  Next, make sure you have a lubricant in hand to spray the cut to prevent burning (we used a Simple Green and water solution), be sure the blade descent speed is between 1 and 2 and turn on the machine.  Spay the machine and your metal every few seconds while cutting.

Join piece of metal together: Welding.  First, be sure to set the shade of your welding mask to the appropriate level - welding emits UV radiation that is thousands of times more powerful than the sun and you will be blinded if not properly protected.  Greg, our instructor, assured us that our masks magically and instantaneously reacted to the welding radiation so that we could see clearly out of the masks while not welding and be protected from the radiation from welding.  Despite Greg's expert assurances, I was still convinced that my mask would malfunction, that UV would seep into my mask because of my tiny head and the large size of the mask.  I stood silently and waited for my turn to weld while sweating, adjusting my mask so that it fit tighter and tight and silently singing "Blinded by the Light" to myself.

I was last to try to the basic welding exercise, which involved turning on the welding machine, holding the torch at a 90 degree angle above the metal and then engaging the torch to shoot out a flaming metal wire onto the metal.  First, we were supposed to make a nice round bead with the weld and then we were to make a straight line on the metal.  Fortunately, it appeared that my shaded helmet was working, despite my premonitions.  It's so bizarre, but as soon as you or someone else begins welding, you say "welding" so people can protect themselves and engage the torch.  As soon as welding begins the whole room instantaneously goes black and the only thing you can see are giant green sparks.  It's like a personal fireworks show, only less loud and more likely to light you or something around you on fire. I was visibly nervous by the time my turn to weld came around.  I worked a lot on my welding stance and the angle of the torch as I approached the clamped piece of metal.  I found it to be super awkward to hold a welding torch over metal - it seems you're naturally positioned to weld right into your hand - I did not want to do that.  In addition to getting the right angle, you also have to make sure the metal wire is just a centimeter out of the torch and just hovering above the metal, not touching it.   My first few attempts did not go well.  I freaked out at first and only engaged the torch for a brief moment and then the torch was too far away to make a weld, then the torch was too close (touching) the metal and created a burn line.  Finally, I found the goldilocks spot and formed a nice silvery button of top of the metal -- success.  Feeling mentally drained, I forged ahead to make a line with the welding torch - again - too far away or too close for the first attempts, but I finally got it and felt very empowered by the time I would take off my helmet and look at my dot and line.  


Failures and learning:

I failed most obviously and publicly while welding.  It took me many more attempts than my classmates to get the dot and line just right.  I also failed to trust the helmets and myself - I have a tendency to replay the worst case scenario in my head (I'll blame that on great, but anxious lawyer parents who find the liability in any scenario) when I embark an unfamiliar task.  I need to trust myself, the experts and the equipment to not get in my own way and psych myself out.  It's great to be thoughtful, but not to overthink and I am still trying to find that balance.  Although it took me several times to get the weld right, I did feel like I gained a much better sense of how to hold and use a welding torch through my trials and errors.


Our teacher is a master metal worker and woodworker (mostly self-taught after an undergrad degree in art).  Greg own his own studio, Studio G in Portland, and takes on freelance projects.  I would like to work with him in the future and maybe he can build us a kitchen table.  I also found out that we grew up 15 minutes from each other in the Chicago Suburbs - it is always nice to meet a fellow midwestern/Illinois transplant.


I found this class to be very challenging, mostly psychologically, but always very empowering. I actually plan to sign up for the 2nd level of welding so that I can actually build somehing.  It would be great to build a fire pit or a pan or a lantern - and Greg is a smart, patient teacher who is extremely willing to share the expertise that it took him many years to build.