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The Stig of TIG

April 7th, 2017

From F to C-Minus

I have become a total TIG welding expert.

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. It would be more accurate to say I have put down a few beads that wouldn’t elicit shrieking from an instructor if he glanced at them from across a street in the dark.

If you’ve been keeping up, you know I got a Chinese TIG machine recently, and I’ve been trying to make it function. I clamped some crap steel to the tool rest of my belt grinder and tried to make fillet welds. After that, I tried to lay beads down on a piece of angle iron and some rectangular tubing that came from a treadmill.

The first effort was a horror. Since then, I’ve managed to create some beads that could almost be called welds. Things keep getting better.

I have a few tips for other beginners. Believe it or not, these tips are really good.

1. Get a real welding jacket. Cotton is fine. I got a Tillman 9230. It’s extremely ugly, but it’s heavy flame-retardant cotton, and it’s made with welding in mind. The sleeves have snaps at the cuffs that tighten them up to keep UV out and make the cuffs fit inside welding gloves. It’s better than the crummy old dress shirt I used to use.

2. Go ahead and buy some gas lenses. I’m not sure why welders ship with regular nozzles, since most people agree that gas lenses are better the vast majority of the time. For around thirty bucks, Welding City will send you good Chinese lenses and the associated collets and so on. With a lens you will be able to stick the tungsten farther out and see what you’re welding. It will also shorten up the torch.

3. Get a welding table. Don’t be so cheap. I’ve welded things on the garage floor and my wooden bench, but I don’t recommend it. Welding on wood is always exciting, because you have to think about the weld while keeping an eye on the wood to see if it’s on fire. Welding on the floor is awkward. That’s fine for MIG, but it won’t work with TIG, which takes much more coordination. Harbor Freight has a great table for $55 (after coupon). It’s small and light. It folds away fast. It doesn’t begin to compare to an inch-thick monster that will hold the rear end from a car, but for 95% of your jobs, it will work great. It has lots of slots, and you can clamp things to it. You’ll like it.

For three times as much, you can get a different version that comes with clamps, welding magnets, and wheels. I forget the brand name.

4. Find some decent metal to weld. I’ve been using angle iron and powdercoated tubing. Half of my welding time is taken up cleaning crap off the metal. Save yourself the aggravation and buy something that isn’t covered with scale, paint, or powdercoating.

5. Buy a torch holder. Riverweld makes a magnetic job which is magnificent. The magnet must be rare earth, because it holds like an alligator. If you don’t have a holder, you’re going to put your torch on the floor or try to hang it on things, and it will fall and break the ceramic cup.

6. Buy a BSX Flak Finger. This is a fiberglass sleeve you put your ring finger and pinky into. It doesn’t transmit heat. You will want to rest your right hand on the work for control, and the work will get very hot. The Flak Finger will keep you cool, and because it has a wrist strap to hold it in place, it won’t fall off a hundred times a day, like a competitor’s product, the Tig Finger.

7. You’re going to be welding 1/8″ steel. That’s pretty much inevitable, because it’s what’s most widely available for practice. For this material, use a 3/32″ tungsten (purple rare earth is fine), not 1/16″ like the books recommend. Use 3/32″ filler. Set the amps at 125 (one per thousandth of material). You should be fine.

8. Consider a belt grinder for tungsten. Grinding electrodes will mess up your bench grinder by gouging the wheel. If you use a belt grinder, you can dedicate one belt to electrodes. If you ever feel like you have to be super careful about contamination, you just grab a new belt.

9. Get a couple of Strong Arm clamps. These are just like Bessey clamps, but they’re Chinese. They’re very well made, and they come with a neat tubing attachment. You’ll like them for holding stuff on the table.

10. Get a knot wheel for your angle grinder. If you don’t have an angle grinder, get an angle grinder. These things clean metal fast.

As noted in earlier posts, I have an Eastwood “Professional Welding Cart,” which is a two-tier cart with rings for two bottles. Actually, I have two carts, because the first one I ordered had a minor defect, and instead of sending the defective part, Eastwood sent a second cart. I now have the TIG on the bottom shelf, my MIG on the top shelf, a 125-cu.ft. argon tank in one ring, and an 80-cu.ft. C25 tank in the other. It’s very nice. If you’re looking for a two-welder cart, this one is one of the best Chinese choices. A lot of the others are known to bend and fall apart.

The AlphaTIG welder just barely fits on the bottom shelf of this cart. You have to put it on the cart before you attach the top shelf, and then the clearance is about 1/4″. Good enough! You’ll have problems with the transparent panel cover staying in the up position, because the shelf will be in the way, but that’s a small price to pay.

I’ll post a photo of my latest “welds.” The ones at top left are the undersides of beads from an earlier session.

These are not great welds, but they’re better than the random blobs I put down the first time around. They’re grey, and I think that’s caused by overdoing the amperage. Not sure. I don’t know if the penetration is good. I should cut the steel and see.

I had a big problem with my left glove heating up. It turned out I was leaning the torch too far, so it was pointed at my left hand. This melts the rod before it gets to the weld, and it also roasts your fingertips. The torch should be within 10 degrees of perpendicular.

I would say I am now good enough to TIG weld two parts in an emergency. If I wanted them done well, I would use MIG. I figure I’ll be able to do a decent TIG weld in a week or two.

I can tell TIG is going to be wonderful. MIG is fast and powerful and puts fewer demands on variables such as cleanliness and work positioning, but it’s clumsy. TIG can make beautiful, precise welds you just can’t get with MIG. You get much more control. If you want to put a muffler on a Jeep in a dirty garage while lying on your back, use MIG. If you want to put a trigger guard on a Russian shotgun, use TIG.

The welder I got is an inverter welder, and that means it doesn’t suck much power. You can run it using the socket next to your nightstand if you want. Doesn’t have to be 220 unless you weld thick metal. That’s a huge convenience. I can’t MIG weld anything more than 20 feet from my 220 socket, but I can TIG anywhere an extension cord will reach.

Filler rods are disappearing at a high rate. I go through one per session. I am told you can weld the nubs together to make new rods, but I have another tip which is better. Buy big packages, and look for deals. If you buy ten pounds of steel rods on Amazon in pound tubes, it will run you $90. If you buy one ten-pound package, and you shop around, it’s $25.

Someone gave me a neat tip for really small filler: use MIG wire. It’s the same stuff.

If I ever weld two pieces of metal together in any sort of competent fashion, I will be back to post photos.

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