Here's my friend Darold Brekke, third and Last generation of the Brekke Metal Company, shown here as the 1982 Ballard Calender Pin-up boy. He's working a forge in this photo. If you don't know what Ballard is, well, today it's mostly a Seattle yuppie neighborhood but back until maybe 1990 it was the primary Scandahoovian community West of Oslo. Seattle folks called it "snooze junction." Ballard Boys never went "South of the Canal" except across the bridge to Fisherman's Terminal. Or to hear the Sons Of Norway sing at the Seattle Center once a year. Ballard in those days was a state of mind as well as a place and I'm very grateful I was able to be part of it for a while. I know this isn't funny but it is, actually. I was once invited to join The Sons Of Norway. I told them I'd like to but I'm German heritage. The reply was, "No Problem! German is just Norwegian by rape."
Long time Seattle area folks might remember the Brekke Company, in Ballard. It was an incredible place, gone now. At 4:30 pm every day it became the Brekke Bar Grill Bar. Out would come the jug of Western Canadian and the conversations that went on were frequently very exciting. The old place was sold off and the folks who worked there are gone or dead BUT, once long a go I was sober enough one evening to turn on a tape player and ask some questions about steel work and here's the interview. This originally appeared in Alaska Fisherman's Journal I think it was. I forget.
The Brekke Company in Ballard has been blacksmithing and fabricating steel since 1911 or so. Many of the Northwest fishboats and yachts have stem irons, bow rollers, davits, and whatnot made there. The other day I asked Darold Brekke, third generation Brekke and metal worker "extrordinaire", how you get started if you decide you want to build a steel boat but never held a torch in your life before. Also there were Ron Blower, owner of Flex-Northwest, and fabricator of many of the fleet's exhaust systems along with being a good metal sculptor, and Phil Amsted, who works as a welder for the Brekke Company. We had a tape player going and here's the conversation.
Question: If you're halfway handy, but don't
know anything about welding and don't have any metal working tools,
whataya need to get started?
Answer: (Phill) "Why don't you get a wire feed. (Darold) They're awful damned expensive. (Ron) Yeah. (D.) Well, you can get a little one for 1200, but they're pissants. I'd go with stick, and use 6011 rod. This machine here is a $600 machine. It's a good one. It's single phase and 250 amps. You can use it for anything.
(R.) But if you had the money I'd suggest a wire feed. (D.) There's alot of drawbacks to wire feed. Mostly, you got to be protected. If the wind blows the gas...(Me) You need gas? (D.) Yeah. If the wind blows the gas away your weld's no good. [ A whole discourse on wire feed went on now, but the upshot seems that the expense is alot higher for the gear ($1200 minimum) and it's quite heavy to hold the gun, and even though it does a far neater job since it doesn't leave slag that has to be chipped, it's cumbersome to drag around a boat]
( Me) So for $600 you can buy a decent stick machine. (D.) Hah? Oh yes! Lincoln. It's the best. For 600 you'll get a nice one. But you need to be able to wire it in, and that takes a 100 amp service. But you have that in your house box.
(Me) What else do you need? (P.) Grinder...(R.) chipping hammer...(D.) Yeah, you need a nice grinder for about 120 bucks. (Me) How do you cut the steel? Whataya need for that? (D.) Torch! Go buy yourself a torch setup. A little gypo one is only...(P.) Don't get gypo stuff! Then you're fighting crap all the time...(D.) yeah, but you're not going to be cutting stuff much over say 1/4"...(R.) then you'll be into the rentals for tanks...(D.) You can buy them for $125 a piece...(R.) it's cheaper to rent them from a welding supply. For your basic thing you'll need two tanks, and then there's two regulators and well the whole set, a good one will run you about 300 dollars. Regulators, hoses, cutting torch...(D.) You need at least 50' of hose so you don't have to drag the tanks all over. Sometimes it's on sale at Sears.
(Me) For positioning big plates, how do you do that? You need a little crane on the front of a pickup or something, don't you? (D.) I don't know. I don't know how the hell you do that...(R.) shit. Make a whataya call it. One of those things you pull engines out with. (Long pause while this question is figured out) (D.) You could have a rolling "A" frame with a track on it that a chain hoist could slide back and forth on. That would be neat! You'd need a cement slab to build the boat on so the thing could roll, but that would be a good idea anyway. (Me) It could roll on planks. (P.) Or footing strips, like tracks. The wheels would be in a trough like thing....(Discussion on this subject for a while). (D.) But I think if you're going to spend a year or more building a boat you might as well start with a slab. You can layout and do some stuff on it. You can measure off it....
(Me) After you've gone out and bought this gear, and you still don't know anything about welding and there's no nightschool around, how would you teach yourself?
(R.) You wouldn't. (Me) You wouldn't? (R.) You wouldn't. (D.) I don't know why it's so....it's tough to say now...shit I learned to weld pretty easy...(R.) But you had this place and people to watch. (D.) How could I miss down here! (R.) You'd have to have somebody come in you could watch. It took me about 3 months, although that was both heliarc and dragrod. With the stick I'd go to fast and there'd be holes in it...(D.) That's a tough one. You should buy a bunch of scrap iron and just start welding...(R.) yeah, but you need to know what the adjustments mean on the welder and you need to know what a good weld looks like and...(D.) you can buy books from Lincoln for about 10 bucks which give all that. They're the best damned books in the world. They tell you what a weld is supposed to look like, how to set up the machine, how to do it, and you just practice until it looks like the book shows you. It would probably take a guy a month to get to the point where he'd feel confident about welding. (R.) Where you buy the welder they'll have a manual which will give you the whole thing. You have to have some kind of thing to go by. Or go to the library! [note: This is good advice for anything! A good library has information on everything.] (D.) No, the guy you buy the machine from tell him, say I don't know nothing, and he'll help, he'll give you the books and help set you up. He might even show you how.
(Me) So the danger in welding is going to fast, because you'll miss spots, but if you go to slow you just get a sloppy looking weld, is that right? (D.) You got to learn at looking at what you're doing, to watch that little puddle and watch everything around there...that's what you do. (R.) But if you go to slow it might mean your heat isn't enough. You got to get the heat just right so you can do just like he says watch the puddle. (D.) Well, ain't nobody going to learn how to weld from reading an article. Especially this one! (group laughter on that!) (Steve, who just walked in) The easiest way is to be standing there welding with somebody who'es good watching, having him tell you you're going to slow or...(D.) Yeah! a couple hours of that and you'll get the hang of it but remember to practice...(R.) I remember training those welders down there in California, I'd get my hood on they get their hood on we'd get set up and I'd actually take ahold of their hands and just take them through it, so they'd get the idea of what their hands should be doing just like a dual person. I'd be right behind them. They'd sit in a chair and I'd be right over them holding their hands and I'd do it for them.
(P.) Wire gun is really the easiest. (D.) Yeah but there's still alot of fiddling around... (R.) You can make a longer bead without stopping but stick you're limited to the length of the stick that's's the bad part you got so many restarts... (Me) But in boats that no problem. You don't have any really long seams at a pop. You have to skip around to keep the stresses equal, don't you? (D.) If you're doing a boat it's Bang! Bang! you're jumping all over. But then, the worst part of stick is stopping and starting. You have to overlap, or you'll have a leak or cracking....
(Me.) For a backyard guy, using this sort of equipment, the $600 welder, the $200 or $300 torch, can you work with steel up to say 3/8" thick? (D.) Oh yeah! (S.) You could do that on a $150 $200 AC buzz box! (D.) Oh boy. It would be tough to learn from scratch. That $600 machine would be the best to get.
(Me.) What's the difference between the cheap AC and the 600 dollar...(D.) It's DC. The rod doesn't stick or chatter as much. The current is rectified in the machine. That's why you get the $600 machine it's got a switch to make it AC or DC. The $200 machines are strickly AC.
(Me) Why do people buy AC when you can get a machine that will do DC? What's its advantage? (D.) Because it costs 200 bucks to buy the machine verses 600. (Me.) That seems like a wise thing to spend the extra money on, the DC machine. (D.) Yeah. If you're going to do a whole boat you might as well buy one of them.... (R.) Ahuh.
(Me.) It seems like if you're learning, when starting off on a boat there's very little long seams or seams that need to be watertight, for instance, you have to assemble the frames first, all short welds, by the time you have the frames done you'd probably have a good rough idea of what's going on...(D.) Yeah! Get a bunch of scrap iron, practice, then start making the frames.
(Me) I use, I mean I tell people who buy my steel designs to use, lots of longitutionals inside and two long plates per side and bottom. That way practically all the welding is in short tacks inside the hull, welding the plate to the longitutionals, and you only have three long exterior welds per side; the chine, sheer, and rabbet. It sure sounds like by the time you were ready to do the long outside seams you'd know what was going on.
(D.) It's funny how guys when they're starting out, they say I got a welder, I got a welder and it stuck and it did this and that, it turns out they spent just 10 or 15 minutes and got all pissed off...you just got to figure at least a day of getting all pissed off...(Me) A day! I've been pissed off at wood for over 20 years now! A day! What's that! (D.) Well, you never really stop being pissed off, but the first day, that's a pisser!
(Gail, who just walked in) When you're holding the stick, is it like sodering? Are you ...(D.) No, no, it's casting the steel in! It's just like a little electric furnace. (R.) It's quite a deal!
(R.) Downhill welding isn't so bad. Welding uphill is hard, but if you start on the top and weld down...(D.) Especially with 6011 rod you keyhole it then the back of your plate is actually welded and you don't have to go back... (Me) You've mentioned different types of stick, of rod...(R.) 6011!...(D.) I love 6011! It's my favorite rod...(R.) each rod has a number it's telling you fluxes and filler metals and whatever...(D.) there's only two rods you need to know. Only two. (Me) Why do you like 6011? (D.) oh, 'cause it's so forgiving, if there's a big hole or, you can control it you can fill up a gap you can do all kinds of things...(P.) I like 7018. It's stronger. (Me.) Is it harder to use? (P.) No. (Me) Is 6011 weaker? (D.) Yeah, 15,000 lbs per square inch. But a good weld, with 6011, will pull 45,000 pounds of tensile strength. A good weld with 7018 should pull 60,000 pounds. But what you're welding is mild steel, A-46, which is only worth 45,000. So 7018 is real overkill. Theoretically the first two numbers mean the tensile strength, as deposited. But figure 45,000 instead of 60, and 60,000 instead of 70. 6011 is better in alot of respects, it will hold with working it's more flexible, it doesn't want to crack as easy, it's alot better. It's the best rod.
(Me) When you weld two pieces of steel together it's as strong as if it was one sheet, right? (D.) If it's done right, right. (P. and R.) Right, uhuh. (R.) But you got to know your welding. An amateur building a boat can get into real trouble. (D.) If a guy is going to go to that much trouble and time to build a boat, he really should go to a community college, just for a quarter, and learn welding right. Tell them what you want to do and get that training.
(R.) Anyhow tell people they really ought to go to classes, or, hire some good welder for a few days to work with you and show you how to do it. (S.) I don't think you could learn it on your own. (R.) You couldn't. If I hadn't had somebody showing me I'd still be just sticking it.
(Me) That reminds me. Hoods! How do you see what you're doing wearing one of those hoods? (R.) Use a 4 x 5 lens. A lot of people, like Darold here, use a 2 x 4 lens. Use something that gives you alot of vison. (S.) It takes practice to be able to hold your stick in position and then drop the hood and hit the point you want to hit [Note: If you try and start welding without the hood you'll burn out your retinas or whatever they're called]. (R.) Yeah. A lot of practice of this [demonstrates touching while flicking his head to drop the hood over his eyes].
And you have to adjust the hood just right. Sometimes it comes down to far and bangs you good in the collar bone.
(Me) Well, sounds like first you need good tools, and that's going to run maybe a grand. (S.) Not that much, you can find alot of it, the torch, hood, second hand. Maybe a good welder too. (R.) Except tanks. No need to buy tanks. You rent them from the gas supplier for 6 or 8 bucks a month.
(Me) Seems like cutting the steel would be tricky too. Is there any type of blade you can get for a skillsaw that...(R.) No. Not really. It's to slow. Cutting isn't so bad. Darold can cut a straight line just like a saw. (D.) I clamp a straight-edge down, just like you do for a skillsaw, and run the side of the torch along it.
At this point some lady jogger bounced by the shop and the conversation slid backwards until we were back on the normal topic of women, international politics, women, and whatnot.
It seems though that there's some good information here. After listening to this, it seems there isn't that much to getting started in steel, and it's certainly something that a half way handy person could can learn without to much trouble. In fact, I've seen that happen frequently!