What inspires a guy to leave the relative comfort of a cushy desk job and pick up a MIG welder? Perhaps a hobby gone terribly awry could be the cause? Maybe a victim of corporate downsizing or the onset of a peculiar midlife crisis where the inspiration? In this case, it was none of the above, but rather an honest request from my son to help him transform his newly purchased "first car" into something that resembled a prerunner. Nothing cooler than a good father/son project, although not our first it would most certainly be the most ambitious to date and presented a bevy of challenges. The truck was a likely candidate for the conversion (Ford Ranger) and plans where quickly in place to begin construction. Drawings made and a parts collection begun. A cursory review of the tools and skills required to complete the more involved elements (bumper, rollcage, long-travel suspension, etc...) soon revealed something of a gap in the plan. Limited welding experience and only basic knowledge of tube fabrication where likely to slow things down and budget constraints where certain to preclude farming the work out. It was looking like the truck would be limited to a mild suspension upgrade and appropriate fiberglass fenders.
The unexpected arrival of a Hobart MIG welder for my birthday (thanks Hon'!) was the initial inspiration to take things to the next level and research schools. Figuring there had to be some sort of instructional opportunities that applied, the hunt for a fabrication education began. An assortment of local institutions offered wide-ranging programs and if I wished to learn to weld high pressure natural gas pipelines they would probably have been very helpful. Although community colleges are inexpensive, none seemed to fit my needs or timeline. Not long after that disheartening realization a banner ad on the popular dezertrangers.com forum pointed me towards The Fab School in Riverside, California. A few clicks later and I had reviewed all of their programs as well as scheduling a tour of the facility. My hopes where up and the race truck drawings my son presented each night at dinner helped keep me focused.
Concealed within an unassuming building in an industrial area of the city, the Fab School looked to focus specifically on the disciplines I lacked. The tour began with a brief review of the available courses and some basic safety guidelines. Necessary stuff, I'm sure, but it did little to prepare me for the next segment of the tour. Once the doors swung open, I knew I was in the right place. Rows of MIG & TIG welders sat next to full tube race cars which where across from mills, lathes, benders, sanders, sheet metal brakes and seemingly every conceivable fabrication tool known to man. Hard to imagine a more focused devotion to race car style fabrication in an education environment. I may even have drooled a little. My guide walked me through each section, demonstrated a few of the tools, and roughed out an outline of the curriculum. I walked away with stars in my eyes and a packet full of information.
Courses ranged from basic to advanced and presented the opportunity to learn countless aspects of motorsports fabrication. My head was swimming with the possibilities and I could already see my garage converted into a full race shop. Familial and career obligations where certain to impair that dream, but the final listing on the Fab School curriculum made it completely doable. Dubiously named the "Crash Course", a four-week program that met twice a week looked to provide a nice balance between learning and earning. Applications where filled out, vacation paperwork was submitted and I was officially enrolled in school for the first time on well over twenty years.
Obligatory helmet and tools in hand, I hit day one with an unprecedented level of enthusiasm. The Crash Course program was intimate by design with only a handful of students in each class, taught by a primary instructor as well as intermittent support from other teachers within the program making for substantial one on one time. A good thing, as the pace was fast and offered little opportunity for complacency. Day one began with a terse safety review and thirty minutes of orientation and then went right into hands on MIG welding. By lunch time I had learned the basics of two separate welding techniques and was well aware of why they called this the Crash Course. Day two offered the same full throttle pace, opening up with the basics of measuring techniques as they related to tube fabrication (you want the sides of your roll cage to match, right?) and then back to the MIG welders. By mid day I had easily burned through a hundred feet of wire and could lay down a passable bead. Thanks to relentless first-hand attention, my work was getting better by the hour. Tube notching came next, beginning with a rudimentary fence post notcher which allowed crude but quick cuts and more time with a torch in hand. I spent the following weekend garage bound and inspired to practice.
The MIG seat time payed off as week two began with an evaluation of our work and I was able to pass with a respectable joining of metals. Feeling cocky with my initial success, I moved onto TIG welding and immediately hit a wall. But it seems that the utilization of two hands and one foot was more than my brain could handle and I was clearly struggling. The lack of eye-hand coordination that had always inhibited any sort of video game prowess was now hindering my ability to effectively TIG weld. Once again, course instructor Dan Moore came to my rescue and spent far too much time walking me through the fundamentals. Although uncomfortable with the disproportionate amount of his time I appeared to need, he was not, and seemed more than willing to proceed at my sloth like pace. By days end my work and understanding of another welding discipline had increased a thousand fold. Week two ended with an attention-grabbing discussion of suspension theory, including bump steer, three- and four-link geometry, caster, camber, and motion ratios amongst other aspects. Like each of the previous segments, we where required to pass a written test of our newly acquired knowledge.
Now halfway though the program, I had learned enough in two weeks to dabble with a few projects of my own and my kid's truck already had a tube bumper in the works. Downside was the mystified looks I received from fellow desk jockeys after hearing my explanation of vacation time spent. That aside, week three opened up with the next logical step and had us working with hole saw style tubing notchers and hydraulic benders. Hours where spent bending and fish mouthing tubes so they would fit properly over other tubes and at some point form the foundation of a rollcage, chassis member or simple tire rack. Virtually every tidbit of knowledge I gained seemed to apply to the project at hand and my skill level consistently notched up.
Week three, day two saw the class doing a TIG review, suspension review and a final test of notching skills, the tempo was relentless, but never overwhelming. Clearly in the home stretch and already planning more ambitious projects (I'm thinking I've got a Class 5 Baja build in me...), we where split into groups and asked to measure out a fellow student's truck for a simple rollbar. The project would encompass several of the techniques we had learned, but in a more "real world" situation and would also incorporate pattern making and scale modeling. The eventual result was a half scale roll bar that was critiqued for bending symmetry and fitment. Much harder than it looked and a real eye opener as to the critical nature of proper use of a tape measure (something we had reviewed early on, but had not seemed terribly important). A written test on bending and additional discussion of suspension theory where also covered before things wrapped up on the final day. Four weeks had passed in a blink of an eye, yet my skill arsenal had grown more than I could ever have imagined. Although the compressed nature of the Crash Course negated in depth coverage of many of the topics it more than opened my eyes to the fundamentals and allowed me to learn in a month what I would have spent the next several years attempting to pick up on my own and without all the wasted time and metal. For that alone, it was worth the price of admission. The kids' truck is well underway and more projects are in the works. Although my garage isn't quite the race shop I had dreamt of, it's getting closer by the day and I owe much of the credit to my new friends at the Fab School and a much appreciated fabrication education.