With average welding and Jeep fabrication shop rates running up to and more than $100 an hour in some areas, it’s no wonder that many Jeep owners with basic wrench-spinning skills are looking to expand their abilities into welding and fabrication. High-quality welding and entry-level fabrication equipment is less expensive and easier to use than ever before. Unfortunately, fabricating and welding isn’t as simple as replacing an alternator or slapping on a lift kit. It sometimes takes years to hone metal melding and manipulating skills.
Most garage fabricators can quickly and easily learn to build basic components like light brackets, shock mounts, skidplates, bumpers, rocker guards, and more. As with any project, the end results will depend on how meticulous you are and if you have an eye for shapes and form.
You don’t automatically become a fabricator just because you have a welder and a tubing bender, much in the same way that you don’t become a contractor just because you have a hammer and box of nails. To be a successful garage fabricator you have to be a welder, engineer, and artist, all at the same time. We can’t tell you if you have the skills to be a metalworking artisan or not, but we can get you started. We’ve compiled a few fabrication basics and cheap tips that you can incorporate into your next metal project.
Step By Step
If you are looking to buy your first MIG welder, we recommend starting with a machine that can weld 5⁄16- or 3⁄8-inch-thick steel with a single pass. You’ll rarely need more power than this for most Jeep fabrication projects. If you plan to do a lot of heavy metalwork, buy the most powerful machine you can reasonably afford. Welders with auto settings may seem like a beginning fabricators dream. However, these welders don’t always provide the best results. Don’t depend on them. Practice often and learn to read and understand what the weld puddle is doing so you can manually adjust the wire speed and power output of the welder. Most welders come with a chart to help you make initial adjustments for the material thickness you are working on.
Just as with painting a car, it’s all in the prep work. Properly cleaning, smoothing, and deburring your materials will improve the overall quality of your work. Rust and leftover slag from torching and plasma cutting can contaminate a weld. A contaminated weld not only looks like a bird pooped on your project, it makes the joint weak too.
Knock out the burrs from the inside and outside of steel tubing. Sometimes metal bits and abrasive dust inside the tubing will fall down into the weld area while fitting and tack welding the tubes in place. Cutting oil, metal bits, and leftover abrasive material can contaminate a weld. It’s always a good idea to blow out and wipe down the areas you plan to melt together, including the inside of tubing.
Use clamps and magnetic holders to keep material in place prior to tack welding. This will keep you from trying to three-hand the welder and workpieces. We found this magnetic holder at Harbor Freight Tools (harborfreight.com) for only a few bucks. They have the ability to hold steel plates at 45, 90, and 135-degree angles.
Once the material is tack-welded together, double-check the alignment and fitment. Even tack welding creates enough heat to cause the material to shrink into the weld. The more heat you put into the welds, the more warping and shrinking you should expect and compensate for.
You can tack weld shock and suspension mounts in place using the components you are mounting. However, finish-welding with the mounts bolted to bushings or rod ends will usually damage the components. To avoid melting bushings and to keep brackets and shock tabs from warping inward or outward during final welding, use a correct-length spacer and some old hardware to stabilize the assembly. Keep weld spatter away from the bolt threads.
If you hate the look of unsightly weld spatter and dingle balls left over from MIG welding, you have two options. You can either spend a fortune by upgrading to a much cleaner and more complex TIG welding process or just spray the area to be welded with welder’s anti-spatter spray. The chemicals in the spray keep the molten metal droplets from sticking to your work piece, without contaminating the weld. This will save you from doing cleanup around your MIG welds, as well as on welding tables and clamps.
No one’s time is worth absolutely nothing. Cutting out and shaping tabs and brackets is extremely time consuming and laborious. There are many companies such as A&A Manufacturing (aa-mfg.com), Mountain Off-Road Enterprises (mountainoffroad.com), Ruff Stuff Specialties (ruffstuffspecialties.com), Synergy Manufacturing (synergymfg.com), and others that offer lots of different suspension, steering, chassis, and rollcage tabs and brackets at an affordable price. They come in all different shapes and sizes. You can almost always find something that fits or that can be easily modified to fit your needs, giving you more time to actually work on your project.
Use the right tubing for the job. A 1020 DOM (drawn over mandrel) tube is about twice the strength of HREW (hot rolled electric welded) tube of the same diameter and thickness. Chromoly is only about 10 to 20 percent stronger than DOM, but only when properly normalized before welding and then heat-treated after the welding process. DOM tubing is the strongest and most cost-effective material for rollcages, rocker guards, and other structures that could see potential abuse or get crushed. HREW is fine for aesthetic items like roof racks, lightbars, and tube fenders. HREW can be easily identified by the bluish weld seam down the side of the tubing (pictured right). Contrary to popular belief, chromoly weighs about the same as 1020 DOM. Since it is a bit stronger, you can use less of it to do the same job as DOM and still save weight. Ultimately, chromoly is not very user friendly, and it’s too expensive for most garage fabricators. Schedule 40 or 60 pipe, while tough, is not designed to be structural tubing. Pi