Author:Craig Perronne Photos:Boyd Jaynes, Lincoln Electric, Joe Bonnello, Thermal Arc
If there is one thing that the Dirt Sports Nation is literally built on, it is fabrication. While a whole crop of specialist companies have surfaced that are capable of producing beautiful parts that can bolt right onto your vehicle, there are still plenty of components that simply need to be built and crafted from scratch. For those racing at the very top level of our sport with exotic tube chassis, almost everything needs to be created. Even for us mere mortals who are not building a Trophy-Truck or Ultra4 in a giant shop, however, learning how to fabricate can be worth it. Many quality fab shops charge at least $50 an hour for labor, making even the smallest of projects quite expensive. Besides the possible monetary savings, building something with your own two hands is a rewarding and satisfying process that is well worth some initial frustration. Sure the learning curve might be steep at first, but there is nothing quite like holding a finished product of your own creation. To aid and encourage those first starting out in the wonderful world of fabrication, we reintroduced our long dormant Fab 101 series back in our May issue. In it, we took a look at some of the basic equipment that one might need if first starting out. While we were eager back then to dive into techniques, and still are, there remain some important basics to cover before picking up some tools or firing up a welder. What follows is a list of tips for those who are just starting out, to help eliminate many of the common “newbie” mistakes. Safety First One of the most important things to remember is to put safety first. Welding and fabrication can be dangerous processes and precautions need to be taken. While we might sound overly motherly, always make sure to wear eye protection whenever performing any kind of fabrication. It can be amazingly easy to get metal in one’s eyes and, we speak from experience here, removing that metal is not easy or fun and involves a trip to a doctor. Anytime you use a grinder, chop saw or anything that can produce sparks or hot flying shards of metal, eye protection is a good idea. Honestly, any time you work on a vehicle it is a good idea too. Welding produces extremely bright light that can very easily damage the eyes. Besides protecting your face and head from sparks, a welding helmet is also vital for saving your vision from being damaged. Don’t cheap out and think you can just close your eyes or employ some other scheme that simply does not work. There are plenty of great helmets out there that do not cost an arm and a leg, so there is no excuse not to have one The proper gloves and a welding jacket should also be part of the mix. While it might seem very basic, we have even been guilty ourselves of setting our T-shirts on fire more than once. Often these items get overlooked, but they are just as important. Always wear the right gear and be aware of what you are doing.
Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness While a saying that originally spoke to the purity of one’s soul, it also applies to fabrication as well — especially welding. To get a proper weld that is free of contamination, the base material must be exceptionally clean. Dirt, oil, grease, debris and oxidation can all cause contamination and, in turn, poor weld quality. To ensure that a weld is the best it can be, make sure to clean any materials thoroughly before welding them together. Depending upon the state of the materials, this might entail a simple wipe with a clean cloth to lots of work with a wire brush.
Mind Your Gaps A mistake that rookies sometimes make is to try to weld together tubing or metal that has not been fitted together properly resulting in too big of a gap. While it may be possible to fuse together the poorly fitting tubing or plate, the weld usually will lack penetration making it weak. This often leads to failure of the weld and destruction of whatever the weld held together. While this might be something trivial like a random tab, it could also be a vital weld that holds together a rollcage, suspension assembly or other critical component. Having to start over with fitting tubes or plate properly usually means both wasted time and material, but it makes for stronger and safer welds. Don’t be tempted to try to salvage the situation with what will ultimately be a questionable weld.
Fabrication Is Not Just Welding Whenever the majority of us think of fabrication, we tend to focus on welding. While part of the process, there are also other skills that are just as important. Knowing how to notch and fit a tube properly is just as vital as being able to zap them together. The ability to use a tube bender is also a necessary skill for a large portion of the fabrication performed in the Dirt Sports Nation. While welding is important, it is simply one of the many skills you must master to become a competent fabricator. Focusing only on welding might make you a good welder, but not necessarily a skilled fabricator.
Inspect Your Welds An important part of making a quality weld is knowing how to conduct a proper visual inspection and spot defects. By looking at a weld, one should be able to tell if there is porosity, lack of penetration or over-penetration along with undercutting. Cracking of the material can also be a common problem that can be seen in an inspection. All of these can lead to weak welds that will ultimately fail. Photographic examples of these types of welding defects are available across the Internet, and are good to look at. Of course, knowing how to rectify the situation that is causing the poor welds is just as important as spotting them, and will be a topic of a future Fab 101.
Troubleshooting As mentioned above, being able to spot poor welds is only half the battle. One also needs to know what to do to fix what is causing them. Adjusting gas flow properly to solve porosity is critical, as is understanding what amperage and voltage settings are needed to correct penetration issues. Being able to tell if there is gas leak or worn consumables is also important. Remember that all of this will come in time, but the quicker you learn it, the faster you will be able to make strong and clean welds.
Know And Maintain Your Equipment Having thorough knowledge of the equipment you will use is key. What is a certain amperage setting on one brand of welder isn’t necessarily the same on another. Tube benders can act slightly differently between brands, and even among the same make sometimes. Often fabricators use the exact same welder, bender and the like over and over because they know exactly how it will behave. Keeping all your equipment in top condition mechanically is also a must. It is hard to perform flawless welds or even proper ones if there are constant gas leaks or wire feed problems. Poorly maintained equipment causes headaches, produces poor quality and costs valuable trying to figure out what is wrong.
Know Your Materials Just as important as knowing your equipment is a deep understanding of the materials you are working with. Every type of metal has different properties and responds differently to heating and cooling. Some may even require treatments post or pre-weld to control the cooling rate and prevent any cracking. While it might sound daunting, keep in mind that the majority of fabrication in the Dirt Sports Nation will involve chromoly tubing, plate and aluminum, so it is not a huge assortment of metals to get a handle on.
Getting In Over Your Head At this point all of this might seem a bit overwhelming, but remember a lot of the previously mentioned comes with experience and practice. One of the keys is to be patient and not get in over your head with a project. There is no way that you are going to be building a Trophy-Truck within six months of chopping your first tube. Start with much smaller and more realistic projects to help build your experience and confidence before attempting larger ones that might only result in frustration and failure. Remember that practice makes perfect, so finding bits of scrap metal or tubes to try to fit together and weld is a great way to hone your skills.