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May 22, 2006

learning metalworking

by sven at 8:00 am

[Last week I wrote a comment over at Shelley Noble's "Notes from Halfland" blog that seemed worth re-posting here. I have thoughts about fleshing it out into an illustrated tutorial -- but best to share it as-is for now.]

Prior to February, I had never done any metal working. Period. In fact, I clearly remember the message I wrote to Mike saying how the thought of metalworking scared the bejeezus out of me. His encouraging words got me over the hump, to the point where I decided that I'm probably a smart-enough sort of person to be able to get the job done. [THANK YOU MIKE!!]

There were several distinct steps for me in learning what I know so far.

#1. Cutting a strip of aluminum. I started with a hacksaw and trying to hold the metal down by hand. Couldn't do it. I got a drillpress vise -- wrong kind of vise. I got a small clamp-to-the-table vise and wax for the hacksaw blade. That worked, but my cuts were sort of crooked. I tried using a dremel cut-off wheel, and suddenly cutting metal was like slicing butter.

#2. Drilling and tapping a brass strip. Drilling was pretty easy right off the bat. What I didn't realize at first was that normal drill bits work fine. If they're labeled HSS, that means "High Speed Steel", which can easily cut the softer metals (brass, aluminum, copper). HSS bits are probably what you have by default; you can get carbide bits at a hardware store, which are even more durable. ...Tapping just requires buying a little specialized tool so you can screw threads into a hole. I was so proud when I showed Gretchin a simple hole with a screw in it -- and I had made the threaded hole myself!

#3. Soldering. I needed to learn soldering so I could attach little brass nuts onto square K&S tubing, so I could make plug-in armatures like Susannah Shaw describes. (Neither super glue nor epoxy putty made adequate bonds.) My first frustration was learning that a zinc nut wasn't going to attach to the brass K&S -- it had to be brass-to-brass. I discovered that I had to sand the parts a little to make sure that they were clean. Then it took a little bit of fiddling to figure out where to press the soldering iron and how to hold the soldering wire effectively. ...But then, poof! I knew how to solder!

#4. Safe ventilation. Reading online, I found out that the fumes from soldering -- both from the lead and from the rosin core -- are hazardous. (My other main worry had been the fumes from epoxy glue.) My desk isn't in front of a window, so I needed a way to suck the fumes through dryer ducting that I bought at Home Depot. I tried an air brush spray booth -- it was way too big for my desk! I found some tiny desk fans made specifically for soldering and ordered one from I figured out a way to modify it so it could vent through the ducting. The write-up on my solution is available over at Scarlet Letters.

#5. Using a torch. When it came time to attach balls onto rods, the soldering iron couldn't get the metals hot enough. I wound up using a butane micro-torch -- actually the kitchen brulee torch that I got two Christmases back! Flame scares me, and it took a little time even when I was in the kitchen to get comfortable with using something that's 1200 degrees hot. Using it for metal working, it wasn't bad at all -- as soon as I figured out that I ought to work on top of a cinder block, and that a small "helping hands" clamping device from Radio Shack was necessary to hold things for me while I heated them.

...And that's actually everything I know!! Each step was a big deal to me -- but once learned, it's just like adding a new media to the art pantry: pastels, acrylics, clay...

Oh -- one other step that was a meaningful hurdle: ordering materials online. It was really weird to be buying something that I'd never touched in person before. Buying "self-skinning flexible expanding urethane foam" from MonsterMakers was where I got over that. I'm going to need to order type 302 stainless steel balls from soon -- I wouldn't be able to if I hadn't already broken the online-buying barrier.

(Not a barrier, but another little bit of learning: Walking around the hardware store looking at nuts and bolts and screws long enough to know the difference between 4-40, 6-32, and 10-24; the difference between a socket cap screw and a machine screw; the difference between brass, zinc, and stainless steel screws... It's been really useful to be able to recognize these things by sight.)

posted by sven | May 22, 2006 8:00 AM | categories: sculpture, stopmo