I realized while writing that this plan of mine, to share my knowledge, is going to be a long and winding road. I hope there is something here for everyone and that you will travel this road with me. One of my beliefs is that creating anything is always a long and winding road. Even if you know exactly where you want to end up, there is seldom a direct path to getting there. Maybe that's just me... also I recently read that people my age use too many ellipses.
Let's see where this road takes us.
Let's see where this road takes us.
I can't remember why I decided to go into business for myself, or why I chose to set up my own shop. I was probably just done dealing with the people I was working for. I didn't see the irony at that time. Looking back from this vantage point, I can see that I was unprepared in every possible way. It might have been a lucky thing that I didn't bother to look at any blacksmithing or welding or machinist text books, because they would have just messed with my head and I would have given up before I started. Metalworking texts often start with a chapter on shop layout which is a great place to start if you are independently wealthy and have all the tools you could possible need. I know exactly zero people who start out like that. When you are starting out you have three tools and fourteen dollars. Not really enough for any sort of layout. In deference to reality, I am going to ignore layout for now. Instead, I'm going to drone on endlessly about how to get your hands on tools, what tools to chose and how to figure out what tool to get next. Also with some luck, how to cheat being broke.
I do remember the first metalworking tool I bought. My first tool, the tool I picked as the most necessary tool to open my business, was a Makita angle grinder. I think I paid around $120 for it. That tool is still about $120 or maybe it's not. I don't know. Time passes, tool prices stand still. Not all of them though. Anyway, an angle grinder can be used for several tasks even if the results are sometimes a bit crude. It can be used for cutting, grinding, sanding and wire brushing. Basically the beginning and end of a project are covered by this one tool. I think if I were starting out today it would still be one of the first tools I would buy. I wouldn't, however, spend $120 on a Makita. I would go to Harbor Freight and get a Chicago Electric angle grinder for $20 leaving me $100 for other things. There isn't a significant difference between and expensive grinder and a cheap grinder in terms of function or longevity and the cheap ones come with an extra set of brushes so they actually last longer. You could get three so you don't have to spend time changing the discs but one is good enough. A word of caution, don't get the even cheaper Drill Master grinder. That thing is a waste of money. Also don't bother using the grinding disc that comes with the grinder. That thing is crap. Pick up some cut off discs, some flap sanders in different grits and a wire brush. You've probably spent your hundred bucks now but you can do a lot of work.
You will probably abandon the cut off discs as soon as you have the money to get a better way to cut your metal, but when you first start out a cutoff disc is faster than a hacksaw. Also, you will spend more for a hacksaw than you spend on a grinder because NEVER BUY A CHEAP HACKSAW. You will end up using a hacksaw surprisingly often so get a good one and it will last for 40 years and then you won't be able to find one like it again. That means it's time to retire even though you know you will never be able to retire.
My second tool was a borrowed buzz box. Any time you can borrow a tool, you should do that. Tools are expensive. Also, I forgot to mention, now that you have your first tool, start advertising ( you know, telling everyone you meet ) that you are open for business. Just don't invite anyone to see your shop because it's an empty space which is the name of a book about the creative process in the theater. I think. Anyway, a buzz box is a stick welder. I just looked and I am surprised to find that you can still buy one new. I don't know why you would, but you can. I wouldn't buy one mostly because you don't want to stick weld for the rest of your life. Unless, of course, you do. I'm a little too fond of my clothes, skin and lungs to want to do much stick welding, but if you love smoke and molten blobs of flying flux all over the place, definitely go with stick. That is actually where the phrase I don't give a flying flux came from. If you don't have some basic welding skills and this is all technogloop to you, I suggest you take a intro welding course or workshop. Almost every community college and adult ed program in the world offers a beginning welding course or workshop. It is one of the easiest metalworking skills to pick up. Also, you will be exposed to a shop with a layout. Welding is a handy skill even if you want to be a blacksmith. I don't know any who don't weld. A buzz box is a perfect temporary first welder because it's versatile and you don't need to deal with gas. If you can't find one to borrow, I would try to buy one used rather than one of the 110v wire feed welders that you can get everywhere. The buzz box runs on 220v power so you can weld thicker material which you will need to do to make a work table and some racks and assorted other shop fixtures. You should pay around $100 for a used buzz box. I wouldn't pay much more. New they are only $250 or so. If you do decide to go with a 110v wire feed welder, you have made a poor choice and you are now relegated to working on sheet metal only. I get that they are cheap. Harbor Freight has one for less than $100 which is exactly what they are worth. Believe me when I tell you that you will throw that 110v welder into a ditch one day soon in a fit of maniacal frustration. Plus you can actually use the 220v buzz box as a power supply for a tig setup, and you won't end up breaking your foot trying to drop kick it off a bridge.
|This is an ac/dc 220v stick welder aka buzz box. Don't forget you will need a hood and gloves. Figure that into your budget. Plus the electrodes. You can get those at the welding supply store by the pound. You will need to know the type and the diameter of the sticks you need. There is a bunch of science to this so here's a link to give you and idea. How to pick a stick electrode. I use Kevlar gloves. A lot of welders use leather. The problem with leather is that it shrinks in the heat. Kevlar doesn't shrink although you will burn through them in time. There are also a lot of hoods. I use a basic Huntsman. It's lightweight and not very expensive. No electronics to break. I've never use one of the electronic ones. Mine has the big window. I like to be able to see.|
With these two tools you can cut and assemble some metal. It's time to agree to make that little fence for the couple down the street who desperately need it to keep their neighbors dog from going in their vegetable garden. That's what you get for telling everyone you were opening your business. Pull the cars out of the garage and panic, or if you live in a 4th floor walk-up like I did, ask your woodworker buddy for a corner of his shop and panic. Sadly, you are going to have to lay out this first job on the floor because you have not had time to make work tables. Once you have finished panicking and whatnot, you need to figure out a what to charge. I can't actually help you there because I don't make fences, but let's say that the local fab shop charges $20 a running foot. Charge that. I would say charge more because your neighbor seems difficult, but you should probably stick with the going rate. Next get 50% up front. With luck that will cover materials, supplies and beginner mistakes. My one piece of advice if you really are making a fence, make sure you know how it installs before you start to build it. It stinks when you have to scab a bunch of tabs on a project during installation to make it work.
Ok then, I meandered way off topic there. The road does wind. You now have two tools and you can build a work table. If you know what you want to make, that should give you a pretty good idea of what your work table needs to be. I don't do very many really big projects any more so my work tables are pretty small. When I first started I made myself a really big work table. Doesn't really matter what size they are, I always put them on wheels. I never have enough space. I put everything I can on wheels. Generally, I like my work table to be counter height, so 36" high. Less bending over that way. Recently I designed a new work table for myself that I haven't made yet. I'm including a sketch. If you like the design, I suggest you have the steel yard cut the angle to size for you. You don't have the tools to do that really well yet. Final detour...I hope. Steel yards. I get that steel yards seem intimidating but that's only because Home Depot hasn't figured out a way to make them awful yet. The guys (it's mostly guys) who work there are not ogres. They are just dirty. They lift and move steel all day. It comes with the territory. Steel yards will sell to anyone and usually in any quantity. You can pick up the steel or have it delivered. There will be charges either way. In the beginning I took my hacksaw to the steel yard and cut the sticks in half there to fit them in my truck. They will cut them for you for a fee. It's worth it. There is a fee to deliver too, but you get full length sticks. Some yards have scrap piles you can go through for smaller bits of steel. Generally I buy in full lengths or sheets. That's why I have all this scrap. I'm putting a chart here to give you an idea of how steel comes. Call for prices. They vary and depend on market fluctuations. Look up sizes so you know what you are asking for. And then go for it.
|These are the huge all metal casters I have on one of my work tables.|
Use the work table and rack sketches as guidelines. Make your shop work for what you want to do. Good luck. Enjoy the process and don't let the things you don't know and the little setbacks stop you.
This has turned out to be much longer than I thought it would be, but before I end this I want to make sure I've made my overall point really clear. That point is that it's not necessary to have every tool and every technique to start making things. Every time you go into your shop and do some work, you will learn. Nobody starts out a master, but you will never become a master if you don't start. This doesn't just apply to what I do, it applies to every creative process. Start. That is all. I'm going to stop here and continue next month.
Back to work
As I was about to post this, I realized that I hadn't even mentioned safety equipment with the exception of gloves. I've talked about this before. Don't even strike your first arc or make your first cut without thinking about the effect of your work on your short and long term health. Wear a respirator to protect your lungs. Not a dust mask. A respirator. Wear ear protection so you don't become one of those annoying old people who is always asking what they said. Wear eye protection. I would also suggest an apron and good work boots. Don't ever give me that crap about how uncomfortable it all is. Carrying an oxygen tank around while wearing an eye patch and asking what they said is way more uncomfortable.