I was in my early teens when I bought a propane torch. I just wanted to burn things, but my father found it useful for more constructive uses, like making a case for drill bits. He always had racing shells in the garage, repairing them for crews in the Pacific Northwest, and the torch came in handy for making replacements for missing stretcher bolts. He’d file a small flat on a brass washer and set it in the slot of a brass machine screw, slip a 1″ length of copper pipe over the screw threads, and solder everything together with paste flux and lead-wire solder.
When I built my first boat, a dory skiff, I didn’t consider making any metal fittings. I bought bronze pintles and gudgeons for the rudder but opted for oak tholepins over oarlocks and made all of the cleats out of hardwood. A few years later, a cruising canoe I was building needed a rudder, so I made one out of a discarded aluminum street sign, bent in a vise and pop-riveted together.
It wasn’t until I moved to Washington, D.C. and landed a job at the Smithsonian Institution that I learned I could do more with metal. I was hired by the National Museum of African Art as an exhibits specialist, part of the crew making display cases and installing artifacts. For a few weeks I assisted contract workers brought in to make mounts to support the objects that would be put display. They used brass rod and flat-bar, annealing it to make it pliable and joining pieces with silver solder with an air-acetylene torch. I learned a lot watching them work, and after they left I did much of the mount-making for the museum.
The museum staged an exhibition of the work of sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp and filled the main gallery with her life-sized metal figures. Many of them were motorized: a dancer stomped his feet, a small girl clapped her hands, and a boat stroked with six oars. During the last stages of the installation, one of the sculptures failed, and Sokari asked me to weld the broken part. I’d never worked with an oxy-acetylene torch, so to be on the safe side, I wheeled the museum’s welding rig outdoors to the loading dock, read the instruction manual, and made the repair without setting the museum on fire.
While I was working for the Smithsonian, I was living in a home just outside of D.C. and building a tandem decked canoe in the basement. It is said, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” and with my access to the museum’s metal shop, all of the fittings I needed for the canoe looked like metalsmithing projects. I made gudgeons for the rudder, a grab handle for the bow, and pad-eyes for the anchoring the sailing rig.
When I left D.C. in the late ’80s and returned to Seattle, I made a soldering station around an air-acetylene torch a friend I’d built a boat for had once used to make jewelry. I got a job making mounts for the Seattle Art Museum and continued making hardware for boats I built and for making simple tools.
In 2007, an elderly friend of mine passed away and his family wanted to find good homes for some of his tools. I was given his oxy-acetylene welding equipment. I didn’t do anything with it until my son and his friend built BONZO, a 19’ Escargot canal boat, and we decided it needed a wood-burning stove for winter outings. I scanned the web for small stoves and found some meant for using in canvas wall tents, but they were expensive and too large for the space we had available in the boat. I had the torch and a large sheet of 1/16″ steel, so I decided to figure out gas welding.
The weld I’d made for Sokari was only 1″ long, so I didn’t know that a long seam required tacking to keep pieces aligned. Consequently, some of the edges I welded are far from straight, but as things went wrong, I did more research and applied what I’d learned. In time I got the hang of heating the steel and feeding welding rod into the liquefied metal. When I ran out of the few rods I had, I straightened wire coat hangers and welded with them.
Gas welding turned out to be a great pleasure. Seen through the dark lens of welding goggles, the molten metal, like lava, glows and flows, leaving a trail of overlapping crescents. After making BONZO’s stove, I made two more, for my cruising garvey, HESPERIA, and my teardrop trailer.
A few years ago I bought a cheap arc welder. I’ve never been able to do even a spot weld with it—the rod just sticks to the metal—but I haven’t given up on it. Arc welding is just another challenge of metalsmithing. Like soldering and gas welding, it might just open up another world of possibilities.