When the PCC summer course catalog featured a female welding graduate on the cover, it felt like a sign. The universe wanted me to take metal shop.
Or, at least, PCC did. Which, for me, was close enough.
So, I signed up. I used my trusty rationale that’s gotten me into many new activities I now love (including motorcycles): If I hate it, I never have to do it again.
In the weeks before the class started, I grew increasingly nervous. There was no room number listed in the course description — how would I find the classroom? What kinds of skills was I expected to already know? What if they found out that, up until a few months ago, I was still somewhat nervous about operating an electric drill?
Ten weeks later, I’m far from being an expert welder or metal shaper. But I’m no longer afraid of power tools, to say the least.
Why classes are (still) invaluable
In high school, I took for granted that there would always be someone to ask questions, to guide me down the right path and provide the tools I needed. Since starting my XL250 project, I’ve wished so many times to have a mentor or teacher alongside me.
Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great resources available on the internet. But YouTube can’t look over your shoulder and hint that maybe you should get the axle bearings out before you slice through the spokes — no matter how excited you are about your new angle grinder.
Sometimes, there’s just no substitute for having another human being in the room. For example, when I was rebuilding my starter motor, I came across one of these for the first time:
Most of you reading this will know immediately what it is: a circlip. And many of you will have the exact tool you need to remove it.
But of course, I had never seen one before, and my (ripped from the internet) manual didn’t mention a horseshoe-ish shaped washer with two holes in either end. I just knew it needed to come off.
I spent hours Googling terms like “horseshoe washer,” “open-ended washer,” and “washer with opening” with no results. By the time I finally figured out what it was, and that I needed circlip pliers to get it off, it was evening and the hardware store was closed.
Now, I love learning things the hard way. I love emerging from a challenging experience with a richer understanding of the task I encountered.
But a circlip is just a dang circlip. I didn’t gain anything extra from the hours I spent beating my head against the wall about it.
That’s why great teachers are invaluable — they know the difference between a worthless frustration and a true learning experience.
So, when I decided I wanted to learn some metalworking, I knew my first step should be a class.
And so, I went back to school…
The community college shop class was held in the musty “non-academic” lower wing of a nearby high school. It was pretty much what you’d imagine a high school metal shop to look like — brick walls, plastic windows, heavy metal doors.
The instructor was a retired metal shop teacher who had taught in this high school for decades. You’d think years of teaching torch-wielding teenagers would have left him hardened, but he was soft-spoken and patient.
And, as awesome as it would have been to learn from a super-talented pro, there’s something to be said for having an instructor who’s already seen every stupid mistake in the book. Nothing anyone said or did, or wanted to do, fazed him — he dealt with each problem as it came.
After a quick tour of the shop, complete with descriptions of each of the main tools and the ways they were broken, run down or otherwise dilapidated from years of high-schooler abuse, we got down to business with a gas welding demonstration.
As I watched the instructor light the torch, demonstrating how to gently heat the steel until it glows red-hot, I tried to calm my nerves. Is he really going to let me wave around a stick of fire? They let high schoolers do this?
After the demonstration, we had about half an hour left in class to practice. With sixteen students and only two welding stations, I didn’t expect to be able to weasel my way in. Instead, I waited patiently to cut myself some practice pieces, and after that I went home, with ten minutes still left in class.
The second class, we learned about using a cutting torch, and had a quick demonstration of MIG and stick welding. After the demo, we had nearly two hours to practice, so I braced myself and headed for one of the gas welding stations.
Squinching my face to keep my bulky plastic eye protection from falling off, I set the gasses — ten pounds of oxygen, five pounds of acetylene — cracked the acetylene, and sparked the torch.
With a satisfying foom, the torch sprung to life.
After adjusting the acetylene to a bright, wide flame, I carefully turned on the oxygen and adjusted it to get a clear blue cone. Then I went to work, brushing the feathery flame over my A-frame of scrap steel.
Soon, I started to get the hang of it, and my nerves faded. Yes, it was hot and slow, but I had never been one to be afraid of fire. I tried MIG and stick welding later that day, too, but something about gas welding kept me coming back — pushing the puddle across red-hot steel in slow, rhythmic circles.
Finding a new, energizing hobby
Through the rest of the 10-week class, there were good days and bad days. I learned the hard way how difficult it is to weld metals of dissimilar sizes, and melted more than my fair share of holes in projects.
But even when the work was difficult, it was oddly energizing.
Some weeks, after trudging through a long workday, I would think twice about heading off to a three-hour night class — on a Monday at that. But it never failed: every time I put in the effort to get to class, I would find wells of energy that somehow I hadn’t tapped while sitting at my desk.
By the last class, I had built a (slightly lopsided) plant stand of my own design, and had fashioned a number plate for my XL out of sheet metal. The number plate is no masterpiece, and definitely feels a little stone age compared to the master metalworking that goes into custom bikes these days… but hey, I can always make a new one later.
And now? Now, I’m looking for ways to make space in my one-car garage for a MIG and a welding bench.
I don’t have big plans for my metalworking future — in fact, all I really want to do right now is get a welder and a heap of scrap metal and go to town — but maybe someday I will.