Welding is cool. Taking two separate pieces of metal and connecting them in a way that they become one, and they will never be separate again. For me, that’s manufacturing at its most visceral.
A few weeks ago I was welding in production; it’s been a while since I’d done that. Some folks at Seven—and maybe a few of our retailers—would say it’s absurd, and even stupid, for me to be welding when I’m supposed to be “running” the company. So, don’t tell anyone that I was welding; I might get in trouble.
Now, before any customers that recently received Sevens freak out that an inexperienced welder might have welded their frames, I do have some welding experience. I never kept track of how many frames I welded between 1988 and 1997—and then every once in a while at Seven over the past decade or so. But, the number is in well into the thousands.
Anyway, why would I be welding, when I’m clearly not supposed to be? The welding team was overloaded—too much to get done in too little time. We had a tight deadline—we made some promises to customers, and that means we move mountains if needed. Sure, maybe it would have been ‘safe’—or smarter—not to make the promise in the first place, but we did, and that meant that do what we gotta do.
Unfortunately for me, there was simply no additional welding capacity available to get everything done on time. It became clear that either I help the team or we wouldn’t meet our commitment. This is an unusual situation; 99% of the time we schedule frame building so that everyone can meet customer expectations for delivery. And 1% of the time, something unplanned gets in the way, so we get creative. Sometimes we apply brute force—like when I ended up helping in welding. And, sometimes we employ creativity—we find a new way to do the work, someone covers for someone else, we find new ways to have our work flow.
If I’m required anywhere in production, it’s usually in welding. This is because, while nearly everyone on our production team has extensive cross-training: some finishers can build frames, some painters can finish, and some carbon frame builders can build titanium frames. The trickiest cross-training situation is with welding. Basically, once someone can weld, there’s no going back. Why?
Forever Feels like a Year
It takes, on average, one year to train a welder from scratch at Seven. I’m sure that sounds like a tall tale, but ask any welder that’s ever worked at Seven and I believe you’ll hear that it’s true. And, not everyone that tries actually makes it. No everyone can be a top welder. I estimate that about 50% of those that try welding do not make it through the entire training.
Seven’s weld training process is very methodical and organized. I’m thankful that I didn’t have to go through Seven’s training process when I learned; I don’t know if I would have made it.
Each time I weld it brings me right back to my fulltime halcyon welding days. The smell of burning ozone, burning cotton—from the gloves getting singed, and sometimes, burning flesh—after the gloves get singed, next is the flesh. Smell is a strong memory trigger.
Welding holds a special place for me because I first used it in art school about 25-years ago. At the time I thought of it simply as a tool for making art. I didn’t really understand that welding could be itself, art. Clearly I was wrong.
Welding titanium started for me in 1987. Originally, I was trained to weld titanium bicycle frames by Gary Helfrich at Merlin Metalworks. His teaching process was very simple, direct, and brief.
Gary handed me a mask, and told me to watch him weld a frame joint. I got as close to the tube joint as I could, and he started fusing the joint together. It looked sort of similar to some of the welding I did in school. He showed me a couple more joints and then handed me a few test pieces, a couple scraps of bent weld wire, a welding torch, and said, “get to it”—or something along those lines. He watched me struggle for a few minutes; I believe he said that I, “wouldn’t amount to much” and backed away from the welding bench shaking his head all the while. Gary was a tough love kind of guy.
I survived Gary’s very brief apprenticeship and quickly found myself welding frames alone at Merlin. Not too long after my apprenticeship, Gary split town for a better life. I don’t think the two incidents were related—at least I hope they weren’t. Merlin soon hired Tim Delaney who immediately retrained me to weld properly. Tim’s got many claims to fame; the one that’s relevant here is that he brought puddle bead welding to the titanium frame industry. I’ll write more about that at another time.
The Good Old Days
Some days I do miss the purity of welding, and machining, and finishing. Other days, I wouldn’t trade my current job for the world. It’s pretty amazing to have the opportunity to do what I do—welding or otherwise—with the Seven team.
It’s probably a good thing that I enjoy the Zen of welding; because the way the 2009 season has begun, it looks like we’re going to need all the welding help we can get. It will feel just like the Good Old Days. Just don’t tell anyone.