This past weekend, I bought a dirt-cheap welder, grabbed some metal that I had sitting around the garage, and began building a skill that feels like a human superpower: fusing metal together. Picking up this contraption is a step that I wish I had taken many years ago, and one that I can’t recommend enough to anyone who wrenches.
Somehow, after all these years and all of my shitboxes, it took a structurally compromised 1976 Jeep DJ-5D postal carrier (a full article showing its copious faults is forthcoming) to get me to finally plunk down the cash for a welder. And now that I’ve done it, I regret not having bought one sooner. Because it’s awesome.
The welder I picked up is a 120-volt, 125-amp flux core unit from Harbor Freight—an extremely basic piece of equipment that any professional welder would probably laugh at. But for me, an amateur who just needs to do simple, Not Necessarily Pretty repairs on 1/8-inch to 3/16-inch steel, it seems like it will do the job just fine.
Not only was this thing dirt cheap at $155 all-in with an auto-dimming helmet, safety gloves, and a leather apron, but it’s also not going to take up much space in my cramped garage. The whole welder is about the size of a carry-on bag, and the consumable electrode has flux in its core that protects the molten metal, so there’s no big bottle of pressurized shielding gas needed.
Setting up the welder took no time. I just slapped in the included spool of wire, fed it into a wire liner conduit, and squeezed it right up against an electric feed roller. Then I plugged the machine in, installed the contact tip into the weld gun, squeezed the trigger, and waited for flux-core wire to poke out.
With the wire protruding from the gun about a half an inch, I let go of the button on the gun, fastened the ground clamp to my sheet of 16-gauge metal, threw on my safety equipment, and went to town:
Pulling the trigger activated the sensors on my auto-dimming welding helmet, turning black everything but the tip of that electrode, which was bright red as it shorted out on the metal plate. Both the electrode and the plate melted, and as I tried welding across the joint, I gently scooted the gun along in such a way that pulled the molten metal along.
As I hadn’t welded in over seven years (since my days on the Baja SAE team in college), my skills had deteriorated. This long break, combined with the lack of adjustability of the welder (there’s only a low-high switch for current and a wire feed speed dial) and the spatter-y nature of flux core welders in general, led to some truly horrible looking welds.
But after about an hour practicing, and after watching a bunch of YouTube videos, my work got better, and I eventually got to the point where I was consistently laying beads that held up to any amount of sledge hammering:
Obviously, I still have quite a way to go before I master even this basic, low-powered Harbor Freight machine, but nonetheless, I do feel like I’ve gained a new superpower.
All the floors missing from my cars, all the loose frame cross-members, all the rusted rocker panels, all the missing frame horns: I now finally have the tools to fix these things the right way—without adhesives (JB weld), rivets, or self-tapping screws. And I can now fabricate things from scratch, which will be helpful as I try to get this rotted-out old postal carrier back on the road.
This welder feels like a big step in my wrenching life, but while I think I’m slowly getting the hang of it, the true test of both the machine and the operator will come in a few weeks, when I weld in a dark, tight spot underneath my rotten postal carrier.
If that goes well, who knows what else I’ll try to fuse together. With a welder, the possibilities are endless.