When the river rose high, Tim Reed was ready. A few years before the flooding of 2010, this upstate New York outdoorsman picked up a Lincoln Electric AC225 stick welder for $100 at a local garage sale. He brought it to duck camp, a cabin on stilts right on the Indian River, and taught himself the basics of joining metal on metal.

“That water came up to here,” Reed said, stomping on the step just outside the front door. “Everything else was underwater.” On opening day of duck season that year the boys had to park a quarter mile from camp and take Jon boats to the cabin door.

The river rose more than 10 feet, but in the years prior—with his welder, a concrete truck and the help of neighbors and friends—Reed had elevated the cabin, extending the height of the stilts past the historic high-water line. After having concrete pillars poured, he welded steel covers to attach the cabin’s extended crossbeams, then slowly raised the building to its new height—inch by slow-moving inch. This year, Reed is adding a second floor, reinforcing the supports with his Lincoln Electric. But basic shielded metal arc welding, or stick welding, has solved dozens of other smaller problems at duck camp, from fixing the floorplate on an old pump gun to boat and auto repair.

There’s no shortage of projects for a good welder at camp or on the farmstead. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

Know Your Tools

While there are six or seven welding processes, most home shop units fall into one of three categories: TIG, MIG or stick welding. TIG (gas tungsten arc welding) and MIG (gas metal arc welding) are primarily used for stainless steel and non-ferrous metals like copper and aluminum. Stick welding, or shielded metal arc welding, is primarily used for iron and steel, though some stainless, copper and aluminum projects are possible. Stick welders are also better suited for outdoor projects as electrodes are relatively wind resistant, forgiving of dirty or rusty metals. They are generally the least expensive, and the easiest type to learn, making stick welders the best place for most DIY’ers to start.

Most stick welding machines use AC or AC/DC current. They work on the basic principle of completing an electrical circuit. As the electrode or welding rod is brought toward the electrified metal being welded, electricity leaps between the two materials in an arc, produces heat and melts the electrode material in place.

For most camp and farm projects, a unit that runs to 225-volt AC is enough. Amperage—how much juice is going to the rod and making the weld—is adjusted with a dial on the machine and can be set according to the job, the electrode, the metal and the atmospheric conditions. AC power is easy to produce, but most welding shops prefer DC, as it provides a steady flow of electrons in one direction (as opposed to AC’s back-and-forth nature), which can make for a better finished product.

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All stick welders have the same basic parts:

Leads: insulated conductor cables that send the electricity to the material being welded.

Rod Holder/Stinger: This piece holds the electrode or welding rod that melts under the arc of electricity, making the weld.

Ground Clamp: The lead that grounds the connection between welder and metal being welded, completing the circuit.

Welding Electrodes: These are wire rods of various diameters, metals and alloys covered in a flux coating. Flux burns off as the rod melts, consuming oxygen and producing carbon dioxide, which prevents the base metal from oxidizing or burning up in the process.

Electrodes come in dozens of sizes and types, each for a specific job at hand. The 6010, 6011 and 6013 are common electrodes for welding steel. The first two numbers (60) identify tensile strength in pounds per square inch times 1,000, or 60,000 psi in these examples. The third number (1) indicates the position in which the rod can be used. A “1” indicates any position—flat, vertical, horizontal or overhead—and “2” indicates only the flat, horizontal position. The last two numbers together (“13” in 6013) indicate the type of flux, which will affect the amount of slag or corrosion that builds up around the weld, as well as the liquidity of the bead or puddle.

Anything involving high voltages of electricity and molten metals can be dangerous, but with the proper pre-

cautions welding is actually quite safe. Always wear a welding helmet with a dark filter lens. Number 10 is the industry standard. Cover up with a leather apron and heavy gloves, as sparks will fly.

Make sure the work area is properly vented, so gases released in the welding process don’t end up in your lungs. If the area is poorly ventilated, get a welding respirator. Also make sure no flammable materials are nearby—gas cans, oily rags and so on.

Your First Weld

It’s best to practice welds before jumping right into a project. Done poorly, it’s easy to make a mess of your base metal. This how-to will walk you through welding two pieces of metal together using a T-shaped joint.

Step 1: Prep Work: While it’s possible to weld some material right through rust, corrosion, dirt and oil, it’s always better to clean your materials. Weld prep starts by wiping the surface clean with a dry, oil-free rag, then grinding the sides to be welded. This allows for better penetration. At the least, take off any paint or rust. Next, secure your two pieces of metal in place with clamps.

Step 2: Make A Connection: Connect your leads and ground to the metal you’re welding. If the metal is especially old, painted or rusted, grind or sand the connection areas for good conductivity. Depending on the electrodes being used, set the amperage. A recommended range will be printed right on the box of electrodes. If you’re not sure where to start, split the difference. So if the electrode calls for 75 to 125 DC, set the welder to 100.

Step 3: Strike An Arc: The direction of travel is very important. If you’re right-handed, moving right to left will keep the weld pool visible. Get in a comfortable position and put the electrode tip close to your starting point. Drop your hood and “strike an arc” by tapping the tip against the metal—completing the electrical circuit—and drag it backwards quickly, like you’re lighting a match against a fireplace. When the arc fires up, pull it back to the proper arc distance. A good rule of thumb: Arc distance should be equal to the diameter of the electrode, so if you’re using 0.25-inch 6013, the tip should be 0.25 inches off the metal being welded.

Step 4: Find Your Angle: As you drag or backhand the arc down the base metal, you have to make sure to maintain your arc distance. The electrode is being consumed as you go, so you have to move in while the rod gets smaller, all the while maintaining your consistent, say 0.25 inches, distance. You also need to keep a consistent angle. In most cases, 90 degrees (perpendicular) to 45 degrees works. But try to split the difference by holding a steady 60 degrees. This can, and should, change depending on your body position. Stay comfortable.

Step 5: Speed Of Travel: Amperage and speed determine how much weld will pool up. The faster you move, the less hot the base metal, the less electrode material is laid down and the less overall penetration you’ll get. But go too slow and you can burn up the area, making an equally weak weld. Experiment on your practice metals to find the happy medium with your setup.

If you find a comfortable speed but it doesn’t seem to look right, adjust your amperage accordingly. As you are welding, don’t watch the bright light. Instead, look past it and focus on the molten puddle of metal behind the rod.

Step 6: Thickness & Undercut: A weld can be thickened by building up a bead with a circular or zigzag motion, easing the puddle around. Watch the outside edges of the puddle to make sure it’s filling the base metal. If it’s too thick, or there’s not enough heat in the base metal, gaps called undercut can develop between the base metal and weld.

Step 7: Follow The Line: Considering your distance, angle, speed and thickness, work down your weld line. Most electrodes will burn up in about one minute. If you get stuck and have to stop, or are welding a long line and need more than one electrode, chip the slag—the black “crust” over the metallic weld created by the flux—strike an arc and keep going. Never start a weld over existing slag.

Step 8: Clean The Weld: If you’re painting the weld, want to grind it flat or just want a better look, clean off the slag with a wire brush. On your practice welds it’s worth doing, as you can inspect the uniformity of your beads—the tighter the better, and a sure sign of a welding job well done.

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.