As a boy, I admired my Uncle Danni’s ability to weld. Something about permanently bonding two pieces of metal together intrigued me: the crackle and blue intensity of the electric arc that he forbade me to look at. It was the late 1970s during what was then called “the fuel crisis,” and my uncle was designing and building wood furnaces to heat the homes in the Bruderhof community in upstate New York where he lived. He was a self-taught master, adept at fabricating his own hinges and camlock latches. Watching him, I knew I wanted to weld.
In my high school sophomore year, I signed up for a vocational welding course. My instructor had years of experience in the Steel City industries, along with chilling tales of the dangers of metal-working. We learned all the types of welding and we practiced in all positions. A welder has to conquer gravity to make liquefied steel stay exactly where he wants it – there lies the challenge. When I mastered a specific joint and earned my teacher’s approval of technique and form, I felt proud. A weld is your very own signature. When Keats wrote that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” he wasn’t thinking of a perfect weld, but he could have been.
The next summer my uncle invited me to New York and together we fabricated and welded a large wood boiler. I had become a welder and he trusted me. In his gentle way he was teaching me so much more: about work ethic, manhood, and life. Now I was not just welding plates for practice. Every joint I welded on a water jacket or heat-exchanger pipe had to survive pressure testing. Uncle Danni was testing my mettle and I loved the challenge.
After high school, I took a year of machining technology at a community college north of Pittsburgh. Eventually, I became a Bruderhof member and started working in the community’s Rifton Equipment business, which manufactures therapeutic equipment for people with disabilities. I became a welding instructor in the company. Even after I moved on to other jobs, married, and raised a family of four, I kept using my welding skills to create and fabricate and as a hobby.
Two years ago I came full circle: I’m teaching the new vocational welding program at the Bruderhof’s high school, the Mount Academy, in Esopus, New York. A hundred-year-old red brick garage was renovated into a beautiful welding facility.
Now it’s my chance to pass on my trade. Every student that enters the course comes with mixed abilities but eager to master this skill I had learned long ago. The most beautiful precision welds are those made by creating an arc with a tungsten electrode and then precisely dabbing a filler rod to create your weld. These TIG welds, mostly made on aluminum or stainless steel, are the kind of precise and uniformly rippled welds you’ll find on a well-made mountain bike. They have a distinctive sheen. When students get feed and speed just right, they can hardly wait to lift their helmets to see their art.
This past semester five of our Welding 2 students competed at the New York State Skills USA Competition. One student did a stunning sculpture of a mythological creature, art being another creative use for welding skills. One student placed high in the individual competition and our three-student team took the Bronze by welding a hexagonal fire pit.
Before they graduate, each student creates a welded name plate which is placed high on our shop’s Wall of Fame. They have worked hard to acquire a skill that they will never lose. They take with them, too, the lessons I learned from my Uncle Danni, who died last year: self-discipline, pride in hard work, the dignity of a skilled trade, and a keen appreciation for a beautiful bead.