Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
  No fear of failure
One thing I love about this town, is that people here aren't about to let common sense get in the way of trying something.

Say for instance, that you moved here from California, and discovered that a truck would be much handier than that little four door car you used to drive to the frozen yogurt stand in. But its a subaru, and those are actually pretty good cars for getting around in the snow, and besides you can't really afford a new 4wd truck anyways. So what do you do?

Well, this person took out their saw and cut the roof off their car, then made up a rather clever back window for the front seat. A little rough around the edges, and I don't know how it does in the rain, but quite a bold step if you ask me.

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  What's on my kids' minds.
Give them a camera and see what they take a picture of ...

Apparently they're thinking about their socks.

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  A semester of discovery
Finished off my second semester of teaching, which was a big step up from my previous semester of only one class. Last spring I just had basic metals. This time around I did "Basic Metal Fabrication and Machining", "Thin Gauge Welding" and a workshop on sand casting.

The idea for the casting workshop was to get people into the metal shop that wouldn't have time for a full semester course, or who didn't know what facilities are available here. A friday night and an afternoon on Saturday is a much easier commitment. In fact we had four people in the class that had never taken any CCC class before. Even more amazing was that people found this class just by reading through the entire course catalog. Just imagine what would happen if someone advertised or put up posters somewhere, we'd be overwhelmed.

Friday night was boring lecture night. I went on and on about primitive people thousands of years ago putting shinny rocks near the fire and then having them melt into puddles, taking on the shapes in the sand/dirt. From there it was just a matter of making more interesting shapes in the sand, and figuring out more convenient ways to get the metal hot enough to melt. After about half the class is asleep, we move out into the shop where I connect with the visual based students by doing a demo. I pick one of the random shapes on the wall, pack sand around it, cut some gates from the shape to the pouring & air tunnels (call the sprue & risers), take the pattern out (don't want to leave that in there), put everything back together and then pour some metal in it.

Then comes the most important part.

I could do everything in a single day, but then we'd be stuck pouring more copies of the boring patterns we have in the shop. Its not that everyone doesn't need another metal picture frame, its just that most people can find something around their house that would be fun to cast in metal. So now I've lectured, I've demonstrated, and they all have an idea of how its done. Now I send them home for the night and tell them to bring in stuff of their own to pour.

The next day is easy. I really don't do anything. Of course ten people can't pack up sand projects all at once. Even with the new sand counter we built out, we're hard pressed to have five projects going at once. So I told people to pair up, and had the extras melting down cans so we had metal to pour. If you're going to do backyard metalcasting, better get used to skimming all the slag you get melting cans. Everyone did at least one aluminum project, a couple did two or more. Just about everyone melted scrap, and poured projects (which takes up to three people). By then we had done some pretty interesting things, including this casting of a plastic replica of a mayan calendar. In this first attempt the edges didn't come out because they were too thin, so the next go round we backed it up with a piece of cardboard and it came out quite well.

After lunch we switched to brass, and poured a bunch more projects, though everyone didn't get to do something because we ran out of brass. We did get a great replica of a dodge truck ram hood ornament (the brass version actually looks cooler than the chrome), and we did the calendar in brass as well which looked great. Everyone was totally thrilled with the results and several were considering taking the full class the following semester.

Thin Gauge Welding

My thin gauge welding class was a success by most measures as well. Sure we only started the semester with three students, and even after yelling and screaming and threatening the other classes I still didn't have a full class but that's ok. Yes, they docked my pay, but really, the $400 I get per month to teach a couple nights a week isn't a real budgetary make-or-break issue. What's important is that we did TIG welding for many weeks, used bottles and bottles of Argon gas, and a few students actually could turn out a good weld on thin metal.

One guy was just going to form up a box for a cover over his gas powered RC truck, but I made some suggestions, and pretty soon he had a mean looking metal body, complete with bumper and roll bar. Most excellent. Other guys welded up square tubing trays, pans and boxes, motorcycle ramps, abstract sculpture, and a couple even helped me with my project to weld together a couple of toolboxes for Christmas gifts. And unlike the other classes chewing up $40-60 a night in steel plate for welding coupons, these guys were just using 22 gauge sheetmetal scrap we have tons of (which helped me justify spending $800 on TIG parts).

Even better, we also got to do a bunch of experimentation. Besides making them spend more time with the gas torch filling large gaps, and patching holes; they also did some different joins with large gaps. One funny thing was that welding a T joint with a quarter inch gap is actually easier than welding one when they fit up. You can point the flame right under the vertical piece and weld a bead from the middle of the bottom piece to the edge of the top. Its like being able to reach both sides of the metal and weld it up. Doesn't take that much more filler either, as you're drawing it up right underneath instead of trying to push a puddle into a corner.

We spent a little time with wirefeed welders as well. Normally wirefeed welding on thin gauge is a source of constant burn through as I can attest to from prior experience, but I decided to try an experiment based on something you learn TIG welding. In TIG welding, when you're welding DC, its important to get the polarity right, as the negative side gets less heat than the positive side. Think of those electrons jumping from minus to plus and smacking the plus side with their kinetic energy. When the TIG torch is hooked up right the steel melts and the tungsten manages with its share of the heat. When its hooked up wrong, the steel just gets red and the tungsten is vaporized. One spec sheet lists the distribution in heat as 30/70. So I wondered if you hooked up MIG backwards, would you drastically reduce penetration?

To get as much leeway as I could, I bought some superfine 0.023 wire, and put it on the portable 110V machine with C25 gas. One of the curious things about this combination is that the wire is so small, that you can get spray arc transfer going with that low power machine. But we weren't here to sprayarc. With this setup, the specs for the machine said it was just within the realm of the possibility to weld 22 gauge with the power set to 1 (lowest) and feeder speed set to 30. However, flip the polarity around and its a whole different ballgame. At power setting 1 (of 4), I don't think the weld was even stuck the metal that much. Looked like a caterpillar. Turned it up to 2, still not much penetration. Turned it up to 3. Now things were looking better, but even lingering around didn't burn through. Turned it up to 4 and got it laying in pretty seriously and after hanging around in one spot long enough, I finally got it to burn through.

Well, if it takes that kind of power on 22 gauge, maybe it can handle something even thinner. Turns out we had some other scrap in the back that seemed to be pretty flimsy. My little dollar thickness gauge only goes down to 28, and this stuff was thinner than that. MIG weld it? Impossible most people would tell you, but my students didn't know any better, so they had at it. Now I'm not saying it was easy to weld—heck, 30 gauge is almost impossible to TIG weld—but they laid the torch way down, let the wire stick far out, and managed to lay some lines on that thing that didn't melt through. Even did a few lap joints. The most important thing there is not that they might try to weld 30 gauge again, but that it makes going back to 24 or 22 gauge seem like a walk in the park, cause you have the skills to lighten up if things get a little hot.

The second big experiment was being planned when it happened by accident. With wirefeed welding you have a variety of shielding options, from none (self shielding flux core), to expensive (argon + co2 mix). While C25 is a fun gas to weld with, I don't bother at home, I have the cheap CO2 tank which is just fine. TIG welding on the other hand is always done with straight argon, which has the double downside of being more expensive, and not very dense (argon is just a pressurized gas in the cylinder while CO2, like propane, is actually a liquid under a certain amount of pressure). So wouldn't it be great if you could TIG weld with CO2.

My first concern was the behavior of tungsten in the presence of CO2, but it turns out that CO with enough heat can be used to turn tungsten oxides into tungsten, so the pure tungsten should be ok. The second was how the metal would behave. The answer turns out to be that it does ok.

We came into the lab one night, and started TIG welding and things were looking a little strange. The arc was the wrong color (more yellow), and was behaving a little different with steel; but not enough that I would dig deeper. It was the one guy who was trying TIG weld aluminum that brought the problem to light. Unlike tungsten and other common metals, aluminum is one of those metals that will rip any oxygen around it off whatever it happens to be attached to and grab it for itself. (Another metal like this is Magnesium, which happens to burn just fine when surrounded by dry ice.) So while our steel welding was going ok, the poor aluminum welder was ending up with massive holes in his metal and little flecks of black.

With a trip to the gas closet, we realized that the high school students had hooked up a bottle of C25 (argon & carbon dioxide) to the TIG feed line, which is supposed to be pure argon, and so the aluminum was reacting with the CO2, generating additional oxide (which is smacked out of the way in AC TIG welding), and leaving a residue of pure carbon. We switched the bottle to pure argon so the aluminum welder could go back to welding properly, but have made plans to dedicate a couple of DC TIG stations to CO2 only (to save money for the shop as all that argon gets expensive).

Now if I had a real project, where the quality of the weld mattered, I'd still use Argon, as I have no idea how good a weld this shielding is making; but for the most part in the classroom we're just welding thin squares together or making some sheetmetal art, so we'll keep experimenting with CO2 and keep our costs down somewhat.

Basic metalworking and Machining

This was the third time for me teaching this class, and things didn't go as well as I hoped. I had hoped to focus more on the machining aspect of the lab, only to find out that three of our lathes were hopelessly damaged, leaving only one working machine. Worse, was having several students sign up with more machining experience and knowledge than myself, wondering what I was going to teach them. Definitely a little uncomfortable.

The final nail was the non-working CNC plasma machine. While I won the auction for a hypertherm Max 200 last August, the machine didn't ship until October, then it sat down in Phoenix for several weeks getting checked out, and finally arrived at the shop right around Halloween. At least the power supply arrived. There was no torch head or leads. Yet another call to the seller and I got some weak sounding explanation about the torch head being tied on in the back, but no such luck. Price for replacements? About $600 for the torch and another $500 for leads. Well, as much as I like to think of myself as a man with no financial bounds, the $4,000 for the power supply had already put a pretty good strain on my resources; and November is a killer month for finances, as the property taxes, homeowners insurance and the bill for the winter propane all hit at exactly this time. So no plasma torch this semester.

I have high hopes for next semester though. I'd better get the darn plasma machine working, cause I've scheduled a weekend workshop just in Plasma arts & parts.

  Wouldnt it be nice
So I love my big display. (In fact I love it so much I bought another one, though its supposed to be for work, but they haven't made up their minds about that).

My display is currently hooked to a PC, but a lot of people at the office use Macs, so I recently bought a Mac to test some stuff that doesn't work quite the same. I didn't want a big box, or an expensive laptop, so I bought an old used mini.

I just wish they worked together. The mini is sitting hooked up to an old Dell LCD display turned sideways. The stand didn't turn sidewasy, so the display is just proped up against the wall on its side. Looks pretty kludged. Here's hoping that some day a Mac Mini can drive an Apple Cinema 30.

  Burning away
Got into the wood burning rhythm so didn't need pellets going day and night last month. Now its winter for real, so some times with the wood stove going all out and the pellets burning at maximum its still cold. Bags of fuel dissapearing like mad as well.

MonthThis year  Last year  
day and night


Well at least the christmas tree hasn't died yet. Oh wait, its a fake. Nevermind.

  What's that?

Nasa's latest concept vehicles for going to mars? Alien invaders spotted outside the rings of saturn by amateur astronomers?

Komatsu plasma torches.
Somebody in design must have grown up a SciFi nut.

Kudos to American Torch Tip for the sketches. I guess that 40A head isn't going to work with my MAX200.

Life in the middle of nowhere, remote programming to try and support it, startups, children, and some tinkering when I get a chance.

January 2004 / February 2004 / March 2004 / April 2004 / May 2004 / June 2004 / July 2004 / August 2004 / September 2004 / October 2004 / November 2004 / December 2004 / January 2005 / February 2005 / March 2005 / April 2005 / May 2005 / June 2005 / July 2005 / August 2005 / September 2005 / October 2005 / November 2005 / December 2005 / January 2006 / February 2006 / March 2006 / April 2006 / May 2006 / June 2006 / July 2006 / August 2006 / September 2006 / October 2006 / November 2006 / December 2006 / January 2007 / February 2007 / March 2007 / April 2007 / June 2007 / July 2007 / August 2007 / September 2007 / October 2007 / November 2007 / December 2007 / January 2008 / May 2008 / June 2008 / August 2008 / February 2009 / August 2009 / February 2010 / February 2011 / March 2011 / October 2011 / March 2012 / July 2013 / August 2013 / September 2013 / October 2013 / November 2013 / December 2013 / December 2014 / February 2015 / March 2015 / July 2016 / September 2016 / December 2016 / April 2017 / June 2017 / July 2018 / November 2018 / January 2019 / February 2019 / April 2019 / December 2019 / March 2020 / April 2020 / May 2020 /

Paul Graham's Essays
You may not want to write in Lisp, but his advise on software, life and business is always worth listening to.
How to save the world
Dave Pollard working on changing the world .. one partially baked idea at a time.
Eric Snowdeal IV - born 15 weeks too soon, now living a normal baby life.
Land and Hold Short
The life of a pilot.

The best of?
Jan '04
The second best villain of all times.

Feb '04
Oops I dropped by satellite.
New Jets create excitement in the air.
The audience is not listening.

Mar '04
Neat chemicals you don't want to mess with.
The Lack of Practise Effect

Apr '04
Scramjets take to the air
Doing dangerous things in the fire.
The Real Way to get a job

May '04
Checking out cool tools (with the kids)
A master geek (Ink Tank flashback)
How to play with your kids

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