Death in Furnace

All Good Things Come to an End.

I’ve been busy in the kiln factory during the week in-between our open studio weekends and then every day since. I have a big electric kiln ordered and although I have done a lot of prep on it, I was away in Korea for a while and then doing several weekend woodfiring workshops as soon as I got back, so now I have to start welding all the accumulated parts together.

I take a bit of pride in making all the parts here on site. I make all my own small fittings including door locks, handles and hinges, all made out of basic metal stock sections. Some of these parts need to be turned down on the lathe and machined to a pressed fit. This is an electric kiln, so it is all made out of aluminium, marine aluminium. This is because marine aluminium offers the best resistance to corrosion. Just the sort of chemical attack that electric kilns get from the fumes released during firing. I’ve been developing these designs for forty years, slowly improving them as I learn more from my experiences.
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Aluminium is best welded using a technique called TIG. TIG welding is a type of welding that is ideally suited to welding aluminium. In fact, you can weld almost any metal with a TIG welder. ‘TIG’ stands for Tungsten Inert Gas. It uses a very high temperature tungsten electrode to pass the current into the metal. This electrode is not consumed in the process, as it is in all other types of welding. This is different. The electrode is very thin and pointed, so that the electrical current can be focussed onto a very small specific area of the job at hand. This part of the job gets very hot and starts to melt. A thin filler rod is then pushed into the weld pool of molten metal with the other hand, a droplet of molten metal melts off the end of the filler rod and merges into the surface, filling the crevice between the two pieces of metal that are to be joined. This is repeated over and over to build up a small mound in that exact spot. The electrode is them moved a very small distance, a few millimetres, and the sequence is repeated. The finished weld looks like a series of droplets, all overlapping and lined up all in a row. It’s a very beautiful, but slow and precise way to weld. Aluminium is notoriously hard to weld with any other method.
TIG maybe slow, but the welds a really nice. I wouldn’t win any prizes for my welding. I don’t do enough of it to get really good at it. After-all, I am a potter. But I make sure to weld both sides of the joint to make sure that I have 100% perfect penetration. So far, I’ve never had a crack in any of my welds in the past 30 years.
The thing that I find amazing about metal work is that all the left-over off-cuts can be re-welded back together to make new long lengths of material and these are stronger than the original section. It really appeals to my sense of purpose in living a frugal life, as well a supporting my philosophy of re-cycling and throwing nothing away until it really is worn out or useless.
If you cut a piece of wood by mistake, that is too short, then you have two short pieces of wood that don’t fit any where. You have to wait for an opportunity to use them somewhere else as two short pieces. However with metal, you just weld them back together – and they are longer and stronger!
I also find the act of joining very symbolic and reassuring. In an age of dislocation and separation, revolt and conflict, civil war and displacement. This act of imagining things in a different way, choosing the path of joining and strengthening, reusing and conserving, creating things out of what other people might consider waste. These are immensely important and powerful acts. To see this potential, then to act on it. It builds instead of destroying, it re-purposes instead of just endlessly consuming.  It creates instead of wasting. This is the world that I want to live in, so I’m building my own world, in my own way. One weld at a time. One pot at a time. One garden bed at a time. One thought at a time.
Aluminium is a little bit tricky to weld. It’s slow work, as aluminium moves a lot with heat. You have to pre-heat it and be carefull to stop it warping out of shape. I put a bit of effort into it, to get good penetration, yet not too hot, so as to prevent warping. Working with aluminium involves a lot of setting-up, clamping and tacking, then some time-out, to allow the frame to cool down again before laying down more welds.
The cooling time allows me a short time in the garden for some quick weeding or watering. On the way back to the kiln shed, I feed any snails that I have collected to the chooks. They are omnivores and eat snails as well as green grass. The first thing that they do in the morning when I open the hen house door, is to rush out and start to eat green leaves of grass. But when one of them finds a snail hidden, in down next to a stone, or fence post. It’s off and running with the bounty. They all fight over it until one of them wins the prize it’s a highlight of their day.
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Meanwhile, back in the kiln shed, I discover to my horror that during the process of welding this kiln, my beautiful old welding power source is starting to loose its brains. Bit by bit, some of its capacities start to disappear.  It looses its ‘down-slope’ and ‘crater-fill’  functions first. I’m not mentally prepared to loose this old friend so suddenly. We’ve been working together for the past 20 years and I’m very fond of it. I know its character and how it likes to do things the best. To get the best result.
It was the absolute in cutting edge technology in its day, all solid state, power-tranistor based, AC/DC, inverter, pulse, TIG. I know that this last sentence will sound like a foreign language to most people – and it is. It’s techno-speak for welders. Just think of it as a description where every added word and each comma, costs an extra thousand dollars! This machine cost me as much as my car did back then. Effing expensive. But the car is long gone. I still have the welding plant.
As it slowly looses its functions, hour by hour, I’m left in the afternoon with something that isn’t what it used to be. It only just functions at a very basic level. Solid state alzheimers. I’m reminded of 2001, A Space Odesy, when Dave slowly unscrews HAL’s circuit boards, until it can only sing ‘Daisy, Daisy’.
My welder is reduced to this incontinent, dribbling, unrecognisable state of simplicity by the afternoon. So this is how old welders end up! I can only think of this being me in a few more years. I nurse it along as best I can. There is nothing in the instruction book of welders, or life, to help me out here. Just patience and gentle care, and I do care! I do what I can, but there isn’t really anything to be done. I take it easy on the poor old thing, resting it between welds, but the end comes.
Finally the light goes out.
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I am very sad to see it go. No more Join of Arc! Twenty years on, the new models do not create any better welds than this machine. They just come with a few extra bells and solid-state whistles. Thankfully these new ones are now only a fraction of the cost.
The new machines aren’t the same. They’re small, fast and noisy.
We’ll have to spend a bit of time together to work things out and get used to each other.
Best wishes