The sound of steel

October 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have recently started to indulge a life-long ambition. I have signed up to a sculptural metalwork course and spend my Saturday mornings welding, brazing and working on the anvil. A couple of years ago I had a taster session in a friend’s garden so I had an inkling of what to expect. I knew I would struggle with protective gloves which by their very nature limit dexterity. Also, working in near darkness would be a challenge. However, I was not expecting the full impact on my other senses, and the ear in particular.

Both MIG and arc welding involve numerous safety measures due to the UV rays. Full overalls hide every square inch of skins and protective helmets with dark visors turn normal adults in spacemen lookalikes. As a result you weld in complete darkness other than an inch square block of dim light around the point of impact. As you are barely able to see what you are doing, the other senses kick in to guide the hand.

Smell plays a major role. Molten steel has a particular smell but the degree will vary depending on how much of the metal is subject to heat intense enough to bond two pieces of steel. More significantly, in the darkness of the welding mask, the ears take over. A spitting sound – like angry bacon – is a good indication that the welding gun is too far from the metal. If you hear a muted swimming sound you are probably close enough to the metals but moving to fast. However, a smooth rhythmic hum is a sure sign of travelling close and slow enough along the metals to achieve a strong clean join.

It was a revelation to discover what a major role sound plays in MIG and arc welding and I am delighted it does. After years of admiring steel structures and sculptures from afar, the inspiration that galvanised me into action was music. Every time I hear Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, Nielsen’s Inextinguishable Symphony or Taverner’s The Protecting Veil, the music lifts the spirit and inspires three-dimensional tactile images in my mind that tug at me to give them form. In light of this inspiration, the circularity of sound as a muse and a by-product of the process is strangely satisfying.

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