Getting started with motorcycle welding, Part II

Working on your motorcycle: How to weld safely
Whether you’re customizing a bike or building your own work stand, welding is a great skill to have. In Part One of this guide, we covered some theory, and looked at the various welding processes and machines you might want to consider.

This week, we’re diving right in with the basics of how to get started. And first up is safety: welding is an activity that carries specific risks, so read carefully before you get started.

Welding safety gear by Lincoln Electric
Protective clothing Melting metal generates a lot of heat. When you’re arc or MIG welding, sparks and slag will be flying all around you—so the first step is to protect yourself from burns with appropriate clothing. Cover up from head to toe in natural fibers like wool or cotton, as synthetics melt when exposed to high temperatures, and will leave a nasty burn on your skin.

Even when fully covered, sparks have a mind of their own, so watch out for folded cuffs or pockets that might catch them. When the first spark goes over your head and down the back of your shirt, you’ll know what I mean! Leather boots are a good idea—flying particles always end up on the ground, and your feet will appreciate the protection.

Matt MacLeod's welding overalls and gloves
Gloves When arc or MIG welding, you’ll also need heavy, flame-resistant gloves to withstand the heat of the arc and the heat transferred to the work piece. TIG and oxy-acetylene welding require more dexterity, so thinner gloves are used. Welded metal can get seriously hot—when it’s red or orange, it’s pretty easy to recognize the temperature, but it can still burn even when the glow has faded.

Eye protection An electric arc generates radiation, so you need to protect your skin and eyes. Clothing will protect your skin from welding sunburn, but your eyes need special protection.

How to build a motorcycle: The complete series
You can only watch the arc through a tinted shade, so you need a plastic welding helmet. The helmet will protect your face from burns, while the tinted shade will protect your eyes. Cheaper models have a flip-down, fixed shade, that you can’t see anything through in normal lighting conditions. When preparing to weld, you flip the shade out of the way to get yourself into position, then flip it down once you’re ready.

Higher priced models have the ability to electronically change the tint in the shade, and automatically darken when their sensors detect an arc starting. I have this style, and it’s especially useful for TIG welding while both your hands are busy with equipment. They’re a worthwhile investment if you get serious with your welding.

Matt MacLeod's welding helmets
Maintenance To prevent injuring yourself, you need to keep your equipment in safe working order. Check the manual supplied with your welding machine, or locate an inspection checklist for your particular machine online.

At the very least, start here:

1. Do you fully understand how to operate your welding machine? Download the operation manual if you haven’t got one handy.
2. Are all the connections tight?
3. Are all the cables in good condition, including the main power supply cable?

Housekeeping In addition to equipment maintenance, you need to consider the environment where you are welding.

1. Have you cleared away any flammable materials?
2. Are any bystanders likely to suffer injury from sparks or radiation?
3. Is you mains power supply rated to supply the current needed for the welding machine?

Gas bottles for welding

Gas cylinders

1. Have you checked that the fittings are tight?
2. Are the cylinders secured in the upright position?
3. Are they clear of flames and sparks from welding?
4. Is there any obvious damage to the cylinders?

Electric and magnetic fields Electricity flowing through a cable generates a magnetic field around the cable. If you have a pacemaker fitted you should check with a doctor before taking up welding.

Electric shock Electric shock is a very serious risk when welding. The current flowing during welding is certainly enough to stop your heart if electricity flows through your body, rather than back through the grounding cable.

The primary shock hazard is related to the mains power supply to your welding machine (110V or higher). While good quality machines will have safety features to prevent shock, don’t take the cover off your machine while it is connected to the mains supply. If you have a problem with the machine, consult a qualified person for assistance.

Welding electrode safety
The secondary shock hazard is related to the electrode circuit. The electrode tip might be at 20-100 volts, and your work piece will be at zero volts (since it is connected via the grounding cable to the welding machine). If your body completes the circuit between the electrode and the work piece, you’ll receive a shock—so you need to develop safe working habits to ‘insulate’ yourself.

Treat the electrode as live at all times, and always reach for the electrode holder, not the electrode itself. Wear dry gloves to separate your skin from the electrode, and long sleeves to insulate you from the work table, if you happen to lean against it.

Water conducts electricity, so keep yourself and your clothes dry, even if it means wearing rubber-soled boots if the ground is wet. Sweat is also a conductor, so hot weather is a risk too.

Modern welding machines often contain a voltage reduction device, which reduces the electrode voltage to less than 5 volts. This is an added safety feature that may be missing on an older machine, so treat all electrodes as ‘live’ and act accordingly.

Sparks from welding
Fire hazards Flying sparks, slag and molten metal can travel quite a distance from your welding activities. Before welding, stop and have a look around for anything flammable, such as paper and cardboard, fabric, paint, and gasoline. If you weld on a painted surface, the heat will likely ignite the paint.

Using water to extinguish a fire near electrical equipment is not a good idea. Keep a dry-powder fire extinguisher handy.

Fumes Both the welding process and the metals being welded can generate fumes. Flux from arc welding electrodes forms a gas shield, and the molten metal workpiece may be releasing compounds—these form a ‘fume plume.’ Ideally, you don’t want to be inhaling it.

Ensure there is sufficient airflow in your welding area to move the fumes away from you. Sometimes being in a large space is sufficient; other times, you might need a fan to blow the fumes away. Industrial workplaces will have extraction fans to suck up the fumes (below), but this is unlikely in a small shop. So use common sense, and at the very least open a door to ventilate the space.

Lincoln Electric fume extractor
Learning to weld If you can, attend a community college to learn welding. This is what I did—I took one year of weekly night classes to learn how to TIG weld. I highly recommend this route—you’ll get structured lessons and exercises, plus, most importantly, immediate feedback and the fastest possible improvement in your skills.

Failing that, you’ll have to resort to YouTube and the big welding suppliers for information to get started. Learning welding is way outside the scope of this article, but here are a few things to consider:

1. Collect or purchase some metal for practice. While it is possible to recycle steel from other sources, it needs to be paint, dirt, rust and oil free if you are to have any success when learning. Visit a scrapyard or a local fab shop and see if you can purchase some offcuts of new, clean metal.
2. My favorite on-line resource is Welding Tips and Tricks, and the associated YouTube channel.
3. Another great source of information for newbies is MIG welding—the DIY guide.
4. You all know how to use Google, so go and do some more research.

Test your skills by welding beads
The basics A typical first beginner exercise is running weld beads on a piece of scrap metal. The idea is to practice the motion, and develop the fundamental hand-eye co-ordination needed. Just repeat this over, and over again, until you can start and stop the weld wherever you want, and it doesn’t look like molten vomit.

Once you can cover plates with tidy weld beads, then you can start practicing the basic joints:

1. Butt joints—want to weld some tubing together to form an exhaust system? You’ll need to master butt joints.
2. Corner joints—building your welding bench or shop equipment will involve some corner joints.
3. Tee joints—need to add a tank mounting bracket to your frame? Practice your tee joints.
4. Lap joints—perhaps not that common on motorcycles, but always used as a training exercise.

There are many others, but just start slowly and practice, practice, practice, before you point the torch at your project bike.

Weld finishing If you’re installing a frame hoop, you’ll probably want to sand the welds to make the joint invisible. You can do this with files, or with an angle grinder. Be careful with power tools though—if you sand a flat spot into a round tube it’s very obvious when painted.

A properly welded corner joint
Weld quality The general theory is to create an assembly of welded parts that are as strong as a single piece would be. In practice, this doesn’t happen. The immense heat from either a flame or an electric arc affects the microscopic structure of the metal in the ‘heat affected zone’ of the weld. In a production environment, many samples are welded and tested before production ever starts to ensure a high quality weld, every time. We don’t have this luxury on our project motorcycles, so we have to develop the confidence that our welds will be sound.

A bigger problem with our custom bike modifications is simply the quality of the weld itself. To fuse two (or more) pieces of metal together, the welding machine needs to be configured to deliver enough heat. If there isn’t enough heat, then the weld will not ‘penetrate’ into the parent materials enough, and the welded joint will be weak.

The novice welder won’t know what a good weld looks like compared to a bad weld (which is another good reason to get some formal training). If you are unsure about your ability to weld on a motorcycle frame or other structural part, have a qualified welder provide some instruction, or simply hand the job over to them. You could be risking your own life, and those around you, on a motorcycle with poor quality welds.

Learning to judge the quality of a weld
Practice It’s not overly difficult to learn the skills to run weld beads, regardless of the welding process you choose. It is more difficult to get an important weld right the first time. The real skill I appreciate in professional welders is the ability to look at a job, determine how to do it (in their head), configure their machine and equipment, then execute the weld perfectly.

When you’re learning, you have to practice enough to be able to look at your job, and visualize the welding method you will apply. My only suggestion is to weld…a lot. Make all your shop equipment, or help your friends with welding projects. Every new project you tackle will teach you new skills. Even if you mess up a project, you’ll learn something, so don’t give up.

Basic projects Almost always, you can purchase any of the following items for cheaper than you can make them. But that’s not the point, is it? It’s much more fun making it yourself, to your own design and specifications. Google ‘welding projects’ and see what images come up, or run a similar search on Pinterest for some inspiration. Or take a crack at these…

1. Purchase some brand new tubing—square or rectangular. Design and build a work bench.
2. Build a rack to store your lengths of steel.
3. Weld a piece of heavy tubing to an old steel car rim, then mount a vice on top. Now you have a portable workstation.
4. Design and build a cart to store your welding machine. Fix some castors underneath so you can move it around your shop.
5. While you’re welding at your new bench, you’ll need to sit if you are running long TIG beads. Build a stool to sit on.

There is tons to learn about welding, but if you are curious, patient and have some co-ordination, you’ll be successful.

Haynes welding manual I can’t remember where or why I bought this book, but it is extremely well written, explains all of the welding techniques described in this article, and I referred to it constantly while I was teaching myself to arc weld. Again, if you can go to a school to learn how to weld, don’t buy this book. Otherwise, check it out—it’s available from Amazon.

Essential reading: the Haynes Welding Manual

Resources Welding Tips and Tricks | MIG Welding—DIY Guide | Lincoln Electric—Welding Safety | Miller—Welding Safety

Download Matt’s free 40-page field welding guide here.