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Heavy Metal Thunder (and Lightning)

Published in blog.hemmings.com

What looks like an R2-D2 pulled up from a saltwater sea, weighs as much as the Death Star, and has enough firepower to — literally — fuse together two Tie-Fighter’s?

No, it’s not something from the Star Wars universe. It’s Grandma’s arc welder.

Really it was my grandfather-in-law’s arc welder, and somehow in the decade or so since Grandpa passed, I never noticed it tucked away in their nearly empty barn. Then recently, I don’t even remember how it came up in conversation, Grandma asked me if I wanted it. “It’s bolted to the floor in the garage.”

She wasn’t sure what kind it was — honestly, I was hoping it was an oxyacetylene rig because that’s what I want to get good at — but she said, “As long as I’ve known Reg, he had that welder. He used it all the time. Once, he welded up the tracks on his bulldozer with it. It took him two days.”

Reg was the archetypal self-made man. He grew up working hard on the family farm and quit school to work even harder. He got good at odd jobs, the kind that took know-how and hickory-like muscle in equal measure, and often his bill for services would be some amount of money and that XYZ over there, “if you’re not using it.”

It was in this way that he began to amass more and larger equipment, often having to fix it first, and then returning it to service. In his life, he began a trucking company, ran a successful farming operation of his own — a “Dairy of Distinction” — dowsed out gravel banks, amassed real estate, and specialized in excavation. He and his men dug just about every pond in the county, and likely pumped every septic as well for probably close to a half century, near the end with a tanker painted with flowers by my mother-in-law. (Hemmings Associate Editor David Conwill wrote up his story in HCC #139, Commercial Chronicle: “Rugged Red Diamonds”.)

He was shrewd, hardworking, demanding (sometimes almost to a fault), a prankster, and probably one of the smartest men I have ever known. Everyone, especially my wife, loves and misses him profoundly.

So, yeah, when Grandma offered me his welder, there was no question. If it was good enough for Reg, it certainly would be good enough for me.

But out in the cavernous barn-like garage, when I flicked on the light switch and surveyed the nearly empty space, I didn’t see it. Almost everything had been cleared out after Reg passed, and as with all their things, the place was exceptionally neat and clean. Where could this welder be?

I scanned for a couple tanks, some loops of hose, and a blowpipe or the cabinet of a power unit, but there was only a small utility trailer in the back corner.

Before I left for the house to tell Grandma someone must’ve taken the welder, I noticed in the shadows a coil of cables on the wall, and tracing them down behind the trailer I saw something squat and dome shaped that reminded me of a World War II naval mine or some kind of industrial-grade Van De Graaff generator. There was a ball-tipped slider sticking out from the side of it and a steel eyelet fixed to the top, suggesting it was heavier than I would have imagined.

I looked it over and, aside from the studs for the leads and a wiring box for the grounded power cable, there wasn’t much to distinguish it. There were no placards, stampings, switches, or knobs, but as Grandma had said, it was bolted into the concrete floor. But why? Wouldn’t portability be a good thing for a welder, even if just to move it around the shop?

Ready for those floor bolts, and that they’d likely be rusty (as they were), I brought my bag of tricks, including PB Blaster, a MAP-gas torch, and a breaker bar. Turns out, though, I had prepared for the wrong problem. After a squirt of Blaster and a gentle tug on the bar, each bolt sheared right off, but when I pulled up on the welder, it barely shifted. It was HEAVY. Just like a naval mine. Or a planet.

So, I wondered less why would Reg want to bolt it down, and pondered more why he would have to bolt something this hulking down?

As I jerked it across the floor by inches over the course of 15 or 20 minutes, I grappled with just how I was to get it up into the back of my SUV? Did I see this as a trial of my worthiness from beyond the grave, a test for the young page to lift the great knight’s sword? I didn’t then. I just kept muttering something like, “By God, I am NOT leaving here without this. People have been doing hard things on their own since there were people. If I just think, I can do this using just what’s at hand.” After all, that’s how Reg got started.

What was at hand were some hay bales for Grandma’s garden and a plank.

If I could just muscle the welder up onto a bale, I could climb up there and hoss it up onto the plank and push it up into the truck. Just like the Egyptians did when building the pyramids.

Well, while it was nothing anywhere near as easy as that, I nevertheless lolloped it on in. In the process, I got a look at the inside of the thing. It was like something Nikola Tesla would have designed: one part machinery and two parts cosmic magic.

Now, my intention is to disassemble it — photographing it and making detailed notes along the way — media blast it and restore it to functionality. Honestly, it probably still works now, but would you want to be the guy to plug it in?

When I used that other cosmic magic — the internet, specifically a great group on Facebook called Machinist Museum — to try to learn something about it, there was an awful lot of positive interest and some very reasonable insights. Here are several:

Adw C.: “Wow! That’s old. My Grandfather had a Westinghouse welder that we ran a lot. Even with a shop full of Millers and Lindes it was still a great stick welder. Sounded like a jet engine spooling up. And once you struck an arc the electric meter would start smoking a little.”

Hylton K.: “What an incredible find. Please restore it, and take good care of that machine. To those of us in the game, that is a very valuable piece.”

Robert A.: “It’s an electric driven generator. An AC motor spins a generator that creates DC or could even be AC for that matter. If it wasn’t bolted down it could walk across the floor from vibration. Lincoln Electric had several models with that design.”

Shawn M.: “After WW2 lots of companies made welders out of surplus aircraft generators… 32 v if I’m not mistaken… They were pretty damn good if you ever used one!”

David J.: “Those old robot looking welders were power houses. A lot were AC motors driving DC windings to produce your welding source.”

Leslie W.: “Arc 2 D 2 welder.”

Dean L.: “It is old. 1940ish. It isn’t an MG. It’s not large enough. It’s AC only and the amperage is adjusted by a moveable core between the primary and secondary. I don’t see any capacitors. If there isn’t any don’t expect it to be easy to strike an arc … I’ve got an old welding textbook that has pictures of machines that are older than the book, but nothing like that. I own a General Electric AC stick welder from the ’50s and it looks new in comparison.”

So, I know that for many of you out there, this is right up your alley. What do you know about it? Any tips for restoring it?