League of Women Welders

Author: Barbara Hughey, Member

Publish Date: Summer 2010

Saturday March 27th, in the Siskiyou Mountains, we experienced a glorious, sparkling, spring day at Silver Bough Farm. Fifteen women, including four mother daughter teams, had gathered to try their hand at welding steel.

The class was offered by the League of Women Farmers, an educational and social farmer-to-farmer network organized by Melissa Matthewson and Maud Powell of OSU Extension’s Small Farms program in Jackson and Josephine Counties. The network exposes women farmers to many new and innovative classes, and farm tours on a monthly basis.

Our welding instructor Beth Dolos, of Ashland, Oregon, who is a veteran teacher, and a talented welder, came to spend the entire day, giving instruction and encouragement to our group. Everyone in attendance was curious and motivated to learn, but admittedly somewhat cowed by the welder’s torch. There were a few of us who had had some exposure to welding. Some of us had the necessary equipment on their farms, and there were others who were considering buying equipment. Some of us had partners, fathers, or husbands with experience welding, and others did not. Despite these differences we had all gathered for this chance at getting a taste of this first hand experience, and an introduction to some of the challenges and opportunities associated with the art of welding.

Welding is a tool that can make a big difference in the farm’s operational efficiency. The work at Silver Bough Farm is focused on organic seed production. We use tractor-mounted equipment

for soil preparation, and harvesting. A lot of our efforts are also accomplished with hand tools. Seed cleaning and handling requires specialized screens and tables for proper processing. All these things are expensive, and at times, difficult to find. So much of the available equipment is intended for farming operations that are larger than ours, and that presents a problem with economies of scale. Welding can be essential to solving these problems.

Most of the old timers with farms near us have long had welding in their problem-solving arsenals. Being able to fix a broken farm implement, or to fashion one that was needed for a particular task, meant the difference between staying on schedule, and falling behind. Rejuvenated old spare parts also made many projects affordable.

The participants in our welding class spent a part of our time together thinking and sharing ideas about how welding could benefit their farm’s productivity. One example involved the simple step of creating racks for adding needed weight to cultivators and plows. Another suggestion was to ergonomically modify hand tools to better suit a woman’s strengths. The list went on, and after examining the possibilities that welding made available to us, the ideas would continue to percolate long after our one day together. It was all very exciting.

Despite our initial apprehensions, everyone took a turn melting and binding pieces of scrap metal together, and learning to look through the light sensitive hoods that one must wear when welding. The hoods protect us from the UV rays from the torch that can cause serious eye damage. Rule number one, is never, ever, look directly at the welding torch without the appropriate eye protection. It is hard not to, especially when you’re learning, but this is a crucial part of being around welding of any kind.

The MIG, (aka GMAW, or Gas Metal Arc Welding), wire feed torch we used that day sparked as it drew a seam of molten steel between the metal’s edges. It was quite a sight to see. Small groups gathered around each demonstration, watching as closely as possible. They looked like Darth Vader’s daughters, standing there wearing their welding hoods.

Our teacher Beth decided to concentrate on the MIG welder for our class because it is a very versatile form of welding, and easier to learn than the many other types available. The MIG welder runs on standard 110- volt electricity. The machine itself is quite portable. There is a wire feed that can be changed for different thicknesses, as needed. MIG welding is not used for cutting metal like the much better known, oxyacetylene torch welder. It is also not as well suited to extra heavy duty welding that would be called for when fabrication or repair have to be done to large equipment parts. That would often employ what is called Stick Welding. However, the MIG worked very well for what we were doing, and since the electricity needed was right at hand, it was an excellent choice, that made for a very rewarding process.

Learning to weld had its obvious practical applications, but during the course of the day, there were a few deep sighs, and comments made about, “shouldn’t we be home working?” Often it is hard for us to get off the farm and try something like this, especially on a sunny spring day. Perhaps because our time was so dear, we all concentrated on what we were doing and stayed the course, to learn as much as possible, and to in the end, actually manage to finish a project that day.

Our goal was to build a farm gate. As the hosts, Silver Bough would get to keep the gate that would connect our residential area with our production field. Our instructor explained to the group that a good gate should be hung on a sturdy frame. Steel gates are so heavy that they can unseat standard wooden fence posts. We were all duly impressed when our instructor unloaded the twelve foot long, two inch, square steel tubes from her truck, and began to talk us through what we were about to do.

She cut small pieces to cap the tubes, so that wasps, and hornets wouldn’t move in. Then we began putting the mitered corners together for the frame that would later be set in concrete. Each surface was made clean, scoured with a grinding wheel, to insure a strong weld. We made hinges from capped round tubes that fit perfectly together. Lastly, galvanized, wide mesh screen was affixed to the gate frame. We were done.

It was five o’clock and everyone was tired, but happily so, because we had tried something new, and were successful at it. We were nascent welders now. All kinds of new possibilities were conjured up.

We had briefly set our regular work aside so that we could learn to weld, and now all we needed to do was to plow it into our larger talent, for putting things into practice. Soon we would all be so busy that the weeks would fly by. This may be all the more true seeing as we have the beginning of a new skill, and that will no doubt spark our imaginations, creating even more things to do.