Seat Tube Junction

Back in 1995, when I was a Sophomore at Penn State University, I was across the street from the Jewelery Departments studio spaces in the Arts and Architecture building’s shop space. Well outfitted woodshop dovetailed to a metal shop. Over on the metal shop side, I noticed a big Miller TIG Welder. When we all were given instruction on the various machines to use on our own, the tech at the time said he’d be happy to show any of us anything that was not covered. I immediately requested lessons on the TIG welder. Naturally, the rule was I had to first learn how to arc weld, which I already had some experience from 7th Grade metal shop… yes, you read that right: 7TH GRADE. Then move on to MIG welding when he was satisfied with your technique in Arc and finally, after passing that exam, he’d show me TIG. First beads laid down on Arc, he raised his helmet and asked me “Have done this before?”. I said sort-of in 7th grade, but my grandfather was an ironworker. We had a good bit of a laugh together with “must be in the blood” and on we went. Long story short, we had moved on to TIG welding by the end of the day with both of us agreeing perhaps welding in-general was just plain in my blood. He taught me how to walk the cup and dip the filler/feed as I went but because the torch didn’t have a foot pedal (it had a springloaded thumb amperage control). Boy, was it tough to not have your torch hand fatigue quickly!

Fast forward to 1998 when I graduated and I had been TIG welding all that time at PSU and pretty much had the TIG welder all to myself for 4 years. Nobody seemed to want to pick up the torch but me. That threw me into a chasm of no welding for about 2 years before I was back in school to get my Industrial Design degree. Again, back at a new even better equipped machine shop with a TIG welder and I earned permission to weld again. But this time, the welder had a pedal. I slowly started to get the hang of things but time to practice for long hours was short as the studies were intensive and I often found myself in front of a sketch pad, computer, Bridgeport, lathe or tablesaw most nights. I graduated in 2002 and again was ejected back into the workforce with no TIG welder at my fingertips and no shop space.

When we moved to NH in 2006, I finally had space to build out a shop and pursue my goal of starting my own bike company, 44 Bikes. Along that path forward, I happened to meet Master Framebuilder Ted Wojcik. A bit of a living legend as you could argue. We became friends and he agreed to allow me to look over his shoulder each Friday. This is when my skills behind the torch accelerated. The reason I’m giving you, the reader, this backstory is because like all good things, it takes time and patience to become a proficient TIG welder. And it takes time with someone who really knows what they’re doing to accelerate the process. Finally, I was talking to and learning from and more importantly, being mentored by a master of the craft. And he passed along a lot of simple tips and tricks that had alluded me up to this point. One of them is a simple technique called “Laywire”. (And here’s the meat of this post finally!) Ted also used Pulser on his TIG welder which he argued allowed him to cut the heat input drastically, and reduce the heat-affected zone. With the Laywire technique, you don’t actually dip the filler into the weld pool. And, you technically never pull it out of the weld pool and you’re constantly feeding it in while timing those feeds with your pulse. You can also pulse the pulse with your foot amperage control to ramp up or back off amperage depending on where you are. All of this, as you’ve read and can imagine takes time, and more importantly: Practice. Lots of it. Up to this point (which is 2007 when I met Ted) I had already been welding off and on for a good 7 years off and on again. But I had my feet wet and was already comfortable with the torch in one hand, filler in the other and coordination with eyes, hands and feet. This can be overwhelming to some when they first start. And it certainly was overwhelming for me back in 1995! So, let’s get into it first with some practice without filler. This is an important first step to acquaint yourself with the torch.

What I always recommend for beginners is to get yourself a clean sheet of 1018 or similar steel in 16 or 18 gauge steel. Put the filler aside for now. Set your TIG welder to the settings below:

120 Amps
30% peak
9% Background
1.4 PPS (pulses per second).
10-15 SCFH flow at the torch
10-15 seconds post flow with 5 seconds of pre-flow if your welder allows for that adjustment

Torch setup for those who also want that info (this is my personal kit – nothing wrong with other brands):

CK130 Torch
1/16 Gas Lens
1/16 2% Lanthanated Tungsten (blue tip)
No. 10 Alumina Nozzle

Editors Note: I also keep a No. 8 stub with matching gas lens on hand for the rare REALLY tight spot – but a No. 10 seems to be a really great balance of coverage, stick out and size even in really tight spots.

Now, slowly start an arc. Only push the pedal enough to slowly start the arc. Ramp up till your foot is midway. Watch the pool grow. Now advance timing each advance with the pulse. If 1.4 feels too fast, back off to 1 PPS and increase to 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 etc. till you find a rhythm that feels “right”. Maybe it’s faster than 1.4PPS. But what you’re doing right now is 4 things:

– Timing your movement to the pulse.
– Watching spacing between weld pulses as you advance.
– Distance of tungsten between the work and tip.
– Angle of the torch.

This is flat sheet. The reason we start hear is because this is the easiest surface to start on. It’s even easier without filler. But the entire point of this step is to get comfortable with torch in hand, maintain distance of tungsten to work, maintain a consistent torch angle (up to 15° in some cases and 90° to the work others), and coordinate eyes, hands and feet to work in harmony. Also watch what happens to the molten pool of metal as you ramp up the amperage and floor the pedal. Watch what happens to the bead when you increase the distance from 1/8″ to 3/16″ between tip of tungsten and work. TIG welding is as much about technique as it is about being present and mindful observation to act and react to the changing landscape in front of you as heat builds and carries as you weld. Run beads without the filler till you feel confident. Once you do feel confident with torch and working the pedal, now it’s time to start playing with filler.

I use .035″ Weldmold 880t (which is technically 312) but .035″ ER70S-D2 is a great filler to start practicing. Here’s where we get into the Laywire technique. Always start with a clean tip of filler. Same settings as above. The 120 amps above seems high at first, but you will want that power at your foot as most every joint on a bicycle frame is joining dissimilar thicknesses (thick to thin). Slowly crack the arc. Ramp up and watch the puddle grow, now slowly feed the filler into the weld pool. With each POP of the pulse, you give a little downward “PUSH” on the filler feeding it into the pulse. You’re not dipping, you’re technically pushing and timing the push to the pulse. It’s the same movement essentially, but you’re not removing the filler from the argon shield or the molten pool. Notice if you are slightly behind the point of where you are feeding the filler it will feel sticky but if you are ever so slightly on top of or slightly ahead of where you’re feeding, the filler gets nice and slippery. That “feel” of the sweet spot takes time and practice. Ted’s reasoning for not dipping was he felt as though there was a greater chance to introduce contaminants into the weld pool if you weren’t consistent with your filler staying within the shielding gas envelope. Hence this Laywire technique. Practice running long welds and short sessions of welds and again, you’re concentrating on torch angle, tungsten distance to work but now layering on bead size, bead shape and bead spacing consistency. A trick to keeping HAZ to a minimum, and this is an important one, is to ALWAYS allow the post flow to finish before you remove your torch. The weld is cooling at this point, and as it cools, it still can suck contaminants into the weld as it cools. This is critical in steel but becomes even more critical in stainless steel and especially titanium. Getting into good habits now, creates an unbreakable routine for the long run. It’s just second nature down the road. But by letting that post flow finish, you are allowing the weld to be protected as it cools but you also have a clean weld site to start the next bead. Another tip Ted taught me is before you start your weld, tap the pedal to get the post-flow going and allow it to run for 5-8 seconds before you start so you’re washing that weld site with argon. This helps with weld integrity but also with clean starts. Any problems initially, carry through the weld as you make 2 pieces one when you jump to tubes. Which complicates things by quite a bit because you’re no longer on a flat surface but on a round one. So maintaining torch angle, distance to the work and filler hand relationship and angle of filler feed are really important and again, take a lot of practice and repetition to get good.

Hot Seat

Which brings me to when you’re ready to graduate to welding tubes. One tip I’ll give everyone is orientation to the work. The above picture shows me positioned with the frame in front of me but I’m not welding with the head tube closest to me, but rather the DT and TT closest to me. The trick here is I’m using the circumference of the tube as a guide for the heal of the palm of my torch hand. I do this with every single tube to tube junction. You can see here how I’m using the seat tube as a perch to weld the acute angle between seat tube and seat stay (one of the toughest spots on a frame I’d say):

Self Portrait

Same when I weld the top tube/seat tube junction: I use the circumference of the seat tube as that guide while using my pinky, ring or middle finger as perches for the filler hand. But all of this is done using the above laywire technique. The only time I turn off the pulse feature is when I’m welding an ISO or Post Mount brake mount to the dropout. I’ll walk the cup and feed filler as I go around that joint as it’s two really thick pieces of metal that require a lot of heat and a fast pace to get it done:

Post Mount!

Everything else is then completed with the laywire technique. It’s not too complicated, but getting the right amount of pressure and feel takes a bit of practice. When I’m finished, the last 1-2″ of the filler often is bowed a bit from the pressure of my feed technique for what it’s worth. But with some practice, this may be helpful to some, and I’ve gotten asked this question enough times that I figured it was time to put it down in ink (or as close to ink as I can come these days).

To anyone who wants additional info, this short welding tips article from Miller is thorough.

Happy Laywiring!