Fabrication Basics: Tools and Equipment

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Guest Blog, second in a series from Jay Thornton, custom fabrication expert at Vibrant Performance

As we left off yesterday, I was running down some of the fundamentals of fabrication as part of our week-long back to basics blogs for Vibrant Week at Motovicity. This is Pre-Fab .50, the stuff everybody should know as their baseline knowledge of fabrication and materials welding before we move on to the Fab 101 tutorials we’ll be posting here on the MotoBlog.

For today’s edition, it’s tools and equipment.

Any well-rounded fabricator should be able to handle all of the realms of crating a product: Idea to paper, paper to selecting materials, fillers and components; selecting the jig to hold the product and executing the weld.

When it comes to the tools of the trade, there’s a lot to know and you can literally spend the rest of your life chasing down the latest piece of tool or gadget to do the next big thing. But if you’re just starting out, or even if you’re already a skilled craftsman, there are a few things about equipment you need to know.

Number 1: Choose the right welder for your level of skill and anticipated projects. For the novice and even the more skilled welders, it’s best to start simple and straightforward. Spending a lot of money on welding wizardry will serve more to confuse you and get in your way, more than it will help you create great welds. Trust me on this.

Think of it like walking with a crutch. If you learn to walk with a crutch, what do you do once that crutch isn’t there any more? Basically, you didn’t learn the essentials to walking with a crutch, and welding is no different.

Learn how to walk and earn your way to the next step. Every level you learn and own is critical to giving you the skills for the next step. Eventually you’ll find the point where the equipment is truly holding you back. On the other hand, when your starting out, not only will you not be able to truly be able to utilize the advanced features of say a Miller Dynasty 350 welder, but you’ll spend all your time screwing with pulse options or wave control and not focus on the basics of what you need to be doing. Over whelming yourself will result in welds that are discolored, look like hell, and may not wind up holding up to the performance situations they were designed to handle.

When I started out I bought a used Lincoln 175 TIG welder and used it for more than a dozen years. It was the perfect welder for me for years and I was able to weld a lot of the projects I later used in my portfolio to get a job fabricating Formula 1 headers in Europe. I can’t stress this enough – don’t get in over your head in equipment, get into your head how to become the artist first, and leave the tool chasing to someone else.


Which welder is right for you? That depends on what you’re going to be welding and your level of skill. These are both arc type welders that use  the same basic principles to mate two pieces of metal together. Both also use an inert “shielding” gas to prevent oxidation and burning of the weld materials.

The basic differences are this: MIG [Gas Metal Arc Welders (GMAW)] welders feed electrode filler wire through the welding nozzle along with the inert gas. Originally designed for aluminum and non-ferrous metals, MIG welders are also used for various steels and is one of the most common forms of industrial welders. MIG’s are also good for bulky, heavy-duty welds. Weld styles can be just as visually appealing as TIG welders and can  still obtain a smooth looking weld with the right technique. Other MIG basics are an on/off trigger on the welding handle, preset amperage and an Argon CO2 mixed gas for shielding the hot weld.

TIG [Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW)] welders use a  tungsten electrode that sits stationary inside the torch handle to transmit an arc to the metal while wire is fed by the opposing hand and amperage is controlled by a foot pedal. The individual using the welder will feed  “filler” rod into the weld puddle while being covered by  argon or helium gas. These types of welders came around afterMIG welders and are primarily used for thin gauge stainless and/or  steel. While their welds are characteristically unique, the level of skill required for TIG is significantly greater and more likely to result in a poor weld for those who do not know what they’re doing.

If you’re just starting out, prepare to spend just under $2,000 for a decent TIG and $700 for a MIG welder that can lay down a good weld pattern. Less features when you are starting out will get you concentrating  on technique, instead of spending a lot more money on a tool you’ll spend more time messing around with than you will actually welding.

The other basic tools are cutters, measuring devices, hammers, clamps and files, gloves, helmets and plenty of thick shirts and jeans. We’ll cover all of that stuff in later editions, but again, let me say, save your money for something better than a $10,000 welder and focus on learning your craft first.

End of Part 1. Stay tuned for more tomorrow.

Jay Thornton is a veteran custom fabricator and technical lead at Vibrant Performance.

(Photo, Top: William M. Plate Jr./USAF; Image, WikiMedia: Creative Commons License.)