“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” — Helen Keller
“You must have steady hands and great eyes!“ It’s a reaction I get a lot regarding my work as a welder. The assumption is that to lay down a consistent bead, these are necessary physical tools. The truth is, I've got neither.
I was told by one optometrist that I’m legally blind in my left eye, I'm nearsighted, and I've got horrible double vision. Within the last year I have started wearing glasses with progressive lenses that help a bit. Laser surgery has been a consideration, but with the amount of time I spend looking at a weld pool, I'm a little nervous about additional light sensitivity. So, no, I don't have great eyes.
I’ve never had steady hands either. Looking back to my first welding class at Macomb Community College, when I was an apprentice at Chrysler, we did a little bit of oxyacetylene welding before we got into TIG welding. The instructor, John Kacir, did a demo for us. With the torch in his right hand, filler in his left hand, both extended far from his body, he put down an even, consistent, 7-in. bead. Invariable, like a machine. I recall turning to a fellow apprentice and saying, “If you've got to be that steady to weld, I'm out.“ I shake like a leaf—always have. Yeah, I like sugar and caffeine; I'm sure my penchant for Monster and Haribo gummies doesn't help the situation, nor do the four arm surgeries.
So from the start I've used every trick I could pick up to mask my shortcomings. With the eye issues, there's only so much you can do. I've learned that vision and eyesight are two distinctly different things. With 20/20 eyesight there's no interpretation, no gray area; what you see is what you get, and you can attack it. But vision has added elements of anticipation, feel, and of making educated guesses. I depend on my vision much more than my eyesight. To be honest, it's not always the perfect compensation, but if given the choice, I'd much rather have pure vision than perfect eyesight.
On to the steady hand. I once worked with a journeyman who told me a bit about how he was trained. When he was taught to weld, his instructor told him to be as “uncomfortable as possible“ when practicing, because then he could weld in any situation. What a flawed concept! And it was proven out by his pupil, who was not a good welder. Yes, you're going to be put in some awkward positions and you'll be expected to execute. But you need to develop muscle memory before you can start performing.
Whether I was in a swaying boom lift repairing an overhead door with stick, flat under a car pushing the TIG pedal with my knee, lying on my back running pulse MIG welding under an 80-ton tank, or upside down in a stainless cylinder head washer welding with a mirror while my partner held a shield in front of my face because my helmet wouldn't fit through the opening, I got as comfortable as humanly possible in each situation. Once you become oriented, welding is welding, and your training and experience will take over.
Think about the human dynamics involved with stick welding. Working from the workpiece on back, there’s the electrode and it’s held by a stinger, which you hold with your hands. Followed by your wrists, arms, elbows, shoulders, body, and core. Any uneasiness in your legs goes up into your body; works its way back through your shoulders, arms, elbows, and hands; then to the stinger; then the electrode. Wherever your shake comes from, it’s amplified the farther away it gets from the source. Even a little twitch in your hand is going to be a bigger twitch at the business end of the electrode.
The closer you can rest your hands, arms, and body to the workpiece, the better off you'll be. Obviously, this is harder to do in some circumstances than others, but don't be afraid to think outside of the box. I've even seen guys take brooms and place them against the pipe they're welding on in order to have something to lean against. I'll take vise grips and attach them close to the work area to rest a hand or arm on. When welding under the tank, I‘ve grabbed a tall 90-degree angle block to lean one of my outstretched arms on, which helped steady both.
Outside of that, a proper stance helps as well. Like vintage Miguel Cabrera in the batter's box or Money Mayweather in the ring, you need to find a position that keeps your body balanced. As you work your way up from there, keep your elbows tucked in as much as possible and your arms in line with your body. These general ideas work for any type of welding, although with TIG you've got the additional problem of keeping the filler rod steady and, in many cases, operating the foot pedal too.
If I'm sitting at a bench TIG welding, I don't need to worry about my lower body. The main things to keep steady are my arms and hands. I keep the work as close to me as possible, and I keep my elbows tucked into my side.
When you're using a long piece of filler rod, a wobble at the back end can make it more difficult to control the dipping end at the puddle. A trick I was taught back in the day was to bend a 2- to 3-in. section of the rod to a 90-degree angle at the opposite end of where you're melting it. The bent end is always weighted in the down position, and it keeps the rod steady instead of flipping around.
Another option is to actually tuck the rod between your arm and your body, holding it steady. But I usually just hold the rod with my fingers, pinching it, giving it tension so that it presses against my arm rather than letting it float in space.
When possible, I rest the wrist of my torch hand as close as I can to where I'm welding. Sometimes I'll just hold the torch with my thumb and forefinger, using my pinky and ring fingers to steady myself against the work surface. In any type of welding, the closer you can get your hands to the arc, the steadier you can be. The closer you rest your hands or arms against a solid surface, the steadier you will be. It's not always possible to be that close, but it's the general idea. Closer = steadier.
However, the downside to resting your torch hand that close to the weld is it increases the difficulty in making a long pass. When I TIG weld, my fingers, hand, wrist, and arm must move in sync to keep the torch angle and arc length consistent as I creep my torch hand along the weld.
There are many more moving parts doing it this way than the alternatives. If you're able to, hold your torch hand above the workpiece, not touching it, and use your arms and body to rotate down the weld. If you're steady enough to do this, it's the way to go. Or, if there’s a smooth surface, you can rest your torch hand on it and slide while you weld, almost as if on rails. The problem with this is that if you hit a snag, it could mess you up.
So even if you can't see that well, and you don't have the steadiest hand, you shouldn't let that get in your way. Maybe you have to resort to an unconventional method or two, but if that's what it takes, so be it. Don’t get discouraged, just be creative in figuring out what works for you.