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Welding

Abstract solution

By Gretchen Salois

A sculpture is fabricated using the latest technology and old-fashioned grit

June 2016 - What started as an artist’s concept was brought to life by fabricators that make the very complicated appear easy by melding science and artistry. 

After artist Jacob Dahlgren provided a scale model 3D plastic print and a Google Sketchup drawing of his sculpture, design engineers at Architectural Elements in Bellingham, Washington, imported the drawing into Solidworks and broke it up into different parts so each component was drawn out individually. The finished work—resembling an abstract tree with strong, thick branches—required a creative approach to bring it from a computer screen image to a large aluminum weldment.

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Branches were made from 1/4-in.-thick-wall tubing, 4 in. and 6 in. sq. from grade 6061 aluminum. “We created subassemblies by MIG welding branches together and chamfering joints knowing that each joint would be sanded to appear seamless,” says Architectural Elements’ owner, Joe Clark.

All welds were chamfered beforehand “to give each weld a place to live,” Clark says. “All ends had 1/4-in. caps and the top few were drilled and tapped. Eye bolts were used as pickup points in these threaded endcaps at the top of the structure.”

Clean welds

“Cutting and shaping [aluminum] is relatively easy,” says Clark. The biggest issue was keeping the material clean prior to the welding process, achieved by using acetone or another solvent.

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“Welding aluminum can be challenging—welds need to be completed without porosity,” he notes, adding porosity is very visible after the welds have been sanded down. Weld porosity would appear as small bubbles or circle-like markings along the weld. “It’s tricky because you often can’t see the bubbles until after sand blasting as the porous areas are filled with sand dust,” he says.  

Another issue involved preheating thicker materials before welding while avoiding “crater cracks," a result of MIG welding and "cold starts," Clark explains. To “zap the crater” once the weld is completed, a small tack weld at the end of an existing weld is made the moment the first bead is completed. “Alternately one can follow up with a TIG welder and fill the crater and fuse the cracks, or combine both techniques,” he says.

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Powder coating prevents welders from using body filler. “You’ll find a lot of artists discover welding and fit-up isn’t so easy and they end up heavily relying on body filler and can’t powder coat metal fabrications with most body filler because it can’t go through the oven,” according to Clark. “The filler either burns up or gases off. We had to use actual metal whenever we needed any body filler.”

After welding, the sculpture was sanded down to remove scratches and sent to nearby Advanced Powder Coating, which sand blasted the surfaces, applied a powder coat primer and, finally, a pink top coat.. “We picked it up and took it to the site on our trailer.” On site the fabricator used a crane to raise the sculpture and mount it on a “stub,” that acted as a threaded screwhead. Clark’s team designed that piece. 

“We made it specifically so Dahlgren could manipulate/interpret it on site,” Clark says. “The artist twisted and rotated the piece six times.” Once Dahlgren decided on the perfect rotation, fabricators drilled through the base plates to connect the tree to the stub and secure it to a concrete utility vault buried beneath the structure. 

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The team at Architectural Elements has a number of cool projects in its repertoire and is working more with 3-D metal printing, including printing a bronze logo and a Frankenstein-inspired Faraday cage that blocks electric fields and prevents the person laying within from being zapped by 4 million volts. Modern day applications include cars and aircraft designed protect people from lightning strikes.

“We’ll have between 20 to 40 projects going on at one time,” which employs 20 poeple, Clark says. “Our ability to fabricate and weld nicely as well as finish and grind welds extremely well is what makes us stand out—not to mention our ability to design and develop 3D projects.” FFJ

Sources

  • Architectural Elements
    Bellingham, Washington
    phone: 360/746-8205
    www.archele.com
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