Through a welding mask, the world is a dim place. A few minutes ago, the sliding door of Nick Wicks’s metal shop outside Portland, Maine, was wide open. Sun streamed in through a light rain. But now, with a MIG welder in my hand and my mask down, all I could see was the outline of two pieces of mild steel tubing.
Wicks was helping me build a roof rack for my Jeep Wrangler—something he’d agreed to do despite my knowing nothing about metalsmithing. (For instance, I called it blacksmithing, which, it turns out, refers only to work done with a forge.) After a quick overview, he handed me the torch, a tool that makes an arc that burns at thousands of degrees. He told me to keep it about half an inch from the workpiece and perpendicular to the surface.
I tried, but I was much more concerned with something else Wicks had told me: “The brightness of the welder can basically sunburn your eyes,” he said. “It might feel okay today, but tomorrow you’ll wake up and not be able to see.” That was right before he handed me a mask and warned me against doing anything before his own was in place. I pulled the trigger of the torch.
A few years earlier, I’d used the Jeep to take three friends on a camping trip to Maine’s Acadia National Park. It was barely possible to fit four adult humans and camping gear in a Wrangler. That wasn’t the first time I’d run up against the Jeep’s limited carrying capacity, but it was the point at which I decided something had to be done.
Metalworking Tool Essentials
I live in New York City. Having a car here is a hassle—the street parking, the dings, the traffic—but it provides a very important function: escape. Occasionally, you need to be able to gather up friends and go somewhere. Anywhere. With space and trees and stars and beers that cost less than $8. My Jeep had to be able to perform that task for me, no matter how much equipment and luggage we brought along.
I looked into buying a roof rack. Often you buy two parts: a frame that mounts to the body of the Jeep, and a basket that mounts to the frame. (That second part is unnecessary if you’re more interested in carrying things like skis or kayaks, but for the multipurpose use I had in mind, it was a requirement.) The problem was that my particular Jeep—long wheelbase, two doors—was made for only three years. Options were few and expensive.
So I called Wicks. He suggested buying the frame, if I could find one cheap, because the level of precision required to perfectly mate a custom frame to the Wrangler’s body mounting points was probably (okay, definitely) beyond what I could produce. But what we could do, he said, was build a basket, provided we found a design that compromised my functional demands and my skill level.
I wanted something that would use as much of the rooftop space as possible, had reasonably tall sides for securing cargo, and could be easily removed if I wanted to take the convertible top off the Jeep. That gave us a 54-inch by 70-inch rack of steel tubing, rectangular with rounded corners, the top railing held up by four-inch-tall balusters.
The floor of the rack would be made of flat stock, which would be easier to load cargo on than round tubing. The project would take me on a tour of the metal shop—cutting, bending, welding, and even forging. That scared me a little. Steel had always struck me as brutish and unfriendly compared to wood, which I was far more familiar with. But then, that’s why I wanted to do it.
By the time I got to Maine to start the build, Wicks had drawn a full-size diagram on a sheet of hardboard on the shop’s worktable. The first thing to do was cut the tubing and flat stock down to size. Cutting was the only technique Wicks would teach me that I was already familiar with from my experience in a woodshop. I measured, marked, and cut the way I’d have done with lumber on a miter saw.
As I cut pieces to length, I laid them out on the hardboard project plan. One by one, I filled in Wicks’s drawing—top rail, bottom rail, crosspieces. Everything fit inside its lines except the corners. Those still had to be bent. Each corner piece needed a smooth 90-degree curve. That seemed simple enough. Then I learned that tubing bent too far or too forcefully can collapse.
Wicks taught me to avoid this problem with a blacksmithing principle: Blacksmiths don’t curve, say, a piece of wrought iron by hammering in one place over and over. They scatter blows against the entire surface, slowly producing the shape they need. That was too advanced for me, so we did the equivalent with a simple hydraulic bender.
Even so, I still managed to bend one piece significantly past 90 degrees. “Is there any way to salvage this?” I asked. Wicks held it up to gauge how badly I’d overshot the angle. “Yeah, I think so,” he said.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“Hit it against something hard,” he said, slipping it into a vise. He grabbed one of his blacksmithing hammers and banged it back to 90.
That never would’ve worked on wood.
The next day, after igniting his forge, Wicks told me he thought we could make our own wing nuts. “I’ve got these small pieces of steel bar,” he said. “We’re going to flatten them on alternate sides to create the wings.” The wing nuts would secure the brackets that would hold the basket to the frame—brackets we’d also cut ourselves. He pulled a Wite-out pen out of his pocket and drew lines on the bar to mark each wing and the center nut. “Wite-out doesn’t burn off in the forge,” he said, “and you can still see it when the metal’s glowing.”
Harbor Freight’s 16-ton heavy-duty hydraulic pipe bender uses a bottle jack to bend workpieces. It’s inexpensive but very effective—if you’re careful. Here’s how Wicks and I adapted blacksmithing technique to produce smooth bends without collapsing the tubing.
How To Bend Metal Tubing
On the tubing, mark the center point of the bend. Add tick marks in both directions—one inch per mark for at least two inches.
Insert the tubing so the center mark aligns with the center of the jack. Make sure the pins above the jack, which the pipe presses against as it bends, are widely spaced. Crank the jack until the bend starts to form.
Lower the jack and the slide the tubing to one side, lining it up with the first tick mark out. Crank the jack back up, deepening the bend.
I would say the hardest part of blacksmithing is developing the coordination to move everything with a set of tongs, but there are a lot of hardest parts to blacksmithing. I could barely land an accurate blow with the hammer when my arms were fresh. They were hopeless after a few swings. Getting a sense of the different angles on the anvil and how to use them to my advantage was surprisingly nuanced. So was remembering that metal is hot. More than once I tried to pick molten steel up off the ground with my bare hands.
But then: I made my own wing nuts. Working in a woodshop, you never think you’ll build your own nails or screws. In the metal shop, every single part of a build is up to you. That’s scary, just as I’d imagined, but also the ultimate artisan experience.
In the darkness of the welding mask, everything was black except the flickering light from the arc at the end of the torch. The mask Wicks lent me is dim when the torch is off, but it becomes almost opaque when it senses light, like the world’s darkest Transitions lenses. Even just a little bit of light, which is all I was creating with the torch. I wasn’t positioned right, and the air gap was too big for a strong arc to form. It sputtered and hissed like a short circuit. Wicks shouted at me to move closer. I brought in the torch and corrected the angle.
Suddenly, with everything in position, the arc strengthened and held steady, humming like a power line. It glowed bright enough to illuminate the workpiece. I could see the seam, and Wicks helped me pace my travel along it. I turned off the torch and lifted the mask. My weld was a blobby carbuncle on the joint—especially compared to one of Wicks’s, which looked like a long-healed seam of scar tissue.
The two of us worked together to weld the entire basket. Then we went back over the welds, filing them down with an angle grinder to get them ready to paint. When we were finished, as Wicks was cleaning up, I lifted one side of the rack to test the weight. It was hard to believe that something I’d helped cut, bend, and weld wouldn’t crack apart at the slightest stress. But it held. The last job was to give the rack a coat of black paint.
Wicks told me he hated painting, but after days of cutting steel, bending steel, superheating and flattening steel, and melting steel, I expected painting to be the easiest part by far.
Wicks was right. Painting steel sucks. Mixing the paint takes patience. It drips. It’s dirty. It doesn’t dry fast enough. And then you’ve got another coat to do.
That was all I could think about, until I realized it was the same kind of list I’d had running through my head about steel just a few days earlier. Whether it’s wood or steel, paint or lacquer—you figure out how to work with the materials you need to make the things you want. That’s the surest way to get the exact thing you need.
This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of Popular Mechanics. You can subscribe here.