Learned This Week: 2-15-2012

large landscape sculptures

Pas de Deux 1
112″h x 30″w x 30″d

It’s been a very busy month in the sculpture shop. I am only working on one project, a slightly smaller version of my Pas de Deux sculpture design. I am trying to keep careful account of the time required so that I can more accurately price these sculptures. Looks like it’s going to end up being about 80 hours. It is a pleasure to work on only one project. I am naturally a high-focus person and, when I am trying to do too many projects at once, I can feel like the Linda Blair character in the first Exorcist movie (1973), with my head spinning around. Multi-tasking  can be very exhausting but sometimes it’s the only choice, running several tests and procedures, in the sculpture shop, one after another.

Marketing & Website Work

Newsletter – I finally learned the Wysija plugin software this week, pulled together my mailing list,   and did my first monthly newsletter. It doesn’t publish a web version though, so I am now investigating Alo EasyMail. It may work better and they don’t seem so commercially oriented. Please sign up!

Dreamweaver – JohnSearles.com site – I added Title tags (title=”keyword phrase”) to most of the images on my site, and to a few of the tables. As you probably know Alt tags (alt=”keyword phrase”) are required for each image. If you add a Title tag, then you add extra keywords, plus the Title shows up on mouse-over. Very useful tip.

Bread Crumbs – you’ve seen these – they are in the form: Home Page > Category Page > page you are on now. I’ve started adding these to my main site/Dreamweaver pages. They are another great way to add keywords to each page, or a variant of the keyword phrase (plural, singular, reverse order). Plus, they will help my wife finds pages and images. She often says that she is lost on my website! That’s not good.

Meta Tag-Titles: Check Google Ad Words for your best keywords. Then focus on these keywords for  your meta-tag Titles – don’t have Titles be too long. I am aiming to restrict all titles to a maximum of 6 keywords, that is, two 3-word keyword phrases.

Avoiding Burnout

I’ve occasionally had to struggle with burnout in the sculpture shop. In fact, this has been a continuous problem for me since 2007 – I wore myself out doing art shows and I have slowly been learning how to maintain my energy levels better. More information is available on-line. This is a ubiquitous problem in our modern world.

Signs include:

  • Not sleeping well – too wired up – too much cortisol (stress hormone)
  • Constantly drinking too much coffee/tea and drinking them too late in the day
  • Constantly anxious about money and deadlines
  • Negative thought loops repeating and repeating in the head
  • Needing a sleep aid to get to sleep
  • Sleeping late and waking up tired
  • Alway feeling tired
  • Feeling brain dead & uncreative
  • Lacking joy in work
  • Not wanting to socialize – introversion
  • Grouchy & cranky


  • Be certain that not addressing the problem will only make it worse. Take time off from work! Or do some other kind of work – yard work, honey-dos, etc.
  • Restrict your work hours – don’t over do it. I find if I work past 7 pm I am in trouble the next day.
  • Exercise daily – at least a walk, or swing the dumbells for a few minutes while doing squats.
  • Sometimes you need a complete day of sleep and rest. Taking a complete Sabbath with no work at all makes a lot of sense.
  • Only work 5 days a week in the shop. I did 6 days/week for many years, but I’ve had to quit that.
  • Get away from email, phone and Facebook.
  • Listen to music
  • Get away to somewhere peaceful
  • Have some fun! Get your mind off work.
  • Don’t make promises of unrealistic delivery dates – everything always takes longer than expected. New designs always have a learning curve.
  • Some clients really want to hurry you up – don’t let them ruin your life
  • Manage phone & email contacts better. Some people just want a price and that’s that. Don’t waste time chasing them.

Sculpture Shop Safety and Comfort

Powermatic Air Cleaner – Installed this week and this has really improved the air quality in the sculpture shop, especially when welding aluminum. Welding aluminum can generate noxious, sweet-smelling white fumes and ozone. This air cleaner cost less money than the welding fume extractors, and is just as good, I think. The air in my 1600 square foot sculpture shop is cleaned about 12 times an hour. I have it near the welding area and it pulls the fumes in nicely. I still wear a welding quality mask though. My lungs are important to me.

Thermoheat – this is the 60,000 btu portable liquid propane gas heater.  My wife bought me one at Lowe’s.  The high speed fan really heats the sculpture shop up fast. This has been my most comfortable winter ever!

3M Tekk Ear Protectors – I tried the cheapies and thought they were good. These are much better. Save your ears now. I always wear these when grinding or cutting metal.

Shop Lighting – fluorescents just haven’t been enough. The color always seems off and the shop is still poorly lit, even with a dozen double bulb fixtures. Halogen Work Lights have made all the difference for me. I use at least a 300 watt bulb and clamp them to the rafters. Much smaller and easier to use than fluorescents (though I still have those too). Note: be sure and remove the glass lens to extend the bulb life! Otherwise the bulb gets too hot and fails prematurely.

Welding Aluminum

When seaming 1/8″ aluminum use the 98 mode (pulse/pulse) at 275 wfs and 0.5 trim. Weave the bead. Go slow enough to watch the puddle. But splatter and melting edges indicate you are going too slow. Pick up the pace or the edge melts.

Be sure and fill the craters at the end of the bead! Just hold the gun over the end of the bead for 1/2 a second with the post-flow argon going, then give a half-second spot weld to fill the crater.

When repairing 1/8″ aluminum welds (after first grinding) use 98/275 wfs/1.30 trim. Be sure and clean the void or hole with the stainless steel wire brush first! Sometimes a drill bit is ideal for enlarging a hole before repair. Note: 1.5 trim makes the arc erratic. Using the crater setting effects the arc too – don’t use it. Mig welding is great for edge repairs – you can lay down a thick bead very quickly.

Lincoln’s Pulse Welding: does it really looked like stacked dimes? It used to, but not any more. Pulse and pulse/pulse sound different than normal GMAW though. Higher WFSs have a higher frequency. A lower WFS is noticeably lower in pitch. The pulse feature stopped looking like stacked dimes about the time the warranty expired. The Arc Control feature hasn’t worked since then either. But the results are fine. Good penetration, nice clean bead, etc. It is definitely always a spray mode, not a short circuit. And it does seem to be more controlled than normal GMAW spray mode – especially useful for metal thicknesses less than 1/4″. I like spray mode for aluminum. Pulse seems hotter than pulse/pulse and GMAW can be dialed in to be still hotter. However, GMAW can also be adjusted to be short-circuit, spray or somewhere in between.

Question: What is Trim? Trim is a control that is only associated with the Pulse and Pulse/Pulse settings on my PowerMig 300 welder. Lincoln Electric says that Trim controls Arc Length. Hmmm. They must mean penetration. Higher values of Trim have more penetration. You can see that easily welding a bead on 1/16″ aluminum. A 0.5 Trim warms the back, 1.0 Trim burns through.

Practically, Trim replaces the Volt control for normal GMAW welding and appears to control the heat. High trim is necessary for penetration when repairing holes and voids – with low trim, many times the puddle just doesn’t penetrate the void and ends up welding a ‘roof’ over the void which then reappears when you grind the weld smooth. On the other hand, when welding a seam, use the lowest trim setting or you will constantly melt the edges.

Alternate repair method: Tig weld, AC mode, zirconium electrode, 125 amps for 1/8″ aluminum, use the 3/16″ rod. Set the +/- control to a balanced middle position. Auto clean doesn’t work well. Welding backwards works well with an electrode with a balled end. Easier on the hands too – you are moving into the hot zone, but away from it. Tig welding is slower, but the results are always certain.

Black residue: When mig welding 5052 aluminum with argon and 4043 wire, a black residue always forms outside the area protected by the argon. Other sites say this is an oxide of aluminum, but all the oxides of aluminum are white or gray. I am convinced that this black residue is soot, which is another name for carbon. Where is this soot coming from? Could it be from the carbon dioxide in the air? Is that caused by the arc? When running a bead, you can’t help but run over the soot in front of the torch. This seems to get picked up by the puddle of melted aluminum and moved to the top of the cooled bead, because often the top of the bead looks dark and dirty. But the soot doesn’t appear to hurt the weld quality or strength. I don’t understand the chemistry/physics of this process yet, but I think I am getting closer.

Is it really the arc that causes the soot? The area around the arc is protected with argon – no carbon there. You can see that easily when spot welding. I don’t see this carbon deposit when welding stainless steel or bronze with pure argon. So it’s not a Bernoulli or venturi effect, sucking in CO2 from air surrounding the arc. What is it about aluminum that causes soot to form outside the argon-protected area? If the carbon dioxide was from the tank (left-over residue from previous use) it should show up with the argon – no it doesn’t.

Any ideas? You can also see this black residue when you are tig welding aluminum and the aluminum rod touches the electrode. Instant black.

Fabricating Aluminum Sculptures in the Sculpture Shop

I learned this week many ways to make the sculptures better and faster.

Shape the two curves of a sculpture together. Clamp them tightly with a vise grip before running them through the roller. Then when the spacers are inserted, the curves will match quite well.

For spacers between the two curved pieces of metal, 1/8″ aluminum x 1/2″ wide strips works much better than aluminum pipe. Aluminum pipe is too rigid. Wide the 1/8″ tabs, a little shaping is still possible after the spacers are in place.

When building a sculpture with two or more shapes, the Leader curves should always be the inside curve, the curve that is closest to the other shape.  Then the spacer pushes out the second curve and it doesn’t ruin your fit up.

Be sure and mark the inside and outside of the leader curve – it’s easy to make a mistake  and put the spacers on the wrong side.

Glue the paper to the complete side all in one go. I usually use 8.5×11 pieces of scrap paper. Don’t overspray the glue or the paper will be too hard to remove. Trim the paper to size with a razor blade.  Use scotch tape to join the pieces of paper as needed – be sure and remove before welding. Then take your long side of paper and start attaching to your aluminum.

Side pieces – keep them short, about 12-15″ is ideal. Longer and fit up is harder. Include a notch on the edge of the side piece that matches up with a sharpie mark on the sculpture – this will keep you lined up as you go. You may need to shave a piece 1/16″ or 1/8″ before welding in place.

Make sure your band saw blade is sharp. A dull blade will warp your pieces.

Scribe ID #s on the back of each side piece before annealing. Use numbers for one side and alphabet for the other (matching with the same system on the curves). That way you know for sure which side piece goes where.

Anneal the 1/8″ aluminum sides before welding in place. Annealing gets rid of the springiness and makes fit up much easier. How to anneal – put your rosebud tip on the Oxy-Acetylene torch. Do high soot (low oxygen) and put the soot all over the aluminum. Then dial up the oxygen and burn off the soot. This gets the metal to 750-800 F, which is what you need. Keep that torch moving. The aluminum melts at 1050-1100 and it’s easy to melt the metal on a small piece of siding.

Be sure and clean the edges of the sides with the flap wheel after annealing – get the remaining soot off.

With a grinder bevel the bottoms of the side pieces along the length, and the tops along the ends. Also bevel the top of the curved piece you will be welding too. This gives more surface area to the weld bead and ensures the weld will hold.

Be sure to weld a backer plate to the end seams. This makes the butt welds much stronger and reduces melt through problems.

Keep a Notebook!

The tools and materials are constantly giving me feedback and I need to remember the details for future reference. I am constantly writing what I’ve learned in my notebook and now on the web. I hope you are too. That’s just a few of the things I’ve learned this week in the sculpture shop!

Please Comment, Like and Share!


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  12. Edwin

    Submitted on 2012/01/28 at 10:58 pm

    Dear John,
    Love your website.
    I read about your exploration of SculptNouvea’s SmartCoat and ClearGuard on your Aluminium pieces.
    Was wondering if you had tested the Clear Guard on stainless Steel?
    I am looking for a hi gloss clear coat on my outdoor stainless steel Color dyed sculpture.
    Hope to listen to your advise. Thank you.
    Yours truly

    1. John Searles

      Hello Edwin – I recently tested 8 clear coats on Stainless Steel 321 – this is a high-titanium SS used for the 2mil tool wrap and my SS weavings. The best clear coat was Min Wax Lacquer from Home Depot. Krylon Crystal Clear gloss came in second. Both are sprayable, which will make it easier for you. I will post the tests soon. Note: a different coating might work better on a different grade of SS. You are probably using 304 or 201. Best, John

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