Transforming
Transforming
Raw Materials into Reality
By Mike Sammons, product manager, Miller Electric Mfg. Co., Appleton, WI
T
heoretically, anodized aluminum cannot be welded, but
that didn’t stop PipeWelders® Marine, Inc., Ft. Lauderdale, FL, from
becoming what probably is the
world’s dominant designer and fabricator of tuna towers. Using a variety of Miller Electric’s AC/DC TIG
welding machines, Pipe-Welders
outfits 20 or more yachts each
month with anodized aluminum
structures that soar above the deck.
About 90 percent of the world’s
sport fishing yacht owners—those
with boats from Hatteras, Viking,
Bertram and the like—turn to PipeWelders for a custom-designed
tower. Clients fly in from Scandinavia, Saudi Arabia, South America
and the Pacific Rim to visit PipeWelders. Jordan’s late King Hussein
was a valued customer.
The Knack
The anodizing process, which
closely resembles electroplating,
converts the aluminum surface to
aluminum oxide. The oxide coating
can vary in thickness from 0.0002 in.
to 0.001 in. It is hard, dense and dielectric (nonconductive). Unlike the
rust on steel, aluminum oxide protects the base metal, providing increased corrosion resistance, excellent wear and abrasion properties,
and a wide range of decorative finishes (color varies with the thickness
of the coating).
Unfortunately for welding operators, aluminum oxide melts at approximately 3600 deg. F, whereas
“raw” aluminum melts at about 1200
deg. F. Historically, very few operators have been able to develop a
technique and find a machine that
lets them manipulate the AC TIG arc
so that it 1) penetrates the anodized
coating and 2) establishes a good
weld puddle without adding so
much heat that the puddle rolls out
24
of the joint or the arc blows through
the base metal.
“The technique for welding on
anodized aluminum is like playing
the violin,” says George Irvine, Jr.,
chairman and owner of PipeWelders.
“If you don’t have instantaneous timing and good movement of your
torch and rod, the weld bead just
goes plop! The puddle falls away
and you’re welding on air. Plus,
you’ve just damaged a $50,000 tuna
tower.”
John Winters, a welder/fabricator
with PipeWelders, adds more detail.
“Because we’re hanging over railings or welding upside down half
the time, we’re not in a position to
use a foot pedal. Instead, we use a
Miller micro switch mounted on the
TIG torch handle to manually pulse
the arc. We pulse the arc on, break
through the anodizing, establish the
weld puddle, add 5356 filler rod,
then shut off the arc and move forward. Starting and stopping the arc
in series creates a nice, even bead
with attractive ripples.”
“Customers are looking for the
nice rippled bead that we produce,”
states Irvine. “People who don’t
know how to weld on anodized
aluminum will buff and
Anodized
aluminum pipe
and stainless
steel are TIG
welded into tuna
towers that
grind
grace sport
down the
weld to make it
smooth. But in our industry, that says you
don’t know what you’re
doing—that you’re not a craftsman.”
Since the 1960s, PipeWelders
has relied on Miller Electric’s 330
ABP AC/DC TIG machine for weld-
fishing yachts.
www.metalforming.com
MetalForming/November 1999
www.metalforming.com
ing anodized aluminum. However,
until recently, those welding anodized aluminum have not found a
new machine whose arc characteristics matched this old TIG unit, which
came out of production more than
20 years ago.
“The 330 ABP lets me direct the
heat more on the end of the electrode where I like to keep it,” says
Dave Flaherty, a welder/fabricator at
PipeWelders. Fortunately, because
these old machines are hard to service, “Miller’s new Syncrowave® 350
LX works good on anodized aluminum, too. Other TIG units tend to
scatter the electricity around the weld.”
“I don’t see too much difference in
the arc performance between the old
Miller welder and the new one. It’s
almost the same thing,” says Patrick
Estafani, welder/fabricator. “The
biggest difference is that the Syncrowave 350 LX has a digital display.”
For welding on anodized aluminum with the Syncrowave, most
of the operators set the output at 200
to 225 amps and position the balance control at the “6”
setting. This provides an arc with
more penetration than
cleaning, as the “3” setting
represents a balanced output.
The Syncrowave 350 LX features
built-in pulsing controls that let operators set peak and background
amp levels and the number of pulses
per second. The pulsing feature
works well for many applications,
but not for tuna towers. The awkward nature of making a continuous, circular weld requires operators
to vary the amount of time between
pulses so they can shift their body
around the joint.
Sight Fishing
PipeWelders has an unusual name
for a company that builds marine
25
TransforminG Raw Materials
we’re the one company that will
come to you and build it.”
Depending upon the size of the
yacht, a tuna tower can cost from
$40,000 to $100,000. “Our prices are
just a little more than other people’s,
but nobody matches our quality and
custom design work,” says Blake.
Dockside Welding
Building a tuna tower can involve
adding a fiberglass hardtop above
PipeWelders has separate shops for machining, canvas, fiberglass, fabrication and welding, painting, a custom
shop that fits part things togther and a dock-side installation facility at its Ft. Lauderdale, FL, location.
equipment. The company got its
start because fishermen hunting for
giant bluefin tuna and billfish built
platforms on top of their cabin cruisers—the higher up, the easier it was
to spot the fish.
In the early 1950s, one of the
leading tuna fishermen constructed
a high tuna tower from household
plumbing and pipe fittings. Unfortunately, the Gulf Stream gets extremely choppy in winter; the tower
fell apart during the 45-mile run
from Ft. Lauderdale to the Bimini
fishing grounds. This
fisherman went to Jerry
Wilson, the foreman responsible for pipe welding at the Florida Power
& Light plant then under
construction, and asked
him to weld the tower
back together. It worked.
Soon, anyone wanting a tuna tower
heard that all they had to do was “go
see the pipe welder.” A company
named PipeWelders, and a new industry, were born.
Wilson quickly realized that lightweight aluminum pipe would work
better than any ferrous metal, and
that anodized aluminum would provide corrosion resistance to salt
water. It didn’t matter that anodized
metal “couldn’t” be welded.
“Through trial and error, Wilson
developed and perfected a tech-
nique for welding on anodized aluminum,” says Winters. “Experimentation leading to perfection remains
a company hallmark.
“PipeWelders has been in the
business longer than anyone else,
and we’re the most innovative company by far. That’s because our designers aren’t afraid to fail, to try
something new or put money in research and development to develop
a new design, such as the Plexiglas
lights molded into the corners of a
fiberglass hardtop. We’ve made 90
quality control, and there isn’t anybody else who can really do what
we do. If you don’t do something
like this everyday, you’re not going
to be good at it.”
PipeWelders has separate shops
for machining, canvas, fiberglass,
fabrication and welding, painting, a
custom shop that fits part things together and a dockside installation facility. In addition to the Ft. Lauderdale location, PipeWelders has
fully rigged, 22 ft.-long trailers at
Hatteras’ North Carolina and Viking’s
es, rod holders, hydraulic cylinders
for the lift platforms on the aft end
and outriggers (long aluminum spars
used to dance a bait or an attractor
lure across the surface of the water).
Blake estimates that anodized aluminum (schedule 40 pipe, mostly
5052, 6061 and 6463 series, in 1-in. to
4-in. dia.) accounts for about 85 percent of the metal purchased and
stainless steel accounts for the other
15 percent. The exact amount of
cause stainless steel weighs more
and finished products from stainless
cost about three times more.
“With stainless, we polish the
weld so the metal looks like it is
molded together from a single
piece,” says Flaherty. “This takes a
lot of time. Say someone wants a
stainless bow rail. We have to machine all the copes to produce tight
fit-up. With aluminum, we cut the
copes with a band saw because a
small gap is no big
deal; just add a little
more filler. There’s no
room for error with
stainless
because
grinding out the excess filler and buffing
it means that much
more work. We use so
little filler rod on a
stainless weld that
after it’s buffed, you have no clue
that the joint was welded.”
“Stainless is much harder to fit
and bend, too,” adds Winters. “The
whole rail has to be fixed in a jig and
each weld has to be made under an
exact amount of pressure. It has to
While much of the welding takes place in
four shops, only a certain percentage of
a tower gets fabricated inside a building.
By necessity, a lot of the welding takes
place on the yacht.
the main deck for the bridge, a second hardtop (the flying bridge) for
spotting fish, a Bimini top (which
supports canvas to shield the bridge
from sun or rain), a windshield, bow
and bridge railings, ladders from the
main deck to the bridges, radar arch-
metal used isn’t known, but Lenny
Doussan, the Tri-Gas sales representative working with PipeWelders,
notes the company consumes 75
argon shielding gas cylinders (336
cu. ft. size) per month. Most of the
metal on a tower is aluminum be-
That’s because our designers aren’t
afraid to fail, to try something new or
put money in research and development
to develop a new design.
26
percent more mistakes than anybody,
but that experience got us where we
are and now it enables us to build a
tower with a lifetime warranty.”
Raw Products
PipeWelders employs more than
100 people. Unlike most fabricators
this size, “we are unusual because
we buy raw materials,” says Irvine,
who purchased the company in
1977. “We rarely buy finished products, and those are usually things
like lights. This gives us complete
www.metalforming.com
New Jersey facility for remote work.
George Blake, supervisor of manufacturing, says “these trailers are essentially a smaller version of this
shop. We’ve got a Syncrowave 250
TIG welder, a Trailblazer ® engine
drive with an AC/DC, CC/CV welding output, benders and jigs, a drill
press and all the tools and parts required to build a tower. The trailers
and their three-person staff can go
anywhere in the world and do any
job. We like yachts to come to Ft.
Lauderdale, but if you want a tower,
MetalForming/November 1999
PipeWelders has an unusual name for a company that builds marine equipment. The company got its start helping
fishermen hunting for giant bluefin tuna and billfish, which built platforms on top of their cabin cruisers—the
higher up, the easier it was to spot the fish. Only a certain percentage of a tower gets fabricated inside a building.
By necessity, a lot of the welding takes place on the yacht (in PipeWelder’s six covered slips).
November 1999/MetalForming
www.metalforming.com
27
TransforminG Raw Materials
cool under pressure, then be removed from the bender and shifted
to the next weld. It’s very time consuming, and all of the angles must
be accurate because we can’t make
changes to the shape of the finished
product. Conversely, with aluminum,
if the bend isn’t right, we can just tap
it with a mallet.”
While much of the welding takes
place in four shops, only a certain
percentage of a tower gets fabricated inside a building. By necessity, a
lot of the welding takes place on the
yacht (in PipeWelder’s six covered
slips). While TRIGAS has kept the
Miller 330 ABP’s at the slips running
for years with good maintenance, it’s
time for new equipment.
“We’re installing six new Syncrowave 250’s for dockside work,”
says Doussan. “All six will be housed
inside a shelter, but three of these
units are environmentally protected.
Their inside components are coated
to add protection from humidity and
28
salt. We plan to track the service
record between these three units and
compare it to the standard units.”
Home Grown
Because of its unusual work, PipeWelders rarely can hire new employees that possess all of the skills required. Typically, it recruits graduates
from McFatter, the nearby Broward
County Technical School. Graduates
work their way up as an apprentice,
starting out as a welders helper
(which includes sweeping floors
and stockroom work while learning
how to weld and shape pipe).
“You can teach people how to
weld in class, but you can’t teach
them how to build a tuna tower,”
says Blake. “In fact, we’re really like
a school for teaching people how to
weld anodized aluminum, but we’re
trying to change that.”
To start, PipeWelders sends all its
scrap aluminum to McFatter so the
students can practice. PipeWelders
also participates in the school improvement program, and Irvine sits
on the school’s board to represent
the employment needs of the marine
industry (the second largest industry
in Broward County). Irvine is highly
passionate about changing the image
of trade craftsman from the “dropout”
stereotype to that of a highly skilled
worker who typically makes a better
wage than 50 percent of the employed people in the country.
“We’re not just looking for guys
who can weld. We’re looking for guys
who can read and interpret drawings and blueprints and perform
mathematical calculations. We need
employees with a good education,”
states Irvine, “or we’re not going to
turn out a product the market wants.”
With Irvine’s kind of commitment
to education and 90 percent of the
world’s sport fishing yachts coming
through its docks, it’s easy to see
that PipeWelders will continue to
lead the tuna tower industry for a
MetalForming/November 1999
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