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Day 4 of making the ladder (by )

I wasn't scheduled another project day until later in the month, but I had some spare time and the opportunity to grab a volunteer (my father in law, Len) to help, so yesterday I mounted the ladder on the wall!

(Background: Days 1, 2 and 3).

The first step was drilling the holes. I held the ladder up against the wall, and checked it with a spirit level, while Len pencilled the holes in.

Then it was time to drill. I'm very fond of my SDS+ drill (as I have mentioned previously) so it was good to have an excuse to get Vera out again:

My favourite drill

Without further ado, I started to drill:

Drilling the mounting holes

However, disaster struck on one of the holes - the bit suddenly went sideways, into some kind of void inside the concrete blocks of the wall. Doh! I fitted a smaller drill bit and managed to drill back into the route the hole was supposed to take, then drill that out so the bolt could go in straight, but now it was in the middle of a much larger hole than intended so it would just rattle around and not hold anything.

Thankfully, I over-engineered the design so that it had far more mountings to the wall than it really needed, so none of them were all that critical. What I did was to jam a piece of wooden dowel into the misaligned part of the hole to fill much of the space, then squirt a load of fine mortar (2 parts sand to 1 part cement) into the rest. More on that later.

With that done, I could fit the anchor bolts to the ladder. The anchor bolts consist of a normal-seeming bolt that goes through the ladder, into a sleeve that goes into the wall. The sleeve is a metal tube, but at the far end is a conical nut that the bolt screws into. When the bolt is tightened the conical nut is pulled into the metal sleeve, forcing it to expand to tightly squeeze against the surrounding masonry.

So to start with, I put all the bolts through the ladder and screwed the sleeves on a few turns to hold them in place:

Bolts in place

Then we lifted it up and guided the bolts into the holes and wiggled it into place. Of course, as it's nearly impossible to drill holes into masonry accurately, the holes were a few millimetres out from where the holes in the ladder are, so beyond a certain point the bolts started to chafe against the masonry and had to be tapped into place with a mallet:

Tapping the bolts in

All except the hole packed with mortar, of course, which the bolt just slid into squelchily.

Then we tightened the bolts - all except the one in the wet mortar; I'm going to give that a few days for the mortar to cure before I tighten it, otherwise there's no resistance to the expanding sleeve and it'll just squeeze the mortar out.

And then it was time for a test.

After gingerly doing a few pull-ups on the ladder, I climbed onto it. And then to check it's really secure, I put as much strain on it as I could by stretching myself out to get the maximum torque:

Stress test

This failed to tear it out of the wall, so the next step was to actually climb up to the roof:

The ladder passed testing!

See how the top rung protects the gutter? That's careful design, that is! 🙂

However, it was cold, damp, and slimy up there, so I climbed back down and had some lunch. After lunch, I put some sealant around the edges of the mounting flanges, to prevent water getting in behind them where it might soak into the wall through the bolt hole, or lurk around and make the flanges rust. Also, I like sealant and will use it whenever I can:

Applying sealant to the joints

This stuff is "frame sealant", which is specifically designed to join metal, wood and masonry outdoors, as opposed to the stuff you use in your bathroom. It's extra sticky to bond to awkward surfaces and extra stretchy to account for thermal expansion differences.

I also cut some small cubes of wood and pressed them into the open ends at the top of the ladder, packed with plenty of sealant. I tapped them in with a hammer to about a centimetre below the open end and squeezed more sealant in on top, and domed it slightly to keep rain from pooling.

Now that ladder is done, as soon as I get some time I'm going up there to secure part of the plastic sheet that's flapping up, and have a general poke around to see if I can find any holes to seal. With more sealant! Yay!

Also, I need to touch up the paint on the ladder in a few spots where I dinged it moving it around. Whoops!

Day 3 of making the ladder (by )

Well, after two days of prior work on the ladder, yesterday I settled down to another day.

I started by welding together the second side of the ladder, to match the first. With that done, I now had the two sides of the ladder, ready to join them together with the rungs:

Both sides are now complete

With that done, I carefully aligned everything on the welding bench and ground the welds on the inward sides down so that the rungs could fit on nicely:

Ready to start welding the rungs in

I set the rungs back half a centimetre where they were attached at the same point as a spacer, so they were welded both to the uprights and to the spacers, as I felt this would be stronger. The pieces of wood you can see under the rungs are maintaining that spacing.

Now, as I mentioned before, I'm not very good at welding; I can make things structurally sound, but not pretty, because my welds often go wrong and I have to go over them again. This usually leads to big, messy, welds, and on a couple of occasions with this job, I actually melted a hole in the metal and had to patch it up. Here's one particularly terrible weld:

Bad weld

I ground the lumps around the edge of the hole down:

Bad weld ground out

Then welded a metal plate over it:

Bad weld bodged

This, in contrast, is I think the neatest weld I've ever made:

A good weld

With all that done, the ladder was actually a ladder:

It's actually a ladder now

I sanded it down to get the weld gunk off, then washed it thoroughly in white spirit to remove the grease the metal came covered in, and laid it out in the kitchen to paint:

Sanded, cleaned and ready for painting

Then I gave it a priming coat and left it to dry overnight (I did it in the kitchen so it would be warm and dry overnight, rather than the cold and damp of the workshop):

Priming coat applied

It'll need another couple of coats of paint, and I need to cap the open ends of the uprights at the top, then I can mount it on the wall.

Part of welding that I always find quite profound is the way that a bunch of bits of metal, initially held together with clamps, and gingerly handled in case it comes undone, slowly transforms into a structure made of solid steel. This was driven home with the ladder project when, finishing the welds on the rungs, I found the best way was to lay it on its back like in the last photos and sit on it so the welds were flat (the best orientation, as molten metal likes to run away when the weld is vertical) and comfortable to reach; it didn't even flex!

I can't wait to be using it to get up on the roof. There's a flap of plastic sheeting lifting up in the wind and letting rain in, and I can't reach it in any other way...

Continue to day 4...

Day 2 of making the ladder (by )

Yesterday, I cut out all the bits required to make myself a ladder.

This morning, I set out on foot to visit Machine Mart and Screwfix for some supplies; a set of magnetic welding clamps, some white metal paint for the completed ladder, and these anchor bolts to attach it to the wall. As you can see from the diagram on the box, they just can't wait to be buried in a wall:

Happy anchor bolts

Anyway, it's been a long time since I last did any welding (and I've never been great at it), so I started by just tacking a few bits together to check they line up correctly with the wall. I started with the trickiest bit, the angled spacer:

Tack weld

Then I proceeded to drill correctly-sized holes for my anchor bolts into the mounting flanges, using my column drill (a very useful tool). This made a lot of pretty swarf:

Drilling the mounting flanges

Then I started welding the flanges onto the spacers. The new magnetic welding clamps (the red thing in this picture) came in handy here; their function is to accurately hold things at ninety (or forty-five) degree angles:

Welding the flanges onto the spacers

With all six of the spacers flanged, I could start tack-welding them into place:

Welding the spacers onto the upright

My welds on the flat were OK, but my welds inside corners are still pretty ropy; I had to keep chipping the slag off and going over again to fill in gaps. Another problem was that the steel square tubing has rounded corners, meaning that when a spacer has to be welded onto the upright to make a T, two sides of the end of the spacer are to be welded to the curved corner of the upright, making a big gap I had to bridge across somehow. It turns out that surface tension causes the exposed edge of the metal to pull back when it melts, so I had to bodge little slivers of metal left over from the cutting into the gap to stop this happening, resulting in some ugly welds that I may have to grind flat before I paint it - or to make the surfaces I'm going to weld the rungs onto flat enough for them to go on straight! We'll see.

Anyway, having checked the fit against the wall, I could then finish off the welds on all four sides of each junction, completing one side of the ladder. It's intentional that the flanges point in different directions, by the way - they mainly point upwards so the weight of the ladder isn't pulling them away from the wall, except that the one on the angled spacer has to be underneath so I can get in to fit the bolt, and the top one is underneath so the anchor bolt hole isn't too near the top of the wall:

One side of the ladder

At that point I ran out of time. It won't take me too long to assemble the second side as I already have all the flanges welded onto the spacers (which was quite time-consuming), and I can clamp it all onto the existing side to get the alignment correct without all the cross-checking and measuring I had to do the first time.

After that, I'll need to weld the rungs in place, tidy up the welds, scrub it down with a wire brush and sandpaper to clean off all the welding grime, degrease it with white spirit, and paint it.

Then I need to figure out how I'm going to get it into the wall! I'll need to somehow hold it in place while I mark out the drill holes, which might be tricky without an assistant. Then I have to try to drill the holes where the marks actually are (the bane of my life is carefully marking out a wall, starting to drill, and the bit hitting a stone and suddenly meandering half a centimetre off centre - then having to try and jam a screw in nonetheless, as whatever I'm screwing to the wall has holes in places that can't move to match).

After that, holding it up to the wall and slipping in the anchor bolts should be easy - then tighten them up and I'm done! They have a tightening torque recommendation on the box, so I'll finally get to use my torque wrench, and not be left wondering if I've tightened them enough or risking cracking the wall by over-tightening (which has been a concern with previous anchor bolt expiditions).

Continue to day 3...

Day 1 of making the ladder (by )

This weekend, I am attempting to make a fixed ladder, mounted to the wall of my workshop so I can fix the roof more easily.

First, I had to tidy up in the workshop to make room. I bought a set of four folding chairs for guests which are rather in the way (the chairs, not necessarily the guests), So I screwed a few bits of scrap wood up between the beams to store them:

Chair storage in the rafters

See all that damp on the ceiling, by the way? That is the enemy! Eradicating that is the long-term goal of this whole mission.

With the chairs out of the way, I could get on with the task at hand. Here's the bit of wall where the ladder will go:

The wall where the ladder will be fitted

And here's the pile of steel I ordered from Hindleys to make it from:

A batch of steel waiting to be turned into a ladder

The ladder is being made mostly from 1" square steel tubing, which needs to be cut into bits of various lengths with my trusty angle grinder. Here's the rungs (longer parts) and the spacers that will join it to the wall:

Rungs and spacers

However, for extra strength and extra not-having-a-sharp-corner-ness, at the bottom it will be joined to the wall by an angled spacer on each side. The spacer will be at forty-five degrees to the vertical (and to the horizontal, thanks to the magic of maths), so I need to cut twenty two and a half degree angles onto the bottoms of the ladder uprights, like so:

Angled cut

Also, I needed to cut out two spacers with twenty two and a half degree angles at one end (to mate with the uprights) and forty five degree angles at the ends which will mount onto the wall, bringing my pile of various lengths of steel tube up to this:

Rungs, spacers and the angle spacers

Where the tubes need to attach to the wall, I'm going to weld them to flat steel plates, which will be drilled for the bolts that join them to the wall. All of the tube ends I've cut will be welded, so the fact that they're rough angle-grinder cuts doesn't matter, but these edges will be exposed, so the fact that they are nasty and burred offends me:

Mounting plates after cutting

But a quick run along the bench grinder each has given them nice clean edges:

Mounting plates tidied up

Sarah turned up and took a picture of me, just as I was finishing. Check out my lovely protective clothing - I take my safety seriously when dealing with forces that can make metal flow like honey:

Me in my protective gear

Finally, I measure out the layout of the angled spacer, to check I'd done my maths correctly to make it the right length to produce a 30cm spacing, to match the straight spacers, and that the angles were right:

Checking the fit and alignment of the angle spacers

Tomorrow, I will go out shopping to buy some anchor bolts to mount it to the wall (I can't drill the holes in the plates until I know the diameter required), welding magnets so I can make sure the angles are exact as I weld it together (I don't want a wonky ladder), and some metal paint so it won't rust when it's installed - then it's time to start welding. I plan to start by making the sides with the angled and straight spacers so I can check they align perfectly by placing them one on top of the other, before welding the rungs in between them.

Continue to day 2...

TIG welding (by )

Back in 2008, I took a welding course, in which I fixed the mistake I was making with my stick welding, and had a go at MIG and TIG.

Now, although I learnt to make nice beads with stick welding on flat surfaces, I still struggle with various things. Much of the welding I want to do is on thin metal, so I need to run the welder at a very low current, creating a feeble arc and with a tendency to stick, and still burning through if I'm not quick. I still can't do inside joint welds (the arc sticks to one side, or the other, and rarely both).

Is it my poor technique, or am I being limited by the fact I'm using a ten-year-old arc welder that cost £50 from B&Q? When I borrow a friend's MIG welder, I do much better work, and tinkering with my technique over the past decade has failed to make a huge improvement...

Whether it's me or the welder, I know that stick welding isn't perfect for what I want to do. As well as the issue with thin materials, it can't weld aluminium. I had a stick welder because it was all I could afford at the time, and living in a small flat, I didn't want to be storing compressed gas cylinders!

TIG is widely regarded as hard to learn, because there's so many variables to control - those ten complicated-looking knobs on the welder, the movement of the torch, the fine control of current with a foot pedal, the way you feed the filler metal in. However, when I tried it, I found that I liked all that control. With a MIG, you set the power level and the wire feed speed on the machine, and then pull the trigger to weld - which is great if the settings are all correct and you're doing a long straight uniform bead. But if you're having to change position as you weld, or dealing with varying thickness of metal so the rate of conduction away from the weld varies, it's trickier to have those settings correct. And to get them right, you need to do test welds, adjust, and do more test welds.

With a TIG welder, you can vary the speed at which you move the torch (and the current, with a pedal) and the rate you dab filler metal as you work, based on feedback from how the weld looks. Although there's more to vary, there's less need for trial and error. That suits me better! Back when I did the welding course, I'd really enjoyed TIG, and found it easy to do great welds, but a MIG machine looked a lot more likely to be affordable. So I was slowly saving up for a MIG machine.

And then I found that R-Tech, a local company on the outskirts of Gloucester that make welders and are widely lauded for their quality and good customer service, offered twelve months' interest free credit.

Suddenly, rather than saving up for many months for a MIG welder, I could afford a TIG welder (and quite a good one, too), with the money I'd saved as a deposit and then sixty pounds a month for the next year. THIS CHANGES THINGS...

So, today, my new TIG welder arrived. It can go up to 160 amps, it can do AC or DC (so it can be used for aluminium), it can do pulsed power control, and it has a foot pedal for precise work. So it'll be great for thin stuff. Also, it can do stick welding, but "nicely"; DC, with good current regulation, as opposed to my old AC transformer. That should make it produce much more steady arcs, so I'm looking forward to seeing if I can also improve my stick welding with it - stick welding is worse than TIG in most respects, except that it's faster and doesn't use up shielding gas. I still have a lot of stick welding electrodes to use up, so when I'm doing work on heavier bits of metal, it'd be nice to use them if I can do so and still produce good welds!

This evening, I unpacked it, ground a tungsten, put everything together, and rearranged some shelves in the workshop to set it up. I made a hook to hang the torch on by my welding bench, checked that the right things appear on the display when I turn it on, and then sadly bade it goodnight, as I'm not getting the shielding gas cylinder for it until tomorrow.

My plan is to start running test beads along a bit of scrap steel until I seem to have got the hang of it, then do a few easy jobs - such as re-doing some of the shoddy welds I messed up with the stick welder, and adding a steering stop to the festival trolley, and fixing a bit of my welding bench that snapped off after the bottom rusted.

Once I'm confident, I'm going to finish my current big project - a custom server case for, which hosts this site and many others! I've been taking it to my friend's workshop to use his MIG on it, which only happens when we're both free (less than once a month), and involves folding all the seats down in the car and lugging a significant weight of steel through the house. Did I mention that this thing's 1.2 meters high, and made of 1.6mm thick steel plate?

But I'm so incredibly stoked I'm going to have a TIG welder. I'd all but given up on the dream!

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