Introduction: Topographical Sculpture, or One Hundred Thousand Welds

This is a wall cabinet I made by welding together hundreds of shaped steel pieces. It is 50" x 60" x 3.5" and hangs from cleats that I welded into position on the back. Hidden within the pieces, there are nine chambers covered by magnetic lids. You can see the side of one of them in the first image. This piece is the product of a tremendous amount of experimentation, although in truth it is fairly easy to make. I am going to forego explaining the cabinet aspect of the piece and focus entirely on the surface texture.

If you are not a confident MIG welder at the beginning of such a project, I promise you will be by the end.

Step 1: Supplies and Tools

1. You are going to need a whole lot of steel.

I started with several 12' lengths of 1/8th inch thick cold rolled flat bar in widths ranging from 2 inches to 5 inches. I tend to work intuitively, so cutting more steel as I needed it suited my process, but if you are not a masochist and have the resources, water jet cutting your shapes will save you a great deal of time.

2. You will need a saw. I used a cold saw, but any mechanized metal saw will do---unless, of course, you have the pieces cut and shaped elsewhere.

3. You will need a MIG welder. MIG is ideal for this project although TIG will do if that's what you have.

4. An angle grinder with a collection of wire brushes will allow you to clean up the welds without losing surface texture.

5. Last, an assortment of vice grips, ideally of different sizes, is essential to this kind of work.

Step 2: Where to Begin...

First I cut the flat bar into irregular rectangles and then ground off two corners of each to to make the final shape. I arrived at this shape after trying several others and I encourage anyone who tackles this project to do the same.

Once you've got a decent number of pieces, it's time to weld.

Step 3: Why MIG

When I first learned to weld I was taught a number of tricks to prevent warpage, but in this case, warpage is the goal. Clamp down each of the pieces you intend to weld. Very small, controlled welds in the space where each of the pieces meet will introduce distortion. The welded metal contracts as it cools, which pulls the pieces together at a slight angle. As the piece grows, the distortion becomes more extreme. I recommend MIG because TIG welding, if done correctly, tends to cause less distortion. It is a softer, cleaner weld. Regardless, there is no need to increase amperage or wire speed. Follow the instructions for the thickness of your metal.

As I was arranging I used washi tape to hold pieces in place until I was ready to weld because it does not turn into toxic goo when it gets too hot.

Step 4: Clean Up

You can see the welds are pretty small. Basically you don't want them to bleed through and show on the other side. If successful, the final piece will look as though each of the pieces is resting impossibly on the piece below it.

Once you've reached your desired size, clean up the welds with a wire brush attachment on an angle grinder. Anything more aggressive will remove the surface texture and soften the edges of the pieces. A high-grit flap wheel will do for final cleanup.

Step 5: Ta Da.

This is what it looked like before I cleaned it up and added the chambers and cleats.