It took me probably twelve years of blacksmithing before I learned to weld. This might sound familiar to some of you–since whenever somebody asks me what they need to do to start smithing, usually I recommend a collection of tools that can be found/made for under a hundred bucks, if you know where to look. This is just a jumping-off point, though, and for someone who wants to increase their forging capability I really, really recommend learning to weld. Except for maybe the most stringent of traditional smiths, the welder will see a significant amount of use in the shop.
I say this because even if you’re a purist and never arc weld on your wrought iron, you’ll want to weld behind the scenes. If anybody reading this has ever seriously considered making knives, you’ll know the most important tool to have is a (probably 2×72″) belt grinder. Sure, you can drop bank on a KMG, or get a cheaper Pheer grinder from eBay, or a Grizzly, or you can pick up the no-weld plans or the grinder-in-a-box or do one of a bunch of other things. I did the research a while back if you can’t tell. But with a capable welder, building the frame for your grinder is uncannily easy, and the welding itself can be knocked out in about half an hour. It’s also much simpler and I believe much stronger than the no-weld grinder, if you’ve seen those plans.
Once you’re done with your grinder, or whatever, you might start looking around and seeing opportunities for tooling improvements in your shop–after all, now a guillotine tool is just a few pieces of 1/2″ plate and a few minutes of welding. Maybe instead of wiring together that damascus billet, you just run a couple beads and weld on a rod. Maybe (and this is a touchy subject, but here goes) you can buy that junkyard anvil now without worrying about how you’re going to fix the enormous dead spot on the face. More on that later. The more you forge, the more you realize two things: 1) that much of the work isn’t going to be on the actual piece, it’s going to be on the tooling for the piece, and 2) if you have a piece of tooling, you’ll be more willing to do harder projects later if that tooling makes the process more predictable/enjoyable/fast.
That is to say nothing about the total necessity of welding in modern blacksmithing-fabricating, if that’s more your speed, but if it is you probably already have a welder and use it daily. And if you wanted my honest recommendation I love the little welder I bought. Just look in the image above if you want the brand and model. It’s one of the better value models out there, with plenty of guts on the 240v circuit. I don’t know TIG, yet, but I can always expand in that direction if I choose to invest the time to learn.
In conclusion, I never thought this until I actually had the welder, but I’d consider it among the basic tools necessary to a starting blacksmith. My usual recommendation is this, in this order: forge, anvil, hammer, tongs, vise–in that order. Once you have those, you can start learning to forge. But without a welder it will be either very difficult or very expensive to continue expanding your capabilities beyond this point. Once you have the basics of forging down, and when you really want to get some wind under your wings, take a class. It’s not the most obvious step, but it’s definitely the most horizon-expanding.