Mike Richardson is your quintessential small-business owner. He works hard at making a living, and he’s always looking out for a way to save money.
He’s spent the last 12 years doing millwright work and machinery repairs at log-processing facilities in the Pacific Northwest, with the last two years working on his own. (He’s been at it since dropping out of high school, getting his GED, and lying about his age so he could land his first fabricating gig at a union shop.) Today he works with four other guys as part of Redline Mobile Welding and Construction.
“Originally I was going to be a pipe welder, but then I found out there was a lot of money to be made without traveling on the road all the time,” Richardson said.
So now he spends more time closer to his Elma, Wash., home. Every day is different, but it usually involves the same maximum effort. It could be using the oxyfuel torch to do a simple task like shortening up chains or something more complex, such as scarfing out cracks in a debarker machine and then welding them back up. On most days someone is using that torch a majority of the time (see Figure 1)
With that in mind, Richardson noticed an online ad showing a tool that supposedly cleans out oxyfuel cutting tips without the need for tip cleaners. If it’s one thing he did know it was that he had some tips that needed some help.
“The ad made me think about those tips for a little bit,” Richardson said.
Attempts to clean those tips never really panned out using regular tip cleaners, according to Richardson. The job is just too big for them. Once solidified, the molten slag that rolls back into the tip during torch usage renders the tip useless. Good technique can avoid that in many instances, but even the best fabricators have to wrestle with slag as they get aggressive with their tips in those difficult jobs.
“We all have tip cleaners rolling around our toolboxes, but guys always mess with those things and inevitably screw the cutting tip up,” he said. “It’s never the same if you have to use a tip cleaner on it.”
Richardson reached out to the sponsor of the online ad, slagRebel, and the company sent him a modified tool that is designed to clean out those scarfing tips as well as straight tips (see Figure 2). Richardson found that the tool gave new life to tips that were once headed for the garbage.
“When I first got it, I wanted to play with it,” Richardson said. “I cleaned out the shop trucks’ toolboxes and found all of these gnarly tips. They were just going to be thrown away. Some had metal rusted on the end of them, and some of them had broken tip cleaners inside of them, where a guy had tried to clean the tip and gave up.”
Richardson started with a coffee can full of the used tips that he had collected from the trucks. He had planned to set aside at least 30 minutes to bring these tips back to life. He started the job by facing all of the tips with a file to clean them up a bit. He then ran them through the slagRebel.
The slag-removal tool comprises four pieces: an upper member, a lower member, an insert for the lower member, and a piston. To begin the process, the tool’s inventor, Van Steel, a construction professional with 40 years of experience on heavy industrial projects, suggests a vise be used. The idea is that a vise will keep the tool stable during the slag-removal process and avoid the potential of hand injuries.
The lower member is placed in the vise and secured. The used cutting tip is placed into the insert, and the insert is placed into the lower member in the vise. The upper member is then threaded onto the lower member, encasing the cutting tip. (Currently the slagRebel is designed to work with Victor® Series 100, Victor Series 300, and Harris cutting tips. Specialty tools can be made depending on the application.)
The upper member is filled with potable water, which typically is available at job sites. A piston is then inserted into the upper member’s tube.
By striking the piston with a dead blow hammer, the fabricator drives water through the cutting tip orifices, which forces the slag to dislodge. Water and air escape through a weep hole in the lower member. To see if the slag has been removed, the fabricator needs to take out the piston, remove the upper member, pull out the tip, and inspect it. If slag remains, Steel recommends repeating the process. He estimates that 100 foot-pounds of striking force creates approximately 35 PSI of pressure, which normally is sufficient to dislodge and clear the orifices of slag.
After the slag is dislodged, Steel recommends using fresh water to rinse the tool clean of debris.
“I built this for my own use out of necessity years ago during my welding days,” Steel said. “It seems like slag buildup and blowback never happened at a convenient time. Most of my welding jobs were in remote places, such as working on a pipeline or offshore platform. On those jobs, if we didn’t have a spare tip, the job would stop until I could get a tip or have one delivered.”
After tackling his cleaning job on the used tips, Richardson was sold on the usefulness of the slag-Rebel tool. With one or two whacks of the tool, he said every single one of the tips had clear ports. He did some final cleaning with a needle tip cleaner, but he noted that they were ready to be reused after having the ports cleaned.
“When a guy spends $25 on a torch tip and he sees it ruined or not performing well, he thinks he can save it. At least, that’s what we’ve always done. We throw them into the shop truck, where they usually stay,” Richardson said. “I wouldn’t even have gone looking for them if I hadn’t gotten this tool to work with.”
Richardson said he has used the slagRebel in the field and has yet to find a tip that he couldn’t clean with it. As long as the seal is good at the base of the tip, where it’s not sucking air, those cleaned-out tips are good for continued use.
He admitted that he and his co-workers aren’t cleaning out every tip when they sense subpar performance with the torch. It’s just easier to grab another tip and throw the clogged tips back into the truck. After all, they are on the clock for fab and repair work. They can clean the tips out later.
“If nothing else, I’m saving money on torch tips. For a small guy like me with only a few employees, that’s a big deal,” Richardson said.
The tool also saved a day of work one time when they grabbed a truck that wasn’t fully stocked for field work. Those backup tips weren’t in the truck when a replacement was needed. Richardson said the slagRebel cleaned the clogged tip, and they got back to work.
“It really helped me out then,” he said.
Steel said the tool should last a lifetime, unless a fabricator loses it. That’s why when you order one you get a holster to keep the slagRebel in.
“It’s a quick turnaround on the investment,” he said. “A guy cleans out 15 to 20 tips, and he’s paid for it.”
Steel said that he thinks the tool can have a much larger financial impact on big projects. For example, oxyacetylene cutting tips often are considered consumables and are associated with consumables in typical overhead costs, not unlike toner cartridges. When you can extend the life of oxyfuel cutting tips and save lost productivity, those savings fall directly to the bottom line. He added that companies also minimize downtime associated with injuries that may occur when people use tip drills to clean out slag from the cutting tips.
“It’s human nature not to like changes, but torch users will quickly recognize these benefits that we’ve been talking about. Accepting the consequences of clogged tips in terms of lost productivity and tip replacement costs is what has happened over the years and is counterproductive,” Steel said. “People typically say, ‘It is what it is.’ Well, they’ll know better when I can get the word out to the rest of the world.”
Cutting tip manufacturers and welding supply shops may not want the world to know, as they do well in selling replacement cutting tips. But someone like Redline’s Richardson is glad he found out about the tool. It’s a tip he’s willing to share with any fabricator who asks him about it.