Tuesday, April 2, 2013

HOW DANNY CUT UP THE BATHTUB: "It should have worked!"

My husband needed steel plate -- like sheet metal, but heavier -- for a solar oven he meant to construct for a college industrial arts project. The cost, even from the junkyard, was more than he wanted to spring for; so he tried to do an end run around the laws of economics, only to run headlong against the laws of physics.

He bought from the junkyard an old-fashioned cast-iron bathtub, shorn of feet and fixtures and very dirty. The idea was to cut it up into an equivalent of steel plate, for which he bought an oxyacetylene welding torch. The work went excruciatingly slowly, and the metal dripped down in clumps and hardened. He managed to inflict on the tub  a wide, irregular and very ugly gash with gobs of re-hardened metal clinging to the edges, before he ran out of welding rod and patience. There comes a point where trying to save money doesn't. It would have done no good to call his attention to that aspect of it, and I don't remember doing so.

An acquaintance in the welding business was prevailed upon to let Danny use an electric arc welder. I  assumed at the time that this arrangement was to be less expensive than paying Bob the welder to cut up the bathtub. The possibility that Bob wouldn't have accepted the commission didn't occur to me until later.

The electric arc welder wasn't portable; Danny and the bathtub had to go to it. The tub, of course, weighed a damn ton. (The difference between a ton and a damn ton is that a ton is 2000 pounds, and a damn ton is way more weight than one expected or wants to deal with.) I came along to see what would happen, together with a neighbor who helped boost the tub into the Danny's van.

The bathtub defeated the electric arc welder as well. Cast iron contains sand, which causes it to melt slowly and unpredictably. Danny would have had to work at it steadily for a couple of days and expend more welding rod than he was willing to pay for.

After Danny's admission of defeat, he and I, Ray the neighbor, Bob the welder, and Warren, whose connection with the project was unclear, performed an amiable post-mortem. Danny kept insisting that it should have worked. Warren said he'd need a laser. I suggested a phaser (the weapon everybody carries on Star Trek), or prayer for a miracle to St. Jude (the patron saint of lost and hopeless causes). Bob's last word on the subject was, "I knew this wouldn't work, but I couldn't have told you, now could I?" Danny probably took that as a compliment.

Mercifully, Danny cut his losses, left bad enough alone, and sold the bathtub for scrap. He insisted that the whole caper was worth it for the experience and the knowledge gained of the physical properties of cast iron. He probably declares to this day that "It should have worked!"