A passion for welding
Led by Steve Christena and Brad Cowan, Chicago-based Arc Academy caters to anyone who is curious about welding. From scheduled courses and open shop hours to an online video training curriculum, there is something for everyone. Their unique and laid-back approach makes welding accessible to area residents and hobbyists across the country.
Steve is professionally trained, having graduated from the Arts program at Western Michigan University with a focus in metal sculpture.
“As soon as I started welding and cutting apart metal, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” said Steve.
But following graduation, he ended up in a corporate sales role and he was miserable.
“I used to live in what I refer to as the box world. You wake up and you’re in your home and you’re in a box. You go to work in a car — another box. When you to get to work, you work in a cubicle which is a box. You drive home in a box and you’re back in a box,” said Steve. “You have no creative outlet because you live in this box world.”
Steve was desperate to get back to his passion, so he put in his two week notice and refocused his energies. Over the next 13 years, he worked at a few fabrication shops and also started his own furniture and metal fab shop business in the Chicagoland area.
Steve also began teaching motorcycle buddies how to weld after they expressed an interest in chopping apart bikes and doing some basic repair. He realized then just how much he enjoyed the teaching aspect of fabrication.
Arc Academy was born. Steve and long-time friend Brad Cowan sought to provide an affordable place to learn welding.
Anyone with an interest in welding and fabrication can sign up for Arc Academy classes — and they do. More than 800 students have completed both of the MIG basics courses since the doors opened in 2011. From attorneys and computer programmers looking to learn a new skill set, to husbands and wives celebrating an anniversary or enjoying a date night, students come together in a small class atmosphere to learn the technical aspects of welding.
What really surprised Steve was the number of students that came in with a long history of welders in their family — uncles, fathers, grandfathers — but were never taught the craft themselves. Approximately 80 percent of their students always wanted to weld but felt they never had the outlet or ability to learn it. Trade programs and welding schools can be an expensive and time-consuming commitment for the novice, or even “curious” welder.
“We try to make it as simple as possible but with enough technical information that the students understand what they are doing and what goes into the process of fabrication,” said Steve. “It is a relaxed environment and you don’t feel too much pressure to be a rock star.”
Courses involve both classroom instruction which they refer to as “chalk talk” and lab time.
“Within the first hour of class, students will have their hood down and be arcing,” said Steve.
Monthly classes and open shop schedules are posted to the website. Current course topics offered include:
- MIG 1: Basic Welding and Fabrication
- MIG 2: Basics Continues
- TIG 1: The Basics
- TIG 2: Developing Technique
- Course: Fabrication 101 – Table making
In MIG 1: Basic Welding and Fabrication, students begin to develop muscle memory and vision. The learn learn to set up the weld and get comfortable, and then practice basic butt joints and surface welds. By the time students complete the course, they will have done a little light-duty fabrication, grinding and have welded a 1/2-inch square bar together. During MIG 2: Basics Continues, students learn to do fillet welds and corner joints. They also develop a better understanding of puddle control and other welding techniques.
“We try to focus on the art form and less about the technical aspects,” said Steve. “Many people come in and see if they like it and just want to get a flavor for it. Most of our students simply are looking for a creative outlet and have a curiosity for welding.”
MIG classes are $100 each. TIG classes are $120 per class. Courses run approximately three hours in length. The Fabrication 101 -Table making class is $540 and includes 12 hours of class time and the materials needed to create the table.
“I think the reason why people like it (Arc Academy) so much is that A, you’re not graded on it; but B, you can do it in your timeline and on your scale. It gives you the knowledge and access,” said Steve. “You get to come in after you’ve learned some technique in welding and make your own furniture or repair things. You get to bounce ideas off other students and it is much more flexible.”
The right equipment
Following completion of the MIG basics classes, students are eligible to participate in open shop where they can continue to practice their welding skills or complete a variety of projects. Students can bring in their own materials or purchase square tubing, stainless, sheet metal and other materials offered onsite.
Offered three times a week for three hours a time, students can pay $75 a session for access to a full shop complete with Miller welding equipment and quality welding protection from the organization’s Arc Armor line.
“I’ve been using Miller for 21 years now,” said Steve. “Western Michigan Arts program all had Miller welders. When I moved to Chicago, I got a Miller MIG welder. Every fab shop I’ve ever worked in used Miller products, and the ones that didn’t, I quickly realized didn’t have the quality or standards that Miller has. I just realized that Blue was always the best, so I wanted them for Arc Academy.”
In a partnership with Miller Electric Mfg. LLC, Arc Academy offers multiple welding bays with easy-to-use welding machines designed for the hobbyist to semi-professional welder. Steve credits Miller features such as Auto-Set™ for making it easier for his students to learn how to weld. This feature automatically sets weld parameters after providing the wire diameter and material thickness.
“One of my very first students — and this is going to stand out in my mind forever — went through his first weld and then welded his butt joint together. He flipped up his hood and said, ‘This is amazing. You can actually build anything having this knowledge.’ That guy still comes to open shops and that was four years ago.”
For those regularly attending open shop hours or looking for a secondary income, Arc Academy offers a storefront where students can sell their items. Steve believes this will help to offset costs of their hobby and provide a unique opportunity to showcase their creations.
Don’t happen to live in the Chicagoland area? Don’t let that stop you.
“We discovered pretty quickly that there was something that was missing out there,” said Brad. “There’s all these videos on how to make an iPhone app, or all this stuff for a digital world, but Americans have really forgotten how to build stuff with their hands.”
Steve and Brad want to make welding accessible to enthusiasts across the country in an easy-to-learn format. Together, they’ve developed a video curriculum available via monthly or annual membership ($10 or $75 respectively) at ArcAcademy.com.
Videos address subjects ranging from Grinding 101 and MIG Basics to Beginning Plasma and Welding Safety. For example, visitors to the site can learn about and how to weld the five basic weld joints, how to prep materials properly and more. Future video series will cover TIG welding, student projects and a Made of Metal online show where they’ll visit other shops tackling projects and then go back to the shop and execute the same work themselves.
“I went through a welding class with Steve and tried to understand how we break apart this experience,” said Brad. “So I thought, let’s make these pointed videos as part of a full curriculum that is accessible and easy to find and digest.”
One of Brad’s favorite things about creating these videos for Arc Academy is editing them in way that teaches people the best way to do something — or best shows the process — and that is where his 3D and animation skills come into play.
Brad incorporates animations into the chalk talk portions of the training series. He also works to show the penetration of the weld or arc motion techniques through additional graphics and animations.
Brad and Steve have big goals for the organization. With plans in place to offer Arc Academy locations in several large cities across the United States, the two — with support by Miller — hope to make welding education accessible to everyone.