New Skill Acquired: Plasma Cutter

A project log for The Village

Long term project to build an entire village using sustainable technology and traditional methods.

DustinDustin 01/21/2022 at 01:370 Comments

Earlier this week, I spent about 15 hours with the cutting torch. Just hacking apart a massive railroad dump truck I'm rebuilding. Hacking away at the truck, burning myself with slag and splatters, and leaving behind some truly hideous cuts as the torch got caught up and extinguished itself. Multiple tip cleanings later and I'd had the bulk of the cutting done. It was honestly pretty irritating. 

Today's one key cut was a very important one. I had to take off the remaining parts of the main top bed rail. This is a square steel tube 4 inches wide on each side, with a triangle on top, like one very long house. The cut was about 113 inches long. Almost 10 feet. It needed to be as straight as possible to avoid me wasting an entire day grinding it down. For this task, the resident shop old timer(meant with all the respect in the world), brought in the plasma cutter. I told him I was hesitant to use the torch, as it's been unreliable and leaves a ton of clean up work. I'd considered using an angle grinder and cut off wheels, but it would likely take a few hours and destroy my upper body to do so. The metal cutting circular saw had crossed my mind, but he informed me that it doesn't do well cutting through welds, of which there were many. This is precisely why it's best to ask for advice in new and unknown situations. Something I used to be quite hesitant to do. After determining the proper tool to use, I had to figure out how to get a nice straight cut. Cutting free hand with a magic wand that blows through steel like scissors through paper is quite difficult. I thought the cutting torch was fast, but this thing is scary fast. The shower of sparks and fire that shoots from the end as it cuts is quite a spectacular sight to behold. Without the steadiest of hands, a straight line is an impossibility. I came up with the idea to take some L shaped steel strip I'd bent and use it as a guide for the plasma cutter tip. I used self drilling screws to secure it to the steel wall, a half inch below the line I'd drawn for the actual cut. To make that line, which resides on the inside of the bed, I used a drill to put a few holes just under the weld we needed to cut under, and then connected the dots on the inside with a straight edge. I set up the plasma cutter and did all of the prep work, then went off to do something else while I waited for the nice man to come hack off the giant piece of bed. I hadn't left the set up alone more than a few minutes before he'd made the vast majority of the cut. I couldn't believe how fast that went. The set up time was significant, but the end result was excellent. I've never seen such a clean cut in such thick steel before. I ended up finishing the rest of the cut after a bit more set up, and loved the machine. I'm quite confident that I'll be able to gain proficiency with a plasma cutter in the next few weeks. I have much more cutting to do on this truck, then a third truck like it up next. After that I have at least two huge crane trucks to rebuild. There will be plenty of steel to cut. 

The main differences between the cutting torch and the plasma cutter are their fuel sources. Both excel at blasting through impossibly thick steel with ease, but there is one key difference that would make a plasma cutter a better choice for The Village in the long run: sustainability. While the torch requires high pressure tanks of explosive gasses, the plasma cutter requires only electricity and compressed air. Both of which are easily renewable. If the economy collapses, it's going to be far easier to make electricity than huge tanks of compressed oxygen. While the torch is far more portable, and will likely have a place in The Village at some point, the added expense of fueling it makes it a poor fit. If needed, a plasma cutter can be stuck in a truck bed with a generator and air compressor and carted around nearly as well as a large torch. 

As for how I'd actually use such tools in a medieval style village, that was easy enough. The main reason to keep such tools around is to enable the repair of other tools, such as tractors, vehicle frames, and various bits of heavy steel. What might take hours with saws and abrasive methods can be done in minutes or seconds with a plasma cutter or torch. It's the combination of countless small time and energy saving methods like this that will enable this project to actually move forward. If I can save a few hours here and there, a tool or method will earn it's keep. On the list of tools I'd like to acquire for this project is a CNC plasma cutting table. I've seen them in use, and one could be the difference between a build or repair taking days or hours. Such a device could also be used to generate income in the form of custom fabrication of various structural, or even decorative items. Every tool needs to pull it's weight, earn it's keep, and help generate income if needed. 

The plasma cutter does have a few consumables to consider. From what I've gathered, there are a few copper or brass nozzle pieces that do wear out and take damage and need replaced. With this in mind, I can plan for such things, and use a lathe and mill to eventually create replacement tips for a plasma cutter, reducing the need for yet another specialty piece from the outside world. 

And with all that said, and today's good introduction to plasma cutters, I give the humble plasma cutter the sustainable seal of approval, despite being a power hungry industrial beast of a tool. With this new Skill, I'm one tiny step closer to bringing this dream to life.