Oxy-Acetylene Welding of Nonferrous Metals

in Aircraft Welding

Nonferrous metals are those that contain no iron. Examples of nonferrous metals are lead, copper, silver, magnesium, and the most important in aircraft construction, aluminum. Some of these metals are lighter than the ferrous metals, but in most cases, they are not as strong. Aluminum manufacturers have compensated for the lack of strength of pure aluminum by alloying it with other metals or by cold working it. For still greater strength, some aluminum alloys are also heat treated.

Aluminum Welding

Gas welding of certain aluminum alloys can be accomplished successfully, but it requires some practice and the appropriate equipment to produce a successful weld. Before attempting to weld aluminum for the first time, become familiar with how the metal reacts under the welding flame.

A good example for practice and to see how aluminum reacts to a welding flame, heat a piece of aluminum sheet on a welding bench. Hold a torch with a neutral flame perpendicular to the sheet and bring the tip of the inner cone almost in contact with the metal. Observe that the metal suddenly melts away, almost without any indication, and leaves a hole in the metal. Now repeat the operation, only this time hold the torch at an angle of about 30° to the surface. This allows for better control of the heat and allows the surface metal to melt without forming a hole. Practice by slowly moving the flame along the surface until the puddle can be controlled without melting holes. Once that is mastered, practice on flanged joints by tacking and welding without filler rod. Then, try welding a butt joint using flux and filler rod. Practice and experience provides the visual indication of the melting aluminum so that a satisfactory weld can be performed.

Aluminum gas welding is usually confined to material between 0.031-inch and 0.125-inch in thickness. The weldable aluminum alloys used in aircraft construction are 1100, 3003, 4043, and 5052. Alloy numbers 6053, 6061, and 6151 can also be welded, but since these alloys are in the heat-treated condition, welding should not be done unless the parts can be reheat treated.

Proper preparation prior to welding any metal is essential to produce a satisfactory weld. This preparation is especially critical during oxy-acetylene welding of aluminum. Select the proper torch tip for the thickness of metal being welded. Tip selection for aluminum is always one size larger than one would normally choose for the same thickness in a steel sheet. A rule of thumb: 3⁄4 metal thickness = tip orifice.

Set the proper regulator pressure using the following method for oxy-acetylene welding of aluminum. This method has been used by all aircraft factories since World War II. Start by slowly opening the valve on the oxygen cylinder all the way until it stops to seat the upper packing. Now, barely crack open the acetylene cylinder valve until the needle on the gauge jumps up, then open one-quarter turn more. Check the regulators to ensure the adjusting screws are turned counterclockwise all the way out and loose. Now, open both torch valves wide open, about two full turns (varies with the torch model). Turn the acetylene regulator by adjusting the screw until the torch blows a light puff at a two-inch distance. Now, hold the torch away from the body and light it with the striker, adjusting the flame to a bright yellow bushy flame with the regulator screw. Add oxygen by slowly turning in the oxygen regulator screw to get a loud blue flame with a bright inner cone, perhaps a bit of the “fuel-rich” feather or carburizing secondary cone. By alternately turning in each of the torch valves a little bit, the flame setting can be lowered to what is needed to either tack or weld.

Special safety eyewear must also be used to protect the welder and provide a clear view through the yellow-orange flare given off by the incandescing flux. Special purpose green-glass lens have been designed and patented especially for aluminum oxy-fuel welding by TM Technologies. These lenses cut the sodium orange flare completely and provide the necessary protection from ultraviolet, infrared, blue light, and impact. They meet safety standard ANSI Z87-1989 for a special-purpose lens.

Apply flux either to the material, the filler, or both if needed. The aluminum welding flux is a white powder mixed one part powder to two parts clean spring or mineral water. (Do not use distilled water.) Mix a paste that can be brushed on the metal. Heating the filler or the part with the torch before applying the flux helps the flux dry quickly and not pop off when the torch heat approaches. Proper safety precautions, such as eye protection, adequate ventilation, and avoiding the fumes, are recommended.

The material to be welded must be free of oil or grease. It should be cleaned with a solvent; the best being denatured isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. A stainless toothbrush should be used to scrub off the invisible aluminum oxide film just prior to welding, but after cleaning with alcohol. Always clean the filler rod or filler wire prior to use with alcohol and a clean cloth.

Make the best possible fit-up for joints to avoid large gaps and select the appropriate filler metal that is compatible with the base metal. The filler should not be a larger diameter than the pieces to be welded. [Figure 5-26]

Figure 5-26. Filler metal selection chart.

Figure 5-26. Filler metal selection chart.

Begin by tacking the pieces. The tacks should be applied 1–11⁄2-inches apart. Tacks are done hot and fast by melting the edges of the metal together, if they are touching, or by adding filler to the melting edges when there is a gap. Tacking requires a hotter flame than welding. So, if the thickness of the metal being welded is known, set the length of the inner cone of the flame roughly three to four metal thicknesses in length for tacking. (Example: .063 aluminum sheet = 3⁄16–1⁄4 inch inner cone.)

Once the edges are tacked, begin welding by either starting at the second tack and continuing on, or starting the weld one inch in from the end and then welding back to the edge of the sheet. Allow this initial skip-weld to chill and solidify. Then, begin to weld from the previous starting point and continue all the way to the end. Decrease the heat at the end of the seam to allow the accumulated heat to dissipate. The last inch or so is tricky and must be dabbed to prevent blowthrough. (Dabbing is the adding of filler metal in the molten pool while controlling the heat on the metal by raising and lowering the torch.)

Weld bead appearance, or making ringlets, is caused by the movement of the torch and dabbing the filler metal. If the torch and add filler metal is moved at the same time, the ringlet is more pronounced. A good weld has a bead that is not too proud and has penetration that is complete.

Immediately after welding, the flux must be cleaned by using hot (180 °F) water and the stainless steel brush, followed by liberal rinsing with fresh water. If only the filler was fluxed, the amount of cleanup is minimal. All flux residues must be removed from voids and pinholes. If any particular area is suspect to hidden flux, pass a neutral flame over it and a yellow-orange incandescence will betray hiding residues.

Proper scrubbing with an etching solution and waiting no longer than 20 minutes to prime and seal avoids the lifting, peeling, or blistering of the finished topcoat.

Magnesium Welding

Gas welding of magnesium is very similar to welding aluminum using the same equipment. Joint design also follows similar practice to aluminum welding. Care must be taken to avoid designs that may trap flux after the welding is completed, with butt and edge welds being preferred. Of special interest is the high expansion rate of magnesium based alloys, and the special attention that must be given to avoid stresses being set up in the parts. Rigid fixtures should be avoided; use careful planning to eliminate distortion.

In most cases, filler material should match the base material in alloy. When welding two different magnesium alloys together, the material manufacturer should be consulted for recommendations. Aluminum should never be welded to magnesium. As in aluminum welding, a flux is required to break down the surface oxides and ensure a sound weld. Fluxes sold specifically for the purpose of fusion welding magnesium are available in powder form and are mixed with water in the same manner as for aluminum welding. Use the minimum amount of flux necessary to reduce the corrosive effects and cleaning time required after the weld is finished. The sodium-flare reducing eye protection used for aluminum welding is of the same benefit on magnesium welding.

Welding is done with a neutral flame setting using the same tip size for aluminum welding. The welding technique follows the same pattern as aluminum with the welding being completed in a single pass on sheet gauge material. Generally, the TIG process has replaced gas welding of magnesium due to the elimination of the corrosive flux and its inherent limitations on joint design.