At Rust Buster we’ve been producing strong and high-quality frame repair sections for 4x4s of all stripes for over 30 years. In that time, we’ve learned a lot about how to safely and correctly fix four-wheel drives both old and new. It’s no stretch to say we’ve kept thousands of rigs on the road that might have otherwise been scrapped.
But we also understand that taking on a project like frame repair can seem daunting, especially for folks who are new to welding and fabrication. We thought we’d take a step back and talk a little bit about the tools, education, and resources you need to get that repair done right the first time. With a measured approach and some basic knowledge, you can fix your own truck, and maybe even have a little bit of fun doing it.
The first step in taking on a new skill is gaining some foundational knowledge. Of course, there is a lot of information out there on the internet (you’re reading some right now!), and “YouTube University” is a great way to begin familiarizing yourself with the basics of welding. However, there’s no substitute for hands-on, in-person instruction from qualified teachers. This is especially true for skills like welding and metal-working that present some very real dangers.
In your area, it’s likely that a community college, technical school, or even a community center may offer an introductory welding course for the general public. Usually the fees are minimal, and they normally provide the tools and gear for students. Even a short weekend or week-long course can get you rolling with the core methods and procedures, followed up by lots and lots of practice. In addition, you may know a friend or coworker who welds and who might be willing to take you under their wing for a little bit of metal mentorship. Did I mention practice? Before firing up that MIG and tackling your frame replacement project, spend some hours welding different kinds of metals at all different kinds of angles, experimenting with different techniques and getting to know your tools.
Speaking of tools, the bar used to be fairly high for getting into welding. Decent-quality welders and accessories used to be very expensive (even used), and if you didn’t think you would be doing a lot of fab or welding, the size of the investment in the gear made hiring a professional look pretty compelling. In addition to the equipment itself, many welders used to require 220 volt power, which may have meant even rewiring your garage - another big expense.
However, labor rates for welding professionals have gone up considerably in recent years (especially as more and more people are getting out of the trade professions), but, interestingly enough, prices for welding equipment have come down considerably. It’s possible now to get into a perfectly serviceable welding set-up for less that $500, including the welder itself, a sturdy welding cart, safety gear, and even some accessories like a handful of clamps and magnets, wire brushes, and supplies like wire.
This summer I bought a basic 135 amp gasless flux core welder from YesWelder for less than $200. It plugs into a standard 110 volt outlet, is easy as pie for a beginner to use with straightforward controls and safety features. It’s light, portable, and forgiving and operates as a MIG welder, but also works for stick welding and lift-TIG, for when my skills expand. Finally, a battery powered angle grinder with a handful of good-quality cutting and grinding discs will be a useful and necessary companion to your welder.
Before you fire up that welder, though, it’s imperative to have your safety system in place. A welding mask is the main piece of gear that allows you to safely lay down those excellent beads. There are plenty of low-cost helmets out there, but it’s worth splurging a little bit on this key piece of equipment. A solid beginner’s mask should be lightweight, comfortable, and easy to manipulate without having to think too hard about it. That means a cushioned head strap with a wide range of adjustment and smooth-operating hinges. A self-darkening lens (ideally with solar charging) is a must have, and the wider field of view it has, the more confident you can be in your approach to welding. You can buy a nice helmet with all of these features for less than $150.
Gloves are another piece of kit that is worth spending a little more money on. Higher quality gloves made specifically for your type of welding will have thinner materials, which will make it easier for you to manipulate both the welding gun and the metal you’re working with. This cuts down on frustration for the beginner while still protecting your hands and arms. Gloves with longer gauntlets are also recommended, because as a welding newbie, you’re going to have some splatter. Heavy-duty cotton or wool clothing (never synthetics) for both arms and legs is mandatory, as is heavy-duty footwear. Dedicated welding coats and smocks are available, but are a bit of a splurge for the novice.
Now that you’ve protected yourself, you need to turn your attention to your work space. Since you’ll be working with heavy materials, high voltage, and searing temperatures, your workshop, garage, or driveway should be clean, uncluttered, and free from distractions. That last point is probably the most important. Approaching a welding project also requires a focused and clear mind. Once that mask comes down, it’s easy to get tunnel vision, and if interruptions and intrusions are creeping in, they can create safety hazards as well as mistakes. Send the kids inside (unless they’re learning to weld, too!), shoo away the cat, and let your talkative neighbor know you’re concentrating on your frame repair. Pick up stray tools, and make sure electrical cords won’t snag on anything in the environment.
Dirt is the enemy of strong welds, not only on the materials themselves, but also in the work space. Sweep and vacuum after cleaning your metals before beginning the welding process, and continue to clean as you progress through the project. Make sure your earth clamp has a clean and solid connection. With frame repair it can sometimes be tricky to create an ergonomically suitable work space - crawling under a vehicle often means working on your back or at strange angles. Ensure that you are able to be as comfortable as possible, while staying as safe as possible as you take your time to work through your tasks.
Research and Execution
Now that you’ve set up your work space, your safety gear, and your welding equipment, and practiced a whole bunch (Did I mention practice? It’s really important.), it’s time to research your specific project. What thickness of metal are you working with? What gauge welding wire or sticks do you need? Track down folks who have worked on similar vehicles and grill them with questions. Check out Rust Buster's huge library of YouTube videos to give you a step-by-step guide to each individual repair panel you might be working with.
Lastly, call for help! At Rust Buster we want your welding and frame repair project to be as successful as possible, and our many, many years of experience wielding welders and working on trucks both old and new mean that we’re a great resource. Learning a new skill, and repairing your favorite rig yourself is an adventure - and very satisfying when you do it right. We’re here with you every step of the way both with our knowledge, and the highest quality frame repair components and panels on the market.
Author: Stephan Edwards