The blade of the handheld angle grinder spins at 20,000 revolutions per minute. When Neal Jordan presses it against the welds of the steel hexagon in front of him, a shower of sparks sprays across the room like fire from a garden hose.
Apparently, it’ll be my turn to do this in about an hour.
I’m at Dirty Hands Fabrication in Arvada, and I’m taking the shop’s new Women in Welding workshop. Owner Jordan, 35, started the class in January, so this is only its second running. But he’s already filled nearly every spot in his three monthly workshops (which are also LGBTQ+ friendly) until May. Each participant goes home from the two-and-a-half-hour weeknight workshop with an object she created.
The class is a passion project for Jordan, who does metalwork for breweries and restaurants by day (you’ve probably seen his work at Linger and Root Down in Denver). It doesn’t make money: The $85 fee just covers materials, and allows Jordan to pay his apprentice, 25-year-old Morgan Littleton, to help teach the class. Students can also opt to pay $100, which contributes toward tuition for one student per workshop who can’t afford it. (Jordan says that nearly every participant so far has opted for the “pay it forward option.”)
Welding is a heavily male-dominated field: Despite efforts by the industry to attract more women in the past decade, only between four to six percent of professional welders are female. In the past few years, women’s welding courses have sprung up in places like Tucson, Santa Fe, and Detroit, to lower two big barriers to entry: cost and intimidation.
Jordan believes that most women have directly or indirectly been told all their lives that welding is a man’s job—which is why he also believes it can be particularly empowering for them to try it. “There’s an initial un-comfortability, you’re in an environment you’ve probably never seen before,” he says, describing the reaction he observed from students in his January workshop. “There’s a fear, because a lot of things can hurt you. But then somebody shows that it won’t hurt you…And now not only are you doing this thing that you thought was scary as shit, and ‘I’ve always only seen men do it,’ but this person is telling you you’re doing a good job. I think that’s why a lot of women connect with it.”
Even as a woman who considers herself pretty gutsy—I love skiing steeps and I race mountain bikes—I definitely experience that initial fear factor as I watch Jordan demonstrate how to tack two pieces of metal together, use the welding gun, and smooth out our welds with that spark-spraying grinder. I’m decked out in non-flammable safety gear, and Jordan promises that nothing in the shop—ourselves included—is going to catch on fire. “Just don’t freak out,” he says, if sparks land on us. I nod, but I’m not at all certain I can be held to not freaking out. The lack of chatter from the four other women in the class betrays trepidation too.
My first attempt with the gun proves that welding is hard—the light from the gun is blinding, and I keep unconsciously backing away. But Jordan and Littleton encourage me to “lean in” instead, and as I start my second weld, a sense of determination comes over me: I’m gonna get this. I watch the puddle of melted metal form behind the nozzle, and my eyes adjust. When I put the gun down, adrenaline rushes over me, as if I just landed a jump on my mountain bike.
Jordan walks away to help another student. Before I know it, I’m welding on my own, grinning behind my mask. I’m not alone: When I look up, I see a woman named Rosi dancing giddily with the hexagonal planter she just welded together. On another workbench, her sister Hannah bends over a grinder, brow wrinkled with focus, undisturbed by the sparks flying around her. Twenty minutes later, that’s me, too—using that previously terrifying grinder to transform my lumpy welds to a smooth finish, mesmerized into a trancelike state.
Littleton, who has been welding for a year, says it has entirely changed who she is as a person. “I always had anxiety before, I was never confident with myself. This has helped so much…If I can weld two pieces of metal together that can hold a person’s weight, I can do anything.” But even a couple hours in the shop seems to have a transformative effect. Rosi, for example, tells me, “I feel super badass—strong, powerful. I’m very happy. I don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight.”
“No one is going to come out from two-and-a-half hours of teaching and be a welder,” says Jordan. “But you can get a little seed planted of ‘hey, this is me, I did this with my hands.’” Indeed, in the days following the workshop, I find myself thinking about what else I might do that I never considered in the past: Learn to hunt? Fix up a house? Maybe even take another welding class?
Jordan is exploring the possibility of putting on more advanced workshops for women in the community. And while Women in Welding is currently limited to six participants per class, local individuals and businesses like Black Stallion Welding have stepped up to sponsor more gear and materials, so Jordan hopes to eventually grow that number. For now, the best way to sign up is to email him (firstname.lastname@example.org), or message him on Facebook or Instagram.