The similarity between tuning a guitar and welding is not something just anybody would pick up on.
But to Bill Madron the connection is obvious.
Madron, who’s an accomplished country and blues musician in addition to being a welding supervisor on the new Tacoma Narrows bridge, says laying down a righteous weld is like making music.
“If you’re tuning the E string against the A string, you know it’s right when you hear it,: he said recently. “A guitar is either in tune or it ain’t.
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“Welding is the same way. It’s either on the money or it ain’t.”
Madron, now 66, grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, “a beautiful place to live,” he said, “but you can’t make no money.”
When he left North Carolina, he took his slow, melodious Southern drawl with him. It helps establish an air of calm on the new bridge deck, where he oversees welding crews joining the 46 deck sections into a continuous milelong sheet of steel.
Madron started welding when he was 20 and has been at it ever since. As a young man in the 1960s, he combined his work with his passion for music, traveling from town to town, welding by day and playing in clubs at night.
Long story short: He fell in love (more than once), sold his motorcycle, landed a prestigious job with the Bechtel Corp. and wound up with four daughters and three sons.
He shrugs. “Tastes change as you get older,” he said.
Welding now gets more of his energy than music, but he still finds time to play, wherever his work takes him.
“You know how it is,” he said. “Musicians find each other. You start playing with somebody, then somebody else comes along.”
Like music, Madron said, welding is work that takes constant attention and a commitment to quality, and pays off in satisfaction. And, like serious musicians, he said, good welders need to practice constantly to keep their chops.
“Welding is part science, part art,” he said. “It’s not entirely one or the other.”
Normally, it takes young welders at least three years to bring their welding skills to a point high enough to qualify for an exacting industrial job like the bridge, but Madron said career development depends heavily on natural aptitude.
Some people are naturally cut out for welding and take to it immediately, he said. Others never get it.
“You either are a welder or you aren’t,” he said.
Bechtel put Madron on the Tacoma bridge job back in the fall of 2002, when Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle was fabricating the caissons’ steel bottoms, or “cutting edges.”
Since then, the project has taken him to Japan, where most of the steel for the bridge originated, and to South Korea, where he helped Samsung workers build the deck sections. He’s enjoyed the travel and the challenges.
“Welding has been very good to me,” Madron said. “It’s hot and dirty, but it’s an honest game … and it’s good money.”