History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 35

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on July 1, 2014 Comments off

Let’s Make Dumbbells

Typical of the era and like almost all of the other teenaged boys I knew at that time, I had a job that kept me busy after school, in the evenings, and/or on the weekends. With time “off” to participate in high school sports, most of my “employment related work” was left for the weekends although a Saturday afternoon high school football game would often be approached after working with my father or uncle from 6 PM Friday evening, until perhaps 8 AM Saturday morning without a hint of sleep. My uncle was a respected chef who believed that the best way to keep me from falling prey to the clutches of the street was to insure that I had a viable trade. Thus, I had the advantage of learning the skills of an iron worker with that of a typical saucier and broiler man.

I was never stupid or arrogant enough to ever use the word “chef” when describing my own culinary abilities. In the parlance of the day, circa 1950’s through ‘60’s, I was a decent cook, especially as a short order cook. One of the “problems” I faced in tenth grade, perhaps the nadir of my high school academic and social performance, was finding a way to balance a relatively well paying job (for a teenager) in a local luncheonette with my school related responsibilities. Though it was obviously against the rules, short-sighted, and needless to add, completely unacceptable, I would leave the house early, begin work on the breakfast shift at the luncheonette doing every task from assisting the primary cook to washing dishes and glasses, rush the few blocks to the high school, check into homeroom, and then rush back to finish the latter part of the breakfast crunch of customers as the primary grill man. Thus, while my contemporaries were learning the finer points of the hypotenuse, I was busy serving up Western omelets and hash browns. When the breakfast rush was done, I would dash back to the high school, justifying the mad sprint as a means of enhancing my cardiovascular condition and walk into whatever class was then in session on my schedule. Of course, this unorthodox approach to one’s secondary education was not productive nor was it well tolerated by my teachers and coaches. It was rather common for teens to drop out of high school, at least among those I knew, in order to begin their “life’s work” at the age of sixteen or seventeen with a small minority moving on to college thus I did not view my behavior as being atypical nor unusual. Unfortunately, I did not understand that the hypotenuse of a right triangle was in fact, that triangle’s longest side, nor that it was even related to a right triangle and the resultant grade of 17 on my geometry mid-term revealed my lapse in school attendance. When my father commented, “Are you kidding me? That’s 17 out of 100?” I could not counter with a snappy answer and there was an immediate rearrangement of my typical week day schedule. However, I had skills in a commercial kitchen and of course, in the iron shop and with the welding background I developed by the age of twelve or thirteen, I could and did construct my own set of dumbbells. Performing what seems like a rather straight forward and mundane task correctly, like most tasks, involves more than a few simple steps if one wants and expects dumbbells to last for a lifetime of use.

Welding cast iron plates to “regular” iron bars presents some unique problems or conditions and I would like to convey this to our Titan Support System readers. My comments, made after discussion with Tom Ryan, an architectural blacksmith that works in my brother’s Koenig Iron Works shop in Long Island City, N.Y., are general in nature and as Tom pointed out “The final options are based upon the exact conditions of what one is welding and how it will be used.” Tom, like my grandfather who as a young boy began his life’s work as a blacksmith in Poland, does things the correct way.

Let me first state that cast iron isn’t used and should not be used to carry a load as one would in using a piece of beam. Cast iron can be used as a column as the stress/force is in compression, but it’s too brittle to load as per beam use and can fail. To emphasize its brittleness, I did my training at Malverne High School when I taught and coached there. We did not have a wrestling team when I arrived at the high school but there was what had been the former “wrestling room,” a space the size of three large closets jammed together with half of the floor covered by Resilite mats. The mats, a huge jump forward from the canvas covered horsehair mats that had been the standard previously, are still made by the Resilite company. These were manufactured specifically for wrestling and I can recall the advertising they used that showed an egg being dropped from a rather significant height onto the mat, without breaking or damaging the egg in any way. They were not too thick, yet they were force absorbent. I rearranged some of these so that the underlying wooden floor served as my “lifting platform” footing, while the mats were used to “catch” the barbell plates when the bar was returned to the floor. During one workout I tossed a York two-and-one-half-pound plate to the cross countery coach who served as a training partner during that year. He fumbled the plate, it hit the mat, and cracked in half. We were amazed that a top of the line York Olympic plate would so easily split in two. I sent the pieces to John Terpak, the President of York Barbell Company and he indicated that if the plates “hit just right” they could, due to their brittleness, crack. It was a lifelong lesson in cast iron dynamics for me. Even those with some welding experience will have to practice and follow procedure to make safe dumbbells one can have confidence in using, or there is a probability that the welds could, or will crack or split. Many experienced welders will look at my recommendations and no doubt state, “Geez, you don’t have to do all of that, its easier and faster to…” but I want to give general recommendations that make for a safe finished product.

In the photo above, we have pictured one not-so-strong older guy standing with two very strong individuals. George Kasimatis is currently the head football coach at Long Island’s Sewanhaka High School. For die hard football fans, Sewanhaka was the high school of former University Of Miami and long time professional quarterback Vinnie Testaverde and George has done a wonderful job of utilizing strength training as an integral part of their success the past few seasons. George as a younger man, was a terrific collegiate fullback and competitive powerlifter, certainly one of the strongest pound-for-pound lifters Long Island has ever seen. “Tommy O” was legendary for a number of things, including his skills as a bouncer and he parlayed his education, football ability, and physical strength into a position as a New York City Court Officer. Television addicts will recognize him as the court officer on the long running Judge Hatchett television show and frequent guest on “World’s Dumbest Criminals” type of episodes. Like George, Tommy represents the adage I have frequently used in print and in lectures that “The strongest man in the world probably isn’t lifting at the Olympics or winning the Senior National Powerlifting Championships. Instead he’s working a full time job, has family responsibilities, and training by himself in a garage somewhere in Cleveland,” the point being that like these two men, there are an awful lot of unbelievably strong individuals walking around that the general public doesn’t know about. That said, note the Olympic barbell plates they are holding. I had a penchant for welding handles on a lot of different odd objects, including barbell plates so that they could be carried around for strength and cardiovascular type of work. This is another application of welding iron to cast iron as the handles would either be round stock that varied in diameter from one-inch to two-inches, or pipe with similar dimensions. The preparation and welding procedures as outlined within this article were the same for these iron handles. After being bent to shape they would then have to be welded to the cast iron barbell plates. These made excellent “Husafelt Stone type” of carrying objects that served as effective finishers to many workouts.

Like any other welding job, insure that the rod and plates are clean and free of visible grime or grease. An oven cleaner or degreaser works and there are products sold in automotive stores that will take leaking oil and grease off of your concrete driveway. These will do the job for your dumbbell project. I once degreased one of the engine blocks I planned to use for some “strongman” and lifting activities with a can of Easy Off Oven Cleaner and my garden hose and it worked perfectly. It usually isn’t necessary to bevel the metal with a grinder for this specific dumbbell application but pre-heating all of the round stock and cast iron plates is recommended. Using what is now referred to as “old fashioned” stick welding rods, and I returned to school and was no longer working as a full time iron worker when wire and gas welding was first being introduced, often does not call for pre-heating but I think it helps make a better weld. We always used a torch to about 500 degrees F if welding steel to cast iron. Weld, brush the slag from the hot weld bead, and using a light round- head hammer, peen with light and fast blows. This hot-peening reduces the weld stresses and adds strength to the weld, increasing resistance to cracking. Welding will involve the last plate that is placed on the round stock and if used, a large steel washer. That end-of-the-line plate should be welded to the round stock and the washer if used, should be welded to both the cast iron plate and the round stock handle. Once the welding is completed cool the cast iron at a slow, controlled rate, as slowly as possible. This usually isn’t done, with the completed dumbbell most often left sitting on the welding table until its cool enough to handle. Take the time to cover the dumbbell(s) with a welding blanket. If welding a large number of dumbbells or an entire set, you can cover them with hot ash or sand, but use something to insulate the welded cast iron from the cooling air. As Tom said to me, “the slower the better” so as one might guess, if we’re attempting to slow down the cooling off process and cover properly, the metal will remain hot for a day or even longer. Again, I will repeat that this is almost never done and when younger, I certainly never approached the “cooling off period” with any sense of patience or seriousness. I believed that if I had welded properly, the specific weld would “hold” and there were times that I was attempting to use the dumbbell in training almost immediately afterwards while the cast iron was still hot.

As a “stick welder” often at the short end of the humorous comments about being “a really old guy” or a very “old school iron worker,” I asked Tom about options beyond my knowledge or day to day experience. Brazing with a brass rod and oxy-acetylene provides a very strong weld if one does not have the appropriate/proper welding equipment. Pre-heating to 1100 degrees F (think “red heat”) should be done. Tom believes that stick welding is the most likely to crack if for example, 150 pound dumbbells are tossed to the ground as they usually are in most training facilities but it’s the easiest welding option if done correctly. He noted that “if using Ni Rods, make short one-inch welds” and of course, this would be my option as a “pre-wire and gas guy.” For those seeking to make their own dumbbells using what many consider to be archaic methodology, one recommendation is:

Crown Alloys Company, Madison Heights, Michigan (1-248-588-3790 or 1-800-521-7878).