Everyone Knows It Can’t Be Done / Steel Plate Column Tops

Our next task was to fabricate pieces of steel plate to put on top of the columns and weld them to the four steel rebar pieces sticking up through each of the columns.

I took a day trip to Panama City to have the Honda serviced and to purchase the steel plate. After the car was serviced, I headed to a company called Metales. This is a huge company that sells all kinds of metal, and if they don’t have it, it doesn’t exist in Panama. I asked for 1/4″ thick steel plate, 16″ wide, 20′ long. No, I was informed, the widest they had was 8″. I stepped aside and contemplated welding two pieces together to make up the 16″, but I knew that this would be a lot of work, and it would warp from the welding heat if I wasn’t careful.

Next I asked if they had any 4’x8′ sheets. No, not in 1/4″, but they did have it in 3/16″ and also in 1/2″. I knew that I didn’t have the capacity to cut the 1/2″, although it would have been ideal for the project, good and beefy, very impressive. Also, I needed one sheet plus 16″ off a second sheet, and not only would it have been a fool’s errand to try to carry all that weight home in the pickup, freshly serviced or not, it was just plain stupid.

So, as it is with much of life here in Panama, Make Do is a valid, welcome option. I decided to make do with the 3/16″ stock. I paid $285 for two sheets, and a very skilled forklift driver loaded them into the pickup. Back home at the job site, while the men were digging away on the septic system, I laid out a grid of 16″ squares on the first sheet of steel plate while it was still in the truck. The sun was beating down on the steel and it was HOT. I pulled the heavy sheet about 2′ off the end of the truck and started cutting the steel with a cutoff disk on the big angle grinder. I repeated pulling the steel off the truck and cutting the squares through the first full sheet and part of the second. I ground the razor-sharp edges smooth with the small angle grinder. I’ll use the rest of the sheet for a future project, maybe a super strong door. I used about 10 cutting disks ($3 each), but at the end of the day I had 20 pieces of steel, each one 16″ square, for the tops of the shipping container support columns.

When the septic system was done, I dropped the crew back down to just Armando and me.

Some of the rebar was sticking up quite high above the tops of the columns, so I set Armando to cutting off the rebar to about 3″ above the concrete. I set a piece of steel plate on top of the rebar sticking above the first column. I labeled the steel “1”. Then with a black Sharpie, I reached underneath and traced around the rebar. Armando and I did this with all 20 pieces, although I didn’t label them all “1”.

Next, we had to drill holes for the rebar to protrude up through the steel plate. The rebar is 5/8″, so I figured I would drill 3/4″ holes. We set up the saw horses in the shade under the big top tent and screwed some of the 1″x3″ boards to the horses to make a small workbench. We clamped down the first piece of steel and started drilling. We got the first two squares done in about three hours, and we both had sore ribs from the twisting of the drill when it would get stuck in the metal. Doing the math, I could see that 60 hours to accomplish the job was absurd. And it would take longer as the drill bits, Armando, and I dulled.

Okay, Plan B. I have a plasma torch (it is like a welder and uses compressed air to blow the hot steel away from the cut), so we went home and got it and the air compressor. After wiring up a second breaker in the main electrical panel we fired the torch and … nothing happened. Everything looked okay, but maybe a gecko got into the electronics and shorted it out. This happened with my computer; a gecko died and fried on the motherboard. Okay, put all that gear away.

Okay, Plan C. Currently, I didn’t have a Plan C, and neither did Armando. But somehow, Plan C popped into my head, just like that. Everyone knows that you can’t put a square peg in a round hole. It can’t be done. Many have tried and failed, even New England farmers. All I wanted to do was put a round peg in a round hole, something that “they” say can be done. But I was stymied by the drilling process. Very stymied.

Then it struck me. Nowhere, nowhere, is it said that you can’t put a round peg in a square hole. I searched the Internet for this, and I couldn’t find a single valid reason for not putting a round peg in a square hole. Or even an invalid reason. So there, we would make square holes. I commented to Armando that it took three hours to come up with a good idea.

I set Armando up with the big angle grinder with a supply of cutoff disks, and he merrily burned through ten more disks as he cut 76 somewhat square holes in all remaining nineteen plates in just a few hours.

Back in my previous post, A Worthy Exercise, I determined that the tops of the columns were not exactly even with each other. So Armando and I mixed up some mortar, spread it on the top of each column, and using a hammer, tapped the steel plates down until they were the right height and level in each direction. As the mortar set, we removed the steel plates and loaded them back into the truck for safe keeping at home overnight.

Now it was time to weld the plates to the rebar. I had Armando clean the mortar from around the rebar so I could weld, and I started welding on the first plate. I saw that Armando was in slo-mo, as he has been hacking and coughing with a head cold the past few days. I sent him home and told him I would pay him for the day if he stayed in his hammock and rested. He agreed. I spent the rest of the day welding, and by 2:00 quitting time I had eleven plates welded in place.

Some of Armando’s holes were significantly on the large size, so I used a scrap piece of 3/8″ rebar, melting it with a welding rod into the openings. This is a trick I learned from the local guys, and it saved a lot of welding rod. It took me another hour to pick up the tools, eat a few oranges, and roll up the massively oversize extension cord that I made out of heavy aluminum service entrance cable that I had on hand. Tomorrow I will finish welding, and if Armando is better, he will continue by cutting off the rebar and grinding the plates smooth.

My only complaint with my work is that a couple of the plates warped from getting too hot. But the containers will be sitting on, and welded to, the plates. There will be an elevated walkway just above the steel plates and around much of the house so the warping won’t be seen, and at the end of the day I don’t think that the warping will matter, especially as we are in Make Do mode with this part of the project.

Here are some photos:

I arrive at the job site with the steel plate.

Armando cuts square-ish holes in the steel plate.

Armando spreads mortar higher than needed. Then we tap the steel plate into place level and at the right height.

Now I can weld the plate to the rebar.

Now Armando will cut the rebar off and grind it smooth.

Here's my welder.

See you next time.

9 thoughts on “Everyone Knows It Can’t Be Done / Steel Plate Column Tops

    • Inspection? The only inspection is at the end by the fire department, and that is only for the electrical service. All the same, though, I have built to the engineer’s specs for the footings and columns except for the thickness of the steel plates. And what is 3/16″ going to do? Tear? Once it is welded it will be fine.

  1. and another thing, once the weld is ground away make sure it’s still weld on the re-bar concrete has a habit of popping into the weld and blocking it, then it’s hard to burn through it

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