It's 6 a.m. and tall, tattooed Duke Walker is starting his 16-hour day at High Country Fabrication in Casper, using his considerable brains in addition to muscle.

It’s 6 a.m. and tall, tattooed Duke Walker is starting his 16-hour day at High Country Fabrication in Casper, using his considerable brains in addition to muscle.

He may be wearing scuffed (but high-quality) steel-toe boots, stained work jeans and a T-shirt, but he’s going to use complicated math and physics on his job today as “one of the best fabricators in the country,” according to his boss, Brad Pate.

The task: Finish work on a 16-and-a-half foot long mixed-fuel gas drum with nearly perfect welds before it’s shipped to a BP plant in Illinois. The drum will hold potentially dangerous and flammable gas — it matters how well Duke does his job.

Soon he’ll be kneeling inside the pipe on thick kneepads with “Duke” written on them and his protective helmet over his face, welding and managing temperatures of up to 490 degrees. The sound will echo in the pipe; hot, bright flashes from the welding will frame Duke’s head and he’ll produce “back welds” that will be nearly flawless.

‘Getting a game plan’

Before he picks up welding equipment, Duke’s work starts with the concept: “Measure twice; cut once.” Get it right the first time, says Duke, because this equipment is big, potentially dangerous and very expensive. He’s leaning over plans for building the drum at his work station. He says that “getting a game plan” is the first thing he does each day.

“If we make it wrong, it could stop the whole project further down the line,” Duke says, “and that would cost a lot of money.” Not to mention wasted time and effort. The company, also known as HICO, is proud of being able to craft its pressure vessels, tube heat exchangers and many other products to meet high safety standards.

The company will manufacture and ship from 50 to 100 items each year with a highly trained team of 47 fabricators, welders, engineers machine tool operators and inspectors.

Duke will study the complicated plans on his table to make decisions in putting together the vessel.

He will verify procedures for welding, such as which kinds of bolts and materials are approved for this project. That’s no simple matter. According to Pate, president of HICO, the company has 140 different weld procedures that it can use in its customized manufacturing. This particular vessel plan has four different weld procedures that Duke uses to make his individual choices for the day’s work.

If he were working on a vessel that is used for “lethal service, like H2S (the toxic, flammable gas hydrogen sulfide),” Pate says, it would require a different procedure for extra security and safety.

One feature of the wet gas drum Duke is working on this day is the 24-inch entry-way (called a “man way”) to allow a person to get into the drum. The welds surrounding that are crucial.

Starting to weld

Having made his game plan for the day, Duke puts on his safety mask and climbs inside the 16.5-foot-long pipe with an internal diameter of 53 inches, ready to weld the inside of the seam joining together the steel that has been formed into a tube.

The tube started out in a different HICO section, the material prep department, as a flat plate of carbon steel. Then it was rolled into the cylinder Duke is piecing together.

His first step is to warm the metal with a torch, following guidelines recommending a preheat temperature of 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, finally, he begins to weld, monitoring the temperature of the metal at all times so it doesn’t get too hot and weaken the weld.

The sparks fly, melting the material that will fill the 5/8-inch groove where the parts fit together.

Bring in the inspectors

Duke’s welding work on the vessel will go through three checks before he puts his welder’s stamp on it and it goes to the next phase of production.

First, John Swanson, a HICO floor inspector, comes over to check the “fit-ups and layouts” to be sure Duke’s calculations are correct. Duke is known for precise work, and Pate explains, “That plant in Illinois has a piece of pipe that bolts up to that flange. When Duke builds it, it will be within closer than the 1/8th-inch tolerance.”

Duke next moves to the outside of the vessel to work on a long seam. This is where the welding looks particularly dramatic because he arc welds, creating the signature hot white light that people associate with welding.

Despite the heat and electricity in the air, Duke works methodically. And when the second inspector of the day comes over to look at his work, it passes easily. Tom Koopman performs a mag test, or magnetic particle inspection, to detect surface weakness, air in the weld or other flaws. “There aren’t any with Duke,” he reports.

Finally x-ray tests will be performed with radiation inside the pipe going through the weld to reveal any defects.

At the end of his 16-hour day, Duke stands up and stretches. He’s been climbing up and down on steel pipe all day and he feels it. He is 44 and has learned to be a master fabricator earning more than $100,000 a year mostly through on-the-job training. Most weeks are 65 to 70 hours of work.

He started out working for his father’s drywall company and learned to read blueprints in construction. “One day [I] picked up a print and started building. It helps to have a lot of math to read prints and procedures,” he explains.

Duke came to HICO six years ago after being a welder’s helper and becoming qualified to read codes.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he says with a laugh, straightening his back at the end of the work day. In fact, it’s his accumulated knowledge and experience that makes him so valuable, according to Pate.

Pate searches for words to describe what makes a good master fabricator and settles on, “They’ve got to have aptitude and be hard workers — it’s very physically demanding.”

For Duke, it’s a matter of “doing it right the first time.”