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How to Get into Pipeline Welding?

Pipeline welding is a career responsible for much of life as we know it. Everything from the oil and gas industry to water, power, chemical processing, and other crucial infrastructure relies on pipeline welders to get the job done. 

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Pipeliners, also known as pipeline welders, join and repair metal pipes and tubes to keep the pipeline working and provide an essential part of infrastructure going.

Credit by @albertapipeliner

Welding pipe is usually done outside in harsh conditions and unpredictable positions. Pipeliners are considered some of the most skilled welders in the industry and are rewarded accordingly with respect and pay.

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In this article, you'll learn about the pipeline welding industry in the USA, why pipe welding is so challenging, a detailed overview of the essential pipe welding steps, and how a pipeline welder career looks like.

Pipeline Welding Industry in the USA

The pipeline welding industry in the USA is very developed. Oil refineries, mineral processing facilities, cross-country pipelines, chemical industry, food and beverage, power generation, water and natural gas utilities, and construction industry require pipeline welders to join pipes.

Photo by STINE JACOBSEN/REUTERS

Without a pipeline welding industry, many essential industries can't exist, making it an evergreen welding career.

According to the American Petroleum Institute data (API), more than 190,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines traverse the USA, while the natural gas pipelines account for the vast majority of the 2.4-million-mile USA pipeline system.

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The United States boasts 65% of the world's total pipeline length, making it a world leader in the pipeline industry among 120 competing countries. Most countries globally have just a fraction of the USA's pipeline length, with Russia at second place at about 260,000 miles and Canada third with 100,000 miles.

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The pipeline welding industry in the USA is vital for the economy and the current way of life. This is why a whole ecosystem of welding professionals has emerged in this field over the years to support the pipeline industry's needs.

Learning Pipeline Welding

To start as a pipeline welder, you must get trained and certified. While many certifications don't require formal training, you have to pass the certification tests. Technically, a pipe welder can teach you everything necessary to pass your certification tests.

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However, most people will go through formal training and learn the necessary skills in a trade school with a good pipe welding program. Many schools offer certification tests as a part of the curriculum so that you can obtain a diploma and a certificate required by the employees.

The biggest challenge is getting hands-on experience in the field. Even with the necessary papers and knowledge, you first have to work as an apprentice for a while to learn the ropes of real-world pipe welding.

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Besides skills, education, and certifications, connections are made in a welding school. It's very beneficial to participate in a welding school with active pipe welders as instructors. Gaining that first entry-level position is easier if you have someone to vouch for you. Building a network of people, employers, and companies is really important for your future. 

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A quality pipe welding program will teach you the essential welding methods with various welding processes. The two most important processes for pipe welding are SMAW (shielded metal arc welding) and GTAW (gas tungsten arc welding), also known by their common names stick and TIG welding.

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Why is Pipeline Welding Hard

Welding pipe is one of the most challenging tasks any welding professional can do. Due to the sheer number of procedures necessary to create a quality pipe weld, pipe welding requires versatile skills and a lot of experience. Couple this with the harsh working conditions, and you get a job not everyone is meant for.

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One of the more challenging elements of pipe welding is learning how to transition from one welding position to another as you progress around the circumference of the pipe. The 5G and 6G positions are the most difficult, with the 6G being the toughest to master.

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A complete pipe weld is composed of different weld passes, and each has its purpose, method of applying, and variables only a professional with experience understands.

To add to the complexity, pipe welding needs to be done promptly and without faults. You can't fall behind the schedule, and repetitive mistakes typically result in losing a job. Provided welding procedures and specifications must be rigorously followed, and the inspector will make sure they are.

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Typical pipeline welder day starts with a morning brief where everyone gets their assignments for the day, including the number of welds or inches they must complete. Everyone relies on the welder to achieve the required welds. If the welds fall short of the required standards, the welder must make repairs which can be problematic, and push back the dates.

Detailed Analysis of Pipeline Welding Art

There are many different ways to approach pipe welding and a lot of different opinions. Pipeliners swear by their methods, and everyone has their unique style. But in this breakdown, we explain the fundamental steps of pipe welding and the accompanying knowledge.

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Welding Process

Welding pipe is typically done with the stick and TIG welding processes, but pipes are also welded using FCAW (Flux-cored), GMAW (MIG), and submerged arc welding.

TIG welding is typically employed when the pipe welded joints must have a high degree of integrity. Offering the best joint quality free from defects, this welding process is preferred when the weld failure can lead to disasters or if the repair damage is too expensive. Industries like nuclear, chemical, oil, and gas often require TIG welded pipe joints.

Flux-cored and MIG processes are often used in combination when pipe welding. The FCAW electrodes can provide fast-freeze fluxes allowing large weld beads in all welding positions, making them ideal for rapid groove deposits. But the FCAW is not very good for a root pass, which is where the GMAW is used.

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The SMAW welding process is the most widely used in the pipe welding industry thanks to its applicability, portability, and simplicity of the welding equipment. For the remainder of the article, we will focus on SMAW-only because most welders use it in the industry.

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Weld Passes

All pipe welds are composed of a series of individual weld passes, and each has its purpose. These passes are the root weld pass, hot weld pass, filler weld pass(es), and cover weld pass(es). The number of passes necessary to complete a joint depends on the pipe thickness and bevel preparation.

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Root Weld Pass

A root weld pass is the first weld of the joint. Its purpose is to establish the depth and contour of the penetration. Many factors determine how many welders are necessary for a root pass. But it's typically best if two welders weld opposite one another because this minimizes the pipe distortion.

It's easier to make a root pass if you don't start at the 12-o'clock position at the top of the pipe and if you don't finish at the bottom because this makes tie-in difficult.

Hot Weld Pass

After the root pass is complete, its slag is removed by chipping and brushing, and sometimes by grinding if the code requires it. However, there is always a buildup of slag that can not be easily removed and must be burned using a hot weld pass to avoid undercut.

A pipe welder needs to ramp up the amperage output to achieve this. The high current quickly melts the metal and traps the slag causing it to float freely and burn away. The fast travel speed forms a concave bead making it easy to lay following beads.

Filler Weld Pass

Specifics of the filler weld pass depend greatly on the pipe's characteristics, available equipment, and the operator's skills. Typically, the pipeline welder will try to fill the joint as fast as possible and move on to the next one.

Welding downhill allows you to use more welding power, resulting in a higher electrode melting rate. Additionally, pipeline welders prefer using a larger diameter electrode for the filler passes than for the root and hot pass. This provides an even greater metal deposition rate and speeds up the process.

Cover Weld Pass

Once the joint is flushed with the pipe or slightly below the pipe flush line, the filler welds are complete, and you should lay a cover weld pass.

The cover pass shouldn't be too wide or overly reinforced. Excessively large cover passes reduce the pipe's strength due to the concentration of stresses in the pipe at the sides of the weld. The pipe must be able to expand and contract uniformly along its length, and an oversized weld will not allow this process to occur optimally.

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Vertical Down vs. Vertical Up Welding

Pipe welding is done in vertical down or vertical up positions, and this is specified in your WPS (welding procedure specification), among other essential details. Additionally, the code you follow and the welding electrode you use also determine which of the two travel directions to follow for pipe welding.

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Downhill pipe welding allows the operator to run "hot and fast," which provides better productivity if heat is not an issue. The uphill progression is typically considered stronger, but it has an increased potential for burn-through and takes longer to complete.

Vertical down pipe welding with cellulosic electrodes like E6010 is generally achieved with high welding currents and travel speeds. Thanks to the moisture content present in the coating of cellulosic electrodes, the arc increases its voltage push and digs deep in the metal, providing better penetration. This welding method is economical and fast, which is why many cross-country pipelines are welded with a vertical down progression using cellulosic electrodes.

 

Vertical up welding is done with lower currents and travel speeds with low-hydrogen or cellulosic electrodes. This results in a lower number of beads with larger dimensions. The low hydrogen rods for vertical up progression can achieve welds with almost no slag entrapment and porosity making them the best choice when rigorous radiographic tests must be passed.

Pipe Welding Positions

The four pipe welding positions are 1G, 2G, 5G, and 6G, each progressively more difficult. The position details if the pipe is stationary, rotating, placed horizontally, vertically, or inclined at an angle.

  • 1G Welding - The pipe is placed horizontally and can be rotated along the horizontal (X) axis while the pipe welder remains stationary. This is the most basic pipe joining method, with the weld completed on the top of the pipe.
  • 2G Welding - The pipe is placed vertically upright and can be rotated along the vertical (Y) axis while the welder remains stationary. The pipe welder lays the bead horizontally following the sides of the pipe.
  • 5G Welding - Similarly to 2G, the pipe is placed horizontally but cannot be rotated. The pipeline welder must move around the pipe with a vertical progression to make the joint.
  • 6G Welding - The pipe is inclined at 45°, creating a sloping surface. Just as with 5G, the pipe is fixed, and the pipeline welder must move around the pipe in a vertical progression. The 6G is the most challenging welding position to master, requiring a significant level of expertise.

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Pipeline welders must master and get dedicated certifications for each welding position if they wish to work the jobs requiring them.

Pipeline Welding As a Career

Being a pipeline welder is more than just a career; it's a lifestyle. Joining tubular products can range from simple pipe sections to work on pipelines, which most people have in mind when thinking of being a pipe welder.

Credit by @albertapipeliner

With the national median pay of $64,000 and an entry-level salary of $52,000, being a pipeline welder is very attractive to anyone thinking of joining the trades. However, it's a job that requires many skills and undeniable dedication.

Pipeline welders are typically expected to travel extensively and can't rely on job security. While there are many different experiences across the industry depending on the location, if you are a part of the union, and the company, typically being a pipeline welder means going from project to project.

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Keep in mind that while highly paid, you must pay your dues. It's a highly responsible job, and you will do hard work, often overtime, to obtain the $100,000+ a year salaries. Still, the ability to work outdoors in a challenging environment is what many people love.

It's a career that enters your DNA. Many pipeline welders see their co-workers as extended family. After spending 10-12h a day with fellow welders in the field for weeks and months, you'll develop lifelong bonds that are difficult to make with other careers.

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Requiring just a high school diploma, a good pipeline welding program, and a certification from the American Welding Society, it's a career many people pursue. Becoming a pipeline welder is a dream come true for many welders, and if you feel the same, we encourage you to pursue this passion.

Conclusion

This article was a general overview of pipeline welding. There are whole books detailing hundreds of variables, from the welding processes to the differences of bead weave patterns in between the passes.

Pipeline welders don't need to know everything, but they must be experts at the specific jobs they do, whether they repair tubular products, work with special pipe materials like high strength steel, weld in 6G, etc. In time you'll find your niche and become a master at it while having the general knowledge of the related skills will suffice.

2 comments

  • Bhaskar Ganji, PM( Pipelines): January 17, 2022

    Good and professional manner explained to Pipeline Welders/ Supervisors / Engineers.
    Go ahead writing further in a detailed subject for the needed persons to improve their performances.

  • Tim Hopkins: January 07, 2022

    Very good info explaining briefly about the pipeliner.

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