Tightrope Artist Welds His Way to New Heights

Written by: James Wilkey
Written by: James Wilkey

Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how much care and craftsmanship goes into a quality weld. You’d probably reflect on it more if that weld was responsible for keeping you suspended several hundred feet above the ground. Needless to say, tightrope walker and welder Jamie Hamilton thinks about the quality of his work a lot. Especially since he welds the support structures that suspend the tightropes he walks across. These structures also hold his safety nets in place, should he ever fall. “An exploration of possibility and structure has always been a staple of my work, but it becomes much more serious when building aerial structures upon which my life depends. I take a stance of total responsibility when I become engineer, designer, fabricator and performer,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton’s fascination with joining metals started early in high school. “I was fascinated by this material that could become liquid, but was also strong and ductile. I fell in love with the material and the forgery of it,” Hamilton said. After high school, Hamilton began to work as an apprentice to an architectural blacksmith. As an apprentice, Hamilton became aware of the beauty and creative potential that fabrication offered. “When structures become totally pragmatic, like a bridge, they become beautiful,” Hamilton said. “They’re not designed to be that way, but in their purpose they have a sense of artistry and grace.” After his apprenticeship, Hamilton studied sculpture at Bard College in New York and graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts from the Transart Institute. His studies there allowed him to combine his three greatest passions: fabrication, art, and performance.

In his 30s, Hamilton started working on creating structures that would hold his tightrope. Hamilton begins each project by carefully thinking about the scale. “I try to figure out how tall it’s going to be. How will it be supported or installed? Will it be across a gorge, natural setting, or supported by trusses?” Once he’s decided how high and far he wants his walk to be, Hamilton determines which support system to use before beginning work at his shop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I have to start engineering the dimensions and determine what will be needed to support the load,” Hamilton explained. To make a self-supporting rig for tightrope walking, Hamilton must construct two columns that are anchored to the ground. These columns are further supported by lattice trusses that maintain each end of the tightrope.

Hamilton uses a Hypertherm Powermax85 plasma cutting machine to build many of the customized steel components that are anywhere from 1/3 to 1 inch thick. “When building a steel structure like this, you can’t go to a hardware store to buy the parts. I design and build many of them myself with a handheld torch and various cutting jigs,” he said. Although Hamilton previously used grinders with cutting disks to do some of the work, he discovered that plasma cutting saved him time and money. He also felt that plasma cutting was safer because it produces much less metal debris during each cut.

Tightrope Welder Video Image

Once everything is cut and shaped, Hamilton welds the components of the truss section and the high-wire support columns. Gas tungsten arc welding is almost exclusively used to build his aerial structures and sculptures. Hamilton prefers a Miller Dynasty 350 as his primary machine. He also makes use of shielded arc metal welding on the rare occasion that he has to make an on-site or in-situ weld.

Once everything is constructed, Hamilton weaves his safety net made of thousands of sliced nylon ropes just above the ground. When Hamilton takes the first step across the rope and rig that he constructed, he says he tries to remain calm. “Even though I am trying hard to focus, sometimes my mind wanders, and I actually think about mundane things like the bills I need to pay.” Hamilton takes confidence rather than anxiety from the fact that he builds his own rigs. “It gives me a sense of security knowing that I built it myself. I have nobody else to blame if something goes wrong.” That mentality has also found its way into other parts of Hamilton’s life. “Real self-responsibility. I don’t wish to blame anyone else for things that go wrong in my life. That has been a great lesson from this.”For the original version of this story and more, check out “Fabricating without Fear” by Virginia Hilton in this month’s issue of the Welding Journal, free with your AWS membership.

AWS Learning offers comprehensive online courses that present the principles of many welding processes in an engaging, easy-to-understand format. These include the GTAW, SMAW, and plasma cutting processes that Hamilton uses to build his tightrope structures. For more information about welding education, certification, and new ways to expand your welding career, check out our other blogs, podcasts, virtual conferences, online courses, and digital tools designed to help you grow and succeed.