Visual inspection is a non-destructive testing (NDT) weld quality testing process where a weld is examined to determine surface discontinuities. It is the most common method of weld quality testing and the most abused form of NDT by any stretch of the imagination.  Almost every fabricator with a quality department that doesn’t drink coffee all day has a step in their fabrication process for a visual inspection. VT is the best NDT method, but it needs to be performed before, during, and after welding. But the key to VT is proper training; no matter who conducts the inspection, you are just doing a dog and pony show without formal training and technique.  The process seems the most straightforward and basic inspection but is the most difficult. 

Why? Good question and I hope to answer that within this blog.

First, we must know what visual inspection is; ASNT defines VT as “visual observation of the surface of a test object to evaluate the presence of surface discontinuities. VT inspections may be by Direct Viewing, using line-of-sight vision, or maybe enhanced with optical instruments such as magnifying glasses, mirrors, borescopes, charge-coupled devices (CCDs), and computer-assisted viewing systems (Remote Viewing). Corrosion, misalignment of parts, physical damage, and cracks are some of the discontinuities that visual examinations may detect.”

VT is the most basic, cost-effective NDT method. It should take place before, during, and after welding. Many standards require it before other forms because there is no point in submitting a bad weld to sophisticated inspection techniques. Welding codes always state that welds subject to the non-destructive examination shall have been found acceptable by visual examination. VT requires good eyesight in the technician and sufficient light, a weld size gauge, a magnifying glass, and a 6-in. metal ruler.

Before the first welding arc is struck, materials should be examined to see if they meet specifications for quality, type, size, cleanliness, and freedom from defects. First, grease, paint, oil, oxide film, or heavy scale should be removed. Next, the pieces to be joined should be checked for flatness, straightness, and dimensional accuracy. Likewise, alignment, fit-up, and joint preparation should be examined. Finally, process and procedure variables should be verified, including electrode size and type, equipment settings, and preheating or post-heat provisions. All these precautions apply regardless of the inspection method being used. 

Visual examination of a weld bead and the end crater during fabrication may reveal problems such as cracks, inadequate penetration, and gas or slag inclusions. Weld defects that can be recognized visually are cracking, surface slag in inclusions, surface porosity, and undercut.

On simple welds, inspecting at the beginning of each operation and periodically as work progresses may be adequate. Where more than one layer of filler metal is being deposited, it may be desirable to inspect each layer before depositing the next. The root pass of a multipass weld is the most critical to weld soundness. It is especially susceptible to cracking, and because it solidifies quickly, it may trap gas and slag. On subsequent passes, conditions caused by the shape of the weld bead or changes in the joint configuration can cause further cracking, undercut, and slag trapping. Repair costs can be minimized if visual inspection detects these flaws before welding progresses. 

Visual inspection at an early production stage can also prevent under and over-welding. Welds smaller than called for in the specifications cannot be tolerated. Beads that are too large increase costs unnecessarily and can cause distortion through added shrinkage stress.

After welding, a visual inspection can detect various surface flaws, including cracks, porosity, and unfilled craters, regardless of subsequent inspection procedures. In addition, dimensional variances, warpage, appearance flaws, and weld size characteristics can be evaluated.

Before checking for surface flaws, welds must be cleaned of slag. Shot blasting should not be done before the examination because the peening action may seal fine cracks and make them invisible. The AWS D1.1 Structural Welding Code, for example, does not allow peening “on the root or surface layer of the weld or the base metal at the edges of the weld.”

Visual inspection can only locate defects in the weld surface. Specifications or applicable codes may require examining the internal portion of the weld and adjoining metal zones. Non-destructive examinations may be used to determine the presence of a flaw. Still, they cannot measure its influence on the product’s serviceability unless they are based on a correlation between the defect and some characteristic that affects service. Otherwise, destructive tests are the only sure way to determine weld serviceability.

The great thing about VT is that it can be taught to anyone, and it should be, with proper training and technique.  Welders, fitters, and even the receiving department should all have some training in the appropriate use of VT.  Catching issues as far upstream will save money and time for all projects, and VT is the first line of defense.