Sparking Controversy: Which welding machine is right for you?
Sooner or later it’s going to happen and you won’t resist the urge any longer. You’re going to get a welding machine. But what kind?
What type of welding you plan to do. What projects may arise in the future that you might need a better machine or process to address it? If you are only working with thin materials now, will you be working with something heavier in the future, like building a roll bar or repairing a trailer? What about aluminum? Some techniques and machines are better suited for welding aluminum than others. Aluminum welding also requires more amperage for the same thickness in steel.
Before you buy a machine, power supply is another thing you need to consider. Is your shop building old enough that perhaps George Washington once slept there? Some older buildings may not have adequate wiring required for welding. Take a look at your work space, what outlets do you have and how much voltage and amperage will they supply? Do they match the machine you are considering? You will also need to know if the machine’s leads will be long enough to reach the work using your existing outlets. Extension cords for heavy amp loads are expensive and bulky so rewiring may be a better option. If you choose a machine that uses 220v, and you already have a 220v outlet wired, does it use the same type plug? You’ve put a lot of thought into the tools needed for you road kit, right? The same theory applies for tools in the shop. You should consider all possible scenarios before deciding on any equipment. You may have to make adjustments accordingly.
For this article I consulted with some of the most knowledgeable welders I know. Two of which are Courtney Smith, founder of Specialized Welding in Slidell, Louisiana, and his son Cary. Courtney, a former aerospace welder for NASA, has over 47 years of total experience in welding. His son Cary has 24 years under his belt and has now taken over the reins at Specialized Welding. Besides being highly experience, they’re also some of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.
For simplicity’s sake we’re only going to look at the three most common types of welding techniques: “stick”, TIG and MIG. We will only be briefly touching on two. Our focus will be on a first machine for a beginner with limited to no experience. We won’t be considering the cheap Chinese “Harbor Freight” type machines.
If you’re planning on buying a machine, I suggest a known name brand with a good customer service record. Lincoln, Miller and Hobart (Miller’s hobby line) are a few manufacturers who offer machines for all three welding processes.
Miller makes a lot of equipment for the professional market. My father was once one of these “field” users. These workers trust and depend on Miller in the work place. They also trust and depend on Miller at home. Rest assured, if Miller didn’t make a quality product, these guys would let them know. This would be especially true if the machine in question was for home use. I can’t think of a better endorsement than that. Lincoln isn’t bad either but I’m unsure where their machines are made. Whichever type welder you choose, “stick”, MIG or TIG, rest assured you’ll get a good quality product from Miller or Hobart.
“Stick” or “arc” welding is probably the most widely recognized type of welding. It probably should have been called “ark” welding, as it seems to have been around since the time of Noah. Stick uses a flux coating around its consumable rod to provide a shielding gas that keep impurities out of the molten metal. This makes it well suited to outdoor environments. Wind doesn’t blow stick gases away like it does with MIG and TIG. Stick offers good penetration and a good amount of weld control. Amperage is controlled at the machine and it can be done as a one or two hand operation. Some hobby stick machines can weld up to ½-inch thick steel. Stick welding isn’t the best for welding aluminum or thin materials. You can weld thin materials and aluminum with the proper rod, but it isn’t easy. While stick welding isn’t overly difficult, it isn’t overly simplistic either. When I asked Courtney about the difficulty level for a beginner using a stick machine, he laughed and replied, “It’s about an 8 out of ten on a scale of difficulty.”
Stick welding isn’t as simple as it would seem. Not only does the rod need to be moved along the weld path at a constant speed, you also need to maintain proper arc distance, as the rod gets shorter. This isn’t the only thing beginners have trouble with. Rod selection, machine setting, porosity problem and arc striking can prove to be problematic as well. A novice stick user equipped with a standard lens shield will literally be left in the dark while trying to get an arc going. While learning to weld on a stick machine made me a better welder, I wouldn’t start with stick machine again if given the choice. I still have my stick machine but only to piggy back a TIG inverter.
I can still recall the day my father came home with his first TIG unit. He beamed with a pride that could only be best described as the lamp scene from A Christmas Story. He was so excited I’m really surprised he didn’t put the thing in the front window. TIG welding or “Heliarc” as dad called it uses a non-consumable tungsten electrode. TIG uses a separate shielding gas delivered from a bottle to a “torch” head via a hose and regulator. The shielding gas is blown through the torch head, around the tungsten electrode and down over the work piece. The type of shielding gas used is dependent on the material being welded. The use of a separate shielding gas results in cleaner welds. This also lessens porosity issues. While TIG is a cleaner weld than stick, it’s also harder to manipulate the equipment.
If you are familiar with brazing, soldering or Catholic grade-school corporal punishment, TIG manipulation is somewhat similar. There are also three different operations going on at once. The electrical current on a good TIG machine is usually controlled by a foot pedal. A small yet proper arc clearance must be kept between the tungsten torch tip and the work piece. If extra metal is required, the other hand must be used to feed it in at a proper rate. Both the torch head and filler material must be moved along the weld path at the same rate of speed. The only thing you don’t have to do is kneel down with a book dangling from each outstretched arm. Ruler beatings are optional too. You don’t have to speak Latin, but you may find yourself quickly fluent in “French.” You can quickly see this isn’t the easiest method for a beginner to pick up, but TIG does have some great attributes.
TIG offers enough control to weld something as thin as razor blade edges together or even aluminum foil. Several guys like to TIG weld on aluminum beer cans. I’m surprised my father never practiced this. I can see where this might have been useful for him. I’m quite sure all of his beer cans leaked badly, as he always seemed to have more empty than full.
As stated earlier, TIG is the most difficult process to learn. While you may have dreams of sealing up tomorrow’s lunch with your new TIG machine, don’t count on it. It takes years of experience to learn to manipulate materials that delicate. TIG is one of the most elegant forms of welding. While it’s not easy, TIG welding is a wonderful skill worth investing in. Courtney states, “It’s the Cadillac of welding [Rolls Royce in our case], but it isn’t as easy as MIG.”
MIG (Metal Inert Gas) is arguably the easiest welding process to learn. MIG uses a consumable wire electrode, which is fed through a “whip” (also called a gun) or a spool gun (used for aluminum). A trigger is squeezed on the business end of the whip or spool gun to start the machine. This signals the machine to feed wire, electrical current and gas (if required) to the work. The machine operator’s spouse is sometimes squeezed to signal the spouse to feed leaky beer cans to the machine operator. You would be best advised to tread lightly here. Besides MIG not being a good process for welding empty beer cans, third degree burns, trips to the ER and structure fires are never a good idea either. I once saw a guy accidently set fire to his ’66 Mustang and barn with a cutting torch and then subsequently tried to beat both fires out with a window regulator, but that’s another story for another time. No, it wasn’t my father. Keep your workspace clear of all flammables; fumes included. Keep the juice flowing to you at a minimum when welding. The juice to the machine is another matter entirely and is easily controlled.
Amperage and wire speed are both controlled at the machine via their respective dials. Most machines will normally have an amperage/wire/material setting chart located on the inside of the cover where the wire is located. This chart will give the user basic information on which wire speed and amperage settings to use. The chart is divided by wire size, wire type, material type and thickness. This takes a lot of guesswork out for beginners.
The first time I ever used a MIG machine I was as a student worker for the department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at U.N.O. The place was loaded with computer guys but no one there had any hands-on or fabrication experience. I was the go-to guy if you wanted anything fixed or built for all of the engineering departments. One day my boss told me, “Hey, go weld this up for me” as he pointed me towards the welding machine. I confidently walked over to the machine, knowing good and well I’ve never run a MIG machine before I my life. All I had ever run before was a stick unit. Heck, I never even seen a MIG unit up close until then for that matter.
I carefully looked it over as a stall tactic hoping my boss would leave the area before I started. Unfortunate he lingered around as I ignorantly fumbled the machine. I stumbled upon the side cover where the wire was located. Still trying to buy time, I opened the cover, pretending as-if to inspect it for the proper wire. I was pleasantly surprised to find a setting chart on the inside of the cover telling me where to set the machine. I figured this couldn’t be too hard; I’d been blowing holes through mild steel with a stick machine for years, so I figured it shouldn’t be too hard to blow holes through stuff with this thing. So, I set it as recommended and off I went. It was the easiest welding I’d ever done in my life to that point.
Simply setting the machine to what’s recommended will quickly get you under way. While these settings may not be spot-on, it’ll give you a good starting point. It’s similar to adjusting a carburetor; you have a baseline setting and adjust from there. MIG is easier to set up and run than stick or TIG. MIG is much better at thin material than stick. Most MIG machines can weld steel as thin as 24-gauge and as thick as 3/8-inch for top hobby sized machines. MIG is a faster process than TIG as well.
Courtney stated, “MIG is hot and fast, it’s a good production process. You don’t get the same results as TIG, but I can teach a monkey to run a MIG gun.” Once you figure out where to set the machine, just squeeze the trigger and you’re off. Sure, if you’re not careful or have the machine set wrong you can have problems, but MIG is the easiest process to learn and run. My attorney buddy put down some pretty decent first-attempt MIG beads on an exhaust header for his first welding project. Granted, he has a top-line auto-set hobby machine, but he did pretty decent job and had zero prior welding experience. Learning isn’t the hard part. The biggest problem with MIG is deciding which machine to choose. Keep in mind, gas bottle and monkey not included.
MIG machines are basically divided into two groups, gas and flux core wire-only. Gas (solid wire) machines use a separate shielding gas just like TIG. Once the regulator is set, it’s usually left as-is unless windy conditions arise. Flux core wire doesn’t use a separate shielding gas. Flux core wire creates its own shielding gases as the wire melts. Using flux core wire will usually result in slightly “dirtier” welds than with gas and solid wire. Some folks don’t like or use flux core wire as they feel it’s a bit more difficult to achieve quality results. I prefer gas myself but I will use flux core in a pinch (read lazy). Most good flux core-only machines are usually limited in their amperage range.
Flux core-only machines are usually only 110v and produce less amperage than a good gas unit. They also produce less amperage than a really good alternator. While you can use flux core wire in a gas machine, you can’t use solid wire in a flux core-only machine. Most gas machines above 140 amps can weld aluminum and a spool gun is usually available to eliminate aluminum wire breakage. That is, if you don’t enjoy having six-foot lengths of aluminum wire strewn about to tangle your feet in. This is really effective for keeping the wife or small children out of your work space. No, I’m not recommending you tie them up with it; just leaving it on the floor will suffice. In either case, wire size determines the range of material thickness that can be welded. This information is also listed in the settings chart if present. The two basic MIG machine type are divided into three subcategories dependent on input voltage.
Most machines will be either 110v or 220v, but some can use both. Most good entry-level 110v machines up to 125amps are usually flux core-only models. You can however find 110v/125amp gas capably machines. These usually start around $380 online. These machines will handle material from 18-gauge up to 3/16-inch thick steel.
The next level for most 110v machines has a max output of around 140amp and is usually both flux core and gas capable. Prices for these higher output 110v gas machines usually start around $450 online. These machines can handle from 24-gauge to ¼-inch thick steel. These 140 amp machines are a good choice as this power level will probably cover most user needs. I would recommend stepping up to this power level if considering a 125amp machine. Hobart recommends a 25amp breaker if going full-tilt. Most machines above 140 amps are 220v and can use either wire type as well.
These higher powered machines usually start around 180 amps and must have a properly sorted power supply (220v/25 amp draw). These units usually range around $600-$800 depending. Miller, Hobart and Lincoln all make machines that can use either 110v or 220v with both flux core and solid wire. A dual voltage machine will cost more than its comparable 220v counterpart but offers more flexibility. These machines max at around 210 amps and are at the max end of the hobby sized machines. Costs for these machines usually run in the $900-$1300 range online, however; you don’t have to spend that much to get a decent machine. A lower power machine may fit all of your needs just fine. If buying a machine online doesn’t appeal to you, machines are also available from a local vendor.
Local welding stores will usually carry Miller and their prices will be higher than online or a home improvement store. While extra cost may be a deterrent, nothing beats being able to see a machine first-hand. It’s always a good idea to see what welding supplies these stores carry, as you will also need extra wire, tips and accessories too. Friendly face-to-face customer service is a big bonus as well.
No matter what you buy or who you buy it from, make sure both are names you can trust. Sure, there are “bargain” brands available that may cost less initially but may not last very long. You’ll want to consider how easy it will be to find replacement parts. What if you have problems? Will there be a friendly knowledgeable technician just a phone call away? If there is a problem, what about returns, does that vendor back up its product?
I recommend you only consider vendors who will be there after the sale. Nothing is more aggravating than a new purchase that’s defective with no customer service. You wouldn’t buy a watch from a guy on the street, right? The same thought applies to your tools. Stick with a name you know you can trust. Anything less than that and you may find yourself throwing more than just sparks.
By Billy Hammell