I see people asking about welding equipment so often that I decided to write a "one size fits all" response that addresses many welding equipment issues and concerns. If I've linked you to this page, hopefully it will answer your questions about various types of welding equipment. If not, feel free to email me with your specific questions. While I cut costs when I can, as a professional certified welder I've learned that welding equipment is not an area where you want to sacrifice quality over cost. While most any machine can melt two pieces of steel together, quality equipment makes the difference in fit, finish, welder comfort, and overall capability. Since you asked the original question, I will work off the assumption that you are new to welding but if you are considering an equipment purchase, hopefully you at least know the basic terminology, processes, and the functions and requirements of each. The best advice that I can give to any new welder is to sign up for at least a general welding course at your local community college. The knowledge and experience you'll gain from even a basic course will benefit you more than you could possibly appreciate prior to using those skills you learned in the field. Any AWS approved course will prepare you for the challenges you'll eventually run into as your welding skills progress.
Welding is a functional passion for many that only grows. I first knew at 5 years old that I wanted to be a welder, and to this day each time I complete a build I want to do another that's bigger and better than the last. My needs changed and grew rapidly, so I started out with equipment that would grow with me. Before purchasing any equipment, first determine what your specific needs are now, and what you expect they could be down the road. Will you be welding body panels, bumpers, roll cages? Will you need only steel capabilities or will you be working with aluminum, stainless, or cast iron? FCAW, GMAW, GMAW-P, GTAW, GTAW-P, or SMAW (if none of that means anything to you, see the "basic terminology" link above)? AC powered or engine driven? What you buy should obviously be capable of filling your needs both today and tomorrow, so determine what you need before you continue.
For those of you who were linked here because you're considering the purchase of generic welding equipment, look for the "Why pay more?" section below each welding process which explains the differences in quality welding equipment and the generic welding equipment typically found at Wal Mart or Harbor Freight. I'm including the pricing information as a tool to better prepare you to make a purchase. While most dealers will ask slightly below list, don't be afraid to offer the numbers provided in "expect to pay" which is 15% above dealer cost. I typically purchase at 5% above dealer cost, but I buy in volume and have long standing business relationships with my local welding equipment suppliers.
You will notice that I only recommend Miller products. I am not affiliated with Miller in any way, and I am not compensated by Miller in any way. I recommend their products because my time and experience in the welding industry has shown me that the Miller line is superior to anything else available, bar none. Lincoln lost me as a customer when they replaced their copper windings with aluminum, and to add insult to injury they moved their production lines to Mexico. Miller welders are still built here in the U.S.A. by American workers!
Shielded Metal Arc Welding (most commonly known as "stick" welding) uses constant current over a short stick of welding filler metal consisting of a core of bare electrode covered by chemical or metallic materials that provide shielding of the welding arc against the surrounding air. It also completes the electrical current, thereby creating the arc. Stick welding is most commonly used in construction and remote job sites due to low equipment maintenance, low equipment requirements, and the ability to weld equally well in poor conditions. I believe stick welding to be the ultimate process. When you can stick weld properly, you are a true welder as the principles and procedures that you learn and use in stick welding will apply to all other welding processes and make you a better welder in any process.
The unit pictured above is a Miller Thunderbolt XL AC/DC capable of 225 or 300 amps AC (150 or 200 amps DC) with a list price of $600/$951. Actual dealer cost is $426/$776, expect to pay $489/$ + applicable sales tax.
Why pay more? Lower priced units don't have DC capabilities. DC welding output adds better control on thin work and easier out-of-position welding, as well as fewer arc outages, less sticking and spatter. While the duty cycle is rated at 15% @ max setting, it improves as you lower your settings (unlike cheaper units). This machine is perfect for home or commercial usage and will last "forever". I have several thunderbolts that are more than 10 years old and still work as good as the day they were built. If industrial duty is required, I recommend a Miller DialArc 250 AC/DC with a list price of $1825. Actual dealer cost is $1296, expect to pay $1490.
Micro-wire welding is by far the "best" welding process in terms
of universal application and ease of use. There are a few differences and
similarities which I will attempt to explain here.
Gas Metal Arc Welding (more commonly known as Metal Inert Gas or "MIG" welding) uses a constant voltage power source with adjustments for voltage setting and wire speed. Like a "stick" electrode, MIG wire completes the electrical circuit creating the arc, but it is continually fed through a welding gun from a spool or drum. MIG wire is a solid, non-coated wire and receives shielding from a mixture of gases. Click here for a basic MIG welding video.
Gas Metal Arc Welding - Pulsed ("Pulsed MIG") is a modified spray transfer process (current is pulsed in milliseconds) that produces no spatter because the wire does not touch the weld puddle.
Flux Core Arc Welding is similar to MIG welding in that it uses spooled filler metal for continuous welding. However, cored wire is not solid, but contains flux internally (chemical & metallic materials) that provides shielding. Gas is not required for shielding.
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Why pay more? Depending on your budget and requirements, I recommend the 3 machines listed above for anything from home garage tinkering to major fabrication. Surely there are cheaper machines available, but you have to really look at what you're buying. The Miller line gives you quality machines that will last "forever". They're built with quality components that provide for a very stable arc and this makes for high quality beads. The entire line gives you control over voltage and wire speed which allows you to fine tune your welding. Generic units give you control over the wire speed only and voltage is adjusted to match by internal settings. While this may mean nothing to an inexperienced migger, as your skill progresses you will learn to appreciate the ability to fine tune your settings to match what you're comfortable with. My personal favorite is the 210 because it offers so much flexibility for future growth. It is spoolgun ready and includes "gun on demand" (you plug in the spoolgun and you weld, no need to switch anything first). The ability to switch back and forth between your MIG torch and your spoolgun without having to change anything means better production times.
Note: While the Millermatic 251 is even better, with a list price of $,412/actual dealer cost of $1713/expected cost of $1970 its typically to much machine for most users. Besides, if I'm welding anything thicker than 3/8" (max capacity of the 210) I'd prefer to stick weld it anyway.
Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (more commonly known as Tungsten Inert Gas or "TIG" welding) joins metals by heating them with a tungsten electrode which should not become part of the completed weld. Filler metal is sometimes used and argon inert gas or inert gas mixtures are used for shielding. TIG welding seems popular these days because its getting so much exposure on tv, but real world garages (particularly ones with a Jeep sitting inside!) have very little use for this welding process. It is a slow and tedious process that should be reserved for welds where precision is absolutely critical (plutonium pipe line).
Gas Tungsten Arc Welding - Pulsed (Pulsed "TIG") is a modified TIG process (current is pulsed in milliseconds) appropriate for welding thinner materials.
Why pay more? For the few TIG jobs I do, I prefer the Miller EconoTIG AC/DC (pictured above) with a list price of $1851/actual dealer cost of $1314/expect to pay $1511. It offers AC output for welding aluminum and DC output for welding steel. It gives you polarity selection, arc starter assist for DC, stabilizer for AC, and a post flow timer. It also gives you SMAW capabilities. The cheaper generic units I've looked at don't offer any of those features.
Multi-process engine driven machines are the most versatile
systems available. Of the total welding jobs that I do, 95% could
be done with the above pictured
Miller Bobcat 250NT with a list price of $4037. Actual dealer
cost is $2866, you can expect to pay $3296. The bobcat is perfect for
field operations where electricity isn't readily available. With a 10,000
watt generator offering both 110v and 240v, you have enough electricity for most
any task at hand. The bobcat is capable of AC/DC stick welding, MIG, flux
core, DC TIG, non-critical AC TIG, plasma cutting, and carbon arc cutting (with
appropriate accessories). I own many generator driven welding machines,
but my Bobcats are the most used because they pack such a large punch in a
small, affordable package.
Plasma Arc Cutting severs metal by using a constricted arc to melt a small area of the work. Compressed air is used to blast the molten slag away leaving a very precise cut. This process can cut all metals that conduct electricity. The strength of the Miller Spectrum 375 lies in its capabilities for the money. The list price is $1395, actual dealer cost is $990, and you can expect to pay $1139.
Why pay more? The "cheap" (below $800) generic plasma cutters will only cut up to 1/8" steel and even the more expensive generic plasma cutters tend to choke around 3/8".
I hope that my advice has been helpful, or at least educational. Welding is a function of work, but I find it fun and relaxing. Having a functional piece when I get done is just another benefit and sometimes I use that as an excuse to weld. Since I've started building Jeep and other off road accessories I get to combine two things I really enjoy. My passion for welding drives me to continue to grow as a welder even now. Again I encourage you to enroll in a welding course at your local community college. I cannot stress how beneficial this would be for you enough. Besides, when you're pulling that new project Jeep home on a trailer that you built yourself on the same roads that my family travels, its important to me that its all welded properly. Best of luck with your welding adventures!
Nathan W. Collier
AWS D1.1/D1.5 Certified Welder