“I’m looking to build one of your trailers, but I need to know which welder to buy?” or “What type of welder do I need – 110 or 220 volt?” and “What about other projects from your site that may pique my interest?”
Such simple questions, Right? I wish there was a simple answer. Well, there are a lot of short answers — particularly from people trying to sell something. Yet, the real answer is Sooooo much bigger. To answer these properly we need some background and some understanding of how you want to use a welder.
Welding is a ton of fun, so let’s dive into some things to think about when selecting which welder to buy.
There is just so much involved in making the right decision, but I won’t go too deep. I will point out a few things, then you can do more research. Hopefully these bits will help in the decision process.
Starting With Welder Basics
Most important is the MATERIAL will you be welding. If it’s Steel, there are lots of options. If it’s paper thin Titanium, the choices for which welder are somewhat limited. So, start with material, then . . .
Related to material . . . what THICKNESS will you be welding? Make sure the welder you choose will easily do what you intend to give it. Personally, I would buy one that will do at least one size thicker than you intend. (Two sizes is even better because it gives options down the road.)
Next is the WELDER TYPE or welding process. The most popular types are Stick, MIG and TIG. Here are some quick thoughts on the topic, then use this link for a whole lot more about welding processes.
Stick (Shielded Metal Arc Welding, SMAW)
Usually the least expensive machines and consumables. You can get started easily, but it’s also one of the harder processes to master. And, there is usually a lot of clean-up after welding, like chipping, grinding, etc..
MIG aka Wire Feed (Gas Metal Arc Welding, GMAW)
Arguably the most common, and most forgiving. The machines are not hugely expensive, but they do consume a fair amount (gas, wire, tips, etc.). This is a fast way to weld and it doesn’t take a certification to get something reasonable. (Just look at the videos about Welding Spring Hangers.) These are very common for bigger things like trailer frames and cranes. You can also use Flux-Core wire instead of inert gas. Though they are best with steel, they can do other materials like aluminum with the right wire and proper attachments. One caution however, if you want to weld thin material, choose the welder wisely.
TIG (Gas Tungsten Arc Welding, GTAW)
Typically considered the best weld — best in looks and in strength (from a skilled welder). You can weld almost any material from super thin to super thick (depending on the capability of the individual machine), because these welders control the heat and filler independently all the way. So why not use TIG for everything? This method is arguably the slowest too. Sometimes painstakingly slow compared to other methods, and it does take a fair amount of skill. A trained eye and had are required to achieve for proper penetration in high strength applications, a beautiful weld, and to not blow holes through the thin stuff.
- There are more welding processes, like oxy-acetylene burning torches, but the 3 above are the most common for DIY.
Then there is DUTY CYCLE. This is (sort of) a specification about how hard you can push the welder. It’s measured in percent of ON time versus Off time, and the number changes as you put more power through it. For instance, if a machine will weld 3/8 inch material thickness at 20% duty cycle, it means you can weld for 10 seconds then you have to wait for 40 seconds before you can weld again for 10 seconds. (20% On, and 80% Off – for cooling the insides.) A bigger, more expensive machine may do 3/8 inch material at 75% duty cycle. (45 seconds On, 15 seconds Off.) Only you can say if that works for you or not.
Next, QUALITY of the welder. My nice Miller was stolen several years ago, so I got a cheap substitute — and hated it. I managed, but it was hard to maintain a good clean bead and produce good strong welds. I finally got so frustrated, I went and bought another Miller again — what a difference. If you plan to weld with it a lot, I pretty strongly recommend spending a little extra money and getting a higher quality welder.
Finally, available POWER. Yes, this was in the original question, and it’s really important. Higher voltages are almost always better with welding. It will give longer duty cycles for the same material thickness (in general). It’s easier to pull more power for bigger thicker welds. However, if you don’t have access to 220 VAC for instance, then that helps make the choice. See below.
More Random Thoughts
Part of producing a good weld is familiarity with the machine. My friend has a 110vac MIG flux core that he loves (though he rarely uses it). I’ve used it and find it frustrating. Maybe I just need more practice? Or, Maybe I’m just a welder snob, but quality means a lot to me.
That said, for starting out, I recommend something less expensive to learn. Learn what you like and what you’re really going to use. In a while, if you use it a lot, you’ll know what you want. Then, buy something nice.
No matter what machine you choose it takes practice and testing to know how to achieve good results. Weld some samples with scrap material, then break the welds to see what’s happening on the inside. How much does it penetrate? How much effort does it take to break the weld?
I also recommend taking a welding class or two. I see stuff on YouTube and laugh sometimes at the silliness of what they’re saying. Yeah, it works for them (or they think it does), so they make a video, but there are often better techniques. At nearly 30, even after welding since I was a teenager, I took 2 years of welding class at a local trade college just for fun. For me, understanding the processes was an eye-opener to significantly improve my welding. I’m still not super good because I don’t do it every day, but I highly recommend learning from the experts.
There is always more to learn. Sometimes things are presented that aren’t really true, like this article on Who Should You Believe, but there are also great sites for knowledge on welding — like this good overview of Welding Processes. (Actually their whole site is good.) Anyway, keep learning.
Consider The Extras
One of the best side purchases is the right helmet. The newer (they’ve been out for years) automatic darkening helmets are a game changer. The first time I used one (instead of flicking my head) I totally fell in love. I highly recommend spending a little extra for a really good helmet.
Gloves and other safety equipment fall in this category of “Extras”. Which gloves depend on which welder you choose. Just make sure they protect from sparks and accidental touching of hot metal parts. Clothing and shoes are good to consider also. You can spend too much money on the greatest leather covers, or just wear some good older cloths. Choose wisely, however, when a red hot glob of metal goes down your shirt or into your shoe you’ll re-think pretty quick about your choice of clothing! Finally, use something that protects your skin from the UV light. Weld-sunburn is not so pleasant, and it’s different than sun-sunburn.
Another game changer for me is having the right clamps, and work space to hold things in place, straight. See this article in our Solutions! section about storing clamps.
It’s More Than Just Buying The Machine
The welding machine is certainly the center of welding, but there’s so much more. We consider it an Essential Tool — whichever welder you choose. Consider these things too when thinking about which welder to buy.
- Power Access. As above, it’s almost always better to opt for the highest power source you can. 220 VAC with 30 to 50 Amps is pretty common in the USA. Yes, please consider the current (Amps) to run it. Assuming you have the available voltage for your shop (garage, or basement), it’s usually not a big deal to run a new circuit for the welder.
- Space Available. A lot of things you might weld need space to build. A trailer for instance. Many people will build on the driveway in front of the garage (which is great if the weather cooperates). Pick your spot, then . . .
- Power to the right spot is a combination of the above 2 items. To get from the outlet to my workspace, I made a few heavy gauge extension cords. The key is getting the right ends to build the cord.
** As a funny side story, when first starting out, we lived in a small rented house. To weld, I pulled out the oven and plugged in a large extension cord (6 gauge), and ran it to the garage. It worked, but I couldn’t weld when my wife was cooking. **
- Consumables. When buying a welder, don’t forget all the things that make the welder work. Tips, wire or sticks of various diameters, shielding gas, Cutters, Wire Brushes, Angle Grinder, Gloves, Helmet, Apron, etc. Seems like the list just keeps going. You don’t have to buy it all at once, but there is more than just the welder.
- Techniques. Finally, learn the tricks and techniques for good welds. It’s most important that the welds are strong, then work on making them pretty. Take a class or two. YouTube is good for some things, but learn the fundamentals of technique from an expert. Knowledge is Power. Other great tricks like Pre-Stressed Fabrication can be a game changer in making everything turn out right.
Does This Answer The “Which Welder” Question?
The choice of which welder to buy is more complicated than we often think. And, a lot depends on your personal preferences. I now have multiple welding machines for different types of projects. For most DIY projects like trailers / cranes / presses like the plans we offer on this website, a good MIG welder does the job wonderfully. You can get good ones from any of the major brands like Miller or Lincoln, though I personally steer clear of the cheap off-brands.
Choose your welder using the basics above, tempered by the available cash you have to spend. Consider also how you might use it different in the future. A good example, is my welder. I rarely bump into duty cycle issues, but once in a while my machine will just stop because I’ve hit a thermal limit. Then I have to wait 5 minutes before I can continue working. For me it only happens on thick material and long welds — something I didn’t think I would do much. Oh well.
We could go on and on into techniques of welding for different applications, and more, but I’ll let this suffice. Welding is an awesome skill to have and there’s nothing like having your own machine to practice all you want. My hat’s off to those who learn new skills all though life.
Good luck with your shopping. Try Craigslist first, because people who bought nice welders and find they don’t use them sometimes sell them cheap.