Which Welder To Buy?

I’m looking to build one of your trailers, but I need to know which welder to buy?  What type, and do I need 110 or 220 volt?  What about other projects from your site that may pique my interest?

Such simple questions, Right?  Well, there are a lot of short answers — particularly from people trying to sell something.   Yet, the real answer is SOOO 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.

Starting With Welder Basics

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.

The most important thing is what 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 limited.  Combine this with the info below.

Related to material . . . what is the THICKNESS you will 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.)

The next thing is the WELDER TYPE.  The most popular types are Stick, MIG and TIG.  Here are some quick thoughts on the topic with a link to a whole lot more about welding processes.

  • Stick (Shielded Metal Arc Welding, SMAW) — tends to be 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 — chipping, grinding, etc..
  • MIG aka Wire Feed (Gas Metal Arc Welding, GMAW) — is 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 common for bigger things like trailer frames and cranes.  You can also use Flux-Core wire.  Though they are best with steel, they can do other materials like aluminum with the right attachments.  One caution, if you want to weld thin material, choose the welder wisely.
  • Welding With TigTIG (Gas Tungsten Arc Welding, GTAW) — is the best weld — best in looks and in strength (from a skilled welder).   You can weld any material from super thin to super thick because you control the heat and filler independently all the way.  So why not use it 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 — for proper penetration in high strength applications, and to not blow holes through thin stuff.
  • There are more welding processes, like gas burning torches, but these are the most common for DIY.

Then there is DUTY CYCLE.  If it will do 3/8 inch, for instance, but only 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.  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.  It was so hard to maintain a good bead and strong weld.  I finally got so frustrated, I went and bought a nice Miller again — what a difference.

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 little 110 MIG flux core and he loves it (though he rarely uses it).  I’ve used it and I find it frustrating.  Maybe I just need to practice more with it?  Or, Maybe I’m just a welder snob, but quality means a lot to me.

That said, if you’re just starting out, I recommend something much less expensive so you can learn.  Learn what you like and what you’re really going to use it for.  In a year or so, if you use it a lot, you’ll know what you like and what you want.  Then, buy something nice.

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 and 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 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.

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.

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.

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 — which ever welder you choose.  Consider these things too when thinking about which welder to buy.

Mig Welding Fire

  1. 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.
  2. 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 . . .
  3. 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. **
  4. 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 to it than just the welder.
  5. 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?

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.

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