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What you need to know about selecting a compact wire-feed welder

With so many choices of welding machines on the market today, how does a novice welding operator choose what he or she needs? There are a couple of key questions that can guide you through the process and narrow down your selection to make the choice a little easier.


Before you make any purchase, stop and ask yourself the following questions:

Which arc welding process best suits my needs?
Beginners usually will turn to either a wire-feed or stick-welding process, but you need to ask yourself, which is the best one for your particular application? Wire-feed welding (also referred to as wire welding) offers a number of benefits. First, it provides higher productivity efficiencies over stick because the wire is fed in a continuous process, meaning you don’t have to constantly change stick electrode rods as you are welding. Second, wire welding has a lower skill-level requirement and can be picked up more readily. With stick, you have to coordinate your hand movements for feeding the electrode rod into the weld puddle. With wire welding, you just press the trigger and weld. Although there may be some applications where stick welding might be a better selection, most beginners should look toward wire welding when making their first welding machine purchase.

Which wire process is best for me?
Now that you’ve chosen wire welding over stick, the next decision is to choose the type of wire welding you will perform the majority of the time. The category breaks down into two: Gas Metal Arc Welding (commonly called MIG) and flux-cored wire welding. MIG is the best choice when cosmetic appearance is an issue because it provides lower spatter levels. In addition, MIG can weld a wider range of materials, including thinner ones, and different material types, such as stainless or aluminum. Because a bottle of shielding gas is necessary with the MIG process, it might not be the most attractive option if portability and convenience is a factor.

On the other hand, flux-cored wire welding is the optimal choice for outdoor procedures because an external shielding gas is not required when flux is built into the wire to shield the weld. This process is most suitable for thicker materials where weld appearance may not be as critical. One drawback is that the flux-cored process only can be used to weld mild steel, so if you are looking to weld more exotic metals, this processes may be too limiting for you.

Most industrial products sold through a welding distributor would be equipped to handle both processes. Some manufacturers sell ready to weld packages that include a gas regulator and hose kit.

What is the thickness of material that will be welded most frequently?
As a rule of thumb, it is recommended to use a MIG process on materials that are 24 to 12 gauge; while flux-cored is only recommended down to 20 gauge. The machine’s output amperage will determine how thick you can weld. In general, the flux-cored process will weld thicker than the MIG process with a single-pass weld.

The material thickness that you most often weld not only will determine the process that you choose; it also will determine the voltage of the unit you need. For instance, if you plan to weld over 1/8-in. (3.2 mm) material the majority of the time, using a MIG process, it is recommended that you invest in a 230v system. The higher amperage range of this machine can better handle your welding needs in a single pass, and you won’t have to waste time with second or third passes. Examples of heavy materials are frames, tool benches or even a fence.

If most of your welding will be on material less than 1/8-in. (3.2 mm)thick, a 115v MIG machine is probably your best bet for economic reasons. For flux-cored welding, a 115v machine will generally allow you weld material up to ¼-in. (6.35 mm) A 115v unit is less expensive and will well suit your needs. When choosing a machine, look at the amperage ratings of the machine–you don’t want to overburden a machine by continuously welding at an amperage higher than what is recommended.

What input power is available?
Another key question to ask yourself is what input power do you have available. For instance, if you will be doing most of your welding in your home or garage, you may only have access to a 115v input power source–this will limit your selection to a 115v-wire welder. If you have access to 230v power in your home due to special wiring or are doing most of your welding in a job shop, you may look to a machine that has higher voltage capabilities (230v is usually readily accessible in an industrial setting).

What’s your budget?
There are a number of technology features that set one compact wire feed welder apart from another. For instance, with both 115v and 230v machines, you can purchase a tapped or continuous control model. Tapped control basically offers you four or five discrete voltage settings. With continuous control, you have a continuous range of settings that can provide for fine adjustments and heat control. The continuous control is a nice feature, especially when working with thin materials where a finer heat control helps to achieve an aesthetically pleasing weld. This fine control is typically more expensive than tapped control but will benefit those welding a lot of thinner sheet metal.

What’s included in the package?
Not all compact wire feed welders offer the same accessories in their package. Pay careful attention to what is included. For instance, Lincoln Electric’s small SP models of wire feeder/welders come complete with a regulator, hose and even a sample of MIG wire (select models even come with an instructional video). The only extra item you will need to purchase to be ready to weld is a tank of gas.

What is the quality of the machine and the manufacturer?
It is always recommended to buy from a recognized name in the industry and to make sure that the machine carries a warranty. Also, check to see that the manufacturer offers technical support on-line and over the phone. In this way, if you have technical application problems, you will be able to get them answered without hassle.

What are the safety features of the machine?
Some machines have wire that will remain electronically cold until the trigger is pulled. What this means is that if you accidentally touch the torch to an object as you are setting up to weld, it will not cause sparks that could damage your eyes or the workpiece. Look also for units that offer thermostatic overload protection to prevent high current from damaging the machine–especially when you are trying to weld heavy gauge material. In addition, a machine that offers an input circuit breaker protects the wiring in your home or job shop setting. With Lincoln Electric machines, the drive motors also have circuit-breaker protection, so they will automatically stop if something impedes wire feeding. And, last but not least, a good fan will be sure to keep internal components cool and provide a longer lifespan for your machine.

Don’t forget to ask these other important questions about the “finer points” of welders:

  • Does the machine come with a detailed instruction manual?
  • Does the manufacturer offer both welding machines and consumables so that you will be able to purchase system-matched components that you know will work well together?
  • Does the manufacturer offer a welding applications helpline in case you have a question?
  • What if the machine needs servicing? Does the manufacturer have a reputable service facility in your area?
  • Does the machine offer upgrade options, such as a kit to modify the machine for specialty welding needs like aluminum welding, for example?
  • Does the unit have industry-standard parts, such as contact tips, nozzles and liners that can be easily purchased from any distributor?
  • Once armed with the answers to all of these important questions, you should be a well-educated consumer in your quest for a compact wire-feed welder and should be able to determine the best unit to suit your production needs.

Information provided by The Lincoln Electric Company.

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