Best Plasma Cutter Reviews 2017 – Buying Guide
Below you’ll find a list of some of the best plasma cutters available today as well as a convenient buying guide to help you make the right choice.
Best Plasma Cutter: Top 3
Best for the money – Hypertherm Powermax 30xp
The reigning champ of plasma cutters is the mighty Hypertherm Powermax 30xp. Extreme portability, easy-to-use controls, an ultra-stable plasma arc are just a few things that make this the best plasma cutter on the market today.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the Powermax 30xp is the size. Weighing in around 21 lbs and measuring less than a foot and a half long this plasma cutter is the epitome of portability. The convenient handle and long 15-foot lead are just icing on the cake.
Another thing that puts the Powermax 30xp in a league of its own is the simple control panel. There are two basic controls to consider: an amperage knob and mode switch. The knob, as you might have guessed, adjusts the output amperage making it easy to change on the fly. The second control is the mode switch which gives you the option to change modes – continuous, non-continuous or gouge – depending on the task.
The final feature to note is the dedication to quality that Hypertherm provides. For 45 years they have been, hands down, the top choice for anything plasma cutting related. Their quality far exceeds anything else available today, which is great but they also have the price tag to match.
Whether you’re just a beginner or a highly-skilled veteran of the trade, if you want to slice through steel like butter, the Hypertherm Powermax 30xp is by far the best plasma cutter for the money.
Best Portable – Hobart Airforce 12ci
Another top contender for best plasma cutter is the Hobart Airforce 12ci. Hobart is a staple in the fabrication industry so it’s only natural they’d be one of the go-to brands for plasma cutters.
Boasting a built-in air compressor the Hobart Airforce 12ci plasma cutter is legendary when it comes to portability. Complete with a folding handle, weighing a mere 27 lbs and measuring just over a foot in length, portability is the Airforces claim to fame.
Precision and non-linear cutting is what a plasma cutter is designed to do and the Airforce 12ci embodies those tasks perfectly. With its ultra-narrow kerf and tip-adaptable torch there’s nothing too complex for this unit.
While the Airforce 12ci might not be the most powerful machine out there, it can still easily sever 1/4 mild steel. Coupled with its unprecedented portability and affordable price, the Hobart Airforce is the ideal plasma cutter for hobbyists and even light-duty professionals who need to lug it to and from each job site.
When investing so much money into equipment its, important that you don’t cheap out with a low-cost unknown brand. With the Hobart Airforce 12ci you know you are getting a the best quality plasma cutter that will last you for years to come.
Best on a Budget – Lotos LTP5000D
Need to cut metal but can’t justify paying thousands of dollars for a top-range plasma cutter? Don’t fret, your search is over! Introducing the LOTOS LTP5000D, the best plasma cutter if you’re on a budget.
Featuring a non-touch pilot arc the LOTOS can cut through metal using a high-frequency starting method. This allows you to start the arc without touching the metal, keeping your rig free of contaminants and extending the life of your consumables. This also contributes to the quality of the cut.
While on the topic of cutting the LOTOS LTP5000D, with its 50 amps of output power, can easily and cleanly cut up to 1/2 inch thick metal and has a max severance of 3/4 inch, making it ideal for heavy-duty cutting.
The LOTOS LTP5000D is a champ when it comes to versatility. Featuring dual voltage input (110/220V) you’ll be able to tackle any job anywhere regardless of the power source. The convenient handle and super light weight make this plasma cutter a worthy competitor to the big brands.
In the world of Millers, Lincolns and Hobarts, slowly but surly LOTOS has carved out a name for itself in the world of metal fabrication. If you need to occasionally cut metal but don’t want to remortgage your home to afford it the you should seriously consider the best plasma cutter under $500 – the LOTOS LTP500D.
What is plasma cutting?
Plasma cutting is a process that cuts through metal by using a combination of plasma and forced air. It works by electrically charging the air to an extremely high temperature. This ionizes the air to create a channel of plasma that, with the help of compressed oxygen, blasts the plasma through a focused nozzle at high speeds to cut the material.
To put it simply: the metal is heated to molten temperatures and then blown away with air.
Plasma cutting is becoming the preferred method of cutting because of its ease of use, low consumable costs and ability to produce clean cuts. If you’re serious about metalworking then you’ll need the best plasma cutter available.
How to Choose the Best Plasma Cutter?
Wide Range of Materials and Thickness
When it comes to cutting metal nothing compares to the power and convenience of a plasma cutter. From stainless steel to aluminum the best plasma cutter can cut through almost anything less than an inch thick. It’s one of the only methods where you can make non-linear cuts with ease. Because of the wide range of materials that it can cut it is the preferred method if you want clean cuts done quickly.
High Cutting Speeds
Plasma cutting is by far the fastest way to cut metal which is why it is the go-to method for fast-paced production. Typically the higher the amperage the quicker and cleaner the cut, the more work you can get done. While speed isn’t so important to a hobbyist it’s still a factor that needs to be considered. Speed is measured in inches per minute (IPM) and is noted on the plasma cutter itself. A general rule of thumb to maximize productivity is to choose a unit that that can handle close to twice your normal cutting thickness. That way you’ll be able to slide through like a butter.
Compared to oxy-fuel or mechanical cutting, plasma cutting is like a Ferrari to a used Prius. If speed is a priority, plasma is the way to go.
Easy to Learn
Despite its seemingly complex process, plasma cutting is just as easy to learn as MIG welding. You just aim the torch, press the button and move it. Of course it’s a bit more complicated then that, but not by much:
Step 1 – Hold the torch above the metal by about 1/8 inch.
Step 2 – Press the trigger.
Step 3 – Once the arc starts cutting, slowly move the torch in the direction of the cut.
Step 4 – Adjust your speed so you see sparks going through the bottom.
Step 5 – At the end, angle the torch slightly towards the edge before finally severing it.
With plasma cutting the only gas you’ll ever need is air so the cost after the initial purchase is minimal.
You will however have to replace parts on the torch on a semi-regular basis. The shield, retaining cap, nozzle, electrode and swirl ring all need to be replaced eventually. Fortunately the shield protects almost everything so out of all that the shield is the only real cost for consumables, and even that doesn’t have to be replaced too often. Compared to other processes like MIG or TIG, plasma cutting is practically free. If you want to know more about consumable cost check out this article from The Fabricator.
Plenty of Accessories
Cuts often have to be done to exact specification which can be difficult if you’re just eyeing it up and trying to hold steady. Luckily there are a ton of accessories and tips to make the process a little bit easier.
Beveled Cut – Cutting to a specific angle is impossible without the use of a guide. Don’t even try, you’ll just mess it up.
Straight Cut – While possible without accessories, you’ll get a much nice cut if you use a roller to keep you on a straight path. If you but the roller up against something, you’ll get a perfectly straight cut each and every time.
Circle Cut – Forget trying to cut a circle without help. This tip is similar to the other two but it has only 1 wheel to guide it. The other part is firmly planted in the center of the circle to give you a nice clean cut.
Preheating is a process that is used to prevent the metal from cracking when welding or cutting. Fortunately unlike oxy-fuel you don’t have to waste time preheating the metal, making it a much quicker process. All you have to do is point and shoot and watch as the torch pierces through the metal. Furthermore, plasma cutting has a smaller heat-affected zone which prevents the metal from warping and damaging the surrounding area. This makes it the ideal method for cleanly cutting thin gauge metals with precision.
Minimal Clean Up
Besides some burrs and slag on the edges of the metal plasma cutting is a surprising clean process. Unlike oxy-fuel or mechanical cutting which gives off fumes and dust and forces metal chips everywhere, plasma cutting is much nicer. The metal is liquefied then blasted to the ground making clean up later a breeze. Just grab a broom and you’re done.
If done correctly plasma cutting is the most efficient cutting method available today. If you wear the required safety gear and are properly trained, plasma cutting can be done safely and effectively.
That’s not to say their aren’t hazards but I’ll cover those below.
If you need to do some non-linear cutting then the best plasma cutter is what you need. Because of the narrow kerf you are able to make cuts in whatever shape necessary. If you need any type of precision cutting done, plasma is the way to go.
Expensive Start-up Costs
While owning and maintaining the best plasma cutter itself isn’t expensive, the initial cost of the machine is. A basic low-end plasma cutter from an unknown brand will cost you at least $250. Then you have to deal with all the issues that come from such a low-quality complicated machine: dealing with customer service, having to send parts half way around the world, constant breakdowns.
On the other side of things you have the high-end plasma cutters. These will run you anywhere from $800 to $3000 and beyond but will last you for years and years without issue.
If you invest just a little more money upfront you’ll save yourself a ton of headaches and money down the road.
Limited Cutting Thickness
Plasma cutting is by far the most efficient way to cut metal and for most hobbyists it will suffice. But what if you need to cut a thick piece of metal?
Unfortunately for anything more than 1 inch thick a plasma cutter just wont cut it.
For that you need either an oxy-fuel torch or a mechanical blade.
As with anything that deals with fire and electricity there are plenty of inherent safety risks.
A few things to consider when determining the risk factor:
- Toxic fumes
- Arc burns
- Eye and skin protection
- Electrical shock
- Proper grounding
If you take the proper precautions and observe the correct practices and wear all the required PPE (welding helmet, gloves, jacket, etc.) you’ll be fine.
What Will you be Cutting?
To avoid buying an unnecessarily overpowered or a machine that isn’t up to the task it’s critical that you know what you will be cutting beforehand. The last thing you want is to drop $1000 on the best plasma cutter only to find out it wont cut what you need.
Therefore one of the first things you need to consider is the thickness and type of metal you most often cut. Plasma cutting power sources are rated on their cutting ability and amperage so if you only need to cut 1/4″ thick metal then a machine with 25 amps is plenty. If you need to cut 1/2″ thick material then aim for a machine with higher amperage – around 50 – 60. For metal around 1/2″ – 1″ thick you need a rig with at least 80 amps.
While a smaller machine has the ability to cut through thicker materials, the cut will often be severed and low-quality. Generally you want a machine that falls within your budget with the maximum power output. See the chart below:
What you Need to Consider
The most important factor you need to consider when buying the best plasma cutter is power output. Too low amperage and you wont make the cut, too powerful and you’ve just spent a bunch of money you didn’t need. Know your needs beforehand and it will save you time and money down the road.
Output – The single most important factor for selecting a plasma cutter is power output. Consumer cutters range from 10 – 80 amps and even higher if you count CNC machines. Higher amperage means you can cut thicker materials quickly. So if you have the money, by all means, go all out and get the most powerful one available. But if you’re like me, on a limited budget, then see the chart above for amperage to thickness ratio to avoid paying for something you don’t need.
Input – Now that you’ve figure out how much power you’ll need for cutting, you’ll need to figure out how much power it takes to run the machine. If you’re a hobbyists you’ll likely have 115 V running throughout your home and for most people that will be enough. You can run a 25 amp plasma cutter without having to upgrade. If you plan on getting something bigger than 25 amps you’ll need to upgrade your power supply to 230 V. That’s not to say a more powerful machine wont run on 115 V, but you wont get the maximum power output.
Another important factor is the length of duty cycle. The duty cycle refers to the amount of time you can operate the machine in a 10-minute window before having to take a break. For example: a plasma cutter with a duty cycle of 30% @ 45 A means you can work for 3 minutes at 45 amps before having to rest the machine for 7 minutes. This prevents overheating so you don’t accidentally turn your expensive tool into an expensive door stop.
The best plasma cutter will have a long duty cycle so you can keep working without having to take a break to twiddle your thumbs for 5 minutes.
Plasma cutting is known for its speed and precision which is why it’s quickly overtaking other methods when it comes to production work where speed is key. While speed isn’t so important for hobbyists it’s still something to consider. You don’t want to spend all day with a cutting torch. Cutting speed is directly related to amperage and material thickness. High amperage on thin material will be sliced through like paper while low amperage on thick material will barely engrave the metal.
If speed is important to you, refer to the cutting speed chart above to help make your decision.
You’ve already determined how thick of materials you’ll be cutting so I wont spend much time here. Just keep this in mind when making the decision:
< 1/4″ = < 25 amps
1/4″ – 1/2″ = 50 – 60 amps
1/2″ – 1″ = ~ 80 amps
Every plasma cutter will come with a standard torch but there are times when you need a specialty torch or tip. Torches are also the first consumable to break down so having an extra on hand is never a bad idea.
Look for a torch that includes a drag shield. This helps to keep a steady distance between the metal and the torch to give you a nicely uniform cut. It also helps protect the rest of the torch. I mentioned tips above but it’s important to note that not all torches are tip adaptable. If you think you might need tips eventually, make sure the torch is compatible.
Plasma cutting consists of two basic elements, fire and air. Fire to heat up the metal and air to blow it away.
Usually you have to supply your own air by means of an external air compressor. If you don’t already have one this can be an extra expense that’s not really necessary. The best plasma cutter will have a built-in air compressor so it’s one less expense to worry about. Today there are many options available if you don’t already have a compressor including the top rated Hobart Airforce 12ci.
A built-in air compressor is a necessity if you need to lug the machine around from job site to job site.
There are two main methods for starting the arc with a plasma cutter: high frequency and contact. Both have their advantages and disadvantages but the best plasma cutter will have the option for both.
High-frequency – This method works by creating such high voltage between the electrode and the metal that the arc jumps from the torch to the work piece without physical contact. This is the most common starting method but also the most dangerous in terms of electrical hazards. Furthermore high frequency can interfere with nearby computers or other electrical equipment causing irreparable damage. As a result, this method is not preferred.
Contact – Contact starting is exactly what it sounds like. The torch features a DC+ nozzle with a DC- electrode inside which are physically touching. To start the pilot arc you need to pull the trigger which forces the nozzle and electrode apart. You then lower the pilot arc close to the work piece where it establishes the cutting arc. It sounds complicated but all you need to know is this: pull the trigger to start the arc. Because there is no electrical ‘noise’ contact starting is the preferred starting method and is found mainly on high-end machines.
These days most plasma cutters are extremely light with convenient handles to make carrying it around a breeze. Look for a unit that’s less than 50 pounds, ideally less than 30, and you’ll have cutting power wherever you go.
The best plasma cutter, while more expensive, will have a built-in inverter to help generate power thus drastically reducing its size and weight.
Internal Cooling System
If there is no proper cooling system your plasma cutter will overheat quickly, costing you time and money and rendering your new cutter useless. That’s why it’s critical to get a machine with a robust cooling system with fail-safes to shut down if it’s not cooling properly.
Most consumer plasma cutters use forced air to cool down the torch. This is fine for machines up to 100 amps but when you get into the high-end commercial CNC plasma cutters special coolant is required.
Without a quality cooling system you’ll have to replace consumables at a much higher rate.
Try to look for a machine with as many extras as will fit your budget. Extras make your life easier and your work better. Many brands have their own patented systems with fancy names but it’s important to remember they all do pretty much the same thing.
Safety start sensor – With this feature the plasma cutter will not start unless the nozzle is in place.
Long pre-flow sequence – This allows for advanced warning before the arc starts so you can safely get out of the way.
Continuous output control – Automatically adjust the power output when cutting uneven surfaces so you don’t have apply constant precision pressure to the trigger. This helps to reduce hand fatigue.
Multi-voltage plug – Higher amperage plasma cutters use both 115v and 230v input so having an easily adaptable plug is ideal for switching back and forth.
Quick release torch – Different jobs require different torches. A quick release torch will save you time and money if you need to constantly change torches.
Finally the best plasma cutter will have an outstanding warranty. The last thing you want is to have your machine break after a year only to find out the warranty is only good for 6 months and wont cover your issue anyway. It’s critical to read the warranty beforehand, especially if you’re buying a Chinese import brand.
Fortunately the big 3, Miller, Lincoln and Hobart, all stand by their products by first producing high-quality equipment and second by offering amazing warranties.
It’s reassuring to know that after you’ve spent a small fortune on a plasma cutter the company will stand behind it if anything goes wrong.
Plasma VS Oxy-Fuel Cutting
Cutting is an important process for many welding related jobs. The two main methods for cutting metal are plasma arc and oxy-fuel. Both have their pros and cons depending on the situation so it’s critical you know which tool is right for each job.
How does plasma cutting work?
Plasma is created by ionization, adding energy (electricity) to an electrically neutral gas (air). These elements are combined in the torch between an electrode and nozzle. This causes the gas to become unstable and thus creating plasma. Air is then forced through the tip of the nozzle at incredible speeds of up to 20,000 feet per second. For reference, a bullet shot from a handgun travels at about 2500 feet per second. As the metal heats up to molten levels by means of the electrically charged air, the air simultaneously blasts through the work piece creating a clean, smooth cut.
- Cuts non-ferrous metals
- Speed and precision
- Smooth cuts
- No preheat
- Cuts thin metal without warp
- Make non-linear cuts
- Can only cut up to 1 inch thick
- Limited portability
- High start-up cost
How does oxy-fuel cutting work?
Oxy-fuel cutting begins by preheating the steel with a fuel gas flame to its ignition temperature. An extremely high-powered jet of oxygen is then directed at the steel. This creates a chemical reaction between the oxygen and the metal to form iron oxide or slag. The jet of oxygen blasts the slag away from the kerf allowing you to cut much thicker metals.
There are four main fuel gases: acetylene, propane, propylene and natural gas. Each one has different properties so it’s important to know which gas to use for each job. To select the right gas you should consider what you are cutting, cost, heat output and oxygen consumption.
- Cut up to 20 inch thick metal
- Greater portability
- Versatility – able to cut, weld, braze, bend etc.
- Longer torches to keep a distance
- Low cost
- Can only cut ferrous metals
- Warps thin metal
- Grinding required after
When determining which tool to use you need to ask yourself two questions:
- What am I cutting on a regular basis?
- How thick is the metal?
If you are cutting metals thicker than 1 inch on a regular basis oxy-fuel cutting is the go-to method. It saves you time and money in the long run by being able to quickly slice through the material. If, on the other hand, you are precision cutting stainless steel or aluminum, plasma cutting is preferred because of its narrow kerf and the fact that it wont warp the metal.
Tips for Choosing the Best Plasma Cutter
Do your Research
Ranging from $500 – $3500 a best plasma cutter will likely be one of the most expensive tools in your arsenal so you need to do proper research before committing.
Besides this guide there are plenty of other resources to read up on before making a purchasing decision:
Consider Buying Used
Scour Craigslist to find some amazing deals on plasma cutters. Often times people will buy a plasma cutter only to realize they don’t use it as often as they thought they would. This is a great opportunity to pick up a lightly used machine for a much lower cost.
Warning: If you are new and don’t really know what to look for, I’d advise you to either buy new or bring a friend along who can tell you if you’re getting ripped off or not.
Because buying a plasma cutter is such an expensive purchase, if possible, you should try to test the one you want beforehand.
If you’re buying used ask whoever you’re buying it from to see first, if it works and second, if it will work for your needs. If you plan to buy new, most cities will have a place where you can rent tools by the day. Call them up and rent one for an afternoon to see if you like it.
The last thing you need is to buy a plasma cutter that isn’t suitable for the jobs you need it to perform.
Choose Quality over Cost
This one might be hard to justify if you’re on a strict budget but buying a cheap plasma cutter will only cost you in the long run. From repairs to low quality consumables to low duty cycles a cheap machine will not only cost you money but valuable time as well.
That’s why it’s critical that you spend as much as you can within your budget to get the best plasma cutter for the money. A good quality plasma cutter will run you at least $800 but if you are saving money in the long run, it’s worth it.