Welding has evolved tremendously since its first signs of existence in the ancient times. Today, there are several different welder types on the market—enough to overwhelm even the most seasoned professional. Check out our guide to the different welder types to help you make the best choice for your needs.
A Guide to the Types of Welders
When it comes to working with metal, welding is one of the most common techniques used by professionals and novices alike. The practice of welding has been around since ancient times, but the trade was officially established in the 19th century during the dawn of the Industrial Age.
Although it has gone through a number of modifications since the 19th century, modern-day welding has been nearly perfected through the use of consumable electrodes, alternating current and friction technologies.
Despite popular belief, welders are not a one-size-fits-all type of tool. There are four main types of welders: metal inert gas (MIG), shielded metal arc (SMA), tungsten inert gas (TIG), and flux-cored arc (FCA). Each welder type varies greatly from one another, and each type encompasses a huge number of welders to choose from. Check out each welder type in detail below to help you make the right purchase for your needs.
Metal Inert Gas (MIG) Welders
Metal inert gas welders, also known as gas metal arc (GMA) welders or wire-feed welders, have been especially popular throughout the 20th and 21st century due to their user-friendliness and affordability. MIG welders get their name from the consumable wire electrode and the inert gas that shields the wire electrode to stabilize its filler rod mechanism. The wire connects to the electrode, and its force and heat work together to combine pieces of metal by feeding the wire through the filler rod and contact tip at the end of the welding torch.
Because MIG welding requires a direct power source and constant voltage, it’s the most common industrial welder on the market today. Many welding professionals also choose to use MIG welders for home projects because of its versatile abilities.
This type of welding is normally used for fusing pieces of aluminum, mild steel and stainless steel, but can work on almost any kind of metal. Thanks to modern-day technology, most MIG welders are digitized and can automatically regulate the electrical arc with the push of a button or twist of a dial.
Some of the best MIG welders on the market today include the Hobart Handler 500559, the Hobart Handler 190 and the Millermatic 140 MIG. These welders have power voltage levels ranging from 120v to 230v, which makes them suitable for both industrial and home workshop types of work.
Most MIG welders are also highly portable, making them ideal for welding novices and people who weld in multiple locations. The duty cycle of MIG welders also varies extensively, ranging from anywhere between 20 and 120 percent.
Because MIG welders can come with such high duty cycles, they are a common choice for people who don’t want to spend the majority of their work time letting the welder rest between heated working periods.
Shielded Metal Arc (SMA) Welders
Like MIG welders, shielded metal arc welders, also referred to as arc welding or stick welding, use a consumable wire electrode. The main difference is that SMA welders have their electrodes covered with a flux core as opposed to being shielded by gas. SMA welding operates on AC current, DC current or both.
It involves the process of using an electric current to form an electric arc between the electrode and the material to be welded. While the weld gets laid onto the material, the flux core disintegrates and emits vapors that act as a shielding gas, hence the name of this welder type and technique.
SMA welding is not only one of the oldest welding techniques, but it’s also an extremely versatile, highly sought after in professional industry settings, and one of the world’s most popular welding techniques. The reason SMA welders are common for big manufacturing is their ability to cut through thicker and heavier metal materials (if the power source is large enough, that is) compared to other welder types.
Along with large manufacturing projects, SMA welders are also popular for farm work and smaller home projects. SMA welders aren’t semi-automatic like MIG welders, but welding novices still find SMAs relatively easy to use. Like MIG welders, SMA welders are appropriate for welders of all levels.
The bestsellers for SMA welders include the Lincoln Electric K1170, the Everlast PowerARC 160STH and the Thermal Arc W1003203. These welders possess duty cycle ranges between 35 and 60 percent, and operate on power levels between 120v and 240v.
Most SMA welders are lightweight and easy to install and use, which is ideal for beginners who don’t want to get stuck in a long setup period. These welders can get quite expensive, but there are so many to choose from that you can easily find one that fits your budget.
Tungsten Inert Gas (TIG) Welders
Gas tungsten arc (GTA) welding, also known as tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding, is different from MIG and SMA welding in that it uses a non-consumable tungsten electrode to heat the metal by creating a molten liquid that helps fuse metal pieces together.
Similar to MIG and SMA welding, however, TIG welding involves the use of an inert shielding gas to protect the tungsten electrode from oxidation or other contaminants in the atmosphere. TIG welding also requires a power supply of constant current to weld correctly and efficiently.
TIG welding is one of the most complicated forms of welding and requires a high degree of dexterity, and thus should be left to experienced hobbyists and professionals. The process is so complex and possesses such a steep learning curve that TIG welding is much more time- consuming compared to other welding methods.
The primary use of TIG welders is in the aerospace industry, but they are also often used for creating or repairing piping, tubing, tools and auto parts. Because TIG welding is so advanced, larger and thicker materials can easily be worked with if the user is well-trained and experienced.
The most popular TIG welders currently on the market include the Forney 322 140-amp Multi-Process Welder, the Hobart EZ TIG 165i and the Miller Maxstar 150 TIG welder. These three welders each have duty cycles ranging between 20 and 60 percent, which provides more options on how powerful you want your welder to be.
The Hobart model is a great brand for beginners and will give you the best bang for your buck, while the Forney and Miller Maxstar are a little more pricey, but still ideal for someone who is beginning to learn the ropes of TIG welding and looking for a machine with maximum portability.
Flux-Corded Arc (FCA) Welders
Flux-cored arc (FCA) welding was developed as an alternative to shield welding. Like MIG welding, FCA welding involves a semi-automatic arc process. The electrode in an FCA welder is tubular and contains a flux core and either a constant-voltage or constant-current power supply.
Some FCA welders require no shielding gas, while others use a shielding gas that is supplied by an external gas supply. The external shielding gas method is commonly referred to as dual shield welding. FCA welding can also produce an excessive amount of smoke compared to other welding methods.
Like TIG welding, FCA welding can be complicated and requires a considerable amount of skill and experience. That is why this type of welding is usually the territory of longtime experts and professionals. However, FCA welding doesn’t have as steep of a learning curve as TIG welding, so although it can be daunting at first, FCA welding can eventually turn into a simple process.
FCA welders are common in large construction projects due to their portability and overall welding speed. One advantage of FCA welders is the fact that there is less equipment and pre-cleaning required. This welder can also work on most metals, including stainless steel, high nickel alloys and mild steel.
Today’s most popular FCA welders include the GoPlus FluxCore Automatic Feed Welder, the Forney 309 140-amp MIG/Flux Core Hybrid Welder and the LONGEVITY 140-amp MIG/Flux Core/Aluminum Gas Shielded Welder.
These welders all operate on standard outlet power of 120v and come with preinstalled power plugs. These welders can be significantly cheaper than MIG, SMA, and TIG welders; they’re also adjustable as far as welding speed, highly portable, and made of highly durable materials. A good FCA welder is guaranteed to last three to five years or more.
Which Welder Type Is Right for You?
In order to determine the best type of welder for your needs, it is important to plan and analyze your uses for a welder thoroughly. It is also crucial to accurately and honestly assess your welding skill level. If you’re new to welding, a MIG or SMA welder will likely be the most ideal choices, while more experienced welders can explore options within the TIG or FCA welder category.
Thankfully, the size of your project, and whether it's a home or industrial project, doesn’t have to determine which type of welder you should purchase. It really boils down to how comfortable and experienced you are with each type of welder.
If you’ve purchased one or more of the welder types above, let us know your thoughts and experiences. Welding is an empowering and rewarding process that can be accessible to the greater public as long as the information continues to spread.