If you’re just starting out with welding, there is one single goal that should drive every decision: Buy the cheapest stuff possible that isn’t junk.
Once you get going, you’ll learn how to take care of your equipment and what kind of welding you’ll be doing. Then you’ll be in a great position to buy higher quality gear that will do exactly what you need. Until then, just get going so that you can practice and learn how to do it.
Choosing a Welding Machine
There is no one machine that does everything. Unless you have a specific application in mind, you’ll want to find something general purpose that’ll cover you for most of what you’ll probably be doing.
If you really don’t have a clue what you’re getting yourself into, I’d recommend starting with a Flux-Cored Arc Welding (FCAW) system. It’s commonly (and incorrectly) referred to as gasless MIG. It’s arguably the easiest to learn and the cheapest to start with. Kinda point and shooty.
Here’s a quick overview of what you can do with it and why it’s probably what you want:
- The systems are really cheap to pick up. It’s one of those things where even if you use it three times, it’s probably worth it.
- They’re super light weight and are easy to store, even in a tightly-packed garage.
- They work great on welding steel, which is by far the most common thing you run into in the real world. Besides that, it’s also the easiest to weld.
- You don’t have to mess with gas bottles, special power requirements, or any of that stuff. Plug it in and start welding.
That said, nothing does everything. Here are some disadvantages:
- It’s pretty well only good for steel. If you’re wanting to weld aluminum or stainless, you’re looking at a different type of machine that’s more expensive and requires more skill.
- Compared to MIG welding (which uses an inert shielding gas) there’s potential for the weld to have some porosity issues. Normally this isn’t a big deal, but it might limit you. For example, if you’re doing structural welding on a car, you might have a hard time getting it to pass the safety inspection. The inspector may or may not allow this type of welding, depending on your area.
Generally, though, this is what a start-from-scratch hobbyist will start with.
The machine that I have and use regularly is the Goplus MIG 130 Welder. Don’t let the name fool you, it’s not actually a MIG system. I think they named it that to appeal to the beginners that don’t really know too much about welding. If they put FCAW (Flux-Cored Arc Welding System) it’d probably just confuse everyone.
Here’s a link to check it out on Amazon (just click the image):
It might seem like I’m harping on a detail since MIG and FCAW are very similar, but there are differences between the two.
Anyway, here’s why I like it:
- Dirt cheap and it actually works good (for a hobby machine; I’m not comparing this to the $1,200 units).
- I have no problem whatsoever welding 1/4″ thick steel. I was pleasantly surprised by this. The welds are good and strong. I can hammer them 90 degrees and the welds don’t snap.
- It plugs in to 110v, so you can just use regular outlets. Installing 220v lines is an absolute pain and expensive, especially if you only use them occasionally.
- It’s a fun little toy to have and it’s actually surprisingly useful. I use mine all the time.
Here’s where it could be better:
- The liner isn’t the best quality. For this price, you can’t expect everything to be amazing. All this means is that you might fight with it a little bit when you’re putting in a new wire spool.
- The heat controls are pretty limiting. You only have a high and low setting. This isn’t super critical, but it’s nice to be able to fine-tune to get a beautiful weld.
So it’s not going to keep up with industrial machines, but this is seriously a really good option for a hobbyist or beginner. If there’s one machine I’d recommend to get started with, this is it.
Other Welding Machines
Depending on what you’re wanting to do, that little FCAW unit might not fit the bill. Here are some other options that might do it for you:
If you’re wanting to weld aluminum or stainless, I’d recommend a TIG machine. These are trickier to learn and more expensive, but they’re also extremely versatile. You can also weld regular steel with no problem.
One thing worth noting: in order to weld aluminum, you need a TIG welder that has an AC output. These machines are more expensive, usually in the $700+ range for something that’s worth using. They’re great to have, but generally cost prohibitive for the guys that just want something to start out with.
Here’s an example of a machine that will work well for aluminum (click the image to see it on Amazon):
Since it’s fewer people that would justify this one, I’m not going to spend much of your time explaining it. It’s got the features that will let you do a nice job, like high frequency and a foot pedal. If you want to start with aluminum, this is the machine to get.
The large majority of the time, a multipurpose machine that will plasma cut as well as weld steel and stainless is where you’ll get the best bang for your buck.
Here’s the machine I’d recommend if you’re just starting out and don’t want to overspend (clicking the image will take you to Amazon):
It’s actually a 3-in-1 machine since you can do both TIG, plasma cutting, and regular arc welding. For the money, it’s the best and most versatile machine for beginners.
What I like about this unit:
- You will not find more versatility for that price range. The fact that it also can plasma cut is extremely useful in a single unit.
- The ability to weld both stainless and carbon steel is great. Basically, you have the ability to handle more materials.
- You can flip the wiring to run it on 110v or 220v depending on what you already have. It performs better on 220v if you can manage to get it.
- One year warranty on the machine itself. I once had a stupidly cheap little welder (not this one) that blew within the first few days. This machine is much better, but even still it’s nice to have some peace of mind.
What could be better:
- It’s pretty basic as a TIG and plasma cutting machine, no bells and whistles. For example, no pilot arc on the plasma torch.
- There’s no foot pedal for the TIG welder. One is available for separate purchase, but it’s (in my opinion) pretty expensive. They should have a cheaper option. Nice to have, but not necessary for hobby work.
- It doesn’t have AC output. This means that you can’t properly TIG weld aluminum. You’ll need the more expensive machine that I mentioned earlier for that.
Please keep in mind that while arc welding only requires the electrodes, both plasma and TIG welding need gas. This is not generated by the machine.
Plasma cutting can be done with compressed air. You’ll generally want something that can handle about 4 CFM @ 90 PSI if you need it for heavy and constant use. If it’s for more intermittent work, you’re fine with a smaller compressor. You should be able to find the specific requirements for the plasma cutter that you’re buying.
TIG welding needs argon. Your best bet is to go into your local welding supply shop and inquire about renting or buying a bottle.
While some welding machines come with some extremely basic gear, they’re generally not even worth trying. It’s well worth it to pick up some budget-friendly welding gear that you’ll actually be comfortable using.
An auto-darkening welding helmet just makes your job easier and hassle-free. There are some crazy expensive ones out there for hundreds of dollars. While they are really nice, they’re also hard to justify.
An economical one like this will do everything that you need it to do and you won’t have to make payments so you can afford it (clicking the image will let you see it on Amazon):
Don’t even bother with those hand held ones that come free with the machine. Place it directly in the garbage disposal. For a few bucks, just get something that’s worth using.
The other thing that’s a must-have is decent welding gloves. For TIG welding, you generally want thin, light-duty ones that will let you have a good feel for it as you’re working. It also makes working with a filler rod easier. These ones work great.
For everything else, get something heavier for more protection. I like these ones because they’re a bit more heat resistant.
Beyond that, there’s only a few things more that are practical. For example, an angle grinder with a flap disc and a wire wheel, a wire brush, and a chipping hammer (for arc welding) are all practical, if not necessary, things to have. That’s all stuff that you might already own though.
Aside from that, just make sure that you’re using proper safety gear. Wear safety glasses even when you’re using a helmet. Sparks will bounce around inside all the time.
Also make sure that you’re not wearing anything flammable. Welding in synthetic clothing like polyester is very dangerous as your whole shirt can light up and melt into your skin. Not fun. Stick to 100% cotton clothing. Otherwise, a leather welding apron can do a lot to protect your clothing from burn holes.