You can’t turn on the Discovery channel anymore without seeing someone welding, and we’ve received a number of requests from readers asking for more coverage of the subject. So, ask and you shall receive: we did some research and discovered that it’s a lot easier to get started welding than in years past. Flux-Core and even MIG welders are easily within the range of the beginner, and offer the ability to quickly reach a point in the learning curve where you can build some fun projects.
In this post we’ve rounded up fourteen “entry-level” flux-core and MIG welders to give you an idea of what to expect when you go shopping. And look for a combination “hands-on” and “how-to” tomorrow where we build a project with one of the welders included in the comparison. (Lots more after the jump.)
Wikipedia defines welding as “a fabrication process that joins materials, usually metals or thermoplastics, by causing coalescence.” As you can imagine, there are dozens of ways to accomplish this, ranging from frictional heat to the use of lasers. For purposes of this post, we’re interested in welding metal, and we’re specifically interested in units that you can afford and use easily. That narrows the field down quite a bit.
A little too cold…
Gas welding has been around for a long time. The most common form of gas welding is oxyacetylene welding, which uses the same oxygen/acetylene rig that’s used with a “cutting torch” but with a welding torch instead. (The differently-shaped tips allow for more variance and accuracy in the application of heat.) Though very portable — no power is required — and somewhat affordable, gas welding requires a pretty steep learning curve, and storing acetylene at home can be problematic.
Stick welding is often considered the most basic welding process, and welding manufacturer Miller offers a great description of it:
Stick welding power sources deliver inexpensive options for welding versatility, portability and reliability. Stick joins metals when an arc is struck between the electrode and the work piece, creating a weld pool and depositing a consumable metal electrode into the joint. The electrode’s protective coating also acts as a shielding gas, protecting the weld and ensuring its purity and strength.
Indeed, stick welders are basically a power supply only, are some of the least expensive units on the market, and work in all sorts of adverse conditions. The main drawback to stick welding for beginners (in our opinion) is that it, too, requires a pretty steep learning curve. Everything happens very quickly after you strike the arc.
A little too hot…
TIG welders use a non-consumable tungsten electrode to provide an arc for welding, and they channel an inert gas to the torch to shield the weld from oxidation — hence “Tungsten Inert Gas.” As TIG allows the welder to very precisely control the amount of heat put into the material and only add filler metal as needed by hand, it often produces the most clean (and best looking) weld beads. TIG is commonly used in the aviation industry and in other critical applications.
The bad news about TIG is that it’s relatively expensive as well, and like gas welding requires a steep learning curve.
Originally developed to increase speed and productivity in production environments, “wire welding” uses a continuously consumable electrode — wire — that is fed automatically from a reel in the welder. Flux-cored wire creates a shielding gas by burning the flux contained in the center of the wire. Flux-core’s older brother MIG welding uses solid-core wire along with a separately-provided shielding gas (often a mix of carbon dioxide and argon for steel). MIG stands for “Metal Inert Gas.”
Wire welding is very operator-friendly. No special skill is required to strike an arc, as you simply place the “torch” near the material and pull the trigger to activate the power, begin feeding wire, and (in the case of MIG) flow shielding gas all at the same time. Press releases from some major manufacturers of wire welders have described the technique as “like a metal glue gun,” and as our experience shows this to be not far from the truth.
When you combine that ease of use with units that are small, inexpensive, and able to run off readily-available current sources, it’s easy to see that wire welding is a great place to start.
To show you welders that we feel a novice can afford and use, we established the following criteria for inclusion in this comparison. Besides being a flux-core and/or MIG welder, the units must:
- sell for under (or around) $800 list, which would allow you to put together a complete MIG unit for under $1000 (or a flux-core only rig for much less)
- operate on a standard 20A 115V circuit to make them easy to use in a home shop
- and be available directly from the manufacturer or through distributors or big-box stores locally in the U.S.
We found fourteen welders that matched:
- Chicago Electric’s 90 AMP Flux Wire Welder (Harbor Freight, $199)
- Century’s Century 80 GL (Home Depot, $229)
- Lincoln’s Weld-Pak HD (Home Depot, $249)
- Lincoln’s MIG-Pak HD (Home Depot, $299)
- Lincoln’s Weld-Pak 100HD (Home Depot, $339)
- Lincoln’s Pro-Core 100 (Lowe’s, $369)
- Lincoln’s Pro-MIG 140 (Lowe’s $429)
- Hobart’s Handler 125 EZ (Direct/Online, $437)
- Hobart’s Handler 125 (Direct/Online, $444)
- Lincoln’s SP-135T (Distributors, $572)
- Hobart’s Handler 140 (Direct/Online, $599)
- Lincoln’s SP-135 Plus (Distributors, $715)
- Miller’s Millermatic 135 (Distributors, $742)
- Hobart’s Handler 180 (Distributors, $808)
(See the bottom of the page for a link to a PDF containing the full spec list which was way too big to fit in this middle of the post.)
How do you tell them apart? Let’s look at the specs.