What You Need To Get Started In Welding

Get into welding | Construction Pro Tips

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Intimidated by welding?

Whether you’d like to build custom cars or fix a cracked piece of equipment, learning to weld gives your construction game a serious boost. To help you choose a machine that meets your needs, in this story we’ll outline the three basic welding systems. Ideally, you’ll pick one that can handle both your first effort and more advanced projects as your skills grow. Once you've mastered the basics and are looking for your first project be sure to check out our story on how to build a welding table.

Welding up close and personal | Construction Pro Tips

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Welding basics

All of these welding systems work essentially the same: An electric arc generates enough heat between the electrode (stick or wire) and the metal being joined to melt both together and create the bond. To ensure a strong bond, the super-hot area around the weld is surrounded by a cloud of inert gas to prevent oxygen and contaminants in the air from weakening the weld. That gas is provided either by the flux inside or around the electrode, or by a bottle of gas that feeds the joint as you weld.

MIG Welding Machine | Construction Pro Tips

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Choosing your first welder

To get started, you’ll likely spend $200 to $400 for a quality welding machine. Check online to see the range of what’s available because most home centers carry only one or two models. A 120-volt welder, powered by a conventional outlet, can weld metal up to 5/16 in. thick. You’ll need at least a 20-amp (preferably a 30-amp) circuit.

The higher your machine’s amp output, the thicker the material it can weld. Most people work with angle iron and tube steel no thicker than 1/4 in. Any 120-volt machine will suffice for this.

If you’re really serious about welding and want more flexibility for future projects, get a 240-volt machine powered by a 50-amp circuit. A 240-volt machine makes welding thick material much easier and faster. Most welding machines have a chart inside a flip-up hood detailing the exact setup you’ll need (amps, electrode size, etc.) for a given thickness of material. You can buy a single machine capable of MIG, TIG and stick, but it’ll cost about $1,200.

Besides the welding machine, set aside about $200 for basic accessories.

MIG Welding in Action | Construction Pro Tips

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MIG Welding

Whom it’s for:

A MIG welder is the most user-friendly type of welder. If you’re looking for a general welding system that’s easy to learn and good for most welding needs, this is it. MIG welders have an automatic wire feed system.

Cost

$250 and up.

Pros

  • Welds steel, aluminum and stainless.
  • Can weld materials as thin as 26 gauge.
  • Good for materials up to 5/16 in. thick.
  • Relatively easy to learn.
  • Nice-looking welds (with practice).
  • Fast to lay down a finished weld.
  • Doesn’t produce lots of spatter.
  • Little need to clean up the bead after welding.
  • Produces less smoke than stick (using a separate gas source)

Cons

  • Materials must be very clean.
  • The wire feed mechanism on cheap machines can be troublesome.

MIG Welding Setup Diagram | Construction Pro Tips

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MIG Setup

A MIG machine has an automatic wire feed with a bottle of inert gas to shield the weld. With MIG welding, the wire is the electrode as well as the filler material.

A) Bottled Gas

For a MIG setup, you’ll need a bottle of gas, typically CO2 or a CO2/argon mix. Straight CO2 is the cheapest option. Adding argon creates a better-looking weld. A filled tank costs $80 to $160 depending on the tank size and the gas mixture. Note: Flux core wire does not require a separate gas source. Flux core wire does create more harmful fumes, so proper ventilation is critical.

B) Welding Gun

The wire feed, electrical arc— created by the electrode/filler wire—and shielding gas are activated by pressing the trigger.

C) Ground Clamp

The ground clamp completes the electrical circuit to create the arc. It’s important to clamp it to clean metal to get the best results.

D) Wire Feed MIG Welder

The wire spool is inside the machine or in a separate wire feed box. This feeds the wire through the gun when the trigger is pressed.

MIG Welding Explained | Construction Pro Tips

TIG Welding in Action | Construction Pro Tips

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TIG Welding

Whom it’s for:

If you want to do projects that require attractive finished welds, such as sculpture or motorcycle exhaust systems, TIG welding is for you.

TIG welding takes lots of practice, as it requires both hands as well as one foot. Compared with MIG or stick welding, it’s a bit like going from driving an automatic to driving a stick shift. TIG welding is well suited for auto bodies, chassis/frame, aluminum oil pans, stainless exhaust, metal art, sheet metal, piping systems, motorcycles and bikes.

Cost

$250 and up.

Pros

  • Capable of greater precision than the other processes.
  • Strong, high-quality welds.
  • Nice-looking weld beads.
  • Welds a large range of alloys.

Cons

  • Parts must be very clean.
  • High-quality machines are expensive.
  • Requires lots of practice to become proficient.
  • Much slower than MIG.

TIG Welding Setup Diagram | Construction Pro Tips

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TIG Setup

With a TIG setup, the electrode is a tungsten wire. The electrode is not the filler material, as it is with the other processes. The filler is typically a long handheld rod instead of a wire feed spool, and you control the amperage using a foot pedal.

A) Bottled Gas

For a TIG setup, you’ll use either pure argon or an argon/helium mix. A filled tank costs $80 to $200 depending on the tank size and mixture.

B) Foot Pedal

The foot pedal controls the amperage going to the gun. Some alloys are sensitive to thermal shock, which causes materials to expand at different rates, causing stress and even cracking. The variable amperage allows for a soft start and stop, helping eliminate thermal shock.

C) Filler Rod

In TIG welding, the filler material is fed by hand. Filler rods are available in different sizes and alloys to suit the job.

D) Welding Gun

The electrical arc in TIG welding is created by a tungsten electrode in the gun. The arc and shielding gas are activated by pressing the trigger. If you don’t want a foot pedal to control amperage, you can get a TIG gun with amperage control on the gun.

E) Ground Clamp

The ground clamp completes the electrical circuit to create the arc. Clamp it to clean metal for the best results.

TIG Welding Explanation | Construction Pro Tips

Stick Welding in Action | Construction Pro Tips

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Stick Welding

Whom it’s for:

If you mostly want to do down-and-dirty welding where appearance isn’t an issue, stick welding is for you. It’s a simple, cheap way to repair dirty or rusty trailers and equipment (especially outdoors).

Cost

$100 to $1,000.

Pros

  • Economical.
  • Best for welds that don’t need to look nice.
  • Works well on dirty and rusty parts.
  • No bottled gas required.

Cons

  • Best used outdoors—there’s lots of splatter and smoke.
  • Can’t be used on metals thinner than 18 gauge.
  • A bit difficult to learn, and it does require some practice.
  • Slag must be removed after welding using a chipping hammer followed by wire brushing, because slag absorbs moisture and won’t accept paint.

Stick Welding Diagram | Construction Pro Tips

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Stick Setup

The flux on the outside of the electrode/filler rod provides the shielding gas, so no bottle is required. This is the machine you want for ultimate portability, as a stick welder is often integrated into a generator and works well outdoors.

A) Filler Rod

With stick welding, the filler rod is also the electrode. It’s coated with flux, which creates the shielding gas, so no bottled gas is required.

B) Electrode Clamp

This clamp holds the electrode/filler rod.

C) Ground Clamp

The ground clamp completes the electrical circuit to create the arc. Clamp it to clean metal for the best results.

D) Welding Machine

A stick-welding machine offers ultimate portability. No bottled gas is required, and the machine is often integrated into a gasoline generator.

Stick Welding Explanation

Meet the Expert Welder | Construction Pro Tips

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Meet the Expert

Jordan Dickinson is a professional welder and the owner/operator of Union Speed & Style, a custom auto, motorcycle and fabrication shop in Monticello, MN.