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Welding Basics - Melting Metal
Buy your first welder and start building your next project
Whether you've seen it done on automotive TV shows or at your local shop, watching that spark light and hearing the steady crackle of the MIG welder is enticing for sure. It's always impressive to see professionals lay beautiful beads, and a display of proper TIG welding technique is truly a work of art. It's that refinement of technique that takes a while to conquer, however, getting started is extremely easy and something every gear head should try at least once. Here's a basic primer on how to enter the world of welding.
MIG, TIG, and Materials
If you're not familiar with either MIG or TIG welding, but perhaps watched someone perform welding of some sort, the easy way to tell the difference is that MIG (wire-feed) welding makes a steady and consistent crackling or buzzing noise and the bead is laid down at a fairly decent pace. TIG welding is quiet for the most part, and takes more time to lay the same length of bead.
For the novice DIY welder, MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welding is the best starting point. The technique is easier to learn and the machines are less expensive for the most part. TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) welding is a slower, more refined style of welding that is often used (and sometimes required) when welding aluminum, stainless steel, and chrome-moly. Though it generally takes longer to TIG weld, it's because the technique offers more control, less spatter, and a smaller bead for a better-looking end product. Professional instruction of some sort is generally recommended for TIG welding, so we'll concentrate of MIG welding for the scope of this article.
Once you have your eyes on a line of MIG welders, the first thing to do is decide what type of material you are going to be working with for the majority of your projects. Considering the general content of Modified Mustangs & Fords magazine, you're probably going to be focusing on sheetmetal repair, which is usually made of relatively thin 18- to 24-gauge steel. Most machines capable of welding sheetmetal can handle material up to 3⁄8-inch thick, and that should cover any sort of rollbar/'cage or subframe connectors that you may need to install. However, if you think you might need to weld thicker material for something like a rock crawler or other off-road vehicle, you'll likely need to take a step up in size to be able to properly bond that thick of material.
Something else to consider is your power source. Many welders are designed for 230-volt power sources, but there are an increasing number of smaller welders on the market that operate on your standard 120-volt outlet. Better still, there are welders, just like the Lincoln Electric 180 Dual that we chose, that are able to run off of either power source. This can be handy if you'll be using the welder in a variety of locations. A word of caution: don't try to make a 120-volt welder do what it wasn't designed to do. If you need to step up to a 230-volt welder because of the material you are working with, then upgrade your garage or shop with a 230 outlet. Depending on local regulations, this may require hiring an electrical contractor to install this service, so keep that extra cost in mind.
Safety and Consumables
You've probably seen people welding with nothing more than a tank top on, and you might have even seen people look away as they strike an arc. Sure it might get the job done, but if you are looking to do things properly, you'll want to protect yourself. Proper protection is not only for your own health, but also so you can more easily concentrate on the task at hand. It's hard to pay attention to what you're doing when an errant burning ember has wedged itself between your big toe and your flip flop, or perhaps it bounced off of the bill of your hat and went down your neck, searing your flesh as it works it's way down to your waist. Also, many people aren't aware that welding produces harmful ultraviolet rays and gases, so don't think that the sparks are the only things you need to avoid. Most welding companies offer the proper gear to keep you safe, from simple safety glasses and gloves to leather jackets and solar-powered welding helmets. Another thing to keep in mind is that welders generate electric and magnetic fields that can interfere with pacemakers. Check with your doctor if you have one before welding.
Consumables are products that will be used up during the welding process. This includes things like welding contact tips and wire, as well as shielding gas. You can get most of these items just about anywhere, but the costs associated with them should be considered when purchasing a welder.
While most DIY'ers are self-taught, and often pick up techniques and tips from others, you can always seek out professional education in welding to increase your knowledge of welding machines, materials, and techniques. Most vocational-technical schools offer programs, as do some local colleges, with both usually providing the student with some sort of certification at the end of the program.
Lincoln Electric founded it's own school in 1917 at it's Cleveland, Ohio, campus and has trained over 100,000 students since then. The company offers Basic and Advanced Materials courses that are one week in length each. Seventy percent of the class time is spent hands-on, so you're sure to come away with a very good understanding of the concept of welding. Lincoln, like most other welding companies, offers an extensive amount of educational materials on its website as well.
An educational course in welding is sure to expand your knowledge of the subject and help refine your technique, and this will result in a better end product.