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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.
01. You can get a welder pretty cheaply these days, but you may find that the less expensive ones don’t quite work as well as more moderately priced machines. Consider testing the welding waters using someone else’s machine to decide whether or not you want to make a long-term investment in a quality product. Lincoln Electric has been in the welding game for over 100 years, and the company has products for the beginner as well and the professional. After discussing our needs with them, we opted for the Power Mig 180 Dual, and outfitted ourselves with a Viking 3350 auto-darkening helmet, MIG Welding Gloves (PN K2980-M) and Lincoln’s Shadow Grain leather-sleeved jacket (PN K2987-L), as well as the company’s Leather Steel Worker Gloves (PN K2977-M). The optional utility cart makes the welder portable and easier to reach for adjustments.
02. As we were in the market for a welder that the average DIY’er might use at home, we opted for Lincoln’s Power Mig 180 Dual wire welder. The Dual refers to the welder’s ability to operate on either 120- or 208/230-volt input power. The machine also features an industrial cast aluminum drive for positive traction, split wire guides that ensure optimal wire alignment, and a brass-to-brass gun connection for better conductivity. The 180 Dual also uses Lincoln’s Diamond Core Technology, which delivers a forgiving arc, excellent out-of-position arc action, low spatter, and a wide voltage sweet spot at a given wire feed speed. It’s also spool-gun ready for when you want to try your hand at welding aluminum.
03. The 180 Dual welder comes with a number of supplies so you can get to welding right away. Inside the case you’ll find two spools of wire, a ground clamp, a small assortment of contact tips and drive rolls, and a tool bag. Included with the welder are 120- and 230-volt power cables, gas feed line and regulator with gauges, welding torch, work cable, and a Learn-To-Use DVD and instruction manual.
04. The included instructions are easy to follow, and the welder is very easy to set up. We start by connecting the polarity wires. MIG welding requires positive polarity, so the short cable inside the machine is connected to the positive terminal. The work cable, which has the clamp on one end and the eyelet on the other, is inserted through the hole and then connected to the negative output terminal.
05. The gun cable has two connections that are made on the front of the machine. The electrical connection is made and then the wire cable is inserted into the machine. Inside, you’ll need to loosen the setscrew, slide the cable all the way in, and then tighten the screw.
06. The work cable clamp comes separate and needs to be connected to the cable. Simple enough, right?
07. The Lincoln 180 Dual comes with two types of welding wire. The one on the left is Innershield NR-211-MP flux-cored wire. It requires no shielding gas, as the core produces it’s own. This comes in handy when welding outside and in windy locations. We opted to begin with the solid SuperArc L15.025 wire on the right, which requires a shielding gas.
08. The 180 Dual can accommodate both 4- and 8-inch spools of wire. As we’re going with the included 4-inch spool, we need to remove the spool adapter to mount it.
09. As delivered, the welder was set up for 0.035 wire. To utilize the 0.025 solid wire, we need to switch out the tip, the drive rolls, and the wire guide.
10. With the necessary guide and drive rolls in place, you can now feed the wire through the guide and into the gun cable.
11. At the gun, the nozzle unscrews and the tip can then be changed. A pair of welding pliers makes quick work of this, and they can be used to clean the tip—something you’ll need to do often when you first start out.
12. One of the key features of the Lincoln 180 Dual is the ability to run on either a 120- or 230-volt power source. It’s as simple as using the appropriate cable. With most breaker panels located in the garage, where you’ll most likely be working, it’s fairly easy to call an electrician and have a 230 service installed in a convenient location if that’s the way you want to go.
13. With power to the welder, you can now squeeze the trigger to advance the wire. Once it comes out of the gun, you can install and tighten the contact tip and install the nozzle. When welding, you’ll want to start with the wire protruding approximately 3⁄8-inch from the tip.
14. Unless you’re in a rural area, welding gas supply companies are usually pretty easy to find via the Yellow Pages or the Internet. Companies like AirGas and Praxair regularly stock the CO2/Argon mix gas you’ll need to get started. There are generally two to three sizes of bottles available: You’ll likely have to pay a bottle fee up front and then just have to pay for a refill beyond that.
15. Once you have your shielding gas bottle, you can install the included regulator and supply line. Our Lincoln welder requires 30-40 cubic feet per hour under normal conditions, with higher pressures used for out-of-position welding. Make sure you set the pressure while squeezing the gun trigger to get the right setting.
16. Suit up, as Barney Stinson likes to say. Proper welding coats have collars and cuffs that tighten up to prevent errant embers from getting in and burning you. You’ll especially appreciate this when welding upside down or above your head.
17. For most auto enthusiasts, these are likely the three most common thicknesses of metal that you’ll be handling. Standard sheetmetal such as body panels like the one of the left are usually 18-24 gauge, while framerails and such are a bit thicker. Rollbar material is thicker still, but the Lincoln 180 can handle all of this—perfect for what we are looking to use it for.
18. Inside the machine’s lid you’ll find the wire feed speed and voltage chart, among a bunch of other information that includes a metal thickness guide, and basic welding technique diagrams. Find the type of wire you are using, then the wire thickness, and go down the chart to find the metal thickness. The chart will then give you the recommended wire feed speed and voltage setting, which is set on the front of the machine.
19. One of the keys to great welding is clean material, and cleaning the material is done both chemically and mechanically. New metal often comes coated with an anti-rust chemical that must be cleaned prior to welding. Acetone or similar organic solvents are the best, and soapy water can be used as well. Never use brake cleaner, as it can decompose into poisonous and corrosive gasses when the arc hits it. In addition to chemical cleaning, any oxidation, paint, powdercoat, or other finish needs to be removed via sanding disc or wire brush.
20. With your material clean and ready to be welded, connect the work cable clamp and make sure it has a good, solid, and clean connection. A bad connection will make for a poor weld or none at all. Be sure you are in a well-ventilated area with no flammable items in the immediate area.
21. If you’ve never welded before or have done very little of it, it’s best to start out with some scrap metal. This will allow you to spend time watching the weld puddle, practice your wire speed and gun movement, and generally find your technique. You can assess your weld penetration and quality without worrying about ruining the body panel that you just spent money on and waited a week for it to show up on the brown truck. Don’t limit yourself to just laying beads on a flat piece of metal either. Grab a couple of pieces and practice your technique on different types of joints as well.