Every maker will eventually need to join metal. Before I learned how to weld, I was always trying to work around the need to weld by using fasteners or glues. That’s okay for the one-off prototype, but sooner or later you’re going to need to weld to test the strength and aesthetic of your product before you begin manufacturing. Welding is the most efficient and economical way to join metals permanently. Having the ability to weld opens up a whole new realm of design and prototyping possibilities.
The good news is that anyone can learn to weld, and that the gear to get started is surprisingly cheap.
The bad news is that you can get hurt if you don’t know what you’re doing. Remember to be cautious when dealing with an electric arc, extreme temperatures, blinding light, and molten metal. With good instruction and proper equipment, you can weld safely and have a lot of fun doing it. Seek out welding courses at your local community college (I went to Northern Virginia Community College) for the most thorough instruction.
The Different Welding Processes
There are a number of welding processes. A lot of the material is oriented toward industrial applications, particularly in the oil, gas and heavy manufacturing industries, and is less relevant for makers. Below is the Maker-friendly table below to try to add some context to the processes.
Weld Process: Proper Name (Common Names)
Oxyacetylene Welding/Brazing (Gas Welding or Torch Welding)
Wrought Iron, Copper, Brass, Mild Steel
The equipment for gas welding is very inexpensive, and it’s a relatively easy process to learn, but it’s only applicable to softer metals and is mostly used for brazing copper pipe in maintenance or repair work. Particularly useful to artists doing metal sculpture work.
Shielded Metal Arc Welding (Stick Welding or Arc Welding)
Steel, Stainless Steel, Cast Iron
This is cheap, easy, and you can weld very thick, rusty steel. This would be a good for the maker that is prototyping large heavy metal parts like a vehicle frame, but is not applicable to thin sheet metal.
Gas Metal Arc Welding (Metal Inert Gas Welding or MIG)
Mild Steel, Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Copper, Brass
This is probably the most popular maker-friendly welding process. MIG works on both thick and thin material, MIG is applicable to a wide variety of metals, MIG leaves a visually aesthetic weld, and it is relatively easy.
Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (Tungsten Inert Gas Welding or TIG)
Steel, Stainless Steel, Cast Iron, Aluminum, Copper, Brass, Titanium
TIG is the most difficult process to master, but provides the highest degree of precision, control, and quality. TIG will be attractive to the maker of small or high precision parts, or the maker that demands the most aesthetic final weld appearance.
A note on slag: When you stick weld, or use flux-core wire without shielding gas in a MIG process, the electrode contains a material that burns while you weld, generating a beneficial shielding gas that displaces oxidizing air. Unfortunately, when the flux burns it also generates a carbon gunk called slag that you need to scrape or sand off. This is obviously unattractive on a customer-facing surface, and will require finishing work to make it presentable. MIG and TIG processes that use bottled shielding gas, on the other hand, do not contain flux and therefore do not generate slag, resulting in a very attractive weld that does not require finishing work.
Using the MIG Process
MIG is a great choice for the maker who wants to learn a relatively easy process, make great looking welds, and work on a wide variety of metals and material thicknesses. This should be the “go-to “process for most makers. MIG utilizes a consumable metal wire spool and a tank of shielding gas. You pull the trigger of the MIG gun, generating an electric arc that melts the wire electrode and a portion of the underlying metal target. I personally found that I could make good looking welds on the first day I tried MIG. The hardest part for me was setting up the machine and threading the wire spool!
Using the TIG Process
For the maker that wants the ultimate measure of control and quality over her projects, TIG is the ideal process. TIG requires the use of both hands and a foot: You hold a non-consumable tungsten electrode generating an electric arc in one hand, you feed filler rod metal into the weld pool with the other hand, and you vary the electrical current with a foot pedal.
This coordination takes a fair amount of practice to build up the required skill. Makers who are focused on prototyping intricate parts, who are working with exotic metals, or who need to create customer-ready finished products should consider the TIG process.
How to Choose the Welding Equipment That’s Right For You
Once I became comfortable with the processes that I need for my maker projects, I decided to purchase my own equipment. My buying criteria were as follows:
– The welder needed to be small and portable, so I could carry it in my car between my home and shop
– I wanted to do all three major processes: stick, MIG, and TIG
– I wanted to be able to weld on steel, stainless steel, and aluminum
– I preferred a welder that would support 120V and 240V input voltages. We have 240V at the Elvaria shop, and you really need this higher voltage for working with thicker materials, but 120V is fine for thinner material when you don’t have access to the larger high voltage outlet.
I ended up purchasing the Lincoln Electric Power MIG 210 MP (multi-process), a new machine that’s generated a lot of interest because it supports stick, MIG, and TIG, both input voltages, and comes in a small, easily carried form factor. At $1000, the price is higher than an entry-level single process machine, but a good value for a multi-process machine made by a major manufacturer. If you can get by with only the MIG process, you can buy an entry-level 240V MIG welder for under $300.
Now that I have the superpower of joining metal, it has elevated my ability to make and prototype to a new level. I can quickly fabricate and test new ideas, I can make modifications to existing components, and I can make repairs when needed. You can weld!
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