Welding 101

Bring a welder into your workshop for a whole new world of project possibilities

By Steve Maxwell

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Stick welders deliver their arc and supplemental metal through a consumable rod that’s clamped in place on the end of the electrode. This is the stick, which you need to keep manually pushing into the molten weld pool as it’s consumed. This action takes some practice. Push the rod too close to the underlying metal and it welds itself right to your workpiece, shutting down both the arc and welding action in the process. Hold the stick too far away and your weld strength will drop considerably.

Simple, inexpensive stick welders have been around for years, and they do a fine job for those willing to put in the time to get the technique right. On the downside, workshop-grade stick welders can’t weld aluminum and they give off a fair amount of smoke during use. This is actually intentional, generated by the coating on the outside of the welding rod. This smoke shields the metal from oxidizing while the weld area is molten. Without this protection, the weld wouldn’t form properly. Trouble is, it doesn’t take long for a stick welder to fill your shop with a pungent blue haze. You need a lot of ventilation.

Wire-feed welders

Following the same principles of arc-generated heat as stick welders, wire-feed welders have several advantages. After 15 minutes of practice, most people can lay down a pretty good bead with a wire-feed welder. After a few hours, you’ll be welding like a pro. The short learning curve isn’t the only advantage; the system is also very portable and relatively inexpensive. This is why wire-feed machines are my favourite welding tools.

When I learned to weld 25 years ago, wire-feed welders were stationary, industrial-sized machines weighing hundreds of pounds and costing thousands of dollars. Today, you can buy a compact, brand-name wire-feed welder that weighs less than 50 lb. for about $420. The appearance of machines such as these is the biggest news in the metal-working scene, although that’s not all.

One reason that a wire-feed machine is easier to use than a stick welder is that it doesn’t have a stick. Instead, it uses a thin, consumable wire (usually 0.020″ to 0.040″ in diameter) that’s automatically fed off a spool and out the tip of the handheld electrode when you pull the trigger. A small motor drive within the welder itself pushes the wire out. This wire melts because of arc heat, adding metal to the weld bead as it’s laid down. By automatically advancing the wire into the weld area, wire-feed machines take a crucial variable out of your hands. Dial in the correct wire-feed rate for a particular job (it’s controlled by a knob on the welder), then you’re set.


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