Welding Machine Guide
This article is a comprehensive guide to getting into your first welding machine. We will first cover the three main types of welding machine power sources. We then dive into the Stick/TIG, MIG and engine driven machines that we recommend for getting started.
This article will focus on reasonably priced machines with great features and warranties. We didn’t spend a fortune on our first machines, and we don’t think you should have to either.
Investing in your first welding machine can be confusing at first. However, with how far technology has come in recent years, there are many great options available. A lot of these options have become very affordable compared to the past. Depending on what type of projects you plan on doing, this list should steer you in the right direction.
Inverter Machines – What Are They?
Inverters are the newest type of machine in the welding world. They are smaller and more lightweight than a transformer or an engine-driven machine. Think of an inverter as a welder with a computer inside of it. They draw less power, and they are one of the first types of welding machines that can be successfully powered off of standard household outlets (120V).
Small copper coils in inverters are more efficient than their aluminum counterparts in other machines, and the machines can usually be carried in one hand and easily transported from one job to the next.
Pros Of Inverters
One upside to inverter machines is that a lot of them can perform multiple processes. Some “Multiprocess” inverter machines on the market have MIG, TIG, and Stick capabilities in a machine that weighs less than 50 pounds.
In today’s market, you can pick up a new inverter machine for about $300 and up. Many of the newer manufacturers do make these overseas, but the warranties can’t be beat and the customer service is usually top-notch.
As you creep up in price, the nicer inverters do have the option for a 240V plugin, thus allowing for more amperage and a higher duty cycle.
If you plan on having a welder in your garage for projects, you’re looking to learn to weld on your own, or you need a portable welder to take to small jobs, the inverter is worth looking into.
Cons Of Inverters
A downside of these machines is that they have a smaller duty cycle than transformers or engine drives. A duty cycle is the amount of time a machine can be welding before it overheats.
For example, a machine rated at a 50% duty cycle at 100 amps means the machine can weld at 100 amps for 5 minutes out of a 10 minute period (before it needs a break). This downside of inverter machines doesn’t come as a surprise, because the power from a regular household outlet is nowhere close to a larger 240V outlet.
Transformer Machines – What Are They?
Transformer machines have been around for over 100 years. They are what facilitated the switch from oxy gas welding to arc welding in the early 1900s. Transformers are considered old school technology. These machines usually have less control when it comes to different settings. In plain words, they mostly produce a welding current from the power source and have a winder or a dial to tune in the users desired amperage.
Many welders today will want a machine with modern features and infinite adjustability. A transformer is not usually a machine with tons of features. What you see is what you get.
Pros Of Transformers
An advantage of transformer machines is that they are incredibly rugged – because not a whole lot can go wrong in a machine with very limited components. Many welding fabrication shops still have transformers in use that are many years old.
One benefit is that if you can find an excellent condition new or used transformer, it will likely last a long time. These machines also run off of larger power outlets (240v) or (480v), so the duty cycle is considerably higher than most inverters. Some transformers are rated for a 100% duty cycle at higher amperages; so you can weld continuously without damaging the machine. This makes them ideal for larger fabrication projects or for use on heavier gauged steel.
Transformer welding machines are a great investment and make sense for a shop or a garage where the owner requires reliability and low maintenance costs.
Cons Of Transformers
Transformers are heavier and tend to have less features. If you really want a welding machine that you can grow into as you learn features, transformers may not be the best option.
They are harder to transport if you need to change locations, and they can be harder to find parts for as they age. Some transformers weigh less and are more compact, though.
Engine Driven Machines – What Are They?
Engine drives are welders that operate independently from external power sources. Gas or diesel powers engine driven machines. You have probably seen generators on work trucks or at someone’s house for backup power. Engine-driven welders are just generators that provide a solid welding current as well as outlets for powering tools for the job.
Pros Of Engine Drives
A big advantage of these machines is that you can have a power source wherever you go. They are the main choice for mobile welders because they can pull up at any job site and are ready to start work. Lots of farms and ranches have these machines for general maintenance work. These machines can get very expensive, but some lower amperage engine drives are pretty affordable and offer many benefits.
Another advantage is their durability. Most engine drives are built with a metal housing that withstands rain, hail, and snow. This allows you to weld in any condition if you so desire. It also means you don’t have to worry about the machine if you get some overnight weather.
Cons Of Engine Drives
Engine drives tend to come with shorter warranties because they are abused more than inverters and transformers. If a welding company registers an engine drive they purchased, it may only have 90 days of warranty coverage. If your engine drive breaks down, it could turn out to be a hefty repair bill.
The big names in engine driven machines are Miller and Lincoln. Lincoln machines have been popular on the pipeline for many years, and their earlier “SA” machines can be seen on many rig trucks. A lot of these machines are 40 years old and are still being put to daily use. However, the downside is that these require a lot of maintenance and upkeep.
One thing to note is that most engine drives come with an hour counter. You must perform regular maintenance and oil changes just like a car. This can be a disadvantage for welders who don’t want to deal with a lot of maintenance.
Engine drives are among the heaviest of the welding machines available. Ranging from 200 pounds to well over 1,000 pounds, it is strongly advised that you have a truck or trailer to go along with your setup. This makes them inaccessible to folks who don’t have a means of machine transport.
With that being said, if you plan on mobile welding or need to perform welds and repairs in the field, the engine drive is worth researching.
Use Of Engine Drives In The Field
Most ironworkers and structural welders use engine drives at the job site. You have probably seen a welding truck or a “rig truck.” This allows welders to have their machine on the back of their truck with a set of leads, gas cylinders, and all the tools of the trade. Pipeliners use engine drives as well. There are engine drives specifically geared towards pipe welding applications because they can burn specialty downhill rods better than your average machine.
Buyers Guide – Picking Your First Machine
Which Stick/TIG Welder Should I Consider?
Entry level power sources for Stick welding tend to be cheaper than buying a MIG or TIG specific machine. For welders getting started with stick welding, our favorite options are below.
Everlast Stick Machine
The Powerarc series from Everlast is a solid line of inverters for decent prices. The Powerarc 161 is perfect for a home setup. This is a great machine for hobbyists and newer welders who want to learn stick welding.
It features a very stable stick arc, has low power consumption and adjustable arc force controls. You can also TIG weld with it easily. It offers high frequency TIG starts which is the easiest and most desirable way to TIG. It is a great entry level option that you can definitely grow into.
Everlast Powerarc 161
Miller Electric Stick Machine
The Miller Thunderbolt 160 is comparable to the Everlast Powerarcs. The Miller Thunderbolt has a 240V plugin option, and weighs only 15 lbs. The Thunderbolt offers the best entry level stick features in one of the smallest packages.
It has infinite amperage control from 20-160 amps. You can run standard 120V power from a house outlet, or you can use a 240V outlet to jump into the higher amperage range.
The thunderbolt comes standard with leads, ground clamp and stinger, and both outlet plugins depending on which outlets you have available to you.
Miller Electric Thunderbolt Package
Lincoln Electric Stick Machine
Lincolns “Tombstone” style welders have been around forever and can be found being utilized at lots of fabrication shops.
These offer a stable arc and a simple dial for amperage adjustment. These machines are relatively affordable and have been a great beginner machine for years. The entry level tombstones run AC stick rods best, while the AC/DC option can handle all types of rods.
The Tombstones have a very simple amperage adjustment, and are built to last a long time. If you mainly plan on stick welding, these are a great machine that will last for decades.
Lincoln Tombstone AC Welder
ESAB Stick Machine
ESAB is another great company with innovative features and affordable options. The ESAB MiniArc 161 LTS can run on 120V and 240V power. It has very solid arc characteristics with both stick and TIG applications.
It has a wide amperage range from 5-160 amps, and can even run cellulose rods (i.e. 6010’s) with ease. A lot of entry level stick machines don’t do well with cellulose rods, so this is a nice benefit.
This machine only weighs 18 lbs, which makes it one of the lightest stick machines ever made. It also comes with a shoulder strap which you can take on to job sites without a problem.
It offers lift arc TIG starts – this isn’t as high end as high frequency starts, but it does just fine for most applications.
The MiniArc comes complete with leads and power adapters, which is a great value.
Esab MiniArc 161 LTS Welder
Which MIG Welder Should I Consider?
MIG machines differ from Stick and TIG machines partly because they require a drive roll mechanism to feed the wire towards the MIG nozzle. If you are curious about how MIG welding works, our overview article can be found here.
Lincoln Electric MIG Machine
A very popular machine that can handle it all is the Lincoln PowerMIG 210MP. The 210MP can weld up to 5/16” steel and has both 120/240V plugins. As we have stated in previous articles, having the option to plug into 240V means more power and less chance of tripping a breaker. When a smaller machine has the larger plugin, the user can weld thicker metals with higher duty cycles.
The 210MP has a digital color display which makes it really easy for the user to dial in their settings. The 210MP can also perform Stick and TIG functions; which allows a novice welder to really grow into this machine.
Lincoln Electric 210MP MIG Welder Check Price On Amazon
Miller Electric MIG Machine
Another MIG option we recommend is the Millermatic series. This is Miller’s version of a portable MIG machine with high capabilities. The Millermatic 141 and 211 are great for someone looking to not break the bank. The 141 only allows for a 120V plugin which means it can only weld up to 3/16” steel. This machine can still be useful for smaller projects in a garage where the user just wants to practice and weld thin metal.
For someone looking for more versatility, the Millermatic 211 should fit their needs. This machine can weld steel up to ⅜” of an inch thick. This machine can also weld aluminum and stainless. The 240V plug will give you more power in a machine that weighs only 38 lbs.
Millermatic 211 MIG Welder
Everlast MIG Machine
Everlast makes quality MIG machines that retail for less than a Miller or a Lincoln. This PowerMIG 200 inverter offers stable MIG arc characteristics while reducing extra spatter.
It has quick connects which allows you to upgrade your MIG cables, and you can attach stick welding leads if you prefer stick welding. This Everlast machine is also capable of flux core MIG and aluminum MIG functions.
It has great automatic pre flow and post flow, and can weld some pretty thick material.
This kit comes with MIG cables, Stick cables, and all necessary components to get started welding.
Everlast PowerMIG 200 MIG Welder
Which Engine Drive Should I Consider?
If you are really interested in mobile welding or rig work in general, having an engine drive is basically a necessity. If you plan on always welding at home or at your shop workspace, then you may not need an engine drive – because you will have outlets always available for use.
Miller Engine Drive
The Miller Bobcat 225 is one of the best starter engine drives on the market. It stick welds up to 225 amps and is also capable of running MIG and TIG machines. Even at high amperages, the Bobcat boasts a 100% duty cycle. This means you can weld nonstop if you so desire.
It features 9,500 watts of continuous power, and it has a super handy electric start feature. You just pull the choke and twist the start lever – it will fire right up. You can choose to have it run full throttle, or run/idle mode. The run/idle mode means the machine will quiet down when you aren’t using tools or welding. Since the RPMs decrease, this will offer less noise disturbance during the times you aren’t welding.
Also, this Bobcat is capable of running multiple tools while it is welding simultaneously. You can have a buddy running a grinder while you are welding, and it won’t cause any problems. It even has a 240V outlet to power external MIG and TIG machines.
Although it doesn’t come with stick leads, most engine drives don’t. Purchasing these separately will allow you to customize your cable length and which ground/stingers you want to use. We have yet to see an engine drive that includes these components in the purchase price.
It has a robust Kohler engine that comes with Millers true blue 3 year warranty.
Lincoln Engine Drive
Lincoln Electric also offers an entry level engine drive – the Ranger 225. This is comparable to the Bobcat 225 in a lot of ways. In terms of features, they are competing neck and neck.
This really comes down to brand preference. Some welders swear by Miller, others swear by Lincoln. This blue vs red debate has gone on for decades. This being said, they are both amazing engine drives that offer high value features.
We have a couple Bobcats and one Ranger (on our welding trucks). The service intervals are the same and they both weld superbly. We haven’t had issues with either brand while welding out in the field.
Lincoln Ranger 225 Engine Driven Welder
With this being said, we know purchasing an engine drive is a huge investment compared to other welding machines. We encourage you to read reviews and ask local welders what they prefer. If you can try out a Bobcat or a Ranger, you will really get a feel for how they function. If you’re lucky enough to be able to test one, we strongly encourage it.