I think we can agree that welding is an essential skill to have in the automotive world. Whether you need to do body work, install exhaust components, or even build custom roll cages, you’re going to need to know how to weld. It also happens to be one of the most rewarding skill sets to have. While it may be intimidating, it’s all up hill once the basics are mastered. This tech corner mini-series will be broken up into multiple features, as we dive into everything from the basics of welding and the best tools to use, to appropriate prep and specific techniques. After this welding segment, your skill level and confidence in tackling these projects will experience a boost!
First Things First
There are different machines depending on what’s being welded and the desired technique of the welder. For the most part, there are four types of styles used in the automotive world: MIG, TIG, Arc, and Flux-core welding. Familiarize yourself with them all because even if you won’t be using a particular type, it doesn’t hurt to understand the spectrum of options so you know up front exactly what jobs you can handle and which projects require a more advanced machine or help from a specialized professional.
MIG welders, an acronym that’s short for Metal Inert Gas, are probably the most popular machines used in automotive welding next to TIG welders. Shielding gas, typically argon, is introduced to keep contaminants clear while working. What makes these machines easy to use is the fact that the gun keeps everything in place. A continuous wire electrode is fed, so long as the trigger is squeezed and stops when released. The welds are often ground flat after they are produced. This creates a clean look once finished. Actually, a lot of welders learn on these machines because it’s such a simple process. Generally speaking, you’ll find that MIG welders are ideal for body panels and structural components like the frame.
Getting set up with a MIG welder for auto body lands itself in the middle of the road. As far as brands go, you’ll want to aim for something like a Lincoln, Miller, or Hobart machine. Expect to invest at least $600 into the machine itself and with a high-end Miller, you can spend about $1200. For something you’re going to use and abuse every day, it’s worth every last penny to pick up the best machine you can afford. Eastwood is a good starter machine for around $300 and up. You will be in need of a bottle for argon, a helmet, and spools of wire. Be prepared to invest a few hundred dollars more after picking up the machine.
TIG welding is the beauty queen of our list. TIG, which stands for Tungsten Inert Gas, shares many of the same principles as MIG welding. But there are some key differences you need to be aware of. Instead of a continuous wire feed, one manually feeds tungsten welding rods into the weld puddle. Not to mention, it’s also much easier and more cost effective to weld aluminum with a TIG welder. While TIG welding also can be used for body panels and structural components like the frame, they are often a go-to for tubing and exhaust work. TIG welders create beautiful, articulate welds that grease monkeys like us are captivated by for hours. Sure, it takes more time to weld and TIG welding requires a fair amount of patience, but the end result proves to be very rewarding. The welds are often stronger and require less clean up afterward.
Starter machines, like those provided by Eastwood, start around the $700 mark. Lincoln, Hobart, and Miller machines take off at around $1,200 and creep up to $3,000. This, of course, depends on the features of the machine. But no matter which way you cut it, it’s an investment. Again, you will need to purchase a bottle for the argon and safety equipment, along with the electrodes for welding. It’s a pricey game to play, but the quality of the welds is as good as it gets with a decent TIG machine.
Arc welders aren’t as common in the automotive world, but since you may come across some people using them every so often on cars and trucks, we felt it was worth mentioning. Much like a TIG welder, the electrode is manually fed into the weld puddle. This type of welding is referred to as “stick” welding since a large metal rod is used to produce welds. Generally, this type of weld is used for heavier gauge steel, making it challenging to use on thinner materials. With a trained hand, structural and even body components can be effectively welded with an Arc machine, which are usually a bit cheaper than TIG and MIG machines. Just be mindful that these machines are intended for heavier gauged steel.
Decent machines, like those offered by Lincoln, Hobart, and Miller, run in the price range of about $300 to $500. An advantage they have over other types of welding is similar to that of flux-core machines. The electrodes have a flux coating that burns off to produce shielding gas, so no bottle is needed. Sure, you still need welding gear and electrodes, but you won’t be breaking the bank.
Flux-core welding is bastardized by many—it’s the cheapest way to get acquainted with this new skill set. Flux welders look and operate much like a MIG welder, but with one major difference. Rather than using argon as a shielding gas, flux-core acts as a shielding agent when it burns in the weld. Many feel indifferent toward this method as it causes imperfections in the actual welds. So long as the conditions are right and the proper measures are taken, this is a viable option for body panels and small projects. Flux-core welding can be used in situations like MIG, but the welds aren’t always as strong and will produce “dirtier welds” that will need to be cleaned up.
A flux-core is the cheapest of starter machines, with something like a 90 amp from Eastwood may running you as little as $150. No bottle is needed here either, so you’ll only be investing in wire and safety gear. Miller, Lincoln, and Hobart machines will run around the $300 price mark, but there is something you should pay attention to when considering this option. Many MIG welders can be set up to run flux-core wiring. So, if the goal is to invest in a MIG welder eventually, then you might as well consider buying a MIG welder right out of the gate.
There’s a lot of science that goes into welding and naturally, real world conditions vastly separate study and practice. We still have to discuss techniques, proper conditions and, of course, the materials being welded. Trust us, this tech corner segment is worth your time and attention. Once you’ve attained the ability to weld, so many doors will open for you. Stay tuned!