So you finally pulled the trigger and bought an Eastwood MIG welder. Now what? As simple as MIG welding is, most hobbyists can't just grab the gun and start laying down beautiful welds that hold together. Getting the most out of your equipment takes time. Practice and understanding the differences in metals, gasses and techniques are the keys to producing top-quality welds. To help you along in your quest of metal fusion, I have put together this guide of tips, tricks and techniques to get it done.
MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welding is a style of GMAW (Gas Metal Arc Welding) electrical welding. Metal filler wire is fed through a handheld gun, providing the arc to melt the metals, welding them together. Most MIG systems use a separate inert gas, with various gasses used for various purposes, to shield the arc from contaminants. MIG welding was originally developed in 1948. Unlike today, its primary use then was welding non-ferrous metals such as aluminum with Argon or Helium gas. Eventually Carbon Dioxide shielding gas made MIG welding a viable (and inexpensive) method of welding ferrous metals too, and today it is the standard by which most welds are made. Non-gas systems also exist, which use flux-core wire, which has flux in the center of the wire. As the wire melts, so does the flux, releasing the inert gas which shields the weld.
The shielding gas is of utmost importance for MIG welding. While flux-core MIG welds certainly work, you can almost always get better results with solid-core wire and shielding gas. Flux core welding produces more slag and coats the weld with residue, much like stick welding. Eliminating that coating and extra slag means less time to clean up the welds and in the end, results in cleaner, better welds. There are several options for shielding gas, each with its own specific use. Flux-core welding certainly has its uses; dirty metal, windy conditions, and thicker metals (such as car frames) are well-suited for flux-core welding because the wire itself carries the shielding, and flux-core runs hotter than solid core wire.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) - Pure CO2 is sometimes used for MIG shield gas. It offers deep penetration and minimizes spatter, but is also helps form oxides, which are bad for fresh welds. The weld penetration is so deep that pure CO2 makes welding thin sheet metal difficult.
Argon (A) or Helium (He) - Welding aluminum and other non-ferrous metals requires pure argon or helium. You can use CO2 mixes with aluminum, but the results are very dirty with lots of contamination. The drawback of these pure gasses comes in welding steel. Argon with steel results in shallow penetration, and with helium, encourages spatter and can cause an erratic arc. Argon and helium are sometimes mixed to create a super-inert shielding gas that combines the best of both worlds.
CO2/Argon Mixes - To get the most from your welding experience, Argon and CO2 should be mixed when welding ferrous metals such as steel and stainless steel. The most typical mixes are 75/25 CO2 to Argon and 90/10. The higher the carbon content, the more intense the arc becomes, increasing the energy in the weld. Welding thin sheet metal is easier with a 75/25 mix. Adding hydrogen to the mix is good for welding nickel and stainless steel. The most typical hobbyist use for MIG welding is steel, which means that the standard 75/25 CO2/Argon mix is sufficient. If you want to MIG-weld aluminum, then you need to invest in a second bottle of pure Argon.
Gas Flow Rate
Flow rates for MIG welding vary, but most manufacturers suggest starting off with 15-30 cubic feet per hour depending on the materials, your skill level, and the conditions you are welding in. Welding outside or in a garage with the door open creates the opportunity for wind to blow or draft away your shielding gas. If there is not enough shielding gas, your welds will be porous, meaning voids in the middle of the weld. It may look solid on the outside, but inside, it looks like a sponge. Porous welds are very weak, not to mention ugly as sin. If the weld is popping, with lots of spatter, check your flow rate. Too much shielding gas will actually create turbulence, causing outside air to be pulled into the mix, and you get about the same results as you would with too little gas. Aside from your gauges on the tank, your ears are an excellent tool for setting the flow rate. With everything set correctly, you should hear a crackly hiss, no big pops or sputtering.
The wire is the filler material. In general, the thicker the material you are welding, the thicker filler material you will need, because a thicker wire also conducts more electricity and burns hotter for better penetration. There are 4 common wire sizes for solid-core and 2 sizes for flux-core. To weld thin metal, such as sheet steel, the smaller (0.023") solid MIG wire is preferred, as it burns a little cooler and leaves less filler material. Solid 0.030" MIG wire is a good middle-ground wire, and will safely work for 22-gauge up to 1/8" steel in a single pass. The next larger size (0.035") solid core wire is good for as thin as 18-gauge and up to 1/2". You can even buy solid core wire in 0.045 diameter, for seriously thick welding. Flux core wire has fewer choices; Eastwood offers 0.030" Flux Core Wire which is good for welding up to 1/4" steel with the right preparation, but burns hot and will often burn through sheet metal thinner than 18 gauge. You need to match the wire to the base material; otherwise you will have serious problems.
Tools and Accessories
Aside from the welder itself, there are a few tools that will make welding easier. Some of these you need and some you can live without, but why try?
MIG Pliers - MIG Pliers should be the second tool in your cart after selecting a welder. This multi-tasking tool can be used to clean spatter from the gun tip, pull and cut wire, and aid in the installation of tips and nozzles. Can you use tools you have on hand for these tasks? Sure, but with MIG pliers, you have one tool that is kept on your welding cart and always there when you need it.
Clamps - There are a thousand styles of Clamps, and you really should have a good assortment. If you do sheet metal work, blind clamps (Intergrip Panel Clamps) and Cleco pins are excellent. Locking C-Clamps of various sizes are the welder's best friend; you can never have too many clamps. Eastwood offers just about every clamp you could ever need for any welding project.
Copper Bars - Steel MIG wire doesn't stick to copper, which makes Copper Bars the perfect material for filling holes. With a piece of copper on the backside of a hole, the filler material sticks to the steel but not the copper, leaving a clean backside. There are copper spoons, plates, even magnetic copper bars. Every welding cart should have a few pieces of copper.
Magnets - Sometimes you can't get a clamp where you need it. That's where the magnets come in, at least for ferrous metals. Magnets are good for holding two parts together while you're welding them. Triangle welder's magnets in various sizes provide the help you need. Small magnets are especially handy in sheet metal rust repair, such as holding a small piece of metal inside a hole.
Anti-Spatter Spray - Most welding operations produce spatter, which is small particles of hot metal that bounce off the weld. It's unavoidable unless you are TIG welding, but that's a different subject. While optimum setting and conditions reduce spatter, you will always have some. Coating the tip with Eastwood's Anti-Spatter Spray makes it harder for the spatter to stick to the tip and electrode. That means less cleaning for you, and a clean gun is a better welding gun. The spray should be applied a couple of minutes before welding.
Weld-Thru Primer - Many welding operations leave a section of the weld hidden. Fresh welds are more susceptible to rust and oxidation than just plain steel, so they need to be protected. Weld-thru coatings contain high levels of zinc which, when heated, bonds with the metal and leaves a protective film that keeps the fresh weld from rusting. Sheet metal repairs should always be made with weld-thru coating on the seams before the welds are made. Eastwood offers Self-Etching Weld-Thru Primer, along with After Weld to protect weld beads from corrosion.
Quality equipment and tools are no good if you can't see to use them. Welding is a dangerous process; high-voltage, blinding light, intense heat, and flying sparks can really ruin your day. Take the necessary precautions so you don't get hurt. See our welding safety products.
Clothing - Sandals and shorts may be comfortable, but drop a hot cherry-red piece of slag on your foot and that dancing sure won't be the Macarena! Wear proper clothing for welding, which means leather shoes or boots, full-length jeans or pants, and long-sleeved shirts. Eastwood's welding jackets are a great addition to any welder's attire.
Gloves - Different welding types require different welding gloves. TIG gloves are thin because you need to be able to manipulate the wire, plus the heat is more concentrated. MIG welding is messy, with lots of flying sparks and slag. MIG gloves are thicker to protect you. Don't buy thin gloves to MIG weld; they will burn up and shrivel. You may also want to consider using a welding jacket or welding sleeves.
Helmet - The single most important safety device is the welding helmet. The arc in welding is brighter than the sun, so looking at it unprotected can blind you - this is not a joke - so you must protect your eyes and face with a full-face helmet. The old-school hand-held shield is the bare minimum, but they use a hand that you should really be using for other welding-related tasks. A traditional flip-up style helmet frees-up your hand, but lifting the mask, setting up and dropping it, increase the time to complete the project. It may not seem like much, but it adds up fast. An auto-darkening welder's helmet is the best bet for any welder, especially the beginner. This lets you see what you are doing without the distraction of resetting the hood all the time. Many can be set for MIG, TIG and plasma cutting (some helmets come pre-programmed for all 3), and include a barely tinted "grind" setting. A smart accessory for the helmet is a welder's hat. They may look goofy, but you might be surprised how often you find (feel) a hot piece of slag in your hair. Be smart—protect yourself.
Sunscreen - Welding produces the same sort of UV radiation that causes sunburn. Skin can burn from welding flash in 10-15 minutes. Protect your skin with clothing or, at the least, heavy sunscreen. Welding flash burn can be really painful; imagine a bad sunburn, double it, and you get the idea.
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