Welders aren’t exactly the most common tool you’ll find in a home workshop; then again, I have one in my workshop and it’s gotten plenty of use. Once I actually broke down and bought one, I found a huge number of projects I could use it on from making brackets for my video studio lights to building cargo trailers.
If you’re looking at buying a welder, you’ve probably at least thought about buying a MIG. Compared to “stick” welders, these models are definitely the way to go. I can’t weld worth beans with a stick welder because my hands shake too much, but with a wire feed I can weld circles around almost any problem or project. What I usually say is that you can teach a monkey to weld with a wire feed welder.
By definition, a MIG welder uses a shielding gas around the electrode. This tool was originally developed for welding aluminum because this material oxidizes as soon as it’s cut. The shielding gas comes through the same line that brings the welding wire and covers the weld, thus preventing that oxidation and allowing aluminum to be welded. The same welding system was later put to work for steel and stainless steel.
When welding aluminum or stainless steel, an inert gas (such as nitrogen) is used to prevent oxidation; but for welding soft or high-carbon steel, flux cored welding wire is used.
What most people refer to as MIG welding, really isn’t MIG welding, but Flux-Cored wire-feed welding. Since there’s no easy name for that, they just use the name MIG welding. Most of the units shown here are combination units. That means that they can be used for MIG or Flux-Cored welding.
A welder is essentially a big transformer with a house current converted to a lower voltage, which boosts the amperage. That brings the amperage up to a point where it sparks or arcs with the heat from this arcing being enough to melt the metal. At the same time the wire electrode which is fed through the welding pistol is being fed into the puddle of melted metal, adding metal to the weld joint.
When looking or a MIG welder, there’s a few things you want to keep in mind:
- Input Power Requirements
Since I’m thinking “homeowner” here, instead of factory, I’ve limited the list to units that will run off of 120 volts, at no more than 20 amps of house current.
- Output Power of the Unit
As I already mentioned, dropping the voltage increases the amperage. The higher the amperage, the more heat is produced; this allows welding thicker metal.
- Duty Cycle
This refers to the percentage of time that you can actually be welding. Not only do these units create a lot of heat at the weld point, but in the transformer as well. It needs time to cool as you are working. Don’t worry though; I built two trailers with a unit that only had a 10 percent duty cycle. By the time you cut and clamp your material, you’ve used up more time than you think.
- Size of welding wire spool
Larger units accept an 8 inch spool, while smaller ones only accept a 4 inch. This affects how long you can weld, before you have to change spools. To give you an idea, I built an enclosed cargo trailer, with a metal cage and built in metal shelves a number of years ago. It took me three, two pound spools of wire to complete it. If I had a larger unit, I could have used less than one spool of wire.
- Whether the Unit can do both MIG and Flux-Cored, or Only Flux-Cored
If you need to weld aluminum or stainless, you’ll need an actual MIG unit, with the gas valves.
There are two main adjustments on a MIG welder, amperage and wire speed. The amperage affects how much heat the arc produces, affecting how thick a metal you can weld. Wire speed affects how much welding wire is being fed into the arc. This also affects the metal thickness, but more than that affects what kinds of welds you can do.
The welding wire used in these welders ranges from .025 in diameter to .040, with .030 being the most popular size. Considering that the maximum metal thickness you can weld with these units at 120 VAC is 3/16” (better to limit yourself to 1/8” thickness), .030 welding wire is sufficient and you don’t need anything larger (If you need to weld thicker materials, you’ll need a 230 VAC unit).
Since we’re looking at welders for home usage, I have limited the choices to units that are under $1,000 street price and will run off of 120 VAC. All of them come as complete kits, with the gun, ground lead, gas valves (for actual MIG units) and a starter spool of welding wire.
Hobart builds out number one choice, with this dual voltage welder. You can use this one with both MIG and Flux-Cored welding. A special gun prevents jams with soft, aluminum welding wire. If you need more power at times, this is the unit for you. Read Full Review
Hobart has a reputation as a high quality welder manufacturer and this unit is unique in that it will run off of either 230 VAC or 120 VAC. That means that you have 140 amps of welding power with a 120 VAC input, which is boosted to 210 amps of welding power on 230 VAC. This is the most powerful MIG welder in its class, allowing you to weld up to 3/8 thick mild steel when connected to 230 VAC. There are seven power settings, an infinitely variable wire speed control, and Hobart’s optional SpoolRunner 100 gun is designed especially to avoid wire jams for soft aluminum wire. This unit will operate at a 20 percent duty cycle on 120 VAC and a 30 percent duty cycle at 230 VAC.
Although not number one in this list, this Miller is still number one to me as I’ve always liked the quality that goes into building their units. This comes with Miller’s auto-set’ which takes the guesswork out of welding, setting the welder automatically for the job you’re doing. Nice one Miller! Read Full Review
I’ve been a big fan of Miller welders for years and back when I was working in the bus factory, we had these things all over the place. They were always a highly reliable welding unit, something that was always really needed on the factory floor. This unit comes with Miller’s auto-set, which automatically sets your welder to the correct parameters for the welding job you’re doing. They’ve also developed technology to insure smooth weld starts, without spattering thus cutting down on the weld splatter you’ve got to clean up afterwards. This unit produces up to 140 amps with a 120 VAC input, a 20 percent duty cycle, and it will take spools up to 8 inches in diameter.
Lincoln Electric probably produces and sells more welders than anyone else in the world. No wonder, considering the high quality and reliability of their popular units. They also come in a little bit cheaper than the units we’ve got in the higher rankings. Read Full Review
Lincoln Electric calls themselves The Welding Experts, probably producing more welding equipment than any other manufacturer. Just look for welders on the Internet and you’ll find more responses for Lincoln Electric than anyone else. This unit is an upgrade of their SP-140T welder, adding some new features.
One really nice thing about this welder is it has what Lincoln calls "Diamond Core Technology" to produce a very forgiving arc, even when the gun is out of position. That makes it a very good welder for novices or those of us who don't weld very often.
This 120 VAC unit will produce up to 140 amps of welding power at a 20 percent duty cycle. They claim that with their welding wire, you can weld soft steel up to 5/16 thick with this unit. That’s pretty impressive for a 120 VAC unit because typically you’ve got to go up to a 230 VAC unit to get that.
Lincoln has also developed technology to reduce weld splatter on startup, just like Miller has. The board on this welder is potted, to protect it from environmental damage while using it.
Hobart has won another spot on our list with their Handler 140. This is a 120 VAC only unit, which means you lose the top end performance that comes with the dual-voltage unit. Even so, the unit provides great welding for steel up to 1/4 thick. Read Full Review
I had to give a second place on this list to Hobart, because of their quality and ease of use. If our number one pick is a little too rich for your blood, you may want to consider this model. This is an upgraded version of their best-selling Handler 140. It contains a lot of the same features as the Handler 210, but won’t work at 230 VAC. You still get 140 amps at 20 percent duty cycle, but you can’t bump up to the higher amperage that you can with the other unit. Hobart claims that you can weld mild steel up to 1/4 thick with this welder which is pretty impressive for a 120 volt unit.
If you’re looking for a bargain wire-feed welder, I’d recommend this Chicago Electric 90 amp unit. While it’s a little short on whistles and bells, it’s also available at an incredibly good price. Please note that this isn’t a true MIG welder, but a Flux-core welder. Read Full Review
For those who are looking for a bargain, I’d like to recommend Harbor Freight’s wire feed welder. While this isn’t as good a unit as the one’s I’ve mentioned above, it’ll get the job done for you. The welder I used to build two trailers was the predecessor to this model.
This is pretty much a bare-bones Flux-Core Wire-Feed welder, without a whole lot of control. But, for the price, it’s hard to beat it. In fact, mine has been beaten quite a bit, and it’s still humming along.
This isn’t a MIG welder, so you can’t use it for welding aluminum and it only accepts the smaller size wire spools which hold up to 2 pounds of wire. It has a maximum output of 90 amps but they say that the duty cycle will go up to 25 percent at 80 amps.