GMAW 101: Setting the correct parameters

February 12, 2008
By: Jon Ertmer

Are you producing quality weld beads? If not, perhaps your parameters need tweaking. This article presents guidelines that can help you identify which parameters to adjust and how to adjust them. It also offers a good buddy-system tip for achieving correct settings.

Good weld image

Good gas metal arc weld. Photo courtesy of Miller Electric

Unless you weld for a living, it can be difficult to know if your gas metal arc welding machine is set up for optimal performance. Do you find yourself asking questions such as: Am I using the proper voltage? Do I have too much or too little wire? Am I traveling at the right speed? If so, this article is for you.

First, we will look at setup basics and then examine what your weld bead is telling you.


Good equipment makes gas metal arc welding easier. Poor equipment can cost you dearly in frustration and weld quality.

Recent technology advancements, such as some welding machines' ability to set optimal parameters automatically based on material thickness and wire diameter, allow you to focus on proper technique while achieving smooth, spatter-free starts, a common problem area for occasional welders. However, not all welding machines have this capability.

To determine which welding machine and technology suit you the best, find a local welding supply distributor that has an on-site welding lab or will allow you to test-drive a machine before buying one.

Getting the Most from Your Machine

Regardless of your power source choice, read your owner's manual. It contains important information about proper operation and safety guidelines. Most companies offer their manuals online.

The following basic guidelines are for welding steel with solid wire. Aluminum and flux-cored welding require separate discussion. Joint design, position, and other factors affect results and settings. When good results are achieved, record the parameters.

1. Material thickness determines amperage. As a guideline, each 0.001 inch of material thickness requires 1 amp: 0.125 in. = 125 amps.

2. Select proper wire size, according to amperage. Since you don't want to change wire, select one for your most commonly used thicknesses.

  • 30-130amps: 0.023 in.
  • 40-145 amps: 0.030 in.
  • 50-180 amps: 0.035 in.
  • 75-250 amps: 0.045 in.

3. Set the voltage. Voltage determines the bead height and width. If no chart, manual, or specifications are available for setting the correct voltage, you can try this: While you weld on scrap metal, have a buddy turn down the voltage until the arc starts stubbing into the workpiece. Then, start welding again and have your buddy increase the voltage until the arc becomes unstable and sloppy. A voltage midway between these two points provides a good starting point.

Image of a good weld bead

Figure 1Good Bead

There is a direct relationship between arc voltage and arc length. A short arc decreases voltage and yields a narrow, "ropey" bead. A longer arc (more voltage) produces a flatter, wider bead. Too much arc length produces a very flat bead and a possibility of an undercut.

4. Select wire feed speed. Wire speed controls amperage, as well as the amount of weld penetration. A speed that's too high can lead to burn-through. If a manual or weld specification sheet is not available, use the multipliers in the following chart to find a good starting point for wire feed speed. For example, for 0.030-in. wire, multiply by 2 in. per amp to find the wire feed speed in inches per minute (IPM).

For Wire Size

Multiply by

Ex. Using 1/8 in. (125 amps)

0.023 in.

3.5 in. per amp

3.5 x 125 = 437.5 IPM

0.030 in.

2 in. per amp

Image of weld voltage too high

Figure 2Voltage Too High

2 x 125 = 250 IPM

0.035 in

1.6 in. per amp

1.6 x 125 = 200 IPM

0.045 in.

1 in. per amp

1 x 125 = 125 IPM

Examining the Beads

One way to check your parameters is by examining the weld bead. Its appearance indicates what needs to be adjusted.

Good Weld (Figure 1)—Notice the good penetration into the base material, flat bead profile, appropriate bead width, and good tie-in at the toes of the weld (the edges where the weld metal meets the base metal).

Voltage Too High (Figure 2)—Too much voltage is marked by poor arc control, inconsistent penetration, and a turbulent weld pool that fails to consistently penetrate the base material.

Image of weld voltage too low

Figure 3Voltage Too Low

Voltage Too Low (Figure 3)—Too little voltage results in poor arc starts, control, and penetration. It also causes excessive spatter, a convex bead profile, and poor tie-in at the toes of the weld.

Travel Speed Too Fast (Figure 4)—A narrow, convex bead with inadequate tie-in at the toes of the weld, insufficient penetration, and an inconsistent weld bead are caused by traveling too fast.

Travel Speed Too Slow (Figure 5)—Traveling too slow introduces too much heat into the weld, resulting in an excessively wide weld bead and poor penetration. On thinner material, it also may cause burn-through.

Wire Feed Speed/Amperage Too High (Figure 6)—Setting the wire feed speed or amperage too high (depending on what type of machine you're using) can cause poor arc starts, lead to an excessively wide weld bead, burn-through, excessive spatter, and poor penetration.

Wire Feed Speed/Amperage Too Low (Figure 7)—A narrow, oftentimes convex bead with poor tie-in at the toes of the weld marks insufficient amperage.

No Shielding Gas (Figure 8)—A lack of or inadequate shielding gas is easily identified by the porosity and pinholes in the face and interior of the weld.

(For more GMAW guidelines, download "Guidelines for Gas Metal Arc Welding."

Jon Ertmer

Contributing Writer

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