What would-be MIG welders want to know: Where can I learn, and what equipment do I need?

February 22, 2011
By: Marty Rice

Welding instructor and reader-favorite author Marty Rice answers the two questions he’s most often asked by those interested in learning to MIG weld.

Arc welding

Those of you who’ve read articles I’ve written for thefabricator.com over the years may recall that I usually begin with something crazy that’s happened in my life, or something stupid I’ve done. Plenty of the latter can be drawn upon, but at least I finally started learning from my mistakes!

My latest story is crazy and stupid—stupid of me to walk in the dark and crazy because of what happened when I did. I was about to drift off to some much needed sleep when I realized I had left my cell phone charging in the kitchen. I had to crawl out of my nice, comfy bed and go get it. I’ve been in my house long enough to walk it in the dark, and usually do, now that my kids are grown and I don’t have to worry about any booby traps they’ve left out. (I’ll always remember hearing my grandfather hollering when he was visiting one night and found my toy soldiers with his bare feet.)

So I’m heading back to the bedroom when I step on my dog, who has decided to lie down in the hallway. She yelped and ran as I did a faceplant on my cement floor and a front snap kick to the corner of the wall with my bare foot. After lying there feeling sorry for myself, I stood up and hobbled to bed. I say “hobbled,” because when I finally went to the doc a few days later, I found out I’d broken three toes.

The doctor visit was a waste of time, because they don’t make little bitty toe casts, and I was told simply not to bend them for eight weeks. I could have diagnosed myself and saved the bucks! Diagnosing myself is a good segue into teaching yourself to MIG weld.

If you’ve read my other MIG articles, you know I do not advocate learning to weld by yourself, because there is no one to tell you when what you’re doing is wrong. But with many welding programs being shut down over the last decade, welding instruction is just not available in many places. And even places that do have welding programs sometimes don’t offer classes for those who want to learn it for a hobby.

I’m asked two questions almost weekly about welding education.

1. Where Can I Take a Class?

Community Colleges—Your best bet is to find a community college with a welding program and see if it has any noncredit or continuing education MIG classes for adults. If so, they usually are very affordable.

Equipment Supplier Programs—If you can afford it and have the time, some equipment suppliers offer training. For example, the Lincoln Electric Welding School in Cleveland, Ohio, has a one-week MIG class and a one- or two-week Motosports MIG program. Price and lodging info can be found on the company’s Web site.

High Schools—Some high schools might still offer welding programs. I used to teach beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes in the evenings at a high school. Students came from all walks of life, and a lot of them really enjoyed it. Many went on to the community college welding class, even though it was located about 25 miles away. Careful, welding can be habit-forming.

One-on-one Training—Ask around and you might be able to find a welder who will give you personal instruction. The nice thing about MIG hobby welding is, unlike becoming a journeyman welder, which takes years, you can grasp the basics within just a few hours. I know a guy who charges around 50 bucks an hour to train. That might sound expensive, but remember, you get a lot more with one-on-one instruction, and you don’t need more than a couple of hours to learn the basic concepts.

Last Resort—No classes and you just can’t find a welder who will show you? As a last resort—and even with this I hope you at least have a qualified welder check out your progress—you can purchase some really good books and CDs about and research welding on the Internet. Some informative resources are available now that were nowhere to be found just a few years ago. 

This last-resort method is strictly for learning MIG welding well enough to perform hobby work only! Learning this way does not qualify you to weld trailers, buildings, or similar projects where someone could get hurt or killed because of a bad weld.

You also need to follow safety standards whenever you’re welding. Check out my other MIG articles and the American Welding Society’s safety recommendations before you start.

2. What Equipment Will I Need?

Welding Machine—I used to recommend only welding machines from what I referred to as the “big three”: Lincoln, Miller, and Hobart. But I’m adding one—ESAB. Even though I’ve never used the company’s welding machine, I’ve used their plasma cutters and they rock. There may be other good machines out there, but I am old-school and stick with these.

Some machines have come down a bit in price since I last wrote, and now you can pick up a good 110 machine for $350 to $650. (Remember to have the right fuse for the outlet you will plug the machine into. You don’t want to blow the circuit, or worse in an older house, burn it down!)

Shielding Gas and Regulator—Many new hobbyists don’t realize that they need a bottle for shielding gas and a regulator to reduce the bottle pressure to a working pressure, if one doesn’t come with the machine. Although there are other choices, I recommend 75/25 (75 percent argon / 25 percent carbon dioxide). This mixture gives you decent penetration into the base metal with a smooth bead and minimal spatter—droplets of molten metal that stick to the surface of the base metal. Here’s a tip: If you can chip the droplets off with a chipping hammer, you’re doing fine; if they won’t chip off, you’re running too hot.

I usually recommend the 125-cubic-foot bottle so you have plenty on hand. At 43 in. tall, it is easy to handle. You can buy smaller tanks, but I’ve found the 125 lasts a long time without being too heavy or cumbersome. Remember that the bottle contains compressed gas, and you need to handle it gingerly, store it properly, and use it correctly. You also need to make sure you have adequate ventilation as breathing argon could collapse your lungs.

Where I live, a 125-cu.-ft. tank costs around $250. If you aren’t going to be welding much, you can get a smaller cylinder for less money; just remember that it’s a pain in the butt when you run out and have to get a refill.

Cutting Equipment—You have some choices as to what you can use to cut the steel or metal for your project. You can get a small oxyacetylene rig for cutting steel, but you won’t be able to cut stainless steel or aluminum with it. I also don’t like the idea of having an apparatus in my garage that is a potential bomb! I do not recommend using this type of rig unless you have a well-equipped shop, proper storage capability, and full knowledge of how to use this equipment.

I highly recommend a plasma cutter as it is easy to use and cuts like a hot knife through butter. But plasma cutters are pricey, and I haven’t seen one I’d recommend for less than $1,000. Do not buy one with self-contained air unless you are going to be cutting metal that is as thin as a sheet of paper. You’ll also need to get a nitrogen bottle or air compressor.

If you can’t afford a plasma cutter, you can use a grinder with a cutting disk that will make a lot of cuts. I keep three 4.5-in. grinders in my garage. Instead of having to change out one grinder all the time, I can just grab the one with the grinding disk, cutting disk, or brush I need, which is really convenient.

Many other tools and equipment, such as chop saws, band saws, drills, drill presses anvils, and vises, are available. You also need to be thinking about a welding/cutting table, but that’s something that, with a little practice, you can build yourself. However, the equipment I’ve listed, along with proper training, will have you on your way to becoming a MIG welder.

Marty Rice

Marty Rice

Contributing Writer
High School Career Center in Texas
Marty Rice is a welding instructor at a high school career center in Texas. He is an honorary member of the Ironworkers Local 263.


Questions for the author can be e-mailed to vickib@thefabricator.com