April 10, 2014
Each welding process has its pros and cons, and a wise welder has them all in his or her arsenal.
A carpenter has more than a hammer in his arsenal. A top-flight starting pitcher in the big leagues has three to five pitches he can command. And when you sit down to eat, chances are you’ll be using more than a spoon. So why would you limit yourself to a single process when it comes to welding?
There seems to be a lot of misinformation floating around about the “superiority” of TIG welding. Like somehow it’s inherently better than stick or MIG welding in every situation, and if you master TIG welding, there’s no point in tackling the others. I can think of a few reasons for this perception: TIG, also known as gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW), is clean, precise, and versatile. Nothing else looks quite as nice as a stack of dimes dropped with a TIG torch. Hand, eye, and often foot coordination is required to execute such a weld, and if you can produce those welds consistently at a high level, there’s a certain “status” that comes with it.
I’m not gonna lie; when I first started welding, it didn’t take long for me to realize TIG was where it was at. Even as a new millwright apprentice, there was a certain respect afforded me because I picked up TIG welding quickly, and I got out of more than a few dirty jobs because of those skills. The rest of the crew would be heading down to the pits to mess with a conveyor, but I’d get called back to fix a weldment or detail that had cracked and was holding up production. They’d come back covered in coolant and metal chips; meanwhile, I was tigging at a workbench you could eat off of.
That being said, the wide range of work we did at the engine plant exposed me to the importance of each process. Structural work, on-site repairs, and dock work typically were done with SMAW (stick). We had a Miller Trailblazer on the back of a Taylor-Dunn cart that we’d drive on-site. Unwrap the ground and the stinger, fire up the generator, and you were good to go. A lot of these jobs would be difficult or impossible to reach with TIG or MIG, also known as gas metal arc welding (GMAW), and even if you could, it was just quicker with stick. Not to mention the flux on a stick electrode helps in situations where it’s hard to get at an area to clean.
In the millwright shop, we did a lot of fabrication too. We built a lot of stuff that was needed around the factory—guardrails, catwalks, frames/bases, carts for cylinder heads, and so forth. Short-arc MIG was the obvious choice for most of this, as it was quicker than TIG and required less postweld cleanup (and made less smoke) than stick.
MIG welding in particular gets a bad rap as related to TIG. Most production welding is MIG, and I think that contributes to the thought that it doesn’t take much skill to operate a MIG welder. The truth is, if you can’t set up your own machine, you’re not really a welder. I’ve talked to plenty “MIG is so easy a monkey could do it” guys that, given a wire machine to operate, are clueless as to how to dial it in.
Another pervasive misconception in the hot rod/race car community is that any critical part needs to be TIG welded, and that’s simply not true. NASCAR frames and cages are all MIG-welded mild steel. Most off-road race buggies are MIG welded. In the hand of a skillful operator, you can weld more quickly and reduce heat input with the MIG process. Cold starts and stops are more problematic, but that’s nothing the right technique can’t overcome.
In a pinch, I can drive in a nail with a crescent wrench. If the dishes are dirty, maybe I’ll eat dinner with just a knife. But if you have access to the proper tool, why make it more difficult than it has to be? The bottom line is that each of the three main welding processes and their offshoots (flux-core, TIG brazing, pulse-on-pulse MIG, etc.) have their strengths and weaknesses. They may overlap in certain situations, and in those times, personal preference can come into play. But in the end, it’s going to make your life easier, and you yourself more valuable, if you put in the time to learn them all. Each one is a new tool in the bag.