Choosing a stick welder (SMAW) is not that hard, but there are a few things to consider before buying one. Keep in mind that this article is about dedicated stick welding machines, not TIG or multipurpose machines that can also stick weld.
Table of Contents
- What is a good entry-level stick welder?
- Should you choose an AC or a DC power supply?
- Should you choose an inverter or a transformer stick welder?
- How much amperage do you need?
- Do you need a dual-voltage, a 120V, or a 240V power supply?
- What open-circuit voltage (OCV) is enough for a stick welder?
- What duty cycle is enough for a stick welder?
- Portability of stick welders
- What level of build quality do you need?
- Other features to consider before choosing a stick welder
- What are the most common mistakes when selecting a stick welder?
What is a good entry-level stick welder?
First, let’s see the best combination of characteristics a stick welder must have to complete most welding tasks effectively. But also to be future-proof as your welding skills grow.
The best entry-level stick welder for most people would have the following characteristics: It uses inverter technology to generate DC welding current, has an amperage no less than 140A, a 75V open-circuit voltage, a 35% duty cycle, and plugs into a 240V socket.
Now let’s see each one of those characteristics in more detail.
Should you choose an AC or a DC power supply?
Overall a DC stick welder is the best choice. With DC, welding is safer, easier, you can use all types of welding electrodes, and you will have the best welding results. However, if you will weld magnetized metals often, an AC stick welder is more suitable.
Getting an electric shock from welding current is unlikely if you use the correct safety precautions because the voltage is low. Of course, if you are not careful, for example, you use wet welding gloves, the risks for electric shock increase.
A DC stick welder creates a smoother arc than AC. The arc is easier to start and maintain with a lower risk of sticking, making welding easier. This makes a DC welder more suitable for a beginner because stick welding (SMAW) is not the easiest welding process and needs some time and effort to learn.
Furthermore, all stick welding electrodes use DC, but several do not support AC. A good example is the cellulosic electrodes that end with a “0” in their designation, for example, the popular E6010. The flux covering of these rods does not contain chemical elements that AC needs to sustain a stable arc.
Finally, electrodes that support both AC and DC always give better welding results when using DC. There is less spatter, less porosity, the bead looks prettier, and with DC- you can stick weld thinner metals with less distortion.
One exception when you might prefer an AC stick welder is when you often weld magnetized metals. In a case like this, the magnetic fields interfere with the arc’s desired path. This interference is called arc blow. The results of arc blow can range from welding discontinuities to severe defects.
Finally, some stick welders combine both DC and AC, but they are often quite costly.
Should you choose an inverter or a transformer stick welder?
An inverter stick welder is the best overall welder to choose. Inverter welders provide modern features that make stick welding easier, safer, offer higher electrical efficiency, and are more portable. However, if you want the most economical stick welder or you weld in harsh environments, a transformer welder is more suitable.
Stick welding is not that easy to learn, and inverter stick welders can help you weld with fewer problems. The advantage of inverter welders is that they can integrate many helpful features that make welding easier, such as:
- Hot start makes arc striking easier by preventing the welding electrode (or rod) from sticking on the base metal. Hot start also avoids lack of fusion at the beginning of the bead.
- Arc force prevents sticking the rod when welding.
- Anti stick stops the current when the rod is stuck on the base metal.
- Some inverter stick welders come with a synergic function. You input the rod’s type and size and the base metal’s material and thickness. After that, the welder provides the suitable welding current to weld with the best results possible.
Weldpundit has a more in-depth article on hot start, arc force, and anti stick.
Inverter stick welders can also come with a feature called a voltage reduction device (VRD). VRD offers greater safety from electric shock.
If an inverter welder supports VRD, it drops the voltage between the electrode and the workpiece before you start welding, down to 15V. This voltage is very low and cannot bypass the resistance of the skin.
Another advantage of inverter welders is that they have higher power efficiency. That means they make better use of the electricity they consume. You can have a welder with higher amperage, especially if you connect it to a 120V socket. Furthermore, the electrical bill will be cheaper if you use the welder often.
Inverter welders can provide welding current without needing large electrical parts. As a result, they are smaller and more lightweight than transformers. This makes them easier to move around, but you should handle them with care to avoid malfunctions.
Transformer stick welders use old and simple technology without delicate electronic parts. Their design makes them last much longer, and they have cheaper parts in case of repair.
Inverter welders have expensive parts. Depending on the damaged part, fixing an inverter may not be worth it. As a result, transformers are overall more cost-worthy.
Furthermore, their durability makes transformer welders more suitable for harsh environments. For example, frequent welding under heat, dust, or high moisture.
In a nutshell, an inverter stick welder is the way to go these days (2020). They are reliable and affordable enough, and their welding advantages are more significant.
How much amperage do you need?
The first question I get when someone wants to buy a stick welder is what amperage (A) is enough.
A stick welding machine with an amperage of 140A will be enough to handle most welding projects. With this amperage and the proper electrode, you can weld mild steel up to 3/16 inches (4.8mm) thick with ease. With joint preparation and multiple passes, there is no upper limit of metal thickness.
An affordable 140A welder offers good productivity for most welding projects, home or farm improvements, repairing, and light professional work. Most stick welding jobs use 80-130A.
One of the advantages of stick welding is that you do not need a welder with high amperage to work with thick metals. You need enough amperage to burn with efficiency each rod you want to use.
If you create single or double V groove joints, you can weld any thickness with multiple passes. It will just take more time.
A table of different electrode types and diameters that a 140A welder can burn is shown below.
The most common electrode sizes are 3/32″ (2.4mm) and 1/8″ (3.2mm). Even for heavy-duty welding, larger sizes are not used very often. As you can see, a 140A welder can cover the common sizes.
Keep in mind that you use the average of a rod’s amperage range for most welding jobs. For example, an E7018 has a range of 90-160A, but for most jobs, you use 125A. If you weld vertical-up or overheat, you use an even lower amperage.
But what happens if you only have a thicker rod, for example, a 5/32″ (4mm) E6013 that has an amperage of 105-180A? The average amperage of this rod is 140A, something that the welder can cover.
But what if you want to max out a 5/32″ rod that needs 180A? You can preheat the metal at 250°F (120°C). When welding preheated metal is like welding with higher amperage. So a 5/32″ rod at 140A and a preheated metal would be like welding with 180A.
A lower amperage is not recommended because it will exclude the 1/8″ rods and lower the productivity for many common welding projects. Except, if you are certain, you are not going to use this rod size.
On the other hand, if you will weld thick metals often, you may need to choose a stronger welder to reduce multiple passes. Most of the time, price differences are not high if the only difference is the amperage.
Do you need a dual-voltage, a 120V, or a 240V power supply?
A stick welder with a 240 input voltage is clearly the best choice from a 120V welder, even for entry-level machines. A 240V stick welder provides not only a higher welding amperage but improved overall welding results. However, a dual voltage stick welder is an even better choice to benefit from the additional portability.
Choosing between 120V and 240V is a big one, and there are some traps to avoid.
120V stick welders have several advantages:
- They are more compact and affordable.
- You can use a 120V stick welder with most outlets, making it highly portable, which is a huge advantage.
- They are also great if you want to use them with a power generator for greater portability.
The problem with 120V stick welders is that it is not easy to reach the recommended 140A welding amperage.
A 120V inverter welder with good efficiency can offer you the recommended amperage of 140A, but only if the 120V socket has a 30A circuit breaker. But most 120V breakers are 20A at best.
With a 20A breaker, you can only get around 100A of workable welding amperage. That’s why most 120V welders offer an amperage of 90-110A.
With 100A, you will be able to use up to 3/32″ (2.4mm) diameter rods. This amperage is fine if you do occasional repair work or very small fabrications. However, it will be troublesome for heavier work.
If you want to change a 20A circuit breaker with a 30A one, the existing cables are probably not strong enough. You need to have the cables replaced as well, or the breaker will trip all the time.
To make things worse, you risk overheating the cables resulting in a fire hazard. You can check for the breaker size your welder needs by reading the manual.
Furthermore, when you push the limits of 140A welders plugged into 120V outlets with 30A breakers, you cannot use extension power cables for your welder.
Another thing to keep in mind is that a 120V stick welder will not only offer lower amperage but lower open-circuit voltage (OCV) and arc voltage as well.
Lower welding voltage restricts the rods you can use and offers poorer welding results with the remaining rods. These are explained in more detail later.
A welder needs strong electrical power not only to create the arc but to keep it stable until you finish. A voltage of 240V can offer not only enough amperage but also high open-circuit voltage and arc voltage.
Enough welding voltage will keep the arc stable and melt all the rods with efficiency. Even if you use the same rod and amperage, demanding rods such as the E7018 or the E6011 will give better results with a 240V welder.
If you already have a 240V outlet, things are simple. Typical 240V outlets and their circuit breakers can provide enough power to handle a 140A welder with ease.
A single-phase 240V outlet with the proper breaker and cables can support an inverter stick welder up to 250A.
The problem with a 240V welder is that if you don’t have a proper outlet next to your welder, you will need to pay an electrician to install it. And that could cost a lot of money.
Dual-voltage stick welders are a great option. You can do most of your welding work using 240V in your workshop, and if you want to weld somewhere else, you can plug it into a common 120V outlet. This way, you benefit from the extra portability.
Most dual-voltage stick welders weld with 100A when plugged in a 120V outlet to avoid circuit breaker incompatibilities. As explained earlier, this amperage is not bad for occasional repair work and light fabrications.
What open-circuit voltage (OCV) is enough for a stick welder?
An open-circuit voltage (OCV) of 75V is the minimum a stick welder must provide to burn most stick welding electrodes.
Open-circuit voltage (OCV) is the voltage between the electrode and the workpiece before you start welding. OCV must be high enough to start each rod’s arc with ease.
Furthermore, higher OCV means the voltage of the arc is also higher. Arc voltage is important to keep it steady, preventing the rod from sticking on the base metal and getting better welding results. For example, less spatter, better fusion, fewer welding smoke, etc.
But high OCV means a higher risk for electric shock. For this reason, modern stick welders come with an OCV upper limit of 85V. If you use safe welding practices, getting an electric shock from this OCV is minimal.
However, many affordable stick welders meant for home welding provide an even lower OCV of 50V. This voltage reduces the risk of an electric shock for untrained hobbyists and makes the welder cheaper. But it introduces a huge disadvantage, you can only use rutile rods for mild steel.
Rutile rods for mild steel are the E6012, E6013, and E7014 rods. The E7024 rods are also rutile, but welders like these do not offer enough amperage to burn them.
With a 50V OCV, you cannot use basic rods such as the E7016 and the E7018, or cellulosic rods such as the E6011, even if the amperage is enough. Furthermore, you cannot use the rods for other metals such as stainless steel, cast iron, or hardfacing.
As a result, a low OCV limits you to just a few rods for mild steel. To prevent bad surprises, the stick welder you will select should offer an OCV of 75V.
Of course, if you are certain you will only use rutile rods, you can buy a more affordable welder with a low OCV.
If you want a dual-voltage stick welder, it is helpful to know that the OCV it mentions is about the 240V mode. If you plug it into a 120V outlet, it will offer a lower OCV. The new OCV may cause you trouble with basic and cellulosic rods.
What duty cycle is enough for a stick welder?
A duty cycle of 35% is high enough for a stick welder. You do not need a high duty cycle to stick weld without interruption, as you would with a MIG welder. This is another advantage of stick welding.
The duty cycle refers to how long the arc can be lit before the welder shuts down for cooling. Duty cycle is measured as a percentage of a 10 minute period.
With a duty cycle of 35%, the welder will hold the arc on for 3.5 minutes before shutting down. The fan will work for 6.5 minutes to cool the machine. After that, you can weld again.
A stick rod takes one minute to burn, then you stop to take a look at the results and replace the rod. While doing so, the welder’s fan works and cools it.
Furthermore, the duty cycle refers to the welder’s maximum amperage, but you rarely use the welder at full power. When you use lower amperage, the duty cycle is higher.
For example, a 140A welder mentions that it has a 30% duty cycle, but when you weld with 100A, the duty cycle is 60% or higher.
Portability of stick welders
Stick welders are already quite portable because they do not need gas cylinders.
When inverter welders first appeared one of their main advantages was the drastically reduces size and weight. However, these days even transformer welders are quite compact and portable.
If portability is essential for you, you can find ultraportable 5lb (2.3kg) inverter stick welders.
What level of build quality do you need?
As a general rule for an entry-level stick welder, the best option would be a known manufacturer’s budget option. A stick welder is not a complicated machine such as a MIG or a TIG welder. If the manufacturer is relatively well-known and has a reliable reputation, it is more than enough for a stick welder.
The wrong thing to do is to buy a stick welder from unreliable online sources. These welders promise an amperage of 200A+ while they fit in the palm of your hand. If you measure them with an ammeter, you will only get half the amperage.
Their OCV will be weak as well, resulting in poor results with basic rods. Also, some of these welders promise that they will work with E6010 welding rods, but there is no chance they can do that.
However, the worst feature of such welders is that they can lack a cable to ground the power supply. This is extremely dangerous since you will get shocked for sure in case of internal electrical leakage.
Other features to consider before choosing a stick welder
The working (or grounding) clamp that comes with the stick welder is important. The clamp must be strong enough to maintain the arc’s stability and performance.
Many affordable stick welders come with a cheap working clamp. However, this is not a big problem because it is easy to change the clamp with a stronger one.
Many stick welders come with an LCD screen which helps you to set the amperage with precision. The LCD screen also displays the hot start and arc force values if the welder supports these features.
Finally, when you weld, the LCD screen displays the amperage fluctuation, depending on how steady arc length you can keep.
An LCD screen is helpful but not essential.
What are the most common mistakes when selecting a stick welder?
When choosing a stick welder, most people make these mistakes:
- Selecting amperage that is either too low, limiting the rod sizes, or too high paying for amperes that will never use.
- Choosing a low-cost welder with a low OCV and missing the capability of using most welding rods.
- Purchasing welders from unknown manufacturers. These badly designed welders will give poor welding results and have a high risk of electrical shock or fire.
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