I want to get a hobby/garage welder. I have a (220 or 110) plug at my disposal and the most I'll ever weld is (1/4 or 3/8). Mostly (steel or aluminum). Price is/isn't an issue too... what would you recommend? I have only ever done (a little mig, a little tig, none of the above). I'm looking at in terms of (dependable/flexible) equipment?
I often get a question like sent my way.
Are you looking for a TIG or MIG machine?
If you’re looking at a MIG welder, I’d check out something like Miller’s MM 211. It’s rated to weld 3/8” steel in a single pass, but it’s a smaller machine that can be plugged into 230 or 110, and you can pry find one new for around 1k. Guys will tell you they’ve welded thick steel with smaller machines, but it’s not good practice. Even with pre-heat you just don’t get the same penetration power. There's just not enough cajones, the "hammer isn't big enough to drive the nail." If you do want to push a wire machine’s thickness capabilities, switch to flux core…it burns hotter and gets in deeper.
Lincoln and Miller both make nice 180 amp machines too, if you can get away with a maximum thickness of 5/16” or less. You can hook up aluminum spool guns to any of these guys.
If you are wanting to dive in to TIG welding, Miller came out with an “intro” line of inverter machines recently. The Diversion 165 and 180 were pretty much made with the hobbyist in mind. They are AC/DC welders, so you can do aluminum with ease. Another nice thing for folks just getting into the tig world, they pretty much come ready to go. Just get a bottle and you’re good to go. Ordinarily you’d need to get the torch, hoses, pedals, ect. separately, and the costs add up. The downside is that you’re limited to what they give you (personally, I’d rather piece my package together). Another drawback is adjustability. It’s nice for a beginner to be able to just choose a setting and go, but once you get a little more experience you’ll want to be able to change certain things. One big problem is gas pre and post flow. From what I’ve seen, they adjust automatically according to your amps. In a lot of cases, the time amount they use are overkill and will waste gas.
A step up in TIG machine would be the Dynasty 200 DX, and while you’d have no problem with the 3/8” steel and get more than enough adjustment, you’d be looking at more than double the cost of the Diversion 180. This Dynasty is what I have, and I love it. 99.9% of my sculptures have been done with my 200 DX.
A new option that can kind of kill a couple of birds with one stone is the Miller Multimatic 200. I recently acquired one of these...and it's super slick. It is a mig AND tig machine. Tig is DC only, so if you're going to do much aluminum tig work it isn't the answer. It doesn't have a High Frequency start either, but once you get use to the Lift Arc(touch the tungsten to the work piece, hit pedal, lift tungsten and you've got an arc) it's not hard to get a clean start. And the arc on steel is really smooth. It also mig welds as well as any machine I've used; I actually sold my bigger DVI2 because the Multimatic handles any short arc I come across in my shop. The arc quality in all 3 processes(it also stick welds) is astounding from such a small package. It's also 110 and 220 capable.
For "brand questions" in general: I also get asked a lot about the knock off brands...Longevity, Everlast, etc. I'm not gonna waste my time on those. If you go that route it's on you. Sometimes they work out, often they don't. I'll tell you this: most "real weldors" that say nice things about them do so because they were given machines. I refuse to work with them. Thermal Arc is a brand I've had quite a bit of hands on experience with, and I'd never recommend their machines either. Lincoln and HTP make good machines, as does ESAB. I am sponsored by Miller now, but EVERY machine I've spent MY money on has been Blue. Typically you get what you pay for. And at my time with Chrysler and General Dynamics, all the machines they bought were Miller as well.
One last thing: I don't like to recommend buying inverter based machines(like the Dynasty or Multimatic) used. On the off chance that a board goes bad, the internals on those things are SUPER expensive, and the machines themselves retain their value so to the extent that it's worth buying new, with warranty. If you want to save money and go used for a tig machine, get a transformer based piece like an older Miller Syncrowave or Lincoln Precision Tig.