Rodney is an award-winning multi-media artist and craftsman residing in the Southeastern United States.
The Simple Scoop on Art Welding for Newbies
If you are new to welding and the metal arts in general, you have probably tried to find instructional information on basic welding techniques for artists with a simple Google or Yahoo keyword search. If you have, you know that getting this basic information in a simple, easily digestible format, is a really tough nut to crack.
Sure enough, a web search on basic welding techniques will bring up thousands of pages of information for you to sink your teeth into, but the topic is usually delivered in such a complex and technical manner that it is virtually useless to the aspiring welder-artist.
When I first decided to work with metal as a medium in my art projects (after a long absence from high-school welding), it was to supplement work that I was already doing with concrete and wood. I didn't need to know how to weld a bridge over the Mississippi River, I just wanted to join a few pieces of metal together to make interesting shapes and texture.
I remember searching through dozens of welding websites trying to learn which welding machine was the best choice for an artist interested in metal sculpture. You can find the link to my art projects on my profile page.
I wanted to know what types of metal could be welded by the machine, and how much power would be required to weld steel such as half-inch rolled rebar. I was also curious about the types of welding machines available for sale on the market, and what the major differences were when comparing these machines. Obtaining the answers to these questions became quite a journey for me, as one question often led to three others before I could understand the technology in explanatory websites and books.
Hopefully, this summary will save you from this effort and lay the basic groundwork of knowledge for you to learn more about welding. Once you understand these basics, you can continue to learn in any specialized area of welding that your artistic work demands.
Remember, as artists our welds don't have to support a bridge or pass muster from a certified inspector, but the quality of your weld can make or break your reputation as an artist or craftsman. No artist that I know wants his artwork to fall apart two years after a customer has purchased it. A sloppy weld will tell a customer that you are incompetent, lazy, or both. This is not the vision a successful artist wants to project.
A Welding Machine, in Plain Speak
All welding machines (with the exception of torch welding) work on an electrical-current system in which there are two power cords called leads. One lead is a negative ground, and the other lead is a positive. The negative grounding clamp is always attached to the metal surface (or metal item) that you will be welding.
You then turn the machine on and move the positive lead (torch gun, or electrode) to the location that you want to weld.
When the positive lead makes contact with (or gets close to) the metal that has been grounded, a welding spark will occur. The heat generated from this arc of electricity is what melts the metal and allows you to weld.
The 3 Main Types of Welding Machines
There are three basic types of welding machines that are used by artists today. Each one has unique capabilities that offer special advantages (or disadvantages) for the metal artist. Learning which of these machines is the best fit for your workshop really depends on knowing what you plan to weld in the majority of your projects.
Basic Arc (or Stick) Welder
The oldest and most common type of machine in use is the basic arc (or stick) welder. These machines use inexpensive welding rods that are held by a clamp handle at the end of the positive lead. This welder is the least expensive of the three to purchase, but it does require a moderate level of skill and experience in order to obtain a quality weld.
I started with a stick welder while taking a trade course in high school, and I still use one today due to its simplicity and low-cost operation. Even if you are a complete newbie to welding, you should be able to spot weld metal together in just a few minutes of effort with an arc welder. With time and experience, you will eventually learn to control the temperature and speed of your weld to produce good quality 'beads' on steel (notice that I did not say copper or aluminum).
An additional advantage of the stick welder machine is its ability to weld dirty and rust-covered metals. My stick welder will blast through rust, but an MIG (described below) will not weld well unless the surface is clean.
Another common machine that is very popular is the MIG welder. An MIG welder basically operates like an arc welder, but the machine uses a spool of small diameter wire that is fed automatically through the welding gun instead of the stick welding rods used in the arc welder. Compressed gas such as Argon or an Argon mix will also be used during the MIG welding process to keep impurities in the atmosphere from damaging the weld.
The MIG welder is known to be the easiest welder for beginners to learn and operate, and you can certainly get high-quality welds with an MIG setup. Many auto body professionals prefer the MIG welder for repairing and fabricating small-diameter automobile sheet metal. For this reason, the MIG welder is also a good choice for serious metal artists. Experienced welders know that thin diameter metal can often be overpowered and burned by regular arc (stick) welding machines.
Without over-complicating the issue, there is a sub-classification of an MIG welder that is referred to as a flux-core wire welder (technically, not a real MIG welder). This flux-core wire welder is basically the same machine as an MIG, but it does not require the use of compressed gas, and it is less expensive when making the initial machine purchase.
The flux-core wire welder is an inexpensive way to learn about MIG welding technique. But know beforehand that the performance of the flux-core machines will not be as versatile as a true MIG machine. There will be splatter issues from the flux wire similar to an electrode used in an arc welder. Also, a flux-core machine will not weld some metals (such as aluminum) that are possible to weld with a more expensive MIG machine and an adaptor called a Spool Gun.
Lastly, there is the TIG welder. TIG welding is similar to welding with an acetylene and oxygen torch, but no torch is necessary. The TIG positive lead is a small gun that generates the welding arc when it gets close to the ground metal. A shielding gas (typically Argon) is used along with a unique type of TIG welding rod (held separately from the gun) that requires no flux (a flux coating is necessary on basic arc welding rods).
The TIG welder is used to make high-quality welds that are very strong. Many (but not all) TIG machines can be used to join non-ferrous metals such as aluminum. The TIG is also the best application to use when working with very thin materials. Additionally, all TIG machines can also be used as general arc welders with only minor adjustments necessary to the setup.
TIG applications can be very useful for artists working in steel, aluminum, or other non-ferrous metals, but the process is the most difficult to learn and is known to be the slowest of the three procedures. TIG is also the most expensive of the three options, offering superior quality and control in return for the investment. The weld that is achieved with a TIG machine is very similar to a weld that one would achieve using a basic acetylene torch and non-flux welding rod, but the heat is more easily controlled with a TIG machine.
Things to Remember When Setting Up Your Welder
Here are some common issues you will need to consider when it comes to your welding setup.
Choose the Right Voltage to Power Your Welder
ARC and MIG welders are available in 110 and 220-volt machines. The 110 welding machines will work on small gauge metal, but if you are planning on welding metal of a substantial thickness, you will need a 220-volt machine. If you purchase a 220-volt machine, make sure your household power supply can provide at least 230 volts and 50 amps of power.
A typical dryer-type power outlet is only designed for 30 amps, and it will need upgrading to handle welding amperage. Also keep in mind that many welding machines are sold without a power plug, and you must install these yourself. This is a simple procedure for most handymen or women.
Finally, make sure that you have ALL of the safety equipment required before you strike your first arc. This would include a welding helmet, welding gloves, leather boots, long-sleeve shirt, fire-resistant apron, and a fire extinguisher.
The new-style helmet with the auto-darkening lens is very helpful for new welders, and I do recommend them. If you decide on the older-style helmet, be prepared to strike your welding arcs by 'feel' and in complete darkness. This can be a challenge and very frustrating for someone new to welding.
So there you have it. If you want to weld ferrous metal like iron (of course), carbon steel, and stainless steel, an ARC welder or an MIG welder is the way to go. Try to find a friend or a fellow artist that uses one or both of these machines, and ask him if he would take thirty minutes to an hour to show you the basics of each. Welding is not rocket science, but it is a very dangerous activity if you don't know what you are doing.
Learning to recognize a good weld from a bad one will also take a little coaching from someone with experience. Try to weld a little with both an ARC and an MIG machine before you make a purchase decision for your home shop. If you can't use the machine comfortably, safely, and with confidence, you will have a useless blob of metal machinery taking up space in your shop. That is not productive, not cool, and a waste of a perfectly good welding machine.
I hope this quick survey of welding has provided you with the basic information that you, the artist, need to begin learning more on the topic. There are numerous video tutorials available on Youtube and other video-based websites that will assist you in learning this new skill. If you are like me, you will soon discover that welding is one of the most valuable tools you can have in your artistic toolbox. Experiment with your new skill safely, and see what new ideas you can develop with the power to join metal.
Build Your Own Welding Table
Need a welding table in order to fabricate your parts, but you don't want to invest a lot of cash in new equipment? Read some great information on building a basic welding table at your own home shop using only rebar and a few used metal bed frames. The information could save you hundreds of dollars, and you can customize it any way that you want!
Questions & Answers
Question: My husband has just retired and wants to learn to weld. Can you provide me with the type of equipment and safety equipment he will need to learn to weld? These items will be Christmas gifts for him.
Answer: This is tough to answer without knowing your price range and what your husband wants to do with his welding projects. A welder is a very job-specific tool, and your husband will likely want to pick it out for himself. For that reason, I would recommend a gift certificate from a big-box store selling quality welders. You may also find a training class nearby where you could purchase an introductory class for him to take. And finally, the safety equipment items are also nice gifts. A good-quality auto-darkening helmet can run from about $50 to several hundred dollars, depending on quality. Welding gloves and leather aprons are also nice gifts that a craftsman will appreciate. Whatever you decide, he will love it, because you are supporting him in his desire to learn.
Question: What type of welding would you recommend for smaller art projects? Nuts, bolts screws, spoons and the like?
Answer: Hi, and thank you for the kind words. In welding, everything depends on the type of metal you are using and it's thickness. Some bolts are steel alloys, and some are mostly zinc. Some spoons are stainless steel, and some are silver plated copper. A TIG would be the most resourceful way to approach this varied field of materials and thicknesses, but I would encourage you to practice with your materials and learn how to join them through trial and error. An acetylene torch would also be a good way to approach this, as you may want to braze or solder some of these materials instead of welding them.
Question: I'm interested in cutting flat sheet metal free-hand. Can it be done with a flux welder or similar device?
Answer: Yes...and no. A plasma cutter is a tool for the job, and there are a number of inexpensive options on the market. The limiting factor, in any case, is the thickness of this flat sheet metal. If it is relatively thin, then yes. You could use a flux welder (such as a stick-electrode) and basically burn through the plate by using a high-power setting. Think of this as using too-much power for a correct welding application. If I am not mistaken, there are welding rods produced for this type of application. Regardless, these edges will be jagged and you will lose more material in the cut than you would with a saw blade or grinder cut. Additionally, you will have to grind the edges to get the look of a professional edge. Try a scrap piece first and adjust as needed. Thanks for the question, and don't forget to be safe in all cutting and welding procedures.
Question: I’m from New Jersey. Where can I find art welding training?
Answer: Check with local arts and craft outlets to find other metal artists in your area. They can help you find nearby training classes. Otherwise, local community colleges can sometimes be a source for local technical training. I am sure New Jersey has many good opportunities for training.
Question: I really want to learn how to weld for both repairs on the farm and to start making art pieces. My father died and my brother is a master welder but is never around. There is every type of welder out in the machine shed. Your article was a very useful starting place to differentiate amongst them all! Is a plasma machine a welder or a cutter?
Answer: Yes, a "plasma machine" is a metal cutter which uses compressed air to cut relatively thin pieces of metal. It is a useful tool in the shop. Research your machine to learn its capabilities and safety concerns. All the best in your welding pursuits, and make a call to that brother for guidance!
Question: Very nice work. I want to find a place to learn how to weld. Is there anywhere in New Jersey to learn how to weld?
Answer: Thank you for the kind words. I am sure there are many locations near you to learn basic welding. Check your local community colleges and also any artist studios that work with metal. Artists will often teach introductory courses in their specific fields. If all else fails, go to a local auto body shop or metal fabrication shop and ask them if they will teach you the basics of stick or MIG welding.
Stephanie Michaud on August 08, 2020:
Just wanted to thank you for this down and dirty primer on the kind of welding I’m looking to do to augment my current ceramic work. Not having EVER welded before, what you said about the confusing and sheer amount of info out there to sift through is absolutely true. I just want to weld a few skinny round bars together, not put together a car chassis. Lol I wish I had found this a year ago, but glad I did now as i begin. THANK YOU!
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on July 04, 2019:
Hi Veronica. I attended some training at a marine welding school in Manila, and it was good training for me. Many people speak English in the country, and the rates were better than the USA back then. But conditions are spartan in many cases, and one should consider the possibility of accidents while in a foreign country. It is very hot there and it is certainly not the route for a casual welding class. You can find schools using Google Maps these days. then simply email them to see if they will accept you. Get the price up front and keep a copy with you, as they will try to add on (like everyone does) after you arrive. Take your own helmet and gloves. BUT...manufacturing has picked up greatly in the USA (particularly in the South) in the last few years, and many local community colleges are producing great low-cost welding instruction. I believe that this is the way to go nowadays (2019). Particularly if you reside in the USA. All the best!
Veronica on May 24, 2019:
I am interested in the Manilla school. Could you please send a little more info?
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on May 01, 2019:
Thank you, Salena!
Salena Nasso on January 26, 2019:
Great Tips! Its really working thanks for sharing this with us..
olive Nyasounou on January 18, 2019:
i want to join the group
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Donna on November 07, 2018:
My husband will be a newbie to welding. I know he will want to make big things. Can you provide me with the best welding equipment and the list of things he will need?
This will be Christmas gifts to him.
Rodney C Lawley on November 06, 2018:
There are several ways to approach the small diameter steel you describe. You can use a small Acetylene torch to weld them together, with or without filler metal-depending on your piece. As long as the two metals are the same steel, they should melt at the same temp and flow together for a good weld. You can also use a TIG welder to do pretty much the same operation, but with more focused heat. And finally, you can weld thin material with a regular MIG machine (or even stick), but you generally have to use a spot-weld-type of seam. This is basically touching the material very briefly then pulling away and repeating. This takes some practice, and it will not generally produce an attractive seam, but you can later grind it to improve appearance.
If you try to weld a normal bead on thin material with a MIG or Stick machine, you will generally over power it and blow a hole through the material. Play with scrap first and learn what you can do.
All the best in your work!
Ginnie on September 13, 2018:
Thank you for this little guide - soooo useful ! I think this has almost been answered but I would like your opinion. Just wondering which you would recommend for small jewellery/wearables/sculpture making i.e. welding together flattened steel/iron nails (more likely steel) at a few mm thick at most. At university I had access to a resistance spot welder but these are very expensive and at times too powerful for the pieces anyway.
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on September 03, 2018:
Jason, that's great. Glad you found a good machine with your Hobart. I like the brand also.
Phyllis on August 22, 2018:
I am just starting out. I would like to make metal yard art and small crafts. What would be the best kind of welder to use for me?
Kimberly on May 25, 2018:
So glad to have found this site. Much useful information though would love to have some hands on instruction before I purchase anything. Jason, I see you are from Indianapolis area, as am I. Any chance we could connect?
Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on April 20, 2018:
I found a Hobart Fluxcore welder used in Craigslist for $175 in 2011!! I’m still using it but it is showing some wear and tear. It runs off house current but with 0.30 flux wire it will delivery every bit of the 125 amps max welding current. In fact my machine runs a little hotter than the steel gauge sizes on the dial. It’s max is 3/16 sheet but I can easily weld 1/4” plate in a single pass. With proper chamfered edges, it will even butt weld 3/8” square steel bar. Bought used, its competitive with Harbor Freight new and vastly superior in performance.
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on March 09, 2018:
Hi sheweldz. My apologies for such a late reply. I also had one of those welders at one time, and I had a similar experience with obtaining quality results. They are only designed for thin metal use, and I would not recommend them to serious metal artists. If you must keep the welder, try using spot welds instead of attempting to run beads. This takes a while, but once all of the spots begin to overlay, you can usually grind the weld down until it looks pretty good. As a side note, the old pre-1980 stick welders are often sold very cheap, and many brands are high-quality welders. I have an old Miller Dial Arc that is still my favorite welder of the three that I own. I've seen old ugly machines like this sell used as low as $100. Despite their appearance, they are a great opportunity for low-budget shops to produce quality work. Thanks for the question and all the best!
sheweldz on November 11, 2017:
I took a 900 hr welding course over 15 yrs ago and been fiddling with welding sculptures ever since. I'm on a low budget so all my projects are done with scrap metal. Using a Harbor Freight mig welder (no gas) my welds are frustratingly sloppy looking. No wire speed control either. Do you have any tips or advice to help the out come of my art look more professional?
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on September 05, 2017:
ddiavelone, Thank you for commenting. I wish you the best with your new venture. Please pay special emphasis to protecting yourself against accidents while you learn. Get in the safety habit in all shop tasks. I promise you that it will pay off greatly in this type of work.
ddiavelone on June 05, 2017:
Hey There Mr. Lawley,
I just finished reading your post which was extremely informative ...Thank you! My pursuit of information has been much like you described so reading your post simplified a few things. Like justjen, I am a 50 year old artist wanting to start a new venture working in this medium (Im totally inthralled with metal work ) . Now having read your post I'm even more excited , So again THANK YOU!!
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on March 10, 2017:
Hi JustJen. Thank you very much. Your comment made my day! Don't let anyone discourage you in your quest. You can do anything you want with metal, if you have the right tools, patience, and a positive attitude. Welding is a skill that I use regularly in my art work and even for building special tools. It is indeed great fun, just keep safety foremost in your plans always.
JustJen on March 06, 2017:
Thank you for sharing all this information. I am turning 50 this year, took a welding class and loved it so much I am going to pursue artistic welding. Your aritcles are full of so much good information and truths "Sure enough, a web search on basic welding techniques will bring up thousands of pages of information for you to sink your teeth into, but the topic is usually delivered in such a complex and technical manner that it is virtually useless to the aspiring welder-artist." Many artists will only share enough information to get you to want to buy their art. You have really answered a ton of my questions and I have even been teaching my hubby things he didn't know. So excited for this new journey. And thanks to people like you who are willing to put in the time and effort to share all they have learned. I will look to paying it forward to others around me.
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on February 23, 2017:
Thank you for the kind comment Waggtail. All the best on your project, I hope your plant support project will be fun and productive.
waggtail on February 13, 2017:
Wow--thanks so much for answering all of my very basic questions--really! I was just dabbling, looking for information on how I might make some simple plant supports out of rebar, and your article was very helpful. Now I'm just a bit flummoxed about how to outfit myself to do this safely without breaking the bank.
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on February 03, 2017:
Suzy klitgaard, thank you for commenting. I think that you will find welding skills are an invaluable asset to your artistic capabilities.
Karen Houston, Any place where you can find good instruction at a reasonable price is a win. Detroit is sure to have a lot of talented steel workers and welders.
thriftypaws, Try clamping that rod into position onto some damp wood blocks. Use a fan and work outdoors to control any smoke issues with the wood. Turn your feed speed as low as you can and just spot weld those rods into position with a quick repetitive trigger pull. Angle is normal (45 to 90 degrees should work). A light grinding will finish off any rough edges. Good luck!
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on February 03, 2017:
Yes JaneJane I am based in Birmingham, Alabama. You may contact me through my website or via the Naked Art Gallery located in the Clairmont / Avondale Neighborhood of Birmingham. I would love to help out with any projects that you have in mind.
thriftypaws on December 25, 2016:
Merry Christmas, y'all!
Me and YouTube have started learning to weld. I started with a Chicago Tool knock off MIG welder....which ISN'T something to learn on.
So, i bought myself a Lincoln Electric Handy Mig. Im not a numbers person, so beyond the name, I pretty clueless.
At any rate, Ive been working on stars and crosses ('tis the season), and have been using 1/8 steel rod. The problem is, I can't figure out the angle, and reel out wire quickly, which leaves a MESS!
Welding 2 -1/8" pieces of steel rod together, end to end....what angle should I have?
Karen Houston on December 23, 2016:
I am a new artistic welding enthusiasts...is Detroit, Michigan a great place to go for training?
Suzy klitgaard on September 18, 2016:
Thanks for the article. A short sweet intro to the welding world. I am in the middle of my AWS courses, adding onto my art background. I am an accomplished painter, illustrator wanting welding to be a huge part of my expanding art endeavors.
janejane on June 03, 2016:
Hi! Are you in Birmingham, Alabama? I am an artist, but have never welded. The project I want to do involves welding, but Im not sure what materials are available. Do you have a shop?
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on August 11, 2015:
Sounds great jbosh! I'll bet you have no trouble with stainless. I prefer stick welding stainless when I can, but beautiful results can be obtained with your torch method, and you will enjoy that extra control, particularly on smaller more detailed projects. As for the aluminum, the brazing alloys have been around for quite a while, and many boast very strong bonds. Everyone interested in metal arts should try them at least once.
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on August 11, 2015:
Hi jmillerdesigns. Thank you for your comment. Yes, Mig welding will work with silver plated flatware. I recommend trying out the thinner-diameter wire (.o23) at the correct setting for your thickness, then spot weld it instead of attempting a bead. It will prevent burn-through issues. Also be cautious of zinc alloys in kitchen utensils. Many of these will basically vaporize when you heat them, and the gas released is toxic. Experiment with different wires to find a good finish match for the silver plate and try to hide your welds as much as possible. Have fun!
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on August 11, 2015:
Thanks for your comment Bettina. I agree, Oxy/Acetylene is very versatile and was used exclusively by builders for many decades. It is also, in my opinion, the most dangerous. I still use Oxy/Acetylene, but only for brazing dissimilar metals or other necessary functions requiring its use.
Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on March 05, 2015:
Lately it seems the oxyacetylene torch has been more useful to me. Just taught myself how to braze aluminum with aluminum/silicon brazing alloy. A hole new door has opened for my metal art explorations. Next stop torch welding stainless steel!
jmillerdesigns on March 05, 2015:
Great info! Thanks! You're so right everything I've read has just confused me. I work with silver plated flatware, looking to learn to weld, will MIG weld work on this type of metal?
bettina on January 11, 2015:
Please do not discount Oxygen/Acetylene or Oxy/Fuel welding AND cutting, because of just that, you can cut too! I am a woman welder who uses Oxy/Acet and I LOVE IT! But it does require a bit of schooling. Thanks for the article otherwise!
Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on July 07, 2014:
No problem. Just wanted to give the budding artist another choice if the cost of a gas MIG outfit initially chased them off.
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on July 05, 2014:
That's a good point jbosh1972, and technically, you are correct. Generally speaking, most people refer to both the Flux core wire welder and the Inert gas wire welder as MIG Machines. My attempt was to keep this intro simple, as all of those big words can intimidate an artist that is new to welding. It should be noted that the Flux-core only welders are generally much cheaper to purchase as well. Thanks again for a great comment.
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on July 05, 2014:
Sorry Jessnel. I never received an email notifying me of your comment and have not been on the site for a while. Although your thoughtfulness is fantastic, I would leave the purchase of the welding machinery to the artist. There are just too many variations for guesswork. I recommend you two go shopping together. Good luck.
Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on June 29, 2014:
This is good primer for the metal artists. However you mentioned the MIG welder but neglected the Flux core welder. The flux core is essentially a MIG without the gas. It is significantly less expensive than a MIG machine and produces decent welds. The disadvantages are spatter, porous welds with improper technique, and you can only work with mild steel. Just want to put that out there for the artist shopping for welding equipment. Keep in mind most MIG welders that use gas can be used for flux core by using the flux core wire and switching polarity of their machine.
Jessnel on March 17, 2014:
I have a question. My boyfriend is graduating in may with a bachelors in sculpture, and I wanted to buy him a welding kit as a graduation present,to start him off now that he's not going to be able to use the school's machines for his projects. I don't really know much about any of these things and I was wondering what would be the best choice. Could you give me a recommendation?
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on August 19, 2012:
Glad the information helped Maerdit. Thanks for the comment.
maerdit on July 25, 2012:
thanks - perfect for me
Rodney C Lawley (author) from Southeastern United States on September 10, 2011:
Thank you Suziecat!
suziecat7 from Asheville, NC on September 04, 2011:
This is a great Hub - I'm a fan.