How To Start TIG Welding

Tom
By Tom Suddard
May 26, 2021 | Welding, Tig | Posted in Shop Work | From the Aug. 2013 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by Tom Suddard

Anything is possible with enough sheer force. From lifting a car to building skyscrapers to putting a man on the moon, humanity has used this technique to overcome every obstacle–even connecting two pieces of metal. 

Welding used to take a blacksmith hours using a process called forge welding. The process is simple but labor-intensive: Heat two pieces of metal in the forge, put them on top of each other, and hammer them together. Force, once again, had solved a problem.

This simple process kept humanity advancing until the end of the 19th century, when it became apparent that something better was needed. Arc welding, oxy-fuel welding, and electric resistance welding were invented as quicker, easier ways to join metal. 

Today, the average shade-tree mechanic can be a welder–no forge or sheer force required. Quality metal inert gas welders can be had for as little as $600, and they’re simple enough that even a 10-year-old can use one. MIG welders have turned tasks that would have been impossible 150 years ago, like building a roll cage, into fun weekend projects.

However, if MIG welding is so common a kid can do it, why hasn’t tungsten inert gas, or TIG, welding become easy and accessible? 

Lincoln Electric, a company with welding at its core, says it has. And in the last few years, prices for TIG machines have come down. Lincoln, for example, has one that retails for less than $1500.

Welding Basics

Before we talk too much about the intricacies of welding, let’s take a moment to review the basics. 

Welding is a way to join two pieces of metal together. To melt the metals, heat is applied, usually in the form of an electric arc. This arc melts the metals into what is referred to as a  weld pool. A filler material is then melted into the weld pool. 

After the weld cools, the result is a strong, compact, reinforced joint. Besides producing a lighter result–and often being an easier process–than other means of fastening two metal objects together, welding also allows for much more intricate joints than bolts or rivets.

MIG Welding: MIG and TIG welders share two letters of their names, both use an electric arc to melt metal, and both look similar to the naked eye. However, they fuse two pieces of metal using very different methods. 

In MIG welding, the electrode is also the filler rod, and it’s automatically fed into the weld pool by the welder itself. After the operator chooses the right setting, MIG welding is basically a point-and-shoot process: It’s quick, self-contained, and can easily create strong welds.

However, what MIG welding boasts in speed and ease, it lacks in control. Once the welder strikes an arc, the machine maintains exactly the same power and feed rate. This makes it poorly suited for temperamental metals like aluminum or thin steel, which require a bit more finesse. 

TIG Welding: TIG welding gives the operator much more control over individual events in a weld: how much power is added at any one moment, the timing and placement of the filler rod, and the speed at which the filler rod is inserted.

If this sounds more complicated than point and shoot, it is. But with this difficulty comes the opportunity to create perfect welds in almost any material. “Almost any material,” of course, includes aluminum. 

Plus, which sounds cooler: “I’m a MIG welder,” or, “I’m a TIG welder–who also wrestles bears”? See? The choice is a no-brainer. If metals were people and welders were suits, then MIG would be the gray off-the-rack special. TIG would be the custom-tailored show-stopper.

Expert Help

Coincidentally, training to wrestle a bear is analogous to learning how to TIG weld. Both require an expert to explain the ropes, so Ron Lenz offered to share some tips. Custom fabricator by day and welding instructor by night, Ron was willing to show us how he teaches TIG welding in just one evening–yes, one evening. 

Ron basically lives behind a welding mask, and he’s even appeared as an expert on Spike TV’s “Search and Restore.” Could he really pass along those skills in a single night? We’d see. 

Setting Up

Before we began, though, we had to set up our new welder, a Lincoln Electric Precision TIG 225. Lincoln bills it as one of their best consumer TIG machines, and it carries an MSRP of $3146. Compared to the starter TIG machines, this one can handle aluminum as well as metals beyond mild steel. 

First, we gathered the consumables–which Ron details in an itemized, color-coded list: 100-percent-tungsten electrode, 100-percent-Argon gas, 3/16-inch aluminum filler rod, and a new stainless-steel wire brush. 

Assembling the machine wasn’t hard at all, and we soon had the gas bottle hooked up, the electrode installed in the torch, the filler rod unwrapped, and the machine plugged in. We were ready to weld–or so we thought.

Safety First

It’s true that we could have technically started welding the instant our machine was turned on. But without any safety gear, that would have been one very memorable welding session. 

When operating a welder, you’re subject to burns–and not just the obvious flash burns from the bright arc or the kind that come from heat. Welding produces intense ultraviolet light, so being covered from head to toe is paramount (unless you’d like to get a nice cancer-tan while you’re welding). 

Warming Up

Our TIG welder was set up. Our human welder was suited up. And our (also human) instructor was present. It was finally time to start welding! What would our first project be? An aluminum space frame? A cool gauge bracket? A bear?

Nope. Our first project was to finish setting up the welder. We had already connected our new gas bottle, but as it turns out, we needed to adjust the regulator. We made sure we had a steady 15 CFH, or 20 psi, of Argon when the welder’s solenoid was open. When we weld materials with different requirements, we’ll need to adjust this gas flow accordingly.

Then Ron pointed out that we still needed to “ball the tip” of our electrode. The electric arc is produced by the electrode, and forming the tip into a ball makes a reliable, consistent arc easier to obtain. We accomplished this by using very high DC positive power, which melted the electrode into a shiny ball. Now we were finally ready.

How We Did It

1. Lincoln’s Precision TIG 225 could be considered overkill for our initial foray into TIG welding, but we didn’t want to be limited by our choice of welder. We don’t like outgrowing our equipment.

2. We used a simple, air-cooled torch. It gets quite hot during prolonged welding sessions, which is why many pros, including our teacher, Ron Lenz, use more complex water-cooled units.

3. Unlike MIG welders, which use a hand trigger to modulate power, TIG welders use a continuously variable foot pedal. It allows for precise adjustments on the fly. 

4. The most important parts of any weld are a stable work surface and a great ground. We used a vise and a spare piece of aluminum as our base. 

5. Ron Lenz is an automotive expert with a knack for TIG welding, so he was the perfect teacher for us beginners.

6. Our new welder came with a high-quality regulator. This is a great thing, as we’ll need to adjust it as we weld together all sorts of different projects.

7. Just like racing, welding requires safety gear from head to toe. Lincoln Electric supplies more than just welders, as they also offer fire-resistant welding jackets and gloves as well as helmets with automatically darkening visors. They even have a comfortable welding hat that prevents chafing. We completed the package with sturdy jeans and closed-toe shoes, which should always be worn in the garage.

8. Step one of any weld is to get the surface as clean as possible. We devoted a brush to only aluminum, which should reduce contamination.

9. We bent the ends of each fill rod, as they are sharp and can poke unsuspecting onlookers.

10. Finding a comfortable welding position is vital. For Ron, this means wrapping the torch around his arm a few times, sitting in chair, and holding the torch like a pencil. Each person will have a slightly different method, so experiment with different positions.

11. Holding the torch at a slight angle allows the operator to see the weld better.

12. Lincoln provides a handy cheat sheet specifying how to set up a TIG welder for each type and thickness of material.

13. First, Ron had us practice simply striking an arc and moving the torch across the metal. Once we mastered that, he promised, we’d advance to using filler rod. This was way harder than it looked. 

We spent at least an hour moving the torch in little circles. The hardest part was something we hadn’t expected: constantly varying the welder’s power. We needed lots of power initially to start the arc, then much less, modulated precisely, to keep it the same size. 

Once the torch had reached the end of the weld, the job still wasn’t done. We had to slowly back off the power because suddenly dropping the arc creates a depression, weakening the weld. TIG welding would be merely hard if it only consisted of modulating a pedal. However, we had to simultaneously manage the torch and the weld pool, making it all nearly impossible. TIG welding was eerily similar to patting your head while rubbing your belly (or bear wrestling). But after a lot of trial and error, we were able to create the “stacked coins” welding pattern Ron expected of us.

14. With Ron’s continued guidance, each attempt was looking better and better. Some even looked like a sentient being had produced them. Then there was huge flash of light, and the weld stopped. We dropped the torch, yelped, and tore off our helmet to ask Ron what had just exploded. 

To our surprise, he was laughing: We had simply “dipped the torch” and contaminated the electrode. This happens whenever the electrode touches the material during a weld. To fix it, we’d have to grind the contaminated tip off our electrode, then ball it again.

15. With the electrode fixed and more practice under our belts, it was time to add fill rod. This new, even harder task ruined what little confidence we’d gained, but after another hour or so of practice, we were comfortable making little raised bumps on the flat aluminum sheet. The process ran like poorly made clockwork: Hold the torch near the metal, floor the pedal, yelp when the arc starts, back off the pedal, move the torch in little circles across the metal, and dab a little fill rod into the weld pool every so often. We were finally beginning to feel like TIG welders.

16. It was time for a real welding task: “Weld two pieces of flat aluminum to each other,” Ron told us. So we bravely struck an arc, waved the torch, and deposited the fill rod. The result was a passable, if not perfect, TIG weld. Did this mean we could finally start making suspension parts?

No, as it turns out. Ron picked up our work, felt the raised weld with his fingers, then easily snapped the two pieces apart. “Aluminum is hard to penetrate; it dissipates heat very quickly,” he said. Yet again, our excitement had been crushed. 

17. Upon examining the pieces, we could see what we had done wrong. We needed more power and more fill rod, along with a steadier foot controlling the power.

18. After several more tries, we were able to produce a passable weld. It will be a long time before we start making parts for F1 cars, but no aluminum door handle bracket will ever stand in our way again.

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Comments
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RevolverRob
RevolverRob New Reader
12/7/20 2:24 p.m.

Interesting piece, but $1500 to setup in TIG isn't in the budget for me (and I'd hazard a lot of folks).

Will you guys be doing any pieces on the lower-end scratch-start inverter-based TIG machines that are available for a few hundred bucks?

That's what I went with a few weeks ago, an 80-amp stick welder with a TIG torch from Eastwood. Even by the time I bought a regulator and a large(r) bottle of argon, I was only into the whole thing for $450. But it's certainly not as easy to use as the more expensive variable units. But these small machines seem like they offer a tremendous bang for the buck in ability, portability, and simplicity.

 

Ranger50
Ranger50 UltimaDork
12/7/20 2:38 p.m.

In reply to RevolverRob :

Minimum machine is $650 for what I would call "decent". But with a tig machine, you get what you pay for. 

Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter)
Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter) Dork
12/7/20 2:45 p.m.

Tig without HF start at the very least is painful to learn.

RevolverRob
RevolverRob New Reader
12/7/20 2:49 p.m.

In reply to Ranger50 :

I guess the question then is what are the parameters for defining 'decent'? I.e., what features do you need in a given box?

_

Scratch start isn't actually all that difficult to figure out...A copper welding spoon or plate helps, a lot, for starting and ending the weld. It took me a couple of dozen attempts of just starting the arc to reliably scratch start. After three-dozen attempts it's easy.

NOHOME
NOHOME MegaDork
12/7/20 2:58 p.m.

I learned and bought a TIG to do bodywork before I bought a MIG. Self taught and got along OK. PITA to use on any location or any position that is not a bench with fixtured components. Stuff has to be surgical-room clean to get good welds.

Have hardly touched the TIG since I bought the Lincoln 185 MIG.

Other than doing alloy, I see no benefit to the much slower TIG process.

Some argue that TIG gives a more malleable bead for doing sheet metal work, but if that is the case, then I would point you towards an oxyacetylene rig as it is  a more versatile tool. ie it cuts and loosens metal stuff.

 

Pete

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
12/7/20 3:07 p.m.

Yeah, a lot has changed in the seven years since I wrote this story. Prices have continued to drop like crazy, and I'm real curious about the new wave of dirt-cheap imported inverter machines. I've heard positive and negative anecdotes, sounds like they're either perfect forever or broken right out of the box, but I'm not sure how much of that is just internet hate.

Here's my anecdote: I still have this Lincoln TIG that was built in 2012, and still use it all the time. Over seven years, it's needed nothing but consumables and hasn't let me down once. And if it ever does, there's a very good chance of getting replacement parts and tech support locally. Same goes for my Lincoln MIG, which has been around even longer, gets far more use, and still runs like a Swiss watch. Name brands are more expensive, but so far my Lincoln welders are firmly in the "buy-once-cry-once" category.

 

NOHOME
NOHOME MegaDork
12/7/20 3:12 p.m.

In reply to Tom Suddard :

Agreed. Both my metal melty machines are Lincoln. Had a SIP for a while, but it had circuit board issues and parts were not available.

AWSX1686 (Forum Supporter)
AWSX1686 (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
5/26/21 8:45 a.m.

I currently have the Eastwood AC/DC TIG Welder which is ~$700 new. I got it much cheaper used, and just needed a fresh torch/lead. It does fine for what I need right now. It can do aluminum with the AC, and does fine on fairly thick steel too on DC.

When I upgrade, I will most likely get a Primeweld tig255x, the reviews are great, apparently the customer support is great, it comes with a CK torch to start with which is something I had to upgrade to on the Eastwood, and it has pulse settings and a lot more control. 

 

I also owned a Miller Syncrowave 250 for a short time, MASSIVE machine, water cooled CK torch. It was not the DX, so it didn't have pulse functions, but it really did weld beautifully. Only downside was it kept tripping my breakers as the older transformer style welders draw more power. I ended up selling it for a nice profit, but it was a very nice machine. 

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