Metal Art - steel the scraps
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.
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.
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 their 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 in 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 over-powered 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.