Regardless of what you might have thought, plasma cutting is not complicated. As a matter of fact, it’s a relatively straightforward process in which an electric arc is sent through a gas that’s passing through a copper nozzle with a restricted opening. The gas and arc squeeze through the opening and jump from an electrode to the material being cut.
Of course, the material must be conductive, which means you can use a plasma cutter on mild steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, brass, and even cast iron. And while a plasma cutter’s dense stream will blow through almost any metal effortlessly, the gas is also directed around the perimeter of the cutting area to shield the cut.
So, now that you know the basics of plasma cutting, you may be wondering about the uses of these machines. The truth is that there are countless practical applications for them, both in industrial and home settings. Consider these possibilities:
Portable Plasma Cutters for Contractors and Trade Workers
Here are just some of the trades that take advantage of these versatile machines: Because many plasma cutters are lightweight and portable, contractors and trade workers can use them in the field, which translates into saved time and money. For example, a 50-amp cutter weighing less than thirty pounds, and about the dimensions of a small suitcase, will quickly move through metal with a maximum cut thickness of 1/2” and a maximum severance thickness of 3/4” with accuracy and clean, smooth edges.
- Plumbers: While cutting pipe on the job is efficient, plumbers also appreciate the smooth edges when it comes time to fit pipes together correctly.
- Fabrication shops: Once again, the portability, accuracy, and smooth edges provided by quality plasma cutters help fab shops do top-notch seam welding.
- HVAC: Plasma cutters are invaluable for all kinds of jobs in HVAC, including new installations and repair work, without having to go back to the shop.
- Construction: Whether it’s rough or detailed work, any metal cutting required on the job site can be easily accomplished with a portable plasma cutter.
Plasma Cutters for Farmers and Recyclers
Plasma cutters can make quick work of cutting metal blocks, sheets, and pipes down to size during demolitions or at the scrap or recycling yard. These cutters leave behind far less mess and waste than other methods, and they can more easily cut away old welds than different types of torches.
Farmers take advantage of plasma cutters in repairing broken plows, tractors, harvesters, water tanks, fencing, all sorts of implements, and other equipment.
Plasma Cutters for Metal Artists
At the top of the list of “Best Plasma Cutters for Metal Art” (a 5/5 rating!) is the PrimeWeld Premium and Rugged 50A Portable Air Inverter Plasma Cutter. According to the review on PlasmaCutterCenter.com, this machine “cuts each material neatly and with precision,” and it’s lightweight and portable, making it “a great choice if you plan on working in various locations.”Metal artists frequently use plasma cutters to create precise designs in their metal artwork. These machines allow the artist to cut out all kinds of intricate shapes. And because these machines cut along fine lines—all with a narrow cut width and no warpage on thin metals—this level of detail is possible. Metal artists also use plasma cutters to make stencils and templates for some of their other creative projects. Although it is priced affordably at $278, the premium cutter is made with “quality, durable, and safe materials.” And, as the article goes on to point out, “another advantage of this cutter is that the company offers great customer service to attend to whatever problem you may have encountered.”
Plasma Cutter Buying Guide
Since only a small percentage of plasma cutter buyers will be using it to create beautiful artwork, there should be guidelines for the remaining potential users. The following factors will give you something to consider as you start the process of choosing a plasma cutter:
- Make sure your plasma cutter fits your work
The type of plasma cutter you choose will be determined by the kind of work you do. Since nearly every plasma cutter can cut just about every type of metal, your top consideration will be the thickness of the metal. Here are a few questions you’ll need to answer before you decide:
- Are you cutting thick metal?
- Do you need a portable unit?
- How often will you be using the cutter?
- Are you willing to adapt your power outlets for your cutter?
- Are you planning on using a generator with your plasma cutter?
- Will your electrical current fluctuate?
While you’re looking at your plasma cutter options, these questions will help you narrow down your choices. You’ll find that some brands will have certain features that you’ll pay extra for with another brand. And some units will offer a plasma cutter that includes a TIG or stick welder—the right choice for those who only need a cutter occasionally.
An ideal example of this type of combination machine is the PrimeWeld CT520DP 50A Pilot Arc Plasma Cutter Combo, which provides both TIG and MIG welding capabilities with a plasma cutter that quickly gives you clean cuts on almost any piece of metal. It’s available for $399.
Also, if you choose a portable unit that runs off a generator, make sure the unit can handle the fluctuating power of a generator.
2. Look at the machine’s cutting speed
Some plasma cutters will cut through metal faster than others, which is crucial if you’re in an environment that requires you to be productive. While any plasma cutter will get through a 1/2” thick metal plate, one unit could complete the cut in two minutes, while another might take twice the time. If you’re an occasional user or a hobbyist, the cutting speed might be of little importance to you, but it could be if you’re a professional worker, and to you, “time is money.”
3. Pay attention to the duty cycle
A plasma cutter’s duty cycle is the amount of time it can operate continuously before it needs to cool off. A five-minute duty cycle indicates that the cutter can run for five minutes before needing to cool off for five minutes. Machines that run at lower power can have their duty cycle extended, although hot operating conditions may shorten it. If you push your machine beyond its duty cycle, you could cause it to overheat.
Plasma cutters with a longer duty cycle are a good fit for those who will be making long or deep cuts, while a shorter duty cycle is ideal for the home shop where only smaller cuts are needed.
4. Choosing a torch
There are two types of plasma cutting torches:
The most common one has a high-frequency starting system that creates a spark using a high-voltage transformer, capacitors, and a spark-gap assembly. These torches have no moving parts, but they will require regular maintenance and can create electrical noise that interferes with computers and other electrical equipment that is nearby.
The other torch is the contact start type that utilizes a moving electrode or nozzle to produce a spark that lights the pilot arc. This torch will not interfere with other electrical items, and it turns on instantly without a pre-flow cycle.
5. Pick the output power that’s right for you
The output power determines the thickness of metal your plasma cutter will be able to cut. For instance, 12 amps of output power from a 120v machine can get through most 1/8” thick metal, while 60 amps from a 230v unit can handle metals up to 3/4” thickness.
Keep in mind that there also are inverter-based plasma cutters that offer high cutting output power but weigh less than regular units that provide the same cutting capacity. One such unit is the PrimeWeld 50A Portable Air Inverter Plasma Cutter that was mentioned earlier.
What is the Best Plasma Cutter for Home Use?
For the home user’s money, it’s hard to argue against the 50A Portable Air Inverter Plasma Cutter from PrimeWeld. Many agree it’s the best budget plasma cutter on the market. This inverter-based model makes an excellent unit for the home shop, farm, or hobbyist. There is plenty of power for thicker materials, and it works accurately on thinner metals also. The unit is lightweight at under 25 pounds, is priced reasonably at $278, and has a powerful 60% duty cycle. All of these features point to excellent value for any home user.
If you have any other questions about plasma cutters, we will get you answers. Contact us, and one of our welding professionals will provide you with the guidance you need to choose the perfect plasma cutter for your needs.