How to choose a MIG Welder, the Secret Sauce, 16 Points

By Bill Byers / February 24, 2019
How to choose a MIG welder

Have you a few welding projects at home where; Yes, you could pay someone to weld and repair them for you. But wait!

It might be fun to do them yourself.  How hard could it be - this welding stuff?

Or do you have someone close to you that has said they'd like to try welding. And you thought, maybe I could get them a present of a nice welder, you know, to start them off. 

They would love and appreciate that wouldn't they?

Whether you are thinking of yourself or another and want to make a good choice, I'm going to do my best to tell you what to look for when buying a MIG welder. The tips and tricks, the secret sauce of how to choose a MIG welder and get the best machine for the money.

You might well ask, Ok Bill where do I start?

Right here ...

1. Settling on a Budget

Are you the type to feel tempted to go all in and spend more than $1000 on a MIG welder? After all you do want the best?

Spending more than 1000 dollars on a MIG welding machine will certainly get you something good, great even. But will it be the right MIG welder for you?

Or are you the type that thinks;

Let me get the cheapest welder I can get my hands on. After all I don't know what I'm doing. When I know more and I am more experienced I can get something better.

And sure you can get a cheap welder for 80 to 90 bucks, but at that price it may not even last an hour after you have taken it out of the box.

The truth about choosing a MIG welder at the right price, depends on the kind of ambitions you have, and the kind of welding you want to do.

When you are starting out MIG welding, I would suggest having a budget of 300 to 500 dollars. That should see you get something from a good name brand that helps you get started rather than you struggling with the machine to get anything done.

If you know right out of the gate that you need to be welding thick metals, 1/4 inch and above or more than just the occasional stainless steel or Aluminum weld then having closer to the $1000 budget will be needed.

And even if you budget is in the $500 range for your MIG welder, and you want to weld stainless steel or Aluminum you're going to need more money.

Cause if you buy a $500 MIG welder you'll need the spool gun to do Aluminum welding and that spool gun is going to set you back another 2-300 dollars.

 MIG Welding Mild Steel

2. Why is a MIG Welder's Amps Important?

You will see MIG welders advertised with a minimum and a maximum Amp figure.

MIG welders and the electrical power they can produce are measured by the amount of output voltage - Amps available to you to weld with.

More Amps and output voltage equal more heat and power to your welding arc. The more output your welder can produce the thicker the metal you can weld, along with a wider variety of metals.

For example, welding stainless steel and Aluminum will pull heat out of a welder and you need a decent amount of Amps to weld them well.

Amps is also a function of the input power. Let me explain further.

If your welder is for home use and is 110 volt then you will be limited on the output voltage - the amps the MIG welder can produce.  115 volt and 120 volt welders will be able to produce more output voltage and weld a wider variety of metals and thicknesses.

Rounding this all up, the more Amps a MIG welder produces, the higher its cost. But you need enough amperage produced by the welder to weld what you need to weld and weld it well.

3. Choose A 115, 120 or 230 Volt MIG Welder?

When you are just starting out with MIG welding you probably wont need a 230 volt MIG welder or a multi power option on your MIG. 

A 115 volt or 120 volt MIG welder using a normal 3 pin household plug, is a MIG for the home hobby workshop.

Your home use MIG welder will also need a plug outlet with a good ground connection fused to 20 Amps or 30 Amps, to operate your MIG welder at its maximum welding output.

If you only have a 120 volt circuit available to you then you will be restricted to choosing a MIG welder that runs on 110 volt, 115 volt or 120 volts.

If you're planning on welding 1/4 inch and over ​​​mild steel ​​​and have some large projects or want to mix in some other metals like stainless steel and Aluminum, then you should move up to a 230 volt welder.

Because that larger MIG welder for sure will give you the welding flexibility you need.

Understand that a 230 volt powered welder won't run off a 120 volt circuit. And visa versa your 120 volt input welder should not be put on a 240 volt circuit.

Also worth bearing in mind is that powering a MIG welder means that while you are welding, it is best to dedicate the circuit the welder is on to the welder.

Switch off other appliances on the circuit and have only the MIG welder working.

Or watch your arc lose power, stutter, start and stop because something else is eating up the power it needs.

YouTube Video on Selecting a MIG Welder

Just a little break from the 16 point list for couple of minutes for a nice video from Hobart on selecting a MIG welder.

MIG Welding Basics & How to Select a MIG Welder

Video Credit: Hobart Welding Products

Back to the list.

​4. What type of welding jobs do you wish to do?

And the associated question; How often are you planning to use your MIG welder and for what length of time?

If you believe that you will use your MIG a few times a year for short easy jobs. Say for welding mild steel on thin-ish gauges of metals. And by that I mean 24 gauge to 1/8th of an inch mild steel.

Then it makes sense to get a welder classed as a light duty welder, and be looking at the starter MIG welder end of the market.

If you have ambitions to weld different type of materials say stainless steel or Aluminum and thicker gauges of metal, say above quarter inch mild steel. 

Then you are probably going to have to spend nearer to the $600 price mark on your MIG welder. Maybe more, particularly if you're thinking of larger projects where you're going to spend quite a bit of time welding.

I have a document on the site that goes into much more detail on the type of jobs you can use a MIG welding for. If you want some ideas or are just curious do take a look. - link to What is a MIG Welder Used for.

When you have big ambitions it'll be worth spending the money as you will getting yourself a welder that is up to the job you have in mind for it.

You may be somewhere in the middle, mainly welding mild steel, not particularly thick gauges, but would like to do the occasional stainless steel piece or Aluminum piece. Then you should be thinking of picking a medium duty MIG welder with a spool gun option.

Aluminum Welding With Spool Gun

Aluminum Welding With Spool Gun

​5. What does Duty Cycle Mean on a MIG welder?

The duty cycle of a MIG welder is an important point to take note of. The duty cycle is a reasonably good way of judging the robustness of the MIG welder.

Plus, it tells you the welder how long the MIG welder can be used before it overheats and you have to stop welding.

A 20% duty cycle means that you can weld for 2 minutes continuously over a 10 minute period before the welder overheats and has to be rested. This rest period can be as long as 15 minutes. Yep frustrating when you want to get a job finished.

Plus most manufacturers measure this duty cycle at a theoretical ambient air temperature and at a setting less than the top amperage the MIG welder is capable of.

Most all of the MIG welders on the market have thermostatic protection to stop you from damaging the welder by forgetting yourself and welding too long.

However, you will find it frustrating having your MIG welder stop part way through a job because it has overheated.

Use your welder on its maximum setting on a hot summers day and it could be stopping all the time!

If your projects are going to max out a 120 volt welder because you're going to be welding up 1/4 inch steel then you want to choose a MIG welder that you can take up to the max and have a duty cycle to match.

For example the Everlast 140e MIG welder has a duty cycle of 25% at its maximum output settings of 140 Amp. Meaning on that machine you can weld at its top setting for 2 and a half minutes continuously.

Everlast MIG 140 Front

​6. How Versatile do You Need the Welder to Be?

Even if you are just buying a welder for light-duty infrequent welding tasks, you may want a model that offers options regarding the metals you can work with.

Mild steel, stainless steel and Aluminum, are the most common welded metals.

However stainless steel and Aluminum require more energy to weld.

The cheapest welders have lower power and likely will weld mild steel only.

If you have in mind car repairs, then most car panels are thin steels, choose a MIG welder that can weld down to 22 gauge.

7. Do you need a MIG welder that is Spool Gun Capable?

Welding Aluminum will typically require a welder that has a bit more power and is capable of using a spool gun. 

That is because MIG welding Aluminum needs power in your welder to weld well. This means you should pick a 140 Amp capable MIG welder as a minimum. Aluminum welding wire is soft, pliable and notoriously difficult to feed up a MIG hose to the MIG gun.

With a spool gun you are only feeding that Aluminum wire 8 to 10 inches.

Save yourself a bunch of frustration and wasted Aluminum welding wire and pick a MIG welder that is spool gun capable and plan into your budget the purchase of that spool gun.

If you plan on welding Aluminum, check out the cost of the spool gun for your chosen MIG welder.  You may want to go for a different manufacturing brand if the cost of the welder and spool gun combined is really expensive.

Lincoln 140 with everything supplied in the box

Lincoln 140 ​Example of a MIG Welder that has a spool gun option

​8. Gas Regulators?

You are going to need one when MIG welding. A regulator is the device you put on your cylinder of gas to 'regulate' the gas flow from the cylinder into your welder. 

Most MIG welders are supplied with a regulator.

The usual type of regulator supplied is for Argon gas or an Argon, Carbon Dioxide gas mix - the most common gas mix used for MIG welding. 

Millermatic 135 Gas Regulator

​Gas Regulator

​Preferably you want a regulator with a dial or two.

The regulators with dials tell you how much gas is still in the cylinder and available to use. Some manufacturers sell MIG welders with regulators with no dials on them.

This makes it difficult to tell what is going on and you'll then need to go by feel and experience.

Check the MIG welders you're investigating and see what type of regulator is supplied in the package. Pick one with a quality dual dial regulator.

Note that: A regulator tor Argon and Carbon Dioxide or Pure Argon gas is different to a regulator used for pure Carbon Dioxide. Planning on welding with Carbon Dioxide gas? Budget for a suitable regulator.

9. Tapped Settings Versus Infinitely Variable Dials

I'm focusing here on the Amp and voltage output controls.

Some MIG welders have rocker switches you use to set the voltage.

Lincoln Handy MIG Front Dials

Lincoln Handy MIG ​with Rocker Switches

​Some have tapped dials.

Hobart Handler 140 Front Controls

Hobart Handler 140 an ​Example of a MIG Welder with Tapped Dials

These tapped dials may display 1 to 5 or A to D. And each point on the dial represents a specific output settings for your welding output. Though what those settings mean in terms of output Amps may not be clear or detailed.

Welders with tapped dials along with the rocker switch types means that you can only set the welding output to those specific setting. If you want to turn the welding output up or down a shade you can't do it. That may well be frustrating for the more experienced.

The better manufacturers will have a welding settings chart on the welder cabinet and or in the manual that comes with the welder.

This chart will give you some guidance on the setting to use. The chart should detail for the metal type, the thickness of metal and diameter of wire to use, along with shielding gas recommendations to MIG weld with, on that welder.

As you head up the MIG welder price points then you start to see MIG welders with output dials that are infinitely variable - dials you can set at what ever Amp or voltage output you want to choose, up to the maximum the welder is capable of.

When you're choosing a MIG welder as a beginner see how flexible the welder is with its output settings for the budget you have available.  The more settings on the output dial you have the better, as you will have more options for producing exactly the kind of weld you want.

YouTube Video on the Criteria for Getting Your fist MIG Welder

 Another quick break from the list for this YouTube video from Miller emphasizing some of the points I'm covering. It's only a few minutes long and useful to watch.

Buying Your First MIG Welder

Video Credit: Miller Welders

Back to the list ...

10. Hoses and Cords

The length of cable also known as a cord that runs between the MIG welder and your MIG welding gun and the one that runs between your MIG welder and its grounding clamp are provided in different lengths depending on the manufacturer and the cost of welder. 

The cheaper MIG welders may provide a cord six foot in length. Some welders provide cords up to ten foot.

So what you may think.

I would say that the longer the length of cable the better. It means that you have more flexibility on where you place your welder and piece of work to weld effectively.  Short cords are restrictive and may well cause you problems, particularly if the power cord is also short.

Depending on what you have in mind to weld, flexibility in your welding range may well be really useful.

Forney MIG 140 Side View

​An Example of a MIG Welder with a wide welding range

​In choosing a MIG welder, I'd say take note of how long the cords are from the welder to the MIG Gun and also from the welder to your grounding clamp. 

Or if they are shorter than you would like then does the welder have euro style quick connectors? Because they make it easier to swap out the chord and MIG gun to something you prefer for your welding situation.

While you are thinking about those things, see what the feed back is on the quality and weight of the grounding clamp provided. 

The heavier duty the grounding clamp, the better.  Having a good ground connection is crucial to forming a good arc and making a quality weld.

And you may want to order a replacement grounding clamp at the same time as your welder if you find that you like everything else but the provided ground clamp is poor.

Forney Ground Clamp

Ground Clamp

​11. Welding Kit or Starter Package, is it worth it?

With some MIG welders along with the welder you get some other goodies to start you off.

Some include a starter spool of solid welding wire or flux core welding wire. Some MIG welders come with both.

Expect a spare contact tip. Some manufacturers provide several spare contact tips.

You may also have a face mask included. Perhaps a chipping hammer to help you clean up your weld.

These 'starter packages' seem seductive and of course they are put together that way so that you find the MIG welder more attractive.

And you may think that you don't need to buy any of those accessories when you buy your MIG welder because they are included in the package. But wait.

Unless your MIG welder is from one of the big reputable brand names you may find those accessories not as great as they first seem.

The starter welding wire spools may not be of the best quality. And even from the big brand manufacturers are typically really 1 lb. sample sizes of welding wire. 

The chipping hammer is likely a bit basic and after your first weld you'll realize you'll need to get yourself something better.

Lincoln Handy MIG

​Lincoln Handy MIG An Example of a quality starter welding package from a brand name

​The face mask is often hand held and if not from a reputable brand, flimsy and really not much use. Or if the hand held face mask is of reasonable quality, you'll quickly find that its ok for the occasional weld but the reality is, that you need both hands when you're welding. You won't want one taken up holding the face mask.

When your welder arrives these extra accessories will get you started, if you really can't wait to weld.

But in no time you will want a proper welding helmet, welding wire, pliers and chipping hammer so think about those things up front and if you're the keen type, order them at the same time as your new MIG welder.

I have an article on the site where I carried out some extensive research on the best starter packages and welding kits if you need some advice. ​

Do I Want To Take it With Me?

12. Lightweight and Portable MIG Welder versus Its so Heavy I Need a Cart

A lightweight more portable MIG welder is certainly more convenient to use. And in certain situations an advantage. 

You can more easily take it to the welding job particularly if the job is outside, welding in an awkward place - even up a ladder.

If that is the kind of welding you need to do, then you certainly need a welder you can carry easily without breaking your back.

A heavier welder often means that the chassis and the internals are of sturdy metal and the welder should be robust.

If that's your choice of welder then creating a welding cart for your welder and it's tank of shielding gas may be one of your first projects.

13. Is that MIG welder Easy to Use?

When you're choosing a MIG welder you want to look for clear straight forward controls. A good manual and a provided welding parameters chart where you can check the welding amps to metal thickness is a good place to start.

You can also read customer reviews about the MIG welder.

YouTube is your friend here. Check if you can easily find YouTube videos that demonstrate how to set up and how to use the particular MIG welder you are thinking of.

Does the manufacturer have a forum that you can join?  A forum is a good place to get hints, tips and a place for you to ask your beginner or not so beginner questions and get helpful answers. 

If your choice of manufacturer doesn't have a forum, you can select a more generalized welding forum to join.  Check out the type of questions asked and how they are answered to make sure it’s a friendly place.

14. The Best Welding Machine Brands

No-name brands hawking their ultra-cheap MIG welders and you may be tempted. If you are, you risk ending up with a welder model that breaks down far too easily. Or you find you can't get consumables for it.

What I would suggest is to get a welder made by a reputable company with an established welding history. They will undoubtedly be the best welders.

Some better known MIG welder brands with good reputations are Hobart, Miller Electric, Lincoln Electric, and Forney.

These companies have been around over 70 years and are known for their good welders.  Understandably you do tend to pay extra for the good brand name. 

Newer entrants onto the market such as Everlast and Lotos, have a good if shorter history for reliable models.

There are of course even more prestigious MIG welder brands out there, depending on your budget.

Warranty

15. Warranty

Certainly the more reliable the MIG welder is, the keener the manufacturer is to offer a longer warranty.

If you are unlucky enough to have your MIG welder fail, then you will want to know that the manufacturer is responsive and offers a good warranty on their product. 

Typically you'll be looking at a year's warranty at the lower end of the market and up to a five year warranty on the better MIG welder brands. 

Warranty on the MIG gun itself is typically shorter and can range from 30 days to six months.

16. Important Accessories For you and your MIG Welder

Leather insulated gloves are a must have. As is a welding helmet and safety goggles. Then you will need a leather apron or welding jacket to protect your body.

Good quality welding wire to weld with will save a lot of frustration. At least if you know your welding wire is good you can take that out of the 'what went wrong' equation.

A wire brush to prepare your metal or ​a grinder and flap disc if your metal is dirtier than a wire brush can cope with.

​If you have serious rust and mill scale to remove, I have a document here that will help.

Spare contact tips for your MIG Gun.

A quality ground clamp. (poor welds can often be due to poor grounding).

You will need a filled gas cylinder and need to decide whether you will buy or rent your tanks. And how will you transport the tank?

I have a whole post on the subject of Argon Tanks. If it is your first time MIG welding you may find some useful pointers there.

In Conclusion

I hoped my article helped you think about what to look for when buying a MIG welder.

The great thing about MIG welding is that it is cost-efficient, effective, and easy to learn. But that is only true when you know the secret sauce on how to choose a MIG welder before you buy.

Get the right one for the budget you have available. Practice your skills and you may find yourself turning into an experienced welder in no time.

Check out the MIG's I consider the best for beginning welding here.

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