Wire feed welding is an excellent choice for automotive, fabrication, maintenance and repair work due to its ease of use, good penetration and speed. Follow these tips to maximize quality and efficiency.
Wire feed welding, also known commonly as MIG (Metal Inert Gas) or GMAW (Gas Metal Arc Welding), is a popular welding process used by everyone from DIY home gamers to professional metal fabricators. If you want to move past stick welding and create clean, spatter-free welds with excellent penetration, a wire feed welder is an excellent investment.
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Wire feed welding, also known as MIG or flux-core welding, is a versatile welding process that uses an automatically fed consumable wire electrode and shielding gas to create a weld. Setting up a wire feed welder properly involves selecting the right wire type and thickness, gas mix if MIG welding, stick out length, welding angles for different joints, and proper machine settings. With practice, wire feed welding can be used to weld thinner metals like aluminum while producing minimal slag and spatter. Pushing the weld gun creates cleaner welds than pulling.
Wire feed welders work by continuously feeding a consumable wire electrode through a welding gun. As the wire feeds, an electric arc is created between the wire and base material to melt both together and create a weld pool. The key benefits of wire feed welding include:
- Welding thinner metals like aluminum and auto body panels
- Minimal slag and spatter, especially when pushing the weld
- No need to stop and replace electrodes like stick welding
- High welding speeds possible for production work
This step-by-step guide will teach you everything you need to know about wire feed welding, also known as MIG or flux core welding. You’ll learn how to properly set up a wire feed welder, what equipment you need, techniques to create high-quality welds, and tips for beginners.
Let’s dive in and explore the wonderful world of wire welding!
What Is Wire Feed Welding?
Before jumping into the how-to, let’s quickly go over what exactly wire feed welding is and why it’s useful.
Wire feed welders use an automatically fed consumable electrode to create the arc and weld. Standard wire feed welders use a spool of thin wire that feeds continuously through a welding gun. The wire serves simultaneously as the electrode and filler metal.
Common wire types include:
- ER70S-3: All-purpose wire for carbon steel
- ER70S-6: Ideal for rusty, dirty steels
- Aluminum: For welding aluminum
As you press the welding gun trigger, power flows through the wire and creates an arc between the wire tip and base metal. The arc melts both the wire and base metal to form a weld pool.
A shielding gas flows over the weld pool as you weld to protect against contamination. Shielding gases for steel include argon + CO2 mixes. Self-shielding flux-cored wires use flux inside the wire instead of external shielding gas.
Wire feed welders allow you to dial in the perfect parameters for material thickness and joint type. The continuous wire feed means you can make long welds without stopping. Overall, wire welding offers a very versatile and user-friendly welding solution.
Diagram showing wire feed welding consumable electrode and shielding gas flow.
Wire Feed Welding Equipment
To get started wire feed welding, you’ll need a few key pieces of equipment:
- Wire feed welder: Provides power and wire feed system. Can be gasless flux-core or gas-shielded MIG.
- Welding wire: Spool of wire matching your base metal.
- Welding gun: Holds the wire electrode and directs shielding gas.
- Shielding gas cylinder + regulator (for MIG only): Provides argon + CO2 mix.
- Ground clamp: Connects welder ground cable to workpiece.
- Personal protective equipment: Proper welding helmet, gloves, clothes, etc.
A basic 120V flux-core wire feed welder plus welding helmet can get you started for $300-500. More heavy-duty welders will cost $800+. Make sure your welder has adjustable power, wire speed, and voltage controls for dialing in your welds.
MIG welders require an external shielding gas cylinder with regulator and gas hoses. Compressed gas cylinders can be leased from a welding supply shop. Get the proper regulator for your cylinder – CO2 regulators won’t work for argon mixes and vice versa.
Pro tip: Choose an auto-darkening welding helmet to protect your eyes while making it easy to strike and monitor your arc.
How to Set Up Wire Feed Welding
With the right welding equipment, setting up a wire feed welder is straightforward:
- Install wire spool – Match your wire diameter to the drive rolls. Insert the wire through the feeder mechanism.
- Set drive tension – Tighten the drive rolls so they firmly grip the wire. Too loose and the wire will slip. Too tight and you’ll crush the wire.
- Insert electrode – Straighten any kinked wire and cut the end. Insert several inches of wire into the welding gun.
- Set controls – Choose your wire speed, voltage, and gas flow (for MIG welders). See the next section for help dialing these in.
- Attach ground clamp – Securely clamp the ground cable from the welder directly to your workpiece.
- Put on PPE – Wear a welding helmet, leather gloves, long-sleeve shirt, and other protective gear.
Once set up, pull the welding gun trigger to inch-forward the wire until the stick out length is correct. You’re ready to strike an arc and start welding!
Image showing wire feed MIG welder setup.
How to Dial In Your Welder Settings
Choosing the optimal amperage (wire speed), voltage, and stick out length will give you the best weld quality and minimize spatter. Follow these tips:
- Start with manufacturer recommendations – Your welder manual will suggest initial settings.
- Consider metal thickness – Thicker metal requires higher amperage and voltage.
- Use higher voltage settings for thicker wires and when welding vertically/overhead. Lower voltage for thin materials.
- Lengthen stick out for thicker materials to flatten and widen the weld bead. Shorten stick out for thinner materials.
- Listen to the arc – A steady frying or sizzling sound means your settings are dialed in. Crackling indicates too much power.
- Watch the weld pool – A wide, consistent pool indicates good fusion and penetration.
- Do test welds on scrap to zero in on ideal parameters. Adjust one variable at a time.
With practice, you’ll learn to adjust settings instantly by ear and weld pool appearance. Keep a log to record your optimized settings for each wire/material combo.
Editor note: Don’t forget to factor in the type of joint and position! Settings ideal for flat welds won’t work overhead.
Wire Feed Welding Technique
Once you have your welder nicely dialed in, proper technique is key to laying down clean, solid welds. Follow these tips when wire feed welding:
- Maintain consistent stick out length – Hold the end of the wire firmly at the surface of the workpiece to prevent sticking. Inch forward occasionally.
- Keep a steady travel speed – Moving too fast results in lack of fusion. Too slow creates excess heat and burn through.
- Use the right welding angles – See the next section for guides based on position. 15 degrees is a good starting point.
- Keep the gun perpendicular to the joint as you weave. Angling the gun compromises shielding.
- Weave evenly to improve penetration and fill the joint.
- Push rather than pull the weld – Pushing minimizes contamination and helps the weld shielding gas protect the puddle.
- Keep your wrist and body steady – Rest your arms on a jig or the work table. Proper stance prevents fatigue.
Pro tip: Trying weaving the gun in a ‘J’ or crescent pattern rather than a straight line for maximum weld coverage and uniform filling of the joint.
Proper wire feed welding technique for flat welds.
Welding Angles for Different Joints
Choosing the correct welding angle and gun angle is critical for achieving proper weld penetration and fusion while preventing burn through. Follow these guides:
- Weld angle: 5-15 degrees from perpendicular is a good starting point
- Gun angle: 90 degrees between electrode and workpiece
- Technique: Weave evenly side to side. Go back and forth for T-joints.
- Weld angle: 0-15 degrees. Adjust to prevent filler dripping from gravity.
- Gun angle: 90 degrees
- Technique: Weave and/or use linear technique. Combination of push and pull.
- Weld angle: 5-15 degrees. Less than 90 prevents dripping.
- Gun angle: Straight on at 90 degrees.
- Technique: Use controlled weaving pattern. Weld bottom to top.
- Weld angle: 5-15 degrees
- Gun angle: Straight down at 90 degrees.
- Technique: Requires lots of skill. Weave to control weld width and reinforce at sides.
These are just general guidelines – you may need to experiment to find the optimum angles for your specific joint configuration and welder settings. Record what works to build experience.
Editor note: I recommend novice welders practice extensively on flat and horizontal joints before attempting vertical or overhead welding. Mastering proper angles and technique takes time.
Common Problems and Solutions
Like any welding process, you’re bound to run into a few hiccups as you learn wire feed welding. Here are some common beginner problems and how to solve them:
Bird’s nesting / tangled wire – Caused by improper drive roll tension. Adjust tension until wire feeds smoothly. Also check for kinks or clogs.
Porosity – Gas shielded welds get holes/pores from issues like too high voltage, dirty base metal, or moisture contamination.
Lack of fusion – Insufficient heat input. Increase amperage or voltage and ensure proper welding angle and speed.
Burn through – Too much heat. Reduce amperage or increase travel speed.
Excess spatter – Could be caused by too long stick out, clogged nozzle, or gas flow issue.
Uneven weld bead – Unsteady hand speed and angle. Practice your technique. Use jigs if needed.
Don’t get frustrated! Even professional welders make mistakes. Focus on improving your setup, dialing in parameters, and techniques.
Pro tip: Keep a notebook and record your optimized settings, troubleshooting fixes, and lessons learned from each welding project. This builds experience exponentially faster!
Wire Feed Welding Tips and Tricks
Follow these hand-tested tips and tricks to get the most out of your wire feed welder:
- Choose an auto-darkening helmet – Makes strike starting arcs and monitoring puddle much easier.
- Use backing strips on thin materials – Prevents burn through and improves the weld backside.
- Clean joints thoroughly – Remove rust, paint, oils, and dirt using a grinder or wire brush.
- Preheat thicker metals – Prevents cracking by slowing the cooling rate.
- Use a wire brush – Brush welds between passes to remove slag and scale.
- Check shielding gas flow – Ensure it’s turned on and flowing steadily before welding!
- Change contact tips often – Worn contacts can lead to poor weld quality and harder wire feeding.
Wire Feed Welding vs Stick Welding
How does wire feed welding compare to stick (SMAW) welding? Here’s a quick rundown:
- Easier to learn – Wire welding is less skill intensive than stick.
- Faster – No stopping to change electrodes. Higher deposition rates possible.
- Less spatter and slag – Wire feed welds are cleaner, especially when pushing.
- Better on thinner materials – Less heat input than stick welding.
- More equipment intensive – Wire feed needs shielding gas, wire feed system, etc.
For industrial fabrication, maintenance and repair, and auto body work, a wire feed welder is extremely useful to have in your shop. While stick welding certainly still has its place, the ease and versatility of wire feed welding is hard to beat for many applications.
And there you have it – a comprehensive guide to wire feed welding! From understanding the equipment to perfecting your technique, you now have all the knowledge needed to start laying down clean, strong welds with your MIG or flux-core wire feed welder.
The key things to remember are:
- Properly set up your wire feeder, tension, and controls
- Dial in your voltage, amperage, and gas flow for each material
- Use the right angles and gun motion for the welding position
- Practice, practice, practice your technique!
Wire feed welding opens up new possibilities for home shops and professional welding compared to stick welding alone. While it takes time to master, anyone can learn it with some dedication and patience.
I hope this step-by-step guide gives you confidence to take your welding skills to the next level. Now grab your welding helmet and let’s start melting some metal!