Anyone who is going to tackle welding projects will need the right tools for the job. While there are many tools that are common to all welding processes, welding machines for the various welding types are very different, and there are specialized items that might be required. So the first challenge will be to identify which type of welding process you are going to use. Then you can assemble a basic toolkit for the specific process and equipment you are going to use.
In addition to your basic toolkit, you will also need protective clothing to ensure you can undertake your welding projects safely.
The most common welding processes we use are:
- Manual metal arc (MMA) welding, which is also called shielded metal arc welding (SMAW). SMAW is the most commonly used welding process, and the one used by most non-commercial welders.
- Metal inert gas welding (MIG), which is one of the newest welding techniques. Also known as gas metal arc welding (GMAW), MIG is used by many non-commercial welders, even though the equipment is a lot more expensive than that used for SMAW.
- Tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding is considerably more difficult to execute than SMAW or MIG welding, and is mostly a commercially used process. It is also known as gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW).
- Oxy-acetylene welding, which utilizes oxygen and acetylene, is probably the earliest fusion welding process, but it takes longer than straightforward SMAW and other processes, and is used less and less nowadays, certainly for non-commercial and DIY projects.
SMAW, MIG and TIG welding use a specific welding machine, while the oxy-acetylene process utilizes the two gases with special welding torches and nozzles. We are going to focus on the SMAW and MIG processes and the toolkits required for these.
Your Welding Machine
The first “tool” you will need for your project is a welding machine manufactured specifically for the process you are going to use. MMA/SMAW welding machines are the least expensive and the simplest to use, and they may be used to weld many different types of metal. However there is quite a wide choice of SMAW machines, from small, high quality oil-cooled welders that are perfect for small businesses and home projects, to much larger alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) machines that are commonly used in industry.
In general, SMAW is a manual process that welders execute using an electrode – one of the consumable materials you need for this type of welding. Your welding machine will come with cables that you will use to attach the electrode and a work clamp that is used to hold the work piece being welded. Even though the electrode is a consumable item – meaning it will be used and then replaced – this is a vital tool for all welding projects. Ultimately the electrode you choose will depend on the metal you are welding, as well as its thickness. The relevant information is always displayed on packaging.
If you choose a MIG welder, you will use filler wire that is housed in a roll inside the machine itself, rather than individual electrodes. But the additional tools required are mostly the same.
Common Welding Tools
In addition to a suitable welding machine, any well-equipped welding workshop will contain a mix of tools that are needed for setting up, cutting, joining, and for finishing the items that have been welded. Whilst these may not be exactly the same for every project, here are some that will be required for most non-commercial and DIY projects.
You should also buy or make a metal workbench. With the right tools, this could be your first project.
Measuring and Marking
Everything needs to be measured and marked out before it is cut and set up, so you will need a retractable steel tape, and ideally also a steel ruler. An engineer’s square is another very useful tool. You will also need to mark the metal for cutting; a metal scriber that has a hardened-steel point is what many professionals use, but soapstone chalk is also good. At very least ensure there is a lead pencil in your toolkit that you can use, preferably a nice fat carpenter’s pencil.
Cutting and Filing
A wide variety of hand and power tools may be used to cut or saw through metal, some of which can be used with other materials as well. These range from pliers, hacksaws and tinsnips used to cut flat metal, to hand-held angle grinders and large bench-mounted “cut-off” machines and bandsaws. Manual tube cutters are great for cutting copper pipe, and are a standard item in any plumber’s toolkit. Most have an attachment for reaming the inside of pipe and for removing burrs.
Where we normally sand wood to smooth it off, metal is generally filed. There are many different types to choose from, depending on what needs to be filed. For instance, large, tapered flat files are useful for general-purpose use, while smaller tapered files are ideal for enlarging holes or rounding inside edges of metal. There is no need to buy every type of file available; you can even build up over time, buying what you need when you need it.
Clamps, Vices and Jigs
Metal will usually need to be clamped into place on your workbench, either using a vice, and or clamps. They hold the work piece tight while you work, ensuring greater accuracy. There are many different types available, unlike jigs that are probably the metalworkers closely guarded secret. Make sure you have a selection of types and sizes, including at least one corner clamp.
Jigs are generally used as a guide when cutting and bending metal, and most are custom-made. While homemade jigs are inexpensive to make, the challenge is making the jig to fit the shape you need to create. Once done, you can use it to make multiple items that are identical. With increased welding experience your ability to design and make suitable jigs for your projects will improve.
Professional engineering workshops mostly use pillar-drilling machines, but a good quality two-speed or variable-speed hand held electric drill is suitable for drilling most types of metal. Single-speed drills run too fast and will tend to blunt the bit too quickly. You will need a selection of steel drill bits (2 mm to 10 mm cover most requirements), and ideally a drill stand that you can fix to your workbench.
Tools available for bending metal range from relatively inexpensive hand-held pipe benders to large, very expensive machines used in engineering workshops to bend sheet metal. Traditional bend tools including wooden tinmen’s mallets and paning hammers may also be used. But for many projects you can improvise and use bending bars or scraps of wood to cold-bend pipe and mild steel bar.
Whatever welding process you use, safety equipment is essential. In addition to wearing suitable clothing (cotton overalls are best), you will need hand protection, face and eye protection, and possibly also ear protection. To avoid the potential hazards of welding, make sure you add these items to your toolkit:
- Leather welding gloves
- A full-face welding helmet with the correct shade lens for the application you are using
- A fabric skull cap worn under a helmet will give additional protection to the neck and head
- Ear-plugs or ear muffs, especially for cutting metal
Boots and leather spats are also a good idea, as is a leather apron. And if there is any danger of breathing in dangerous fumes or gases while welding, make sure you have a mask or better still a respirator that you can wear while working.