Mechanics who make all or part of their living cutting metals that are electrically conductive will probably tell you that a good plasma cutter is a necessity. Using a plasma cutter produces much cleaner work than grinding does. The extra quality of work does come with a higher price tag and steeper learning curve, but is well worth the money–if you do your homework beforehand. Understanding what type of cutter you’ll need and the role consumables should play in your decision will help you make a wise investment.
The first thing to keep in mind is that initial price can be misleading. Many models that are less expensive than equally powerful and capable counterparts might be too good to be true. Too many less expensive models require consumables (more about them below) that have to be replaced more often and are more expensive than those of some higher-priced models. In other words, spending less up front could very well cost you a lot more down the road. Once you’ve narrowed the field to models that will meet your needs, make sure you research the life expectancy and replacement cost of the consumables of your top contenders.
Consumables, as you might guess, are parts that are necessary for a cutter’s operation that will wear out over time. Initial quality and your usage determine how often consumables will need replacing. There are five consumables you’ll need to consider. The electrode is responsible for delivering the current to the plate. The nozzle focuses your arc and directs air flow. A swirl ring transforms the plasma into a vortex. Retaining caps (inner and outer) hold the other parts together. Lastly, the shield keeps the consumable stack safe from flying sparks and molten metal.
A plasma cutter’s duty cycle is also an important factor to understand. Typically expressed as a percentage relative to 10 minutes, the duty cycle lets you know how long your cutter can run continuously before needing time to cool down. For example, a duty cycle of 30% means that you can run the plasma cutter for 3 minutes out of 10 without needing to stop. This duty cycle is relative to the power being used, so if you’re looking at a variable speed or variable power model, make sure you understand the duty cycle as it relates to the different types of jobs you intend to do.
Power is, of course, a major factor to consider when looking for a plasma cutter. If your cutting work will be restricted to 1/4 inch or less thicknesses, you should be okay with 15 to 25 amps. Look for 40 amps for 1/2 inch cuts and 80 or more amps for cuts at or above 1 inch thick. Lower power models generally require 120-volt outlets, but more powerful cutters could demand 240 volts. Make sure to factor in any necessary electrical upgrades you might need to make when searching for your perfect cutter. Visit plasmacutters.reviews for reviews of some favorite models.
Since you’ll also need compressed air for your new plasma cutter, don’t forget to factor in an air source. If your shop is already equipped with a dedicated air manifold or a more traditional compressor, you won’t need to find a model that’s sold with its own compressor. Since many of the most powerful and higher-end models assume that you already have an air source and don’t include a compressor, you’ll have to budget for a compressor if you opt for such a model and don’t have an air source. Though it represents an additional expense, a filtration system can be a great way to get even cleaner work and extend the lifespan of your consumables. A basic filter removes dust particles from your air stream, while a filter-plus-desiccant system will remove stray dust as well as moisture.
Check out best rated plasma cutter reviews for additional tips on choosing the best model and reviews (complete with pros and cons) of some top sellers. As with any other major purchase, arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible is the best way to make sure you don’t end up regretting your decision.