What’s The Best Plasma Cutter For Auto Body Work And Car Restoration?

If you’re working in the auto body industry or tackling a car restoration build a plasma cutter can be your best friend. There is always metal that needs to be cut and a plasma cutter is the easiest way to get it done. They can get in to hard to reach places, make quick work of custom cuts that would be difficult to make with a grinder, can cut through old paint and are capable of cutting a variety of metal thicknesses quickly. Being that plasma cutters are rather low maintenance tools that take very little time to setup, they are easy to grab in a pinch and you will find yourself reaching for it instead of your grinder in no time.

When purchasing a plasma cutter for auto body work you’re lucky being that you don’t have to have a really high powered machine as a majority of the metal you will cut will be thinner than 1/4 inch. In fact, a lower amperage machine is actually preferred as it will provide you with more fine tuned adjustment in low power ranges. This is useful in reducing the amount of heat adsorbed by the metal and preventing the metal from warping. Also some lower powered machines provide what is called “fine tip consumables” which allows you to make more precise cuts (it’s like using a pencil instead of a marker).

What makes a plasma cutter good for auto body work?

Here are some of the features we recommend when choosing a plasma cutter for auto body work and car restoration:

  • 30 amps of power: Great for cutting up to 3/4″ mild steel, but also capable of cutting delicate steel as well.
  • Fine Tip Consumables: Great for thin body panels and intricate cuts. Only available on certain machines.
  • Dual Voltage: You can run the machine on 220V or 110V making it easy to use anywhere in your shop.
  • Long Torch Lead: Save yourself the hassle of moving your machine around a lot. A long torch lead gives you more freedom.
  • Quality Manufacture: If you’re a professional buy a professional grade machine that will withstand heavy daily use.
The Hypertherm Powermax30 is the best plasma cutter for under $1500

Hypertherm Powermax30 XP Dual Voltage Plasma Cutter

The Hypertherm Powermax30 XP is by far the best choice for professionals as they make some of the best machines on the market. The Powermax30 XP can operate up to 30 amps and provide some very impressive performance numbers. This machine is dual voltage and also has optional fine tip consumables making it ideal for thin metal applications. It comes with a long 15 foot lead and pigtail power adapters for 120v operation. Sure, you’ll pay a bit more for this machine, but it’s worth even penny for serious users.

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The new LOTOS LTP5000D is crowned our number one choice for the best cheap plasma cutter.

LOTOS LTP5000D Pilot Arc Plasma Cutter

This machine will cost you a fraction of name brand machines, but offers a lot of the same great features and power of its more expensive competitors. The LOTOS LTP5000D can cut up to 1/2″ steel, has non touch pilot-arc and offers dual voltage capability. Replacement consumables are also very inexpensive compared to other brands making this machine very cost effective. The only area this unit falls short is in build quality as it is not as resilient as other machines and will likely have a shorter life span. For the price you will not find anything better. You can view a cutting demo of the LTP5000D here and read our full review here.

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What can a plasma cutter do that other tools can’t?

Working with a plasma cutter opens up a wide variety of opportunities in car restoration and body work. With a plasma cutter you can make any cut you wish no matter how obscure it is. For example, imagine you’re replacing a rusted out floor board in an old car. With a plasma cutter you can easily cut out the rusted floor board and perfectly follow the edges of the crease to completely remove the floor quickly in just one cut. Doing this task with a grinder or saw would be very time consuming, hard on your back and would not yield as good results. Plasma cutters simply cannot be beat by any other tool in terms of performance, speed, versatility and ease of use.

Another benefit of a plasma cutter is the reduction of noise and reduced fatigue. Operating a saw or grinder takes strength and will likely fill your garage with tons of noise requiring you to wear ear plugs. Plasma cutters take no heavy strength to operate, so fatigue is not an issue. Also while wearing earplugs is still a good idea while plasma cutting you will not disrupt others working in your area with the noise of your machine.

Do plasma cutters work better than an oxy-fuel cutting torch?

Plasma cutters work better than oxy-fuel cutting systems in auto body work because they soak less heat into the metal you’re cutting, which significantly reduces the chance of the metal warping. Plasma cutters cut quicker and make far more precise cuts (especially with fine tip consumables).  You will also find that plasma cutters take less time to setup and are a lot more compact making them easier to move around the shop.

What do I need in my shop to run a plasma cutter?

If you plan on using a plasma cutter you will need the following:

Power connection (110v or 220v): We recommend you purchase a dual voltage machine so you can use either 110v or 220v. For most work a 110v connection is enough to get the job done. For heavier work like chopping frames you will want the extra power of a 220v connection. On the Hypertherm Powermax30 XP we recommended above we were able to cut 1/2″ steel on a 110v and 3/4″ steel on 220v. If you would like to see that cutting demonstration click here.

Air Compressor: Normal plasma cutters require an air supply to operate. Your standard 20 gallon air compressor will work fine. If your compressor is too small you will have to wait for it build air pressure in between cuts which can be frustrating. There are machines also available with built in air compressors which require no external air source. These machines are more expensive, but provide you with more mobility.

Safety Gear: When using a plasma cutter you should use protective welding gloves, welding mask (minimum shade 5), welding jacket, ear plugs and boots. Plasma cutting can be very safe if you use the proper safety gear and make sure your cutting area is clear of fire hazards.

Replacement Consumables: Each machine has its own torch consumables that will wear out over time. It’s important to have backups in your tool box and replace them when they get worn out. If you fail to replace them it will result in lousy cuts and can sometimes cause the machine to cut out. With average use we replace our consumables about once every 2-3 months.

Hypertherm Powermax30 AIR w/Built In Air Compressor

This machine provides all of the same functionality and reliability of the Powermax30 XP listed above, but also provides you with a built in compressor. This means that you only need a power source for it to operate. This makes it incredibly convenient and allows you to use it just about anywhere with a power source. It also features dual voltage capability so you can use it on a 220v or 110v connection. This machine does cost a few hundred more than the regular Powermax30 XP, but is worth the money for users who do not have access to an external air source.

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Are plasma cutters bulky and hard to move around?

30 amp plasma cutters are surprisingly very small and easy to move around. This makes them ideal for working around cars because they can easily be moved by hand to your work area and stored out of your way when you’re finished. The average 30 amp machine weighs about 30 lbs. If you purchase a bigger 45 amp or 60 amp machine it will be significantly heavier and most likely will require a cart to move around your shop.

What safety hazards should I watch out for?

If you’re using a plasma cutter anywhere around a car the main thing you need to watch out for is flammable liquids. Plasma cutters can easily melt through brake lines, fuel lines, gas tanks and anything else you can think of. Also watch out for old paint catching fire, spilled oil and all the other fire hazards. Always check your cutting area thoroughly before making a cut. Make sure you have a fire extinguisher that is labeled “type B” for gas, oil and paint fires. They are rather inexpensive and are good for any shop to have on hand in case of an emergency.

Kidde Pro 210 4lbs Fire Extinguisher (Type: ABC)

Great to have on hand for any project in your garage in case of an emergency. Keep it in a place that is easy to access and be sure that everyone that works in your shop knows where it is located before they work.

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Additional Resources

If you have never used a plasma cutter before be sure to read our comprehensive beginner’s plasma cutting guide. This will help walk you through the entire process of getting your machine hooked up correctly and making cuts safely.

If you are looking for help finding a new machine be sure to check out our list of the best plasma cutters that we recommend. If you need a plasma cutter with a built in air compressor you can view the machines that we recommend here.