How To Use A Plasma Cutter – A Comprehensive Beginners Guide
If you have never owned a plasma cutter before then the whole process of buying a machine and using it for the first time can be a lot to take in. In this guide we will help point out some basic features to look for when purchasing a plasma cutter to insure you get a machine that you will be happy with in the long run. Secondly, we will walk you through the entire process of pulling the machine out of the box to making your first cut safely. If you’re already familiar with the basics of plasma cutting and need a buyer’s guide then check out our Plasma Cutter Reviews page.
Disclaimer: This guide is for educational purposes only. Please read all documentation and safety requirements for your specific machine before using it.
What Is A Plasma Cutter?
A plasma cutter is a machine that is commonly found in metal fabrication shops that allows the user to cut metal in any way they please. It’s a machine that takes input power (110v or 220v) and processes it though a machine in a way that allows you cut virtually any type of metal using the torch of the machine to make very precise cuts. This machine is so useful that many people compare it to owning a good welder, once you have one you’ll be kicking yourself to not buying one sooner. Plasma cutters give you the ability to look at any piece of metal and cut it to your liking in a very safe manner. The plasma cutter is to metal working as the chainsaw is to cutting down trees. Sure you can use other tools to get the job done, but the plasma cutter just does it so much better.
How much do I need to spend on a plasma cutter?
In the plasma cutter market, paying a higher price for a name brand machine translates to a machine with great performance, durability, manufacture support and cut quality. To be honest, there are some cheap machines out there that can make some very impressive cuts on thick 1/2” mild steel, but the question is how long will they make those cuts until one of the cheaply made components on the machine breaks? If you stick to name brands like Miller, Hypertherm and Lincoln you can buy with confidence knowing your machine will last you many years even under heavy usage.
That being said not everyone is looking for a professional grade machine and there are a lot of inexpensive alternatives that can be a great value. If you’re a weekend warrior who is simply looking to add a basic plasma cutter to your shop on a budget, then there are a lot of great options out there for less than $1000. Take a look at our guides below to see what machines we recommend.
What is the best machine I can get for my money?
We find that Hypertherm and Miller provide the most bang for your buck. Both companies offer plasma cutters that are quality built, have large part availability, and great performance. These are machines that will cost you a bit of money up front, but will pay for themselves in reliability over time. Here are the three machines that we recommend over all else.
Do I need a plasma cutter with a built in air compressor?
Some plasma cutters are made with built in air compressors to supply the machine with air while you cut. These types of machines are made for users who want a mobile machine that can cut in places that don’t have an air compressor available. That being said these machines are normally underpowered and are a lot more expensive. We recommend only picking up one of these machines if you really need that mobility feature. Otherwise steer clear of these and use your extra money to buy a compressor for your shop if you don’t have one.
What does pilot arc mean? Do I need it?
Nearly all quality plasma cutters have what is called Pilot Arc. This means you can make a cut with the torch of the plasma cutter without touching the tip of the torch to the metal. Typically when using a Pilot Arc machine you will hold the tip of the torch just barely off the metal which allows for smoother cuts and increases the life of the consumables on your cutting torch. This feature also makes cutting expanded steel a lot easier and smoother.
Non Pilot Arc machines are typically cheaper machines and will require you to touch the torch tip to the piece of metal in order to make a cut. This can really do a number on your consumables and in the long run is not worth the extra couple of bucks saved. We recommend you only invest your money in a Pilot Arc enabled machine.
What are consumables? How often will I have to replace them?
Consumables are parts of your plasma cutter’s torch that will wear out over time after performing numerous cuts. There are various types of consumables on your torch such as shields, deflectors, retaining caps, nozzles, electrodes, and swirl rings. Each one of these components has a different life span depending on how you use your machine. Luckily, manufactures sell consumable kits with all the parts you need in one convenient box. You simply pull apart the nozzle of your torch, replace the part that is worn out and get back to work. The disassembly is very simple. These consumable kits include a correct number of each part based on what tends to wear out the fastest. Typically these kits cost you around $125 and will keep the average weekend warrior up and running for about 8-14 months depending on how much they use their machine.
What safety equipment do I need to use a plasma cutter?
When it comes to working with a plasma cutter it is important to know that this machine can cause serious injury if used incorrectly. However, with basic safety gear and safety rules a plasma cutter is a safe tool to use.
Here is some the safety gear we recommend
- Plasma Helmet for eye and face protection
- Welding beanie to protect your hair from sparks
- Welding jacket to protect your arms and torso
- Welding gloves to protect your hands
- Set of jeans to protect your legs (welding leathers to cover your legs is also a great idea)
- Laced and tied boots to protect your feet from both sparks and dropping pieces of metal (we recommend steel toe that are laced tight to prevent any metal from dropping inside of your boot).
- Fire extinguisher
While cutting metal the majority of all of the sparks and molten metal will be shooting toward to the floor. However, when you first start a cut there is always a chance that metal will spray upwards until the plasma has completely pierced through the piece of metal you are cutting. People generally call this “blow back.” This is usually the case with thicker metal and only happens for a fraction of a second. However, the sparks are still substantial enough to cause burns through your cloths and on your head. This is why safety equipment is very important.
Steel toe boots are also a strong recommendation if you will be cutting heavy sections of metal. You always want to be clear of where the metal will fall after you make your cut to prevent injury and burns. However, as with most tools sometimes other factors distract us from remembering this and accidents do happen. My steel toe boots have saved me a few times from situations like this.
Now I know some of you reading this are blue collar guys who will laugh at half of the things on this list and think “I don’t need all that. Just give me a helmet and some gloves.” Well, that was me when I first started. And guess what after having dripping hot steel fall down my untied boots burning my foot, my damn hair almost catching on fire, holes through 90% of my work shirts from sparks, and metal pieces dropping and smashing my toes I learned that using this safety equipment is worth every penny. So do as you wish, but in my opinion the safety equipment is worth every penny. And remember NEVER cut without eye protection.
What safety hazards should I be aware of?
Eye protection is mandatory. Get yourself a good plasma helmet. I recommend a full shielded helmet over goggles simply because getting hit in the face with metal sparks sucks. I also like to be able to flip my helmet up out of the way while I am not cutting. Remember these machines can do some serious damage to your eyes if you don’t use eye protection. Also be sure that if your buddies are in your shop helping you that they also have eye protection if they’re watching you cut.
Flammable Liquids/Items Around Your Cutting Area
This is a HUGE one. Many people work in garages that are full of items and chemicals that we have stored all around our workbench. These can be things like brake cleaner, oil, gas, carb cleaner, spare rags etc. All of these things are highly dangerous. Continuous sparks will light these things on fire and you will not even notice it burning while cutting with your mask on. Please take this one very seriously as this is a serious threat. Make sure you have a clean cutting area free from flammable items and have a fire extinguisher just in case.
Dropping Pieces Of Metal
We have already covered this, but be careful of where pieces will fall when you make your cuts. Don’t let heavy pieces of metal hit your legs, feet, or plasma torch line.
Handling Metal After It’s Cut
Many first timers don’t realize that the metal is extremely hot after they cut it. So keep in mind the metal can burn you even through your gloves after it has been cut (especially smaller pieces). Give it time to cool before picking it up. If you must pick it up while it’s hot use a pair vice-grips.
What equipment do I need in my shop to run my plasma cutter?
The Correct Power Hookup For Your Machine
This could be 110v or 220v depending on your machine. Also you will need to make sure that if you are running 220v that the plug on the machine matches the outlet you have.
Plasma cutters require an air compressor to function (unless your machine has one built in). You’ll need continuous air pressure to make cuts. If you have a small compressor you may have to wait in between cuts for your compressor to refill.
Most users use a moisture filter that makes sure clean dry air is sent to the plasma from their compressor. This will help increase the life of your machine and is recommended. These can usually be purchased for around $50.
Grinder Or Wire Wheel
If you’re cutting metal with paint on it you may want to grind down the surface around your cuts to bare metal. Paint can catch fire while you’re cutting and become dangerous. While this is not mandatory I usually do it because it increases my visibility of my cut line. If I draw my line on paint and it starts to burn I lose my drawn cut line.
How Do I Cut With A Plasma Cutter?
- Turn on your air compressor and start building air pressure
- Open windows in your shop to help ventilate air
- Clean you surrounding area and make sure there are no fire hazards
- Get you metal positioned in a vice, on sawhorses, or clamped to a table.
- Check to make sure the cut metal will not hit you or your plasma cord when it drops
- Clean the selected cut area with a wire wheel or grinder to bare metal
- Draw your cut line with metal chalk or any other marking device
- Hook the ground clamp of the plasma cutter to the piece of metal that will stay stationary once the cut is made
- Put on your safety equipment
- Plug in your plasma cutter and plug in your air hose
- Double check that your machine is receiving both power and air
- Line up your body to the piece of metal so that you are furthest from the sparks, have a clear view of your cut and are safe from the piece of metal falling once its cut.
- Double check that you can move the plasma torch through the full range of motion of your cut without having to reposition mid cut.
- Flip down your plasma hood
- Position your plasma torch slightly off the piece of metal to prevent blowback if possible (this will not be possible if you are starting a cut in the middle of a piece of metal)
- Press the switch or button on your torch and make the cut using a slow smooth range of motion
- Continue the cut until you hear the metal hit the floor
- Let the metal cool before you pick it up off the ground (small pieces of metal tend to be a lot hotter)
I hope this guide is helpful for all of you out there. I know that getting a new tool is exciting and I wanted to make a guide to get people up and running as fast as possible. I personally think a quality plasma cutter is a crucial tool for anyone who is into metal fabrication. They save you a ton of time and really open up your options when it comes to building just about anything metal related. I hope you enjoyed this guide and thank you for reading!