What welder is best for Off-Road Fabrication?

Posted: March 30, 2016 By: MattM

With the world of Off-Road and 4×4 vehicles blowing up in the past few years, there’s been more and more people taking on their first off-road truck project. Whether you’re building a weekend trail truck that you also drive to work during the week or a an all-out rock crawler, you’re going to need a welder to keep you going. Unlike street rods and classic show cars; off-road vehicles are used AND abused. This means something is bound to break (or you’re probably not having enough fun!).

What you need to first start with is what, when, and where you’ll be using your welder. Unfortunately there’s downsides to every type of welder out there, it’s just finding one that checks as many boxes as possible for you. I put together some pros and cons on each type of welding in regards to off-road and 4×4 vehicles below. Hopefully it helps you choose a welder that fits your needs the best.

1.Gas Welding Often called “Oxy-Acetylene” welding is one of the oldest and most basic types of welding. It requires no electricity and uses two bottles of compressed gas (Oxygen and Acetylene) which are mixed at the torch with valves you control. You turn you gas on very slightly and use a striker or lighter to start the torch. From here you adjust the flame until it is shaped how you want. Usually for welding metal you will want the flame fairly tight with the blue part of the flame very small for the most control when welding.

Torch welding is pretty simple, especially on thicker steel as you just heat the weld joint with the flame until the metal starts to puddle and you add filler rod, no special techniques or magic here. The welding rod is usually just rods of mild steel. One of my favorite parts of welding with a torch is that the flame/heat put on the weld seam will burn all of the contaminants/dirt/oil out and will save excess time cleaning the metal before you start. Another great part about torch welding is that you can put different tips on your torch to help do multiple things on your project. Need a thick piece of metal bent or want to rough a damaged area back into shape on the trail? Throw a rosebud on the torch and heat the area up red hot and whack it with a hammer and it will form nicely, can’t do that with a MIG welder!

Seems like the obvious choice for welding on the trail and in the shop right? Well, not always! Torch welding is a bit more difficult to be accurate with unless you carry a very small jewelers type torch. Also the obvious of a big flame around potential fuel fumes could be a hazard if your vehicle is full of fluids or has any leaks/residue. Lastly there’s the issue of having to carry the bottles around, not something I’d want bouncing around on the trail! I think a good Oxy-Acetylene setup is necessary in any garage where fab work is being done, but it might not be the best bet for the trail unless you have a separate chase vehicle to strap it all into.

2. Arc Welding Commonly called “Stick” welding is the most basic type of electric welding. Arc welding is the least finicky when it comes to the weld surface prep and the atmosphere it’s welding in. Arc welding is made up of the welder itself, a ground cable and an electrode holder. The electrode is clamped in the holder and when you scratch the edge to the grounded metal it creates an arc and you have to immediately pull the electrode off the surface and hover it. For the most part stick welding is considered the simplest form of welding, but it does take a bit of skill to scratch start the arc smoothly without sticking the electrode to the surface. Also the electrode is the filler rod and is quickly consumed causing the rod to get shorter as you weld. This means you need to be constantly adjusting your electrode tip so it is the correct distance off of the surface.

Arc welding really works well for heavy fabrication and can make strong, structural welds with the proper prep and technique. Because the coating on the electrode keeps the weld puddle pure during the weld, no shielding gas is required to arc weld. This means no clunky welding bottles, no chance of running out of gas, and no regulators or extra hoses to worry about. This means you can weld in your garage, in the driveway, or even out on the trail (if you have a generator). Most of the older arc welders are large and quite cumbersome to move around but with the advances in Inverter technology you can now get a stick welder that packs the same punch and isn’t much larger than the battery in your truck. The size of the machine will be relational to the amperage it puts out, but a 200 Amp Inverter machine will often times be a 1/4 the size AND weight of an old school “Tombstone” arc welder of the past.

The downsides of this type of welder are mainly relational to the aesthetics of the weld as Arc Welds (even when nice) tend to have spatter and a rougher finish than say a clean “stack of dimes” TIG weld. Arc welding is also not suggested for ultra light duty work like on sheet metal. If you’re working on a 4×4 or off-road project this probably won’t be much of an issue since most of the fabrication will be medium or heavy-duty.

3. Wire Welding There are two common types of electric wire welders; MIG welders and Flux Core welders. These two are often confused and incorrectly exchanged to describe wire welding. The main difference between the two is the need for a shielding gas when welding. Flux Core wire welders do not require gas as the welding wire is coated in a flux that burns off and shields the weld from impurities. MIG welding uses a solid wire with no coating and has a shielding gas that is fogged around the weld to protect it.

Wire welders are probably the most user-friendly welder and they are extremely easy to learn how to use. Wire welders can produce strong welds very quickly because they melt the metal and filler wire together in one shot when welding. No need to heat the base metal first. They also come filled with spools of wire that while consumable, last a long time and won’t need to be replaced every few minutes like an arc welder. Wire welders are also pretty great and filling gaps, fixing cracks/tears in metal while still being pretty accurate. Many of the heavier chassis and fab work on off-road vehicles are done with a MIG welder.

The downsides vary between MIG and Flux-Core. MIG welders produce a cleaner weld, but it can be difficult to weld outdoors with anything but perfect no-wind conditions. You also have the obvious issue of carrying a welding gas bottle around with you. Flux Core welding is the closest to self contained as it doesn’t need a gas bottle, but the welds will usually look worse and can be nearly impossible to do light-duty work with. Wire welders are now available with Inverter power sources if you want a lighter, more portable machine. Generally a 175-200 AMP wire welder will cover most general fabrication on your truck, while a 250+ Amp machine will breeze through anything you can throw at it. If you have the extra money to spend I’d suggest getting a MIG welder as most can be converted to flux core with a switch of the torch polarity and flux core wire for on-trail repairs. If you do choose a flux core machine make sure it has the option to upgrade to MIG if you so desire, Most people will want to down the road.

4. TIG Welding This type of welding is what I’d call the “super model” of the welding world. Everyone wants to have a beautifully colored stack-of-dimes TIG weld, but most don’t have the patience or skill to make it happen and they end up with the bad Instagram model equivalent. TIG welding is a type of electric welding that uses a torch that has a small rare-earth or Tungsten based electrode that produces an arc that jumps to the panel and heats up a very small area on the metal in which you add filler rod to. TIG welding is the most accurate and intricate way to weld something but takes a lot of practice to get it to do what you want. Much like torch welding you hold the torch in one hand and heat up the base metal until it’s molten and then add filler rod with your other hand. The difference is that TIG welding requires a shielding gas (usually 100% Argon) to weld. TIG welds can be VERY strong and will be as clean as it gets when working on or repairing your truck.

TIG welders come in many shapes and sizes. The most simple are scratch start with no pedal or trigger like an arc welder. These do the job, but won’t ever get you featured on your favorite Welding social media page. These machines usually are just arc welders with a TIG torch added on. While these do allow you to TIG weld they don’t give you the control over the amperage with a variable switch or pedal. The other downside is that the #1 goal with TIG welding is to keep the metal clean and DON’T touch the electrode to the metal while welding. So a machine that requires you to scratch the electrode on the surface sort of defeats the purpose right? Instead I’d suggest to step up to a machine that comes with a foot pedal or variable amperage switch and has a high-frequency start. These machines can range from bare bones DC-only welding with only a couple controls to a fully digital machine that makes the Star Trek Enterprise look outdated! I think for hobbyist off-road and 4×4 fabrication a small Inverter DC-only unit is perfect for portability, while still giving you the control you need to make strong, pretty welds.

Even though I’m a TIG welding fan, they do have downsides in the world of 4×4’s and Off-Road vehicles. The first is that TIG weld joints need to be almost surgically clean to get a really nice weld free of contaminants. The second is similar to other types of welding in that it requires gas bottles to weld with. These need to be in a chase vehicle strapped down securely. Lastly TIG welder torches and consumables aren’t made for the high-impact world of on-trail repair. The cups on the torch can be fragile and the consumables need to be as clean as possible.

So which welder do you need? Well the answer from me would be that you should have a nice blend of the units mentioned above. I personally like to have 3 welders in my arsenal. 1. An Oxy-Acetylene outfit for heating and welding items outside 2. A MIG welder capable of Flux Core and 3. A TIG welder for clean, pretty projects in the garage. You can decide from there which is better for your next off-road adventure. Hope this helps shed some light on each type of welding and how it relates to your next 4×4 project.

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