Ultimate Plasma Cutter Buyers Guide
When you’re working with metal, there are few tools that make achieving clean and quick cuts easier than a plasma cutter. But just like virtually every other product, there are many different models and options available, many of which are designed with specific tasks and goals in mind. Instead of wasting your money on the wrong plasma cutter, or wasting your time dealing with confusing details on other sites, check out this complete buyer’s guide to plasma cutters and put yourself a cut above the rest.
The first aspect of a plasma cutter that you’re going to need to take into consideration is its power output, which is measured in amps. This is important because it directly influences the machine’s ability to handle different types of metals, as well as how much you can use the cutter and for how long in a single session. Typically, you’re going to see most plasma cutters fall into the 30-50 amps range, which is an impressive amount of power that should be more than enough for most projects and settings. Some models will have a higher rating, as they are intended for more heavy-duty projects.
When it comes to choosing the right number for your project, you usually have to look at other factors that relate to more specific aspects of the cutting process, which are outlined below. In general, however, know that higher ratings give you more power and also typically carry an equally higher price tag. Therefore, if you know that you’re only going to be making cuts on thin metals for at-home projects, you probably don’t need a unit with more than 30-40 amps.
Maximum Cut Thickness
Once you start to get into the nitty gritty of a plasma cutter’s features, maximum cut thickness is going to be the first specification that you’ll want to check. It refers to the ideal upper limit on metal thickness that you can cut comfortably while still achieving smooth lines. Models in the 40 amp range are usually going to feature a maximum cut thickness of around ½ inch, though some may push upwards to ¾ inch. You will need to understand the exact thickness of the metals you plan to cut in order to choose a model that is capable of giving you your ideal results.
It’s important to note that some models may also list a maximum severance thickness, which is not to be confused with the maximum cut thickness. The severance thickness refers to the absolute thickest a metal can be for you to still be able to cut through it with the plasma cutter. In most cases, cutting metal at the severance thickness increases the chances of producing jagged edges or excess slag, and is not recommended for normal use if you want clean, optimal results.
Understanding Duty Cycle
Duty cycle refers to a plasma cutter’s ability to operate continuously without experiencing any issues or requiring you to release your hold on the trigger. It’s represented as a percentage, where the number correlates to the number of minutes it can operate during a 10 minute period. So, for example, if a plasma cutter has a duty cycle of 40%, then you can operate it for 4 continuous minutes out of 10 minutes total. This is important for determining the speed at which you can cut, as some settings may call for a higher duty cycle in order to meet output quotas or stick to specific time schedules.
Size Always Matters
Plasma cutters sit pretty comfortably within the middle of the weight and size classes when it comes to power equipment and tools, since they’re not so big that they must always remain stationary, but aren’t small enough to move without specific effort. That said, there can be a noticeable difference in weight among different models and brands of plasma cutters, so you should pay attention to size in order to understand how it will fit into your shop or workplace. Size is also important if you plan on making cuts in a lot of different locations, which I explain in more detail in the next section.
Mobility is not something that everyone will need in a plasma cutter, since it depends heavily on the type of metal you are using, the nature of your cuts and the demands of your work environment. In most cases, higher mobility is a must for people working in construction settings, where cuts would need to occur frequently in different locations at the site, many of which may be in existing structures or fixtures that cannot be moved. If this sounds like your work environment, then you’ll want to look for a cutter that has a lower weight as well as features such as a top-mounted handle. Some models also support shoulder straps, which give you even more freedom to move and work.
Quality of the Cut
This one can be a bit tougher to understand, since most manufacturers are going to claim that their models offer the cleanest cuts possible. Still, there are some things you can look for to help you parse out the real winners. One of the biggest features would definitely be a continuous pilot arc, which means that the plasma stream that actually does the cutting is produced in a non-disrupted fashion. A pilot arc also allows you to cut through rusted metals or metal that has breaks or holes without any special actions. MOSFET transistors also help produce a steady arc, which in turn allows for a cleaner cut that produces less slag.
Other Features and Modes
Depending on what types of projects you want to take on, you may wish to look for plasma cutters that have additional functions or features. If you’re starting a small home metalworking business, you might want a model that can also convert to a TIG welder so you can easily cut your metal and then assemble it according to your requirements. Other features might include pressure and performance displays that are easy to read, a unit that uses non-hazardous compressed air or a small torch head for hard to reach cuts.
One Last Piece of Advice
When you’re looking through all the different models of plasma cutters out there, remember that you are almost always going to need to purchase some additional supplies and equipment to operate it. In addition to an external air compressor, which acts as the air supply that allows you to create your plasma arc, you’re going to need an air filter, a grounding clamp and consumables to insert into the head. Check to see if the model comes with any of these first, and then make sure to order enough extras to cover your initial use of the cutter.