Last Updated on September 2020
Are you looking to make clean, quick, and smooth metal cuts? If you have a plasma machine, you won’t have to deal with loud grinding, a messy workplace, or rough and inaccurate metal cuts. This tool is an ionized gas torch that heats up and melts electrically conductive material to make a neat division or smooth welding.
Finding the perfect plasma cutter, however, can pose a challenge, especially if you don’t have extensive knowledge of how they work. You also need to know exactly what you require of a plasma cutter.
Shopping for technical metal fabrication equipment can be frustrating. To help you out, we decided to scrutinize hundreds of reviews and specifications to help you make an informed decision.
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Pros and Cons of Owning a Plasma Machine
Plasma cutters can be a useful additions to a workshop. Firstly, it is one of the quickest ways to cut any material that conducts electricity. This is because no preheating is necessary. When you switch on the torch, you can start cutting immediately.
Torches are also versatile and precise. You can perform piercings, welding repairs, or cuts at complicated angles or shapes without any problems. Cutting columns also provide you with the ultimate in accuracy.
The quality of your cuts is also much better. Say goodbye to dross and jagged edges. There is a close integration between the cutting torch and the unit software, which means that you can make precise cuts.
Finally, using the products is incredibly easy. Even inexperienced or novice metal fabricators will be able to use them efficiently. Higher end systems are also safe, as they may feature exhaust units to channel smoke away from the user.
One of the biggest cons of owning a plasma machine is the fact that they are specialized machines. If you don’t do a lot of material cutting, you may not be sure if buying one is the right option. If you saw through metal, say, once every two months, the cost and effort of choosing, buying, and setting up a machine with a single function may not be worth it.
Another con is the fact that it can be expensive equipment. If you do a lot of metal cutting, however, this initial cost can be spread out over the long term, especially since consumables are typically affordable and long-lasting. In fact, in the long run, they may work out to be more affordable than grinder or hacksaw blades.
When you cut through metal, the torch tends to create a warmth-affected region, which may harden the edges of the cutting surface. The heat also forms dross when molten metal re-solidifies around the perimeter of the cut. With basic add-on equipment, however, you will be able to get rid of any dross easily.
- Dimensions: 16.7 x 6.7 x 13.7″
- Weight: 37lbs
- Input Power: 240/480V 50/60Hz
- Output Range: 20-45A
- Duty Cycle: 50%
If performance is what you need, look no further than the Powermax45. This unit can cut through 1/2” steel at 20 inches per minute without ever needing a cool-down period. This high-quality machine provides you with complete torch control while making neat and precise metal cuts.
According to reviews, buying this model is a long-term money saver, despite its high price tag. The Powermax45’s saving grace is the fact that it is incredibly economical in terms of consumables. The consumables themselves are also much more affordable than those of most other units.
This torch is ideal for projects across the entire spectrum of applications. It features three primary modes: continuous pilot arc, non-continuous pilot arc, and gouging for punching holes. Whether you are a serious handyman or professional metal fabricator, the Powermax45 will get the job done.
Want to learn more? Check out our full review here.
- Durable and high-quality unit
- Affordable running costs
- Can be used for industrial applications
- Lightweight and portable
- Controllable amperage output
- Purchase price is relatively steep
- Dimensions: 13.2 x 5.5 x 9″
- Weight: 21lbs
- Input Power: 120/240V 60Hz
- Output Range: 20-140A
- Duty Cycle: 50%
This lightweight falls within the same price category as the Powermax45. There are some differences that you should take into consideration, however.
Firstly, the Miller 625 is fitted with auto re-fire, which means that you can cut grates and perforated materials. You also get a cutting thickness of 5/8″ which is a little more than the Powermax45’s ½”. It also weighs 21 lbs, which is 16 lbs lighter than the Powermax45.
Many users noted that one of the drawbacks of this otherwise high-end unit is that it goes through consumables at a higher rate than the first model on our list. The cuts it produces, however, are neat with almost no dross.
- High-performing and durable plasma torch
- Lightweight and portable
- 5/8” cutting width allows for heavy-duty use
- Offers 110v as well as 120v power
- Straightforward operation
- Not the most economical regarding consumable use
- Consumables are expensive
Hobart 500564 Airforce 12ci
- Dimensions: 10 x 8 x 13″
- Weight: 26.7lbs
- Input Power: 120V 60Hz
- Output Range: 12A
- Duty Cycle: 35%
This highly portable product is perfect for the light metal fabricator on the go. This 120v unit can cut metal with a width of up to 1/8” and features high-end inverter technology to maximize performance. Another big plus is the fact that the 12ci doesn’t require an air compressor.
As you can see, the 12ci’s appeal is that you can take it anywhere. Although it’s not as powerful as the other products listed here, it is perfect for precise and small jobs. People that have been using this model for some time generally agree that the 12ci provides excellent value for money.
Want to learn more? Check out our full review here.
- Lightweight and highly portable
- Easy to set up and use
- Does not require an air compressor
- High-quality and durable metal cutter
- Allows clean cutting with minimal warping
- Uneconomical use of consumables
- Offers limited cutting width
- Not recommended for heavy-duty projects
Hobart Airforce 40i
- Dimensions: 11.2 x 8.2 x 14.2″
- Weight: 30.6lbs
- Input Power: 240V 50/60Hz
- Output Range: 40A
- Duty Cycle: 50%
The 40i brings a wide range of appealing features to the table. If you are in the business of cutting thicker steel sheets, this is the plasma machine for you.
This unit can cut steel widths of up to 5/8”. According to some reviewers, if you are willing to spend more time, you can increase this to around 7/8”. At a thickness of 5/8”, your duty cycle is 50%, rendering it an excellent system for the industrial steel fabricator.
Concerning project time, you can expect this plasma cutter to work through 14 inches per minute if the sheet is ½” thick. This unit is comparable to the Miller 625. If you don’t need the auto re-fire and portability, however, the 40i may offer you better value for money.
- Durable, heavy-duty torch
- Capable of welding and cutting through thick metal sheets
- High duty cycle and performance
- Capable of clean and precise cutting
- Tough on consumable use
- Not the most portable system
- Dimensions: 15 x 6 x 12″
- Weight: 26lbs
- Input Power: 110V/220V 50/60Hz
- Output Range: 10-50A
- Duty Cycle: 60%
If you are looking for a high-quality, affordable machine capable of performing clean and precise light metal cuts, consider the LTP5000D. This unit from Lotos has an array of features, rendering it a high-value addition to the home workshop.
This solid plasma cutter is fitted with a pilot arc, allowing you to cut dirty or rusty steel with a thickness of up to ½”. For optimal portability, it is fitted with a comfortable handle and weighs a mere 26 lbs. You also get a dual voltage capability of 110v and 220v, which means you can use it almost anywhere.
Many novice reviewers found the LTP5000D easy to set up and use, so if you are a hobbyist or casual metal worker, this torch cutter may be ideal for you.
- Portable and durable plasma machine
- Excellent value for money
- Pilot arc increases application range
- Easy setup and use
- Not suitable for heavy-duty cutting
- Ground cable may be too short
- Dimensions: 19.7 x 9.2 x 17.9″
- Weight: 65lbs
- Input Power: 200/480V 50/60Hz
- Output Range: 20-65A
- Duty Cycle: 50%
If your business is looking to upgrade your existing steel cutting equipment, consider this phenomenal product from Hypertherm: a popular 65A plasma torch with the ability to cut through a thickness of 1” and a severance ability of 1 ¼”.
Since the Powermax65 has high-quality cutting abilities and immense power, it is perfect for industrial and heavy-duty applications. In fact, you can find this model in use at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Of course, many reviewers have found it to be the best addition to their home workshops as well.
This plasma system weighs 65 lbs and is not as portable as the other units on this list. Since it offers a 25-foot range, chances are you will be able to use it anywhere in your workspace without ever having to move the unit around.
- High-performance and durable plasma machine
- Easy to operate
- Fitted with a 25-foot lead
- Suitable for heavy-duty cutting
- Comes with various torch styles
- Relatively high price
- Long lead and profile are not entirely suited for hobbyists
- Lacks portability
How Much Power Will You Need?
The power you need from your plasma cutter depends on the type and thickness of the metal that you want to cut. A unit’s power output is significant in determining its cutting ability and cut quality. Power output also affects the model’s duty cycle.
Run of the mill units that you may typically find in home workshops run off standard 120v, 15A outlets. High-performance or industrial torches, however, require 20A or even 50A and 220v to perform efficiently.
The first step in determining your power needs is to consider the thickness of the metals that you typically work with. While plasma machines can cut anything conductive from copper to stainless steel, there are some things to consider in purchasing. A 25A plasma torch will work perfectly for anything up to ¼”. For metals up to ½” thick, don’t go below 40A, and when it comes to cutting 1” sheets, buy a machine with an amperage of 60A or more.
The next step is to ascertain what type of power you have available in your workshop or home. To cut metals that are ½” or thicker, you may need a 220v outlet. Consult with your electrician to ensure that your power infrastructure will be sufficient to support a plasma cutter.
Power output determines the unit’s input power. Although it is important that you buy a cutter with sufficient power for your needs; overspending on too much power may be unwise.
Performance vs. Price
Finding the balance between cost and value can be a challenge. You don’t want to spend more than you have to. On the other hand, you also don’t want to end up with a product that you can’t use effectively.
As a general rule, it is important to determine what you specifically need from your plasma cutter. Then, make a list of models that meet and maybe even exceed your requirements to a small extent. This will ensure that you are never limited in terms of performance without going overboard.
Compare similar systems with each other and try to eliminate unnecessary features and accessories that add to the price. For example, if portability is not a priority to you, don’t pay more for an expensive, lightweight unit. In the same vein, hobbyists typically use their cutters for shorter periods of time and should opt for 35% duty cycles rather than more expensive 50% models.
It is important to remember that initial costs should not be the only consideration. The rate at which a machine wears out consumables can contribute to running costs. To save money in the long run, it may be worth your while to pay more up front for a system that uses consumable economically.
Plasma Cutting for Beginners
As a novice steel fabricator, your needs may differ from those of industrial entities. If you are a hobbyist, artist, or DIY enthusiast, chances are that you will never need a high-performance model with an amperage of 80A or more. If you do, it is important to determine this beforehand.
Again, it is critical that you evaluate your needs and unique requirements before buying a unit. Buying something on impulse can cause you to end up with a cutter that is complex and difficult to use. Even if you have the means to pay a premium price, remember that a product that is too far over the top may be just as difficult to use as a poor-quality or underperforming unit.
For a beginner, there are mainly two aspects to consider.
- First, check the machine’s power output. This will ensure that you can cut the metal types you want and that you have sufficient width cutting ability.
- Also, make sure that you buy a high-quality torch that is durable. Beginners often make the mistake of thinking they don’t have to prioritize quality. Purchasing a plasma machine with a long lifespan will ensure optimal value for your money and can be incredibly rewarding in the long haul.
Required Consumables and Parts
Consumables are all the parts of your unit that wear out with time. There are mainly five consumable components that contribute to plasma cutting:
- the electrode,
- retaining cap,
- nozzle and
- swirl ring.
The shield is a consumable that protects the other consumables from molten metal and sparks.
The retaining cap keeps the consumable stack in place, and the swirl ring directs the gas from the machine through the torch.
The nozzle and electrode are the consumables that wear out the fastest. The nozzle concentrates the plasma arc and funnels the gas flow. The electrode current completes the electric current from the torch to the plate.
Every model has its own combination and types of consumables and accessories, each with their own cost. It is, therefore, important to ensure that the unit you are considering is compatible with consumables that are readily available and affordable. If possible, choose a cutter that wears consumables out at a reasonable rate.
An air compressor is another part that you require for the cutting process. Some systems have a compressor included, but if this is not the case, you have to add an external compressor.
Compressed air flow forms the essence of a plasma cutter’s mechanism. A high-quality air compressor will ensure that your cuts are neat and that your consumables last longer. It is just one of a number of accompanying accessories to improve you plasma cutter.
Before buying, it is important to know what kind of plasma cutting you will be doing.
Plasma machines play an integral role in optimal and cost-effective manufacturing. Mass or piece production lines have to be as effective as possible with regard to time, effort, and cost. With conventional cutting methods, this is not always possible.
Plasma torches that are mounted and capable of being programmed to cut certain patterns or lines play an integral role in lowering input costs per unit. Not only are they more precise, but they also work faster than grinders or saws. Cut surfaces also require less preparation for mounting or installation, as plasma cutting results in less dross.
When it comes to industrial cutting, there is very little room for error. Programmable torches eliminate the risk of small errors that, when spread over thousands of units, can lead to massive losses for industrial firms.
Plasma machines are typically used in industrial processes where aesthetics and precision are important. High-tech manufacturing processes often require this method of steel cutting and welding. This industrial technology is one of the most cost-effective ways to ensure that firms have complete control over production.
Even though installing these units may have high initial costs for the production sector, it often allows for long-term savings as usage of consumables is typically lower. Consumable prices are also lower, especially if firms buy them in bulk.
Before torch cutters became readily available, metal artists were severely limited in terms of making precise cuts. The methods they had at their disposal were unwieldy and ineffective. Artists also did not always have complete control over the outcomes of their art projects.
Since metal torches became easily available, artists not only have the means to mass produce metal art, but they also have more ways to refine their art. They can apply many different themes to their work, which may not have been possible with conventional tools.
Art is a subjective endeavor, and without sufficient tools, artists may experience frustration in their attempts to express themselves or to reach the levels of creativity they desire. By making use of ionized gas and appropriate accessories, artists are now able to make minute cuts and create intricate and complex designs. Ionized gas torches go a long way to eliminate creative limits for metal artists.
As a metal artist, you may not need an expensive or overly powerful model. It is important to remember, however, that you should buy a high-quality system. This will ensure that you get many years of service from your cutter, as well as perfect metal cuts and precise welding.
If you own a garage or if you are an automotive professional or hobbyist, you need a plasma system for automotive cutting. Metal cutting is unavoidable during vehicle restoration, repair, or customization.
Cutting applications typically pertain to removing body parts or components, manufacturing new parts, cutting off nuts and bolts, and preparing surfaces for welding. If you are in the automotive business, portability is your best friend. Make sure that you buy a unit that has a low weight and easy carrying features like a handle.
When working with automotive metal, you may often encounter rusty or painted surfaces. Units with a pilot arc will ensure that you don’t run into issues when cutting pieces like this. Also, the torch should be small and mobile so you can get into small nooks and crannies.
During automotive metal fabrication, you typically won’t have to cut through thicknesses more than ½”. Although you can settle for mid-level power output, try to stick to high-quality models. When you are on occasion facing thicker metals, chances are that you will get the job done just fine, even if it takes you a little longer.
Home Use (Fabrication)
As a homeowner, you may often have to cut through metals to do repairs or maintenance. There are many uses for a torch around your home. Household applications for these units include
- home welding repairs,
- general repairs of things like garage doors and
- fabrication of certain fixtures.
For home fabrication, portability may not be as important as durability. Since you don’t use your cutter for commercial purposes, it is important that you choose a unit that uses consumables conservatively and that has a long lifespan. The power requirements depend on the metal thickness that you would like to cut, so make sure that you keep this in mind.
If you are facing some budgetary constraints, the good news is that you may not have to forgo quality and durability. Before you start researching equipment below $500, ascertain which features you absolutely can’t do without. In this bracket, there are many products available that will work perfectly for the casual metal fabricator or hobbyist.
Under $500, you won’t find products with extensive ergonomic designs and customization features. If you only intend on using your plasma cutter occasionally, however, these expensive add-on features are not necessary.
The downside of units in this price range is that the chances of being able to make cuts above 1/5” are pretty slim. Mid-range power may, in some cases, allow you to make cuts that are wider than recommended, although this may take longer.
Another thing to keep in mind is that consumable wear is typically higher in this price category. Consumables may also be more expensive, so although you may save initially, the operating costs may be higher in the long run.
If you want to buy a plasma cutter that you can use regularly and for more intensive work, it is advisable that you save up for a unit on the higher end.
Unlike units priced below $500, this price category consists of models that contain premium features for the cutting equipment. These characteristics don’t necessarily relate to power and quality, but rather to adjustability, portability, and ergonomics.
In this price range, you may be facing certain trade-offs; for example, a unit under $1000 with a 1” cutting ability will, in all likelihood, not have the best duty cycle and amperage control. Likewise, highly maneuverable and controllable units may not have the best cutting capacity.
If your budget allows for a unit in this price range, prioritize cutting capacity and quality. Features like portability, adjustable arc settings, and automatic air flow are not things that you absolutely need, but they will push the price up to $1200 or higher.
Usually, this price bracket is the sweet spot for serious hobbyists or home shop owners. If you are a professional, you can get away in this category if you are willing to do away with some of the extra add-ons and features to assist in the cutting process.
Top of the range systems usually costs around $2000. These products typically have everything a user needs, including power and extensive cutting capabilities. If you don’t use your cutter every day for high-intensity cutting, you can safely stick to models below $1000.
How Do You Set up a Plasma Torch?
Setting up and using a plasma machine is relatively easy. Before setting up, it is important to know that plasma cutting works through a complete electric current, which means that, similar to welding, you need a ground clamp.
The first step is to make sure you have a work surface that is safe. There should be enough space for your workpiece, and you need to be able to move freely around the work table. Next, after making sure that the unit is switched off, plug it in.
If your unit requires an external air compressor, the next step in setting up your cutter is to connect the compressor. Attach the connection by receding the outer ring and inserting the male connector. Turn the air flow on so that there is constant air pressure.
Next, place your workpiece on your work surface and connect your ground clamp to the workpiece itself. For best results, make sure that you clamp the ground cable close to where you will be cutting. Then, switch on the unit by flicking or pressing a switch behind a unit labeled “On/Off” or “Power.” This will activate the plasma arc.
Finally, set the current according to the thickness of the workpiece metal. To start cutting, bring your nozzle close to the metal surface and pull the trigger.
What Can Plasma Cut Through?
Most torches can cut through any electrically conductive materials. This is because there has to be a complete electric current back to the unit via the ground clamp and workpiece.
Electrically conductive materials accommodate the flow of an electrical current in one or more directions and are typically made of metal. An electrical current is the flow of negatively charged electrons or positive or negative ions.
Operators typically use ionized particles to cut through metals such as copper, aluminum, brass, steel, and stainless steel. This list is not comprehensive; you will also be able to cut through other electrically conductive materials.
Should I Buy a Plasma Cutter Online?
Yes. There are many reasons why shopping online for a plasma cutter is better than at retail stores. First, prominent online stores provide free shipping if the sellers’ accounts allow for it. This can lower the price point significantly, especially since units are typically bulky and heavy.
Where brick and mortar stores may offer their buyers a choice of 10 or 15 models, online platforms sometimes have hundreds of products to choose from. This means that if you buy online, you get access to a greater selection of units that will meet your unique requirements.
When you shop online, you can see exactly what previous buyers think of their cutters. This makes it is possible for you to know what you can expect regarding performance, longevity, and overall quality, whether you will be cutting or welding with the machine.
Can a Plasma Cutter Cut Wood or Plastic?
One of the biggest drawbacks of the otherwise comprehensive and handy technology of these systems is the fact that you can’t use them for cutting non-conductive materials. When there is no electric current back to the unit from the workpiece, there is no power for the plasma stream.
Additionally, the heat that these units produce can be damaging to non-conductive materials. There are, however, affordable tools that specialize in cutting materials such as wood or plastic. For cutting different types of metal, however, nothing beats the speed and precision of a plasma cutter.
Are Cheap Plasma Cutters Worth It?
As a rule, the long-term value you derive from these machines is more from high-end products. When you buy a cheaper cutter, you can’t expect to get optimal quality, durability, and power.
It depends on your unique needs. If you need a machine to cut two inches of a ¼” sheet once a week, buying cheaper equipment is advisable. On the other hand, if you need something that you can use extensively every day, a cheap plasma cutter will not be worth it.
The potential value you can get from a high-quality and high-performance unit often trumps the initial costs you save. This is because cheaper models typically take longer to perform cuts. They also use consumables at a faster rate, which can hike your running costs over time.
If you need a machine to use every day, a cheap cutter will not be worth it. It is better to spend more for an effective product that you know will last for years.
Regardless of your capacity as a metalworker, one thing is clear: a durable plasma machine is worth its weight in gold.
The items listed above are all tried and tested by real people that use their machines frequently. Choosing a product from our list will make you a satisfied customer, provided that you pick one that adheres to your needs.
When buying a plasma torch, keep the following aspects in mind: cutting width, power output, duty cycle, consumable use and costs, and portability. When you find units with requirements that match your needs, you can make decisions regarding quality and price.