Best Welder for a Beginner on their Skoolie Conversion Project

Ted Tibbetts // November 16 // 0 Comments

While it’s possible to complete a skoolie conversion project without welding, it can certainly come in handy! Whether you need to patch a rusty floor, fabricate a propane rack, or weld window deletions into place, having the tools and skills to do so can make your skoolie project (and your life!) better.  But knowing which is the best welder for a beginner is tricky when you don’t know much about welding!

I learned to stick weld in 7th grade. But I hadn’t welded since then…until my first skoolie conversion project!

I bought an old stick welder from a retiring farmer for $50 and “got back into the game.” (Which really means I melted a lot of holes into metal!). While I managed to get a few things together, it became clear that this old stick welder was not really what I needed.

I only paid $50 for it, so it’s not a total catastrophe. But this new bus conversion project I’m working on is going to require some welding not particularly suited to stick welding. So I needed to do some research to find out what would best suit my needs.  I wanted to find out what was the best welder for a beginner to use on this new Skoolie conversion project.

I thought I would share those results with you!

If you’re an experienced welder, this post is not for you…you already know this stuff. But I know that many skoolie folks are just beginning their careers as metal fabricators, carpenters, plumbers, and electricians. So if this is you…read on!

Although I learned on an arc welder in my 7th-grade shop class…that was a LONG time ago. So I still consider myself a beginning welder. So I was looking for the best welder for a beginner that made an easy weld, could handle a range of material thickness, and wouldn’t break the bank!

In case you’re dying of suspense, I bought this welder: the Forney 140!  And as you might have seen on my post about buying a short bus, you’ll see that I have a lot of rusty to repair with this welder!

Flux Cored Welder Comparison Chart

Welder

Price

 Power In

Power Out

Controls

Duty Cycle

Material

Forney Easy Weld 140 $267 120 Volts

140 Amps

Infinite

30% / 90A 24 gauge-1/4″
Hobart Handler 125 $329 120 Volts

130 Amps

Infinite

20% / 90A 18 Gauge-1/8″
Lincoln Electric k2278-1 $349 120 Volts

88 Amps

Infinite

20% / 90A 18 Gauge-1/8″
Chicago Electric 90 $139 120 Volts

125 Amps

min / mox

20% / 90A 18 Gauge-3/16″
Titanium $209 120 Volts

125 Amps

Infinite

30% / 90A 18 Gauge-3/16″
Vulcan 140 $519 120 Volts

140 Amps

Infinite.

40% / 90A 24 Gauge-3/16″

But if you want to know more about welders and the choices for the best welder for a beginner, read on!

What You Should Know About Welders

Welding usually falls into several categories: TIG welding, MIG welding, Stick welding (or arc welding), and Flux-Cored welding.

To choose the best welder for beginners, sort through this summary of the welding process and these kinds of welders.

Ultimately, your welding techniques, welding processes will dictate what is the best welding machine for you.

Arc Welding

Arc welding, also known as stick welding or electric welding, is a form of welding that uses an electric arc to melt and weld two metal pieces together. The process involves exposing two pieces of metal to an electric current so the temperature gets high enough for them to melt and fuse together.

It’s called “stick welding” because you place an electrode (or stick of metal material) into a stick welding clamp, hook a ground clamp to the metal you are working with, then create an arc of electricity between the two.

The arc generates enough heat to melt the electrode to the steel and create a strong bond.

Stick Welder

The benefits of an arc welder

  • Arc welders can use many types of wire, known as electrodes which make them versatile
  • Arc welds are stronger than most other forms of welding. They can easily repair cars or create items from sheet metal without burning through the steel
  • A stick welder can be used underwater and in other special situations. (Not that useful in most skoolie conversion applications!)

The drawbacks of arc welding

One of the drawbacks of stick welding is that it requires a higher skill level than other methods. It takes a lot of practice to get good at.

In addition, stick welders produce a lot of heat. The electric arc can burn the holes in the material and it can be difficult to see what you’re doing.

Holes I melted while welding

There are also safety concerns to consider since arc welders can produce harmful fumes and radiation levels.

How do MIG welders work?

MIG welding, or “metal inert gas welding” is often also called a “wire feed” or “grazing” welding. MIG welders are known for their low-cost and simple design.

Like stick welding, MIG welders use an electrical arc to melt metal. Unlike a stick welder, though, a MIG welder uses a wire feeder to push the wire through the MIG gun and onto the metal.

MIG welding wire that is made of a consumable metal such as aluminum, can weld with some limitations. However, to weld with the stronger properties of more common metals like steel and stainless steel MIG welders use shielding gas.

MIG welding machines do not touch the metal during the process; rather they use a shielding gas (i.e. the “Metal Inert Gas”) to shield it from oxygen and molten material while these two parts are being heated by a welder’s torch. Oxygen can contaminate the weld and make it weaker.

Also, on a MIG weld, there might be enough oxygen in the air for your desired material to cool down sufficiently before it fades into a molten state. When this happens, you need to use shielding gas for your MIG welder process.

There are different kinds of shielding gases – Flux-Core MIG welding needs to be done with Standard Argon while Gas Metal Arc Welding requires 100% Ar/CO² mix for best results -It can be difficult because not all welding outlets carry the shielding gases you might need.

The benefits of MIG welding

A good MIG welder can be used on materials that may have a high electricity sensitivity. MIG welders are also great for welding metals with a lower melting point, such as aluminum.

The main benefits of MIG welding are the simplicity of learning how to use the machine, the low cost, and the light weight.

How TIG welders work

TIG welders are used in specialized welding jobs such as with stainless steel and titanium. TIG stands for “tungsten inert gas.” The tungsten electrode is heated by an external power source, usually a separate electrical transformer. A shielding gas must flow continuously through the welding area to protect it from contamination by oxygen (which can cause porosity).

Like a MIG welder, TIG welders use an automatic wire feed system that feeds filler metal, like aluminum wire or brass rod, into the arc area at a predetermined rate. This type of welder requires practice because there is no contact between the torch and the workpiece until enough heat has been applied to create molten metal on both surfaces. It also takes longer than other types of welding to make a joint.

The benefits of a TIG welder

The most significant advantage of a TIG welder is the ability to weld materials such as stainless steel, titanium, and other high-strength alloys. This type of welder also requires less clean-up after welding.

The disadvantages of a TIG welder

The disadvantages of a TIG welder are that it is a more expensive machine and it requires more practice before you’re able to weld successfully.

How a flux core welder works

Flux core welding is a method of joining metal pieces together using an electric arc. Unlike a MIG welder which shields the weld with a gas, a flux core wire provides the shielding with flux embedded in the sire, which helps to prevent oxidation (rust) on the steel during welding.

Flux-cored wires come in different thicknesses for varying applications, but many machines cannot accommodate more than one size of wire at a time.

Flux core welders are often used by hobbyists; however, they are not as versatile as other methods of welding.

The most important thing to remember about flux-cored welders is that they use the flux core wire to provide the shielding gas and flux. This allows you to use mild steel wire, which is cheaper than MIG welding wire, but it also means that you cannot use them for any other application because they are not as versatile as TIG or MIG welders.

The Best Welder for a Beginner on a Skoolie Conversion (TIG)

There isn’t one.

In my humble opinion, a beginner welder should avoid TIG welding. Although it is a versatile welder, its steep learning curve and higher price make it more of a burden than a blessing. (I mean, you’ve got enough to worry about trying to convert a school bus without making learning welding skills harder than it needs to be.

And quality TIG machines begin at around the $800 price range..which is more than I wanted to spend. It looks like you can get them cheaper, but they don’t come with everything you need. One reviewer for a TIG welding machine said that he needed to buy 10 additional items (like a tungsten tank and gas fittings, etc) just to get it operational. No thanks.

Important criteria for determining the best welder for a beginner 

The process type is extremely important but you will also have to consider input power, output power, weight price, ease of use, and features.

Input Power

The need for power varies by application; most portable welders run off of 120 volts with an outlet nearby, but if you plan on using your welder outside or in remote areas, you will need an inverter that can convert DC to AC, like the ones used in cars.

And many welders used in more heavy-duty jobs require 220 volts with special plugs (like your clothes dryer!)

Write a paragraph about the importance of output power for a welder

Output Power:

Output power determines how much heat the welder can produce and that affects what kind of materials you can weld together. Thicker steel (like the frame of your bus) requires more output power in the welding process.

The range is also a factor. With TOO much power you can’t really weld thinner materials like sheet metal…you just melt holes in it.

Adjustment Controls

The most significant factors for getting good welding beads in flux cored arc welding are volts and wire feed speed.

The thicker the metal, the more volts are needed to heat the metal to melt the wire. In addition, the thicker the metal, the faster the wire feed speed needs to be to adhere more material into the weld.

Some welders simply have switched control…like high or low, fast or slow. This can limit your control if you need to make small adjustments based.

The better welding machines have “infinite” controls…which aren’t really infinite, but the knob controls literally allow you to literally dial in the best settings.

Duty Cycle

Duty cycle refers to the amount of time machines can work on welding projects before they need to shut down to cool. For example, a 30% duty cycle means that in a 10-minute time span, you can weld for 3 minutes, then shut down and cool for 7.

Multiple factors impact this (like room temperature and ventilation) but most importantly, how much power you are pushing through you machine.

Most welders state their duty cycle at a certain degree of amps. For example, a welder may have a 200 amp capability, but the duty cycle is rated at 30% at 150 amps. So you are using closer to 200 amps, the machine will need to cool for longer than 30%.

Price:

The price is related to the quality of the welder, with lower prices often coming with fewer features and lower quality parts. However, when you are just starting out it is probably best for your wallet if you buy the least expensive beginner machine so that if you decide welding isn’t for you, at least you didn’t lose too much.

Weight:

Welders are all pretty heavy but portability is important if you plan on welding outside or away from outlets. But even the more heavy-duty machines (for thicker steel) are still lighter than a standard welder.

Ease of use:

Not all welders are created equal and some come with functions that make them easier to use, like flip screens and pre-set buttons for metal thickness. And some even include automatic shutters which you can set to quickly increase or decrease the amount of heat applied during a weld.

Accessories

The right welder will have safety equipment like gloves and a welding helmet so you can avoid nasty accidents while working on your skoolie conversion project. It should also have lightweight aluminum cases for portability and quick-connect cables so you can switch out different sizes and types of cables. For a beginner, a welder without too many bells and whistles will be the easiest to use.

Best welder for a beginner

So here’s my take on welders that best suit beginning welders embarking on a skoolie conversion project.

For me, I want ease of use, versatility, affordability, and reliability.

Ease of Use

Most skoolie builders would be considered “hobby welders,” not “professional welders.” They’ve already got enough to learn and worry about without adding to the cognitive load of learning complex welding processes.

This also means power supply. Larger welders require a 220-volt outlet to plug into. The average person doesn’t have 220 outlets readily available, so choosing a welder with a 110-volt power supply makes them easier to use!

Versatility

I want one welder that can work with a variety of metal thicknesses.

Affordability

Building a tiny home on wheels already taxes the budget, so I need something that gets the job done for a reasonable price. I don’t want to pay for features that aren’t absolutely necessary.

Reliability

It’s important here to remember that, for the most part, you get what you pay for. You can’t expect that a welder for beginners has the features and durability of a professional model. The welding gun won’t be as rugged, the duty cycle will be shorter.

If you pay less than $400, you will get welding equipment built for hobby welding.

So while you can expect a product that works, and continues to work for small bus conversion projects, understand that welders for beginners won’t sustain heavy-duty welding operations!

So, with this reality in mind, one reason I chose the Forney Easy-Weld is that it has some of the best customer satisfaction reviews in regards to reliability and value that I found.

Forney Easy Weld 140 Review

Best welder for a beginner is the Forney Flux Core

Based on the criteria listed above, the Forney Easy Weld 140 seemed to best fit my needs.

Power Supply

Its 110-volt power supply makes it convenient to use.

Output Power

Its 140 amp output power, gives it an edge over other “beginner welder” models. Many other welders in this price can only weld steel up to 1/8th of an inch thick, however, the Forney claims to be able to handle steel up to 1/4!

I’m not sure how much 1/4″ steel I’ll need to weld on this project, but I’d like to have the option should the situation arise.

And at the other end, this welder can work with sheet metal down to 22 gauge. (The larger the gauge number, the thinner the steel.). And remember, the problem with my old stick welder is that it’s too powerful…it melts holes in thin steel.

Two other models had slightly larger ranges, the Hobart Handler 140 MIG welder and the Vulcan 140 could both handle 24 gauge steel, but cost over $500.

Duty Cycle

Most welders in this price range have a duty cycle of 20%. The Forney’s duty cycle is 30% at 90 amps…which means an additional minute working on welding projects every 10 minutes!

Controls

The Forney 140 has “infinite” voltage and wire feed speed controls. This allows me to make the perfect adjustments during the welding process.

Wire Feed Spool

This welder can take both 8 inch and 4-inch spools. Other welders like the Harbor Freight Titanium 125 only take 4-inch spools. It’s nice to have options especially when it’s more economical to buy 8-inch spools.

Reviews

It’s always a challenge sorting through the Eeyore and Tigger reviews. (Eeyores use a $15 product for 3 years then give it a 1-star review when the corner paint chips. Tiggers give it a 5-star review just because it showed up when they ordered it.).

Anyhoo…

I liked the reviews for the Forney Easy-Weld.

The folks who appeared to know what they were doing praised the Forney saying, “I had a couple of small projects with thin 1/8 inch steel that my 220v arc welder would be a little to hot for. I bought this to do these projects. This is a 110v machine so I was a little worried it would not have the power to do the projects. I was very surprised by how easy this machine is to use.”

Not only did the old pros say that this was a great welder, but also the noobs. One reviewer reported that ” I had a hard time adjusting the knobs to get the wire feed speed to correspond with the amperage for the lighter materials, but after an hour or so, I had it down. I had taught myself to weld (at a really amateur level) in a single morning.”

Both experienced and non-experienced folks felt that this machine is one of the best welders for beginners so I factored these opinions heavily when choosing this welding machine.

Conclusion

The best welder for a beginner might vary.  Someone with a larger budget may want the flexibility that a MIG welder offers.  However, I didn’t want to deal with gas bottles…or the expense.  So in the end, I chose the Forney Flux Core.  I’ll keep you posted and let you know how it goes!

About the Author Ted Tibbetts

Ted, a teacher, raft guide and carpenter, has been teaching high school English for over 20 years. A Milken Award winner and a Maine Teacher of the Year State Finalist, Ted loves working on his Skoolie, "Snug," and traveling around to splash in rivers.

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