PLASMA CUTTER: All Things You Should Know

Dec 02, 2022

PLASMA CUTTER: All Things You Should Know

If you’re new to the field of plasma cutting, this comprehensive guide will walk you through what you need to know. After finishing this post, you’ll know everything you need to make an informed choice. We’ll start with the materials you can cut. For one thing, before we’ve even started the article properly, plasma cutting equipment can cut through anything that conducts electricity. In light of this fact, you’re going to have your cutting material framed in your mind before buying a plasma cutter. Otherwise, let’s just say a disappointment lays in store.

We’re going to assume that you’re a beginner, so let’s cover some of the basics. We’ll walk before we can run, okay? You’ve had limited or perhaps even no experience with this type of cutting gear, so we’re going to ease our way into this guide with an opening section of expository text that’s intended to help novices out.

In the beginning, then, plasma cutters first rose to prominence in the 1950s. Basically, the process employs a high-speed, gas-fueled plasma as an incredibly precise cutting medium. This “plasma” energy is obtained by exposing arc-generated power to a pressurized gas. This source of thermal energy is so intense, so super-heated, that it can melt dense metal with ease. Now, although not commercially available in the workplace until the 1970s, plasma cutters are an essential part of any metal fabrication shop.

The basics are covered. Let’s move on and delve into that beginner’s section. We’ll start with a low-cost option. From there, we’ll ratchet up the features and price a little. After all, novices might not have the cash in their wallets to buy a fully-featured, premium price plasma cutter, but that doesn’t mean they should settle for anything less than a mid-range beast of a machine that’ll cut a wide array of metal thicknesses, as determined by a high-throughput metalworking facility.

 Let’s begin with the factor that typically affects beginners the most. We’re talking, of course, about cost.

What Should I Look For When Buying A Plasma Cutter

Look for a machine that has enough output to cut a chosen material. Is the gear equipped with a powerful 50-Amp arc that can cut thin or thick sheets of stainless steel? Does it have a reputation for clean cutting, the kind of slicing that won’t add nasty build-ups of slag? What about the fabrication shop you’re equipping? If it stores dirty or paint-covered pieces of old metal, then you’ll want that pilot arc feature mentioned earlier. And, should the workshop have a reputation as a jack-of-all-trades, a multi-voltage machine that’s known to work effectively on several types of metal would be a good choice too. Really, you need to know the work you’re undertaking so that you can intelligently match your plasma cutter. In order to accomplish this, make a list of your most important features, then buy a machine that most closely matches them. Do your homework, do the research. Alternatively, read on for more buying advice.

Taking all of the above onboard, you’re well on your way to buying the ideal plasma cutter. But don’t forget that pressurized air. Check the included accessories that come with the cutter to make sure there’s an air regulator in the package. After all, you’re going to need an air compressor, assuming you haven’t purchased a model that incorporates one, of course. Sometimes you won’t even use oxygen. For example, aluminum and steel cutters work more efficiently with nitrogen, not air. Argon is also a good alternative here. Ideally, though, air is the most economical choice.

How Much Is A Plasma Cutter?

 your investment could cost as little as $150, but that price tag could also rise as high as several thousand dollars. That’s a big spread. To explain this discrepancy, think of the less expensive machines as ideal hobbyist machines. They’ll cut accurately and offer many advanced features, but they’ll wear out fast if you use them for a commercial project.

Try for a price sweet spot, which is anywhere from several hundred dollars to a thousand dollars. Portability, pilot arc technology, dual-voltage control, quick setup, and the precision cutting of a desired group of alloys and metal thicknesses, that’s what you’re making an investment in when you opt for a high-end model.  

ARCCAPTAIN’S own 50-Amp dual voltage portable CUT50 plasma cutter fits impeccably into this category, with its portability and excellent performance providing enough power and features to complete the most demanding projects. Using that 50-Amp output, the CUT50 can easily make short work of ¾” thick sheet metal while maintaining an accurate cutting path. Built from the highest quality parts and tested exhaustively, the ARCCAPTAIN CUT50 is available for $299.

How Does A Plasma Cutter Work

Plasma cutters first rose to prominence in the 1950s. Basically, the process employs a high-speed, gas-fueled plasma as a cutting medium. This “plasma” energy is obtained by exposing arc-generated power to a pressurized gas. This source of thermal energy is so intense, so super-heated, that it can melt dense metal with ease.

Imagine that plasma jet generating sun-like heat, which is focused at the end of an easy to maneuver torch. And all of this is available from a lightweight machine, one that offers a large display and responsive controls. However, two important points need to be mentioned. First, a circuit must be established, so the workpiece must be made of metal. Plasma cutters won’t work on wood and other non-electrically conductive materials. Next, a gas source is required. It’s this gaseous element that’s transformed into a super-heated plasma by the electric arc.

To be clear, expect precision cutting on stainless steel, mild steel, aluminum, and copper. They are electrically conductive metals. Wood is not a conductor. Consider buying a high-performance rotary saw or a good router if wood is being worked on in your shop. Remember, by trying to cut poorly conductive materials, you risk adding premature wear to your consumables. Your tips will age faster, and your plasma cutter might end up as a door stop if you continue in this fashion.

Step-by-Step Guide: How to Use a Plasma Cutter

Step 1: Safety First Before using a plasma cutter, it's essential to prioritize safety. Always wear appropriate safety gear, including eye protection, gloves, and a face shield. Ensure that your workspace is well-ventilated and free of flammable materials. Remember that plasma cutters generate high heat and can produce hazardous fumes and sparks.

Step 2: Prepare the Workpiece Once you have set up a safe workspace, prepare the workpiece for cutting. Use a marker or chalk to mark the cutting line on the metal, ensuring that it is straight and precise. Clamp the workpiece securely in place to prevent movement during the cutting process.

Step 3: Set up the Plasma Cutter Next, set up the plasma cutter according to the manufacturer's instructions. Attach the ground clamp securely to the workpiece, and connect the plasma cutter's torch to the power supply. Set the amperage and air pressure according to the material you will be cutting and the thickness of the metal.

Step 4: Start the Plasma Cutter With the plasma cutter set up and ready to go, it's time to start cutting. Begin by holding the torch a few inches away from the metal surface and press the trigger to start the plasma arc. Slowly move the torch along the cutting line, keeping the arc perpendicular to the workpiece. As you cut, the molten metal will be blown away by the high-velocity stream of gas.

Step 5: Continue Cutting Continue cutting along the marked line, adjusting the speed and angle of the torch as needed. If you need to make a curved cut, move the torch in a smooth, sweeping motion. For straight cuts, use a guide or straight edge to ensure a clean, accurate cut.

Step 6: Finish the Cut Once you have completed the cut, release the trigger to stop the plasma arc. Allow the metal to cool down before handling it. Remove any excess metal debris or slag with a wire brush, and inspect the cut to ensure it meets your specifications.

In conclusion, using a plasma cutter requires patience, practice, and safety precautions. With these steps in mind, you can master the art of plasma cutting and create clean, precise cuts with ease. Remember to always prioritize safety and follow the manufacturer's instructions when using a plasma cutter.

Do You Need Gas For A Plasma Cutter

The short answer is yes. The gas interacts with the arc, it transforms into a 4th state of matter, that known as “plasma,” and precision cutting power is instantly available at the flick of the wrist.

As for the nature of that gas, the source of the plasma, oxygen in the form of compressed air is the economical solution. Air fueled plasma cutters offer the fastest cutting speeds, but other gases are available. For example, aluminum and steel cutting jobs work more efficiently with nitrogen. Argon is also a good alternative when cutting stainless steel, as it produces the hottest plasma.

A gas regulator is typically provided with the plasma cutter kit for this purpose. Interestingly, some high-end machines integrate inbuilt air supplies, but they’re likely heavier, therefore not as portable as their lightweight counterparts.  

How Hot Does A Plasma Cutter Get?

Are you curious about that super-heated torch your waving around? You’re maneuvering a torch that’s producing a 25,000°C metal carving jet of thermal energy. That, believe it or not, is hotter than the surface of the sun. This isn’t a problem when the torch is moved by an automated system in an industrial metal fabrication facility, but it certainly could be if you’re the one holding this cutting power.

With that thought in mind, establish a series of safety procedures. At the very least, always wear eye and hand protection. Plasma cutting tools make it a breeze to cut all sorts of metal. They’re safe to operate as long as you follow standard operating procedures, but they will cause harm if you take a shortcut.

One other thing of note here. The power produced by a 50-Amp plasma cutter is indeed hotter than the surface of the sun, and that energy expenditure is matched by a similarly high quantity of electricity consumption back at the workshop power board. If you want to run a budget-friendly operation, keep the torch on a lower setting. Otherwise, you’ll be in for a shock when the electricity bill arrives on your doorstep.

Can A Plasma Cutter Cut Through Paint

As mentioned earlier, this type of cutting depends on an electrically conductive circuit. If you’re cutting through a piece of metal that’s covered in paint, you’ll need to maintain a conductive connection. There’s a second option here, though. By implementing a feature called Pilot Arc Technology, your gear gains a capacity for non-contact plasma cutting.

That’s a highly desirable beginner feature to have, as this type of cutter is designed to establish a conductive circuit without ever touching the source work piece. In other words, beginners can cut rusty or dirty metal sheets. Even a layer of paint won’t present any trouble if you buy a cutter that’s equipped with pilot arc technology.

Alternatively, keep the circuit impedance low. A powerful machine like the ARCCAPTAIN CUT50 will slice its way efficiently through paint and rust, all without producing a pile of ugly slag as it travels. Again, it often comes down to the quality and features of the machine employed.

While a plasma cutter is primarily designed to cut through metal, it can also cut through some types of paint. However, the ability of a plasma cutter to cut through paint depends on several factors, such as the type of paint, its thickness, and the type of metal underneath the paint.

For example, if the paint is thin and the metal underneath is relatively easy to cut, the plasma cutter may be able to cut through the paint without much difficulty. On the other hand, if the paint is thick or the metal is harder to cut, the plasma cutter may struggle to cut through both the paint and the metal.

Will A Plasma Cutter Cut Wood?

Unfortunately, plasma cutters have a limitation here. They’re fabrication shop machines, so they properly belong with other metalworking tools. In order for the gear to perform at its peak, the work piece being cut must be a good conductor of electricity. Therefore, wood, plastic, glass, and poorly conductive metals are not going to yield good results, if any. However, that’s not the end of the matter. Certain poor conductors will cut if there’s metal below. Paint, as one example, will quickly melt away if you’re using a no-contact plasma cutter with the aforementioned pilot arc technology feature mentioned earlier in this post.

If wooden beams enter your shop, consider buying a high-performance rotary saw or a good router. Remember, by trying to cut poorly conductive materials, you risk adding premature wear to your consumables. Your tips will age faster, and your plasma cutter might end up as a door stop if you continue in this fashion.

What Metals Will A Plasma Cutter Cut?

Stainless steel sheets are entirely workable, although the cut depth will likely drop below 1” if you’re using a lesser piece of equipment. Look for a machine that has enough output to cut a chosen material. Is the gear equipped with a powerful 50-Amp arc that can cut thin or thick sheets of stainless steel? Generally speaking, any decent plasma cutter will make short work of a 5/8” thick sheet of stainless steel, assuming you have access to that 50-Amp device, of course. Here’s a selection of other alloys that’ll cut with plasma:

  • Mild steel
  • Monel
  • Aluminum
  • Cast iron
  • Brass
  • Titanium
  • Inconel
  • Copper

Do be aware of their metallurgical properties if you’re setting up a workshop that’ll shape and cut the above alloys. Melting temperatures and cut characteristics will vary on different metals. One solution here is to investigate alternative plasma gases and device nozzles. Ignoring this final piece of advice risks the final result of a cut. Accuracy rates and slag produced by the torch might very well vary wildly if you don’t employ the right gas and cutting temperature.

How Thick A Piece Of Metal Can A 50-Amp Plasma Cutter Cut?

Well, it depends on the type of metal you’re cutting. A handheld, portable plasma cutter with a 50-Amp output jet will, generally speaking, make short work of a 5/8” thick sheet of stainless steel. That’s not exactly surprising, considering the plasma jet on a high-end machine can reach 25,000°C. Mild steel workpieces will melt to a depth of over 1” under that relentless thermal energy. Aluminum sheeting will similarly slice apart at a thickness of 1” or more. Machines with inverter technology and a renown for arc stability will perform better when performing such thick metal cuts, but they come with a premium price tag, so be aware of this, especially if you’re on a budget.

Also be aware that travel speed will slow and more sparks will be produced as the metal thickness increases. You can probably imagine a lesser degree of cut accuracy when this happens too, plus a corresponding increase in slag buildup.

With all of that thermal energy under your hands, please do employ a good safety management plan. Wear an approved set of goggles. Better yet, opt for a face shield, as the high-pressure plasma jet will likely throw off sparks and hot metal slag. Likewise, a pair of heat-resistant gloves is essential. As for your plasma cutter, by ensuring it comes packed with desirable features, including 50-Amp digital inverter technology, you’ll gain a safer, more productive plasma cutting setup that’ll plough speedily through thick and thin metals. Just be sure that your clamp and torch create a solid circuit upon which the machine can direct its output power through, then regulate the gas and watch the cutter accurately slice its way like butter through your chosen alloy.

Plasma Cutters vs. Other Metal Cutting Tools: Which is Better?

When it comes to cutting through metal, there are several tools to choose from, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Two popular options are plasma cutters and other metal cutting tools, such as saws and oxy-fuel torches. We will compare plasma cutters to other metal cutting tools and explore which one is better suited for different applications.

Plasma Cutters: How They Work Plasma cutters use a high-temperature plasma arc to melt through metal, creating a clean and precise cut. They are incredibly versatile and can cut through a wide range of metals, including steel, aluminum, and copper. Plasma cutters are also known for their speed and precision, making them a popular choice for industrial and manufacturing applications.

Other Metal Cutting Tools: How They Work Other metal cutting tools, such as saws and oxy-fuel torches, use different methods to cut through metal. Saws use a blade that rotates at high speed to cut through the metal, while oxy-fuel torches use a mixture of oxygen and a fuel gas, such as acetylene, to create a flame that melts through the metal.

Plasma Cutters vs. Other Metal Cutting Tools So, which is better, plasma cutters or other metal cutting tools? The answer depends on several factors, including the type of metal being cut, the thickness of the metal, and the desired cut quality.

Plasma cutters are typically faster and more precise than other metal cutting tools, making them ideal for cutting intricate shapes and curves. They can also cut through thicker metal than saws and oxy-fuel torches, making them a better choice for industrial applications.

On the other hand, other metal cutting tools may be more cost-effective for certain applications. For example, saws are a good choice for cutting through thin sheets of metal, while oxy-fuel torches are often used for cutting through thick, heavy metals.

In conclusion, when it comes to choosing between plasma cutters and other metal cutting tools, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Each tool has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the best choice will depend on the specific application. For those who require speed, precision, and versatility, a plasma cutter may be the best option. However, for those who prioritize cost-effectiveness or need to cut through certain types of metal, other cutting tools may be a better choice.

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