The choice of a plasma cutter is directly connected to the eventual result of your work. A wise decision can make even a total beginner’s project a success.
Plasma cutters vary greatly; you can see anything from classic commercial machines still utilizing Computer Numerical Control (CNC) to lightweight, portable options for mobile specialists.
We’ll be talking about a more consumer-friendly kind of cutters, as they are used most often. You can use them for small business or home projects, as well as for improving your hobby. There are wonderful art installations made with a single thin metal sheet and a decent plasma cutter.
Whether you’re a DIYer or a mobile professional, there are a lot of qualities to consider before choosing a plasma cutter. In this article, we’ll go one by one, creating a picture of a perfect appliance for your purpose.
What’s a Plasma Cutter?
Such cutters are frequent members of the auto shop arsenal, salvage yards, small home DIY booths, and construction sites. Non-commercial use is becoming more and more frequent due to the convenience of small, portable, and precise plasma cutters.
As you can see, the uses are plenty, and to achieve a good result, you should choose a machine with proper cutting speed, amperage, in-built parts, and more.
14 Main Features to Look for in a Plasma Cutter
A perfect plasma cutter should be efficient, durable, and portable. A lot of factors contribute to these three qualities, and we will review all of them.
1. Maximum Metal Thickness and Clean Cut Thickness
In the description, there are usually two-three numbers:
- An optimal metal sheet thickness for the cleanest cut;
- A maximum thickness the machine can cut;
- A minimum thickness (optimal, just to state the range).
Think about the work you’re going to do and the average thickness of metal materials you’ll need to cut. If there’s no info in the description of the product, look at the amperage, it should always be there.
You may also encounter the term “cut rating.” There are three ratings available:
- Rated cut – speedy cut (10 inches per minute; IPM) suitable for thin metals;
- Quality cut – slower work but thicker metal use possibilities;
- Sever cut – the most heavy-duty type; it’s very slow but provides the cleanest cut for the thickest metal sheets.
The arc that cuts metal is made by electricity, which is measured in amps. It determines the power of the appliance (how thick the metal can be and how quick the cutter will cut). Here are several reference points:
- A 25A cutter will work great with metal sheets up to ¼”;
- A 50A cutter will conquer metals up to ½” in thickness;
- An 80A or a more powerful cutter will cut even through ¾” to 1” thick metal sheets.
Usually, for DIY work and small projects, you won’t need a cutter with an amperage of more than 40A-50A. On the other side, there are multifunctional plasma cutters that are used as welders.
They have an amperage of up to 200A and are much more expensive. However, most professionals recommend buying two different appliances if you need a cutter and a welder.
Proper amperage will ensure you don’t overpay and choose the cutter with the necessary qualities and clean cuts.
Along with amperage, there’s another power spec, which shows what outlets you will need for the job. If you have a tight budget, it’s worth opting for 110/120V cutters.
They are reasonably priced and work very well for their purpose. However, the range of cutting types such machines can perform is quite limited.
If you need more variations and functionality from the cutter, choose dual-voltage cutters. They can use 220/240V outlets and cut thicker, rougher metal parts with ease.
4. Availability of a Built-In Inverter
If you have some extra money to invest in a plasma cutter, getting one with an in-built inverter makes sense. It contributes to the portability of the device, as it can be hosted in a smaller housing.
The direct current inverter (DC inverter) offers a wide range of high frequencies, from 10 kHz to almost 200 kHz. It controls the work of the appliance very well and allows for high-frequency arc start and non-contact cutting.
5. Cutting Speed and Quality
The machines that offer clean, fine cuts are usually more expensive. They are more stable and suitable for working with small, thin details. If you’ll be cutting rough metal and there are no requirements as to how neat it should be, save money and get a regular cutter.
The product descriptions usually state metal thickness that the device can cut neatly. The thicker the metal, the rougher the cut will be.
6. Automated Functionality
The most popular automated feature of plasma cutters is the cooling system. It can turn on and off when heat dissipation improvement is needed. Such machines are often considered safer.
However, they are also more expensive, so consider your budget when opting for such automatic features. When working in a hot climate, an automated cooling system will make a huge difference.
7. Available Controls and Indicators on the Display
To use an appliance to its fullest, we recommend buying the ones that have displays or LED indicators. A Power On and Off button, convenient access to settings, and understandable indicator signs are also very important, especially for beginners or people who have used to work with the older versions of plasma cutters.
The more settings and controls there are, the more expensive the unit will be. But they are usually worth their price as they offer more functionality and possibilities.
8. Package Contents
The best case is when the package has everything you need to start working right after getting the device out of the box and assembling it. There should be all kinds of clamps, nozzles, electrodes, and all other necessary consumables.
Besides, it’s important that the plasma cutter manufacturer supplies consumables for the model you purchase for later replacement. Some even specify which products will go with your cutter, which is very useful.
Keep in mind that consumables have limited longevity. So, if you’re going to use your cutter frequently, consider investing in a more expensive one that will have higher durability.
By the way, the ease of assembly might also be an important factor, especially if you’re a beginner. Most modern plasma cutters offer minimal assembly that is very easy.
9. Duty Cycle
A plasma cutter’s duty cycle is the ratio between the time the machine can cut and the time it cools down. The duty cycle is usually measured in percent.
If you see 60%, it means if you use the appliance without a stop for 6 minutes, it will cool down for 4 minutes; the same with 70% and further (a 10-minute span is taken as a reference). The duty cycle of your plasma cutter will also affect its price, so analyze your working time and choose wisely.
10. Housing Quality
Depending on where you want to use the cutter, inside or outside, you should choose proper housing. If the machine is bought for outdoor use, consider weather-proof housing. It won’t let moisture, dust, UV radiation, and other elements harm the appliance.
Even if you don’t need such a level of protection, the quality of material the housing of the appliance is made from is very important as it contains all the essential parts.
11. Air Compressor Availability
When talking about portability, you should remember that compressed air will be needed. Cheaper plasma cutters require a connection to an external air supply.
This might be convenient if you don’t need to move the appliance a lot. But if portability is a priority for you, consider buying a cutter with a built-in air compressor.
Both types provide amazing results, given they are of high quality. But in terms of convenience, built-in details work the best. They will also cost more, but usually, they are worth it.
Investigate the tech specs of both the plasma cutter and the air compressor you’re interested in and make sure they match. And if you’ll need to use another gas like nitrogen, oxygen, or a mixture, find out if the cutter accommodates those.
12. Pilot Arc
If you’re looking for a longer torch lifespan and a very stable arc, choose a plasma cutter with a pilot arc. With this feature, you don’t have to actually touch metal to cut it.
This is especially useful for cases when you need to work with rusty metal. There’s no need to clean it or maintain the torch right after cutting.
Nowadays, most plasma cutters that aren’t cheap use this technology. The older models don’t, as this is a pretty newly discovered technique.
13. The Cost of Operation
You can opt for a cheaper plasma cutter that will use a lot of power and make you pay more every month.
So, before falling for a cheap deal, consider the consequences and how much money you can spend on power, consumables, and repair after the warranty expires.
Finding out about the warranty conditions is also crucial, by the way. Some companies only offer repair, while others guarantee a full refund.
There are manufacturers that will only replace parts for a limited time or make you wait for the repair for a month. Find out everything in advance by contacting customer support and reading reviews.
14. Torch Length and Shape
The torch qualities might not seem like an important factor, unlike its functionality. However, if you’re using a heavy-duty machine and need to walk to different metal parts that need to be cut, the length of the torch becomes much more valuable. Consider this when choosing a machine or additional parts for it.
If you’re planning to work for a long time with the cutter, consider the shape of the torch as well. Our hands get tired pretty fast, especially after holding something too large or too small for a long time. Choose a torch that fits your hand and allows for a strong grip without much effort.
As you can see, a lot of factors depend on one another. For example, cutting speed and the maximum metal sheet thickness a machine can cut greatly depends on the amperage and voltage. The price and cost of operation also correlate, so the choice should be made after thorough consideration.
We recommend choosing your priorities wisely and buying a cutter that suits your budget and does all the things you’ve put as the most important.
Nowadays, the online market offers a wide range of plasma cutters of different quality and size and for various purposes and budgets. By balancing all of the factors, you can choose the most suitable machine without a problem and in the shortest time.