In the world of welding there are three techniques which receive the majority of the attention. These are SMAW (shielded metal arc welding), GMAW (gas metal arc welding), and TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding. There are important differences in the process and capabilities of each, so it is important to understand their unique characteristics.
SMAW stands for shielded metal arc welding. This is also commonly called ‘stick’ welding. In SMAW, the electrode is a metal rod or stick held in the torch with a small clamp. The rod has a solid coating of inert materials which vaporizes as you weld. This creates an inert cloud or gases which protect the molten metal and displace any oxygen that might come into contact with it. The gas cloud settles on the pool of molten metal as it cools, and is referred to as ‘slag’. The disadvantage to SMAW is that the slag must be chipped off of the weld after it cools, and can sometimes infiltrate the weld causing weakness.
GMAW stands for gas metal arc welding. This is also commonly referred to as metal inert gas welding, or MIG welding. In GMAW the electrode is a roll of wire which the welder feeds out of a ‘gun’ to the work piece. You control the speed of the wire, so you can make long welds without stopping to replace a rod. This type of welding is generally considered to be the easiest to learn. The gun also feeds out an inert gas such as Argon or CO2 to displace oxygen at the weld site. This means you don’t have any slag to chip away, but you do need a tank and regulator to go with a MIG welder.
TIG stands for tungsten inert gas welding. Like GMAW, TIG welding uses a tank and inert gas to shield the weld. In both GMAW and SMAW the electrode is consumed by heat and becomes part of the weld. TIG stands out in that the tungsten electrode carries the arc, but is not consumed. Tungsten withstands the heat of welding. TIG takes the most skill, since you have to hold a filler rod in one hand and the gun in the other in order to accomplish this type of welding. It is usually reserved for specialized types of welds.
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