Why do you need a plasma cutter?
Plasma cutters are immensely useful tools for anyone who fabricates metal parts or welds. These tools allow you to quickly, easily, and accurately cut through metal. That’s an essential task whether you’re working on building a new machine out of metal, working on adding onto an existing metal component, or creating notches or fittings that you can use to attach two materials together. Ultimately, a plasma cutter is a lot like a more traditional oxy-fuel welding torch. But, there are a few significant advantages to opting for a plasma cutter.
The first is that plasma is able to cut through non-ferrous metals. That includes aluminum, stainless steel, and cast iron, all of which are becoming more commonly used in parts and more available as raw sheets. You can’t cut through these metals safely with an oxy-fuel torch.
The second major advantage to using a plasma cutter for your metalwork is that it’s faster and easier to use than an oxy-fuel torch. The metal you’re going to cut through doesn’t need to be pre-heated when using plasma, which saves time and makes the process a bit safer. In addition, plasma cutters can cut through stacks of thin metal sheets – something that oxy-fuel torches struggle with. Plasma also offers smoother cuts with less kerf and won’t distort most thin metal sheets, giving you better results than you could otherwise achieve.
The only real downside to using a plasma cutter is that most of these tools are limited to cutting through metal sheets of one inch or less. Once you have a thicker sheet, you’ll probably need to switch to an oxy-fuel torch to make your cuts.
Features to consider before you buy a plasma cutter under $500
While all of the plasma cutters available today operate using the same basic principle, they vary widely in capabilities and features. These differences can make a huge difference in whether a particular plasma cutter is right for the projects you have in mind. So, let’s take a closer look at the features you need to think about when choosing a plasma cutter under $500.
The cutting ability of a plasma cutter is a measure of the thickness of metal that it can cut through. So, with a plasma cutter like our Editor’s Choice model from Lotos that has a 0.5-inch cutting ability, you’d be able to cut through metal sheeting or parts up to 0.5 inches thick. However, you should leave some leeway in matching your plasma cutter to the thickness of the metal you want to cut. If you use the Lotos cutter on a metal piece that’s truly 0.5 inches thick, it will leave an unclean kerf at the base of the cut.
It’s much better to overestimate how much cutting ability you actually need, since this will result in cleaner cuts.
It’s also worth noting that almost no plasma cutter on the market today – and certainly no model under $500 – is capable of cutting metal more than one inch thick. The CUT-50 Plasma Cutter is the only model under $500 that boasts a one-inch cutting ability.
Plasma cutters are designed to be portable, so weight matters. Most of the units we looked at weigh around 20 pounds, so there’s not much of an issue with carrying them around. However, some units like the Display4top CUT-50 cutter are significantly heavier and are best suited for home or workshop use. Others, like the ultralight HeroCut Plasma Cutter, are better suited for transport between multiple jobsites.
Like weight, the size of your plasma cutter can affect its portability.
Most plasma cutters are relatively compact – about one foot tall by one and a half feet long.
The lightweight HeroCut Plasma Cutter is even smaller to aid with portability, while the Forney Easy Weld 251 20 P is even smaller in size.
Voltage is very important to consider when choosing a plasma cutter, since it affects where and how you’ll be able to use it. Most of the plasma cutters that we looked at can run on either 120-volt or 240-volt power. However, units like the Forney Easy Weld 251 20 P can only run on 120-volt power.
120-volt power is what you’ll draw from most home power outlets, so it’s important to make sure your cutter can run on that voltage if you’re working in a home workshop.
The downside to this voltage is that your power is limited – most cutters can’t exceed a 0.5-inch cutting ability when running on 120-volt power. 240-volt power is what most shop outlets and some heavy-duty generators deliver. This voltage is required to get the most power out of your plasma cutter, which you’ll need for metal sheets thicker than 0.5 inches.
Duty cycle is often overlooked, but extremely important. It represents the percentage of time, out of 10 minutes, that you can use your plasma cutter without overheating and damaging the system. So, for example, the CORAL Plasma Cutter has an 85% duty cycle. That means it can safely run for 85% of 10 minutes, or 8.5 minutes, at a time. If you plan to use your plasma cutter for larger jobs with more continuous cuts, a higher duty cycle is essential. Some cheap plasma cutters have relatively short duty cycles – the Forney Easy Weld, for example, offers just 3.5 minutes of use out of every 10 minutes. So, a cutter like that is best suited for small tasks.