What a plasma cutter is capable of
A plasma cutter is a modern tool that is capable of cutting through a variety of conductive materials. This includes metals like steel, aluminum, brass, copper, and many more in this category. A plasma cutter accomplishes this by creating an extremely hot electrical channel of gas, which is called plasma. You can use a variety of gases, such as nitrogen, argon, oxygen, or even simple air from an air compressor as is used by the Hobart Airforce 27i.
A plasma cutter is used for a few purposes. Hobbyists or artists use these tools to cut their designs out of metal in more intricate patterns. Plasma cutters are also used in salvage yards, auto shops, and construction sites to cut sheets of metal. These tools can be used for rough or fine cuts, depending on the skill of the user or the type of cutter tip being used.
There are a few different types of plasma cutters on the market today. A plasma cutter for CNC is attached to a robotic arm and guided by a computer. There are also plasma cutters with a built-in compressor, so you don’t need a separate one, making them a bit more convenient. The more compact handheld units are the type that we’ve focused on in this review, which have features that we’ll cover in the sections below.
Features to consider when choosing a plasma cutter
When choosing a plasma cutter for home use or on a job site, there are a few features you may want to check out. This will ensure you’re getting the right one for the type of work you’ll be using it for.
The input voltage refers to the power coming through the power source, which is the outlet you’re plugging into. Most industrial areas use 220/240V, so a unit that you’re taking around to job sites needs to be compatible with this type of voltage, like the Lotos LTP8000. Homes are usually powered using the standard 110/120V, so if you’re purchasing a unit that you’ll be using in your garage or home workshop, you’ll likely need one that is compatible with the lower voltage or you’ll have to spend some extra money converting the outlets and fuse boxes in your work area. Luckily, there are several options in our reviews that are compatible with both, many of which don’t even need an extra adapter to work properly, making them much more convenient.
The output is related to the input voltage and also determines the thickness of the materials you’ll be cutting. In terms of input, the 120V standard input is also 15 Amps, while 220V has 50 Amps or more. Cutting materials that are ¼-inch or less need about 20 Amps. Materials between ¼ and ½-inch need 40 Amps or more. If you’re going to be cutting materials that are up to one inch in thickness, the plasma cutter needs an output of at least 80 Amps or more for the proper cut.
Most plasma cutters have a range of Amps that can be adjusted to suit the thickness of the material you’re using.
Clean cut thickness and severance cut thickness
The clean cut is fast cut with a smooth finish. The sever cut takes a bit longer and leaves you with a rough cut that needs more cleanup, including grinding or chipping away those rough edges that are left behind. When looking at the cut thickness, the clean cut thickness is usually thinner than the sever cut since you’re working faster with the metal. The clean cut is usually what is used for metal that you’ll be welding or using for artwork. A sever cut is best for scrap metal and other pieces that don’t require too much detail.
The dimensions of the best plasma cutter are more important than you may think. If you’re using it in a huge workshop, you likely won’t be too concerned about its size. Those using their plasma cutter in a small area or who travel around to job sites with it will want one that doesn’t take up too much space. A smaller unit doesn’t mean it will lack in features, either, as the SUNCOO CUT50 proves. These models can still do just as good a job as a larger unit will while taking up less space at the same time.
The weight of the unit is another feature that determines the portability of a plasma cutter. Sometimes you need to carry your unit around with you to various areas, possibly even up a ladder or a few sets of stairs. The heavier it is, the harder it will be to do so. A lightweight model, like the Hypertherm Powermax30 XP, will be much easier to manage when moving it from site to site.
Some of the models in our reviews include a number of handy accessories. One thing to look for is extra consumables, which include the electrodes and the nozzles. These will wear out over time, so having a few extras saves you a bit of money, especially if you’re using your plasma cutter regularly. Some models also include a built-in air filter, which helps prevent dust and dirt from clogging up your unit, which adds to its lifespan. Some other accessories that could be included are a ground clamp and cable, some couplers, a carry strap, or even a hard case to protect your plasma cutter during travel and keep all your gear together and organized.
An overheating plasma cutter will cost you a great deal of time and money to get it up and running again. The parts can wear out quicker, and some pieces, like the torch and leads, can burn out if they aren’t cooled down as they’re running. The smaller units, like the ones in our reviews, use the same air used for the plasma gas to keep the torch from overheating as you use it. The motor, pumps, and other internal parts in the body of the unit also need to be cooled, usually with some sort of internal cooling system, which is why they include fans that create cool air and exhaust vents to get rid of the hot air that would otherwise build up in the unit and cause it to overheat.
Look into the type of cooling system the unit you’re considering has to be sure you don’t have to buy any extra materials or coolants to keep your machine running for years to come.
The duty cycle on a plasma cutter tells you how long the unit can be used within 10 minutes before it overheats. For instance, a unit with a duty cycle of 100% can run for the full 10 minutes while a system with only a 50% duty cycle can be used for 5 out of 10 minutes. There are a few factors that determine the duty cycle as well, such as the output power, the thickness of the metal, and the temperature of the work area. For instance, the Hypertherm30 XP has a duty cycle of 35% at 240V at an ambient temperature of 104 degrees F and 20% at 120V at the same temperature.
Whether you’re buying a high-end unit or you’ve chosen the best plasma cutter under $500, it still needs a good warranty. This way, you’ll be covered if there are any issues with the machine that aren’t caused by any misuse on your part. The longer the warranty is, and the more it covers, the better you’ll feel about buying the unit. For instance, the Lotos LTP8000 has a one-year limited warranty that covers defects in the parts or manufacturing of the product. This is fine if the issues show up right away.
The other models in our reviews have either a three-year limited or a five-year limited warranty, giving you a lot more time to test out the unit, which is especially important if the issues don’t show up right away.
Using a plasma cutter can be dangerous, especially if you aren’t familiar with how they work. Following these tips can prevent injury to you or damage to the materials and the machine.
- Wear a fire-resistant jacket and gloves.
- Use #5 safety glasses with a side shield or a full-face shield with a helmet.
- Do not touch the material around the cutting area.
- Point the torch tip away from your body when starting the arc.
- Keep all flammables at least 35 feet away from your work area.
- Do not cut closed or pressurized containers or those that contained combustibles or toxic materials.
- Connect the work materials to proper earth ground.
- Stand on a rubber mat or plywood sheet away from any wet or damp areas.