My Reviews of the Best Plasma Cutters
If you’re a metal worker, whether casual or professional, it’s easy to understand the importance of having a high-quality plasma cutter. As with all tools and other equipment, there are so many models available that it can be hard to sort through them all. Given their importance and prices ranging from around $500 to over $1,000, a plasma cutter is definitely an investment that warrants a basic understanding of what the major factors are that make up your ideal cutter.
Duty cycle is one of the first things to understand. The duty cycle, which is represented as a percentage, tells you how many minutes per hour a cutter can run before needing to be shut down for cooling time. A cutter with a duty cycle of 50% can run continuously for 30 minutes at a time. Your duty cycle should reflect the type of work you do. Professionals will usually need to look for longer duty cycles, whereas more casual users can typically spend a little less and opt for shorter duty cycles. Duty cycle is a function of both motor power and workload. This means that one cutter could have different duty cycles for different types of work.
The next major consideration is power. You’ll need to understand both input and output to find your ideal cutter. Many models require standard 120-volt outlets at either 15 or 20 amps. Other plasma cutters require 240 volts and at least 50 amps. If you find yourself gravitating toward one of the more powerful models, make sure that you’ll have an adequate outlet. If you’ll need to hire an electrician to upgrade your work area, be sure to factor in that cost. Here, again, the type of work you’ll be doing will determine how much power you need. Generally, cutting jobs that deal with thicknesses of 1/4 inch or less will require 15 to 25 amps. Cuts from 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick typically draw 40 amps, and 1-inch or larger cuts will require at least 80 amps.
Consumables represent an often-overlooked factor that you should consider before buying a new plasma cutter. A less-expensive cutter that goes through more consumables and/or that has more expensive consumables can end up costing quite a bit more than a more expensive model in the long run. Plasma cutter consumables consist of the electrode (carries the current to the plate from the torch), the nozzle (funnels gas flow in addition to focusing your arc), the swirl ring (channels gas), the retaining cap (holds the rest of the consumable stack in place), and the shield (protects all consumables from molten metal and sparks). With any cutter, all five of these components will wear out and need to be replaced. Finding a plasma cutter with the longest-lasting consumables could represent a pretty significant cost savings in the long run. Be sure to factor in the cost and average lifespan of consumables when you compare cutters. Quite often, a less expensive purchase price is quickly offset by higher-priced and/or short-lived consumables.
All plasma cutters require compressed air in order to operate. Having a clean and strong airflow will make your cutter more accurate and efficient and will also help prolong the life of consumables. If you don’t have a shop that’s already equipped with compressed air, be sure to look for a model that comes with a compressor or understand what work (and expense) will be involved to secure your air source separately. Most of the top plasma cutter models are designed for professional users and assume an existing air source.
Another component that will help keep your plasma cutter running at maximum efficiency and will also extend the life of consumables is a good desiccant (air-drying) system or air-filtration system. A simple filtration system will remove stray dust from your compressed air stream, keeping the whole system cleaner and helping to improve cutting accuracy. A desiccant filtration system removes both dust and moisture. Adding a filtration system will definitely cost more, but if you plan to use the cutter a great deal, the extra expense is worth it for the added level of protection.
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