Saturday, February 5, 2011

MIG Welder Tango: Opportunities, opinions, options & decisions

As I mentioned in the last few blog entries, my old, cheapy mig welder has been dying a slow, painful death.  My last welding project finally finished it off and I was now forced to look at a replacement, whether I liked it or not.  Fortunately, I have been looking at the available replacement options for some time and was able to narrow my choices to a rather tight group based on my own experiences over the years as well as the experiences of several welding professionals.  What follows is not intended to be an absolute review of all the welders out there.  It’s just what worked for me and nothing more.
The portable MIG welder market is rather full of options of varying pedigree and that can make the choice quite difficult when considering the allure of low price versus functionality.  After weeks of intense research, I narrowed my choices to one of four machines:  The Everlast Power I-MIG 160, the Hobart Handler 187, the Miller Millermatic 180 Auto-Set, and the Lincoln Power Mig 180C.
I have to admit, that my early intention was to give the Everlast Power I-MIG 160 a try because it was cheaper, and had the nifty feature of being an inverter-based power source with stick weld capability.  All told, the Everlast would have been about $100 cheaper than the next closest competitor and the only inverter machine in the running.  Since Everlast only sells direct, I wanted a few questions answered before dropping my bones on a new welder, so I sent an email to their sales link on their site…………crickets.  So I decide to send the same note to their tech email link………more crickets.  So I finally call their sales department and got a voicemail message from some clown who could barely speak English asking me to leave a message…….so I did…….left my home #, cell #, email address and mentioned that I’ve already sent two emails with no answer.  After another week of waiting……..crickets.  After a few well-placed garage expletives, I vowed NEVER to buy one of their products and was satisfied evaluating the remaining three knowing any information I may want was a simple phone call or visit away.
The Hobart Handler 187 was next in the queue and as Miller’s “house” brand, has many similarities to the Miller line of machines without many of the “fluff” features of their higher-end machines.  The Hobart has considerable top-end power, but the practical use of this in automotive resto work is almost non-existent and I didn’t like the feel of the 7 heat range settings and found many of the under hood parts rather cheaply built for the money.  Furthermore, it seemed none of the local distributors actually stocked this machine but had no problem ordering one.  The reviews of the Hobart among the resto crowd weren’t overwhelming (though not bad), while a bit cheaper than the Miller or Lincoln competitors, it just didn’t blow me away with any feature and irritated with the general cheap feel of things.
The next shooter was the Millermatic 180 Auto-Set.  Miller is notoriously proud of their machines and their reputation is good, but not good enough to justify the almost $300 premium they command over the next closest cost competitor.  This machine has more bling than Mr. T’s jewelry box, but that ain’t the whole story in my humble opinion.  For the kind of money they command, Miller still has a downright crappy ground clamp and a drive roller mechanism that simply doesn’t impress.  And did I mention the price?  Even with very good reviews, I was concerned about the ultimate usability and reliability of the Auto-Set features (I find them kinda fiddly).  The good news here is that the machine maintains full manual setting functionality, making the Auto-Set features a take-it-or-leave-it proposition for me and not worth any amount of up-charge.  Not to be discouraged so easily, I had the opportunity to help a buddy out a few weekends ago by welding in a pair of Hotchkiss subframe connectors into a ’67 Pontiac Firebird.  This gave me the opportunity to test drive a Millermatic 135 mig on someone else’s nickel.  While it certainly can weld quite well, the gun was annoyingly cheap (Miller branded), the feed roller assembly was mostly plastic and it had that miserable ground clamp.  As the grandpa of the new Millermatic Auto-Set line, I decided I’d seen enough given nobody was willing to let me test drive the new 180 Auto-Set.  Also, I am a bit of a purist when it comes to welding.  I like full manual control over the mig settings as this lets me tweak the weld almost any way I want.  While the Miller Auto-Set may do all these things for you, I also believe it has the effect of taking away a significant and important part of the welding experience (e.g., it tends to make you lazy).  In my humble opinion, you need to LEARN how to weld and that involves understanding WHY something works and HOW it works so you can think on your feet.  Only then do your KNOW how to weld.  This philosophy is only supported by a machine requiring full manual control.  I learn something new about welding every time I light up on a piece of metal.  EVERY time, no matter how small the detail and I practice as often as I can.  No free lunch.
The final machine left in my “circle of four” was the Lincoln Power Mig 180C (the “C” stands for “continuous”).  In many circles, Lincoln is considered the leader in portable mig machines.  Just about every big-box store carries the hobby variety Lincoln migs (none of which qualified in my evaluation) and they work remarkably well.  But I wanted to step UP, not sideways, so the 180C was the baddest of the bad.  While I didn’t get to test drive one, I was able to do a side-by-side physical comparison with the aforementioned Miller Auto-Set 180 at my favorite welding supply house, and I am happy to say that in all areas I considered important, the Lincoln Power Mig 180C was the clear leader.  Very robust construction, great feed roller construction, fully potted electronics boards, very nice gun and a superb ground clamp.  Essentially, I had nothing to bitch about, including price since Lincoln offered a $75 rebate on this exact machine.  So for Hobart price, I got Lincoln quality and phenomenal performance!
And perform in does!  It is really hard to explain how much of a quantum leap in technology and performance this new Lincoln mig welder is over what I had been using over the last 15 years.  Absolutely everything about this new machine is superior in every way to anything I have ever used before.  From the construction of the hardware items, to the absolutely HUGE welding sweet-spot range, to its ability to weld very thin sheet metal in the lowest ranges, to it’s incredible top end power, this machine will feature very strongly in every welding operation required in my restoration along with countless other jobs around the shop.  Have a look at the few attached pictures to get an idea of the highlight areas I really like plus a few examples of welds I was able to make with almost no practice.  This machine could make any welder look like a rock star!  Check it out here:  Lincoln Power Mig 180C
I couldn't be happier with my new Lincoln mig!  It even had the decency to fit my existing mig cart perfectly!

Here's the business-end of the machine.  I love the simple design and one of my favorite features is the continuous adjustability of the heat range (voltage).  No more detents dictating what amount of weld current you have available.  If I want to tickle in a few more volts for a difficult, out of position weld, I can do it in seconds and light-up and go.

This has got to be one of the most useful bits of information Lincoln has provided with the Power Mig 180C.  This handy welder setting chart just inside the machine cover give excellent machine setting recommendations for almost all forms of steel you are likely to encounter.  Every setting I have tried seems to be spot-on.

Another demonstration of good quality:  brass-on-brass cable connections with large, easy to manipulate knobs.
The build quality of the wire feed mechanism is absolutely second to none!  Cast aluminum structures throughout make this the baddest feed system of any of the machines I looked at, hands down.
With the tension roller swung up out of the way, you can see the geared lower roller nestled in the lower drive feed assembly.

Here is a look at the tension roller with its matching drive gear.

Lincoln's wire guide mechanism is really very impressive.  The wire is exceptionally well supported through the drive path right into the cable liner.  No kinks here!

While regulators like this don't really measure gas flow specifically (a floating-ball flow gauge is far better and reads actual gas flow), the unit supplied by Lincoln is plenty nice and easily adjusted.

A full-size 11lb roll of wire loaded into my new mig is a beautiful sight!  I really appreciate the robust, simple design of this machine the more I use it.

Where the rubber meets the road.  Five nice plug welds with no fuss or bother from the Lincoln Power Mig 180C.  Life is good.......


  1. Nice welder comparison and review Sven! All you're missing are the little "Consumer Reports" circle thingys. :-)

    Seriously though, that Lincoln does look like a serious piece of machinery and that feed mechanism definitely outshines my Millermatic 140's (although I've had no problem with it to date). I think you made a great decision. Congrats on the new machine!

  2. Thanks Alex!

    At the end oif the day, no one is going to go wrong by sticking to either a Miller or Lincoln welder I think. My biggest issue is the apparent "marketing-over-material" mindset that seems to have creeped into the Miller yet the price has continued to remain high. That's just irritating.

  3. Agreed! Honestly, if I had done equivalent research as you and saw the difference between the feed mechanisms of the two before buying, I would have gone with the Lincoln as well. It just looks more robust. I think I was sold up by the AirGas salesman.

  4. The feature that most distinguishes one power supply from another is the hand holding the torch...Honestly, if you can't weld, none of your options will work, and if you can weld, they all will work just fine. I looked at the 180C, got a few quotes, and went with the Hobart for half the price.

  5. ATaylor,

    Overall, I agree, however the quality of equipment is a large part of the game no matter what, and other than the brief Everlast consideration, the "Big Three" in wire feed welders (Hobart, Miller & Lincoln) will give you the ability to enjoy enough consistency in machinery to get "that good". In other words, Yugo's don't win Indy no matter how polished the driver.

    As for a Hobart for half of what the Lincoln costs, are we talking apples-to-apples here? I absolutely scoured the internet and local suppliers and the Hobart Handler 187 was several hundred dollars north of half price. Where do you buy and what machine specifically? I am sure there are other followers of this blog who might be considering a welder purchase would love that info. Too late for me, but then again, I'm still smilin!

  6. Hey, it's ATaylor again...posting under my google account.

    I priced the Lincoln 180C @ $800 shipped to my door. This was from AirGas in Augusta, GA. I ended up getting the Handler 140 for $500 shipped to my door from NorthernTool. Not quite 'half the price' but significantly cheaper.

    However, I ended up getting a free weld cart for the Hobart, which I was looking at $100+ for the Lincoln.

    Luckily as part of my job I've gotten to dink around with tons of power supplies. The L-E is a great little machine, no doubt about it. It was my top choice as well. However, the continuous voltage control was the most compelling feature in it's favor and didn't warrant the cost premium IMHO.

    If you've got the cash (and if you are restoring BOSS 302's you certainly do) the L-E 180C is a top pick. If you are poor like me, the Hobart 140 will work. ;)

  7. Austin,

    Thanks for the follow up and now I understand why I was so confused. The Hobart 140 115V machine is certainly a much more affordable option to the 180C, but not really a fair comparison (at least not among the bracket of 230V welders with similar specs as the Lincoln or Miller I mentioned). The Hobart Handler 187 230V machine adds another $180 ($680 total) with the free shipping option from Northern Tool. At the end of the day, even with free shipping, it was only $50 cheaper than my Lincoln with rebate.

    All told, it sure looks like you have a machine that will work well for you and should provide years of reliable service at a very good price. Enjoy!

  8. I absolutely love my lincoln 180c, has worked faultlessly since day one. Great little unit for the home workshop.