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!|
|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.......|