MIG Welding (GMAW) Process Techniques & Tips

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Gas metal arc welding (GMAW), sometimes referred to by its subtypes, metal inert gas (MIG) welding or metal active gas (MAG) welding, is a semi-automatic or automatic arc welding process in which a continuous and consumable wire electrode and a shielding gas are fed through a welding gun.

A constant voltage, direct current power source is most commonly used with GMAW, but constant current systems, as well as alternating current, can be used.

There are four primary methods of metal transfer in GMAW:

  • Globular
  • Short-circuiting
  • Spray
  • Pulsed-spray

Each of which has distinct properties and corresponding advantages and limitations.

Shielding is obtained from an externally supplied gas or gas mixture.

mig welding

Originally developed for welding aluminum and other non-ferrous materials in the 1940s, GMAW was soon applied to steels because it allowed for lower welding time compared to other welding processes.

The cost of inert gas limited its use in steels until several years later, when the use of semi-inert gases such as carbon dioxide became common.

mig welding diagram

MIG Welding Basics

MIG welding is operated in semiautomatic, machine, and automatic modes. It is utilized particularly in high production welding operations.

All commercially important metals such as carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum, and copper can be welded with this process in all positions by choosing the appropriate shielding gas, electrode, and welding conditions.


MIG cut away

Gas metal arc welding equipment consists of a welding gun, a power supply, a shielding gas supply, and a wire-drive system that pulls the wire electrode from a spool and pushes it through a welding gun.

A source of cooling water may be required for the welding gun.

In passing through the gun, the wire becomes energized by contact with a copper contact tube, which transfers current from a power source to the arc.

While simple in principle, a system of accurate controls is employed to initiate and terminate the shielding gas and cooling water, operate the welding contractor, and control electrode feed speed as required.

The basic features of MIG welding equipment are shown in figure 10-45.

The MIG process is used for semiautomatic, machine, and automatic welding. Semiautomatic MIG welding is often referred to as manual welding.

mig welding process

Developments during the 1950s and 1960s gave the process more versatility and as a result, it became a highly used industrial process.

Today with the some of the best MIG machines around, GMAW is commonly used in industries such as the automobile industry, where it is preferred for its versatility and speed.

Unlike welding processes that do not employ a shielding gas, such as shielded metal arc welding, it is rarely used outdoors or in other areas of air volatility.

A related Mig process, flux cored arc welding, often does not utilize a shielding gas, instead employing a hollow electrode wire that is filled with flux on the inside.

Power Supply

Two types of power sources are used for MIG welding: constant current and constant voltage.

1. Constant current power supply

With this type, the welding current is established by the appropriate setting on the power supply.

Arc length (voltage) is controlled by the automatic adjustment of the electrode feed rate.

This type of welding is best suited to large diameter electrodes and machine or automatic welding, where very rapid change of electrode feed rate is not required.

Most constant current power sources have a drooping volt-ampere output characteristic.

However, true constant current machines are available.

Constant current power sources are not normally selected for MIG welding because of the control needed for electrode feed speed. The systems are not self-regulating.

2. Constant voltage power supply

The arc voltage is established by setting the output voltage on the power supply.

The power source will supply the necessary amperage to melt the welding electrode at the rate required to maintain the present voltage or relative arc length.

The speed of the electrode drive is used to control the average welding current.

This characteristic is generally preferred for the welding of all metals.

The use of this type of power supply in conjunction with a constant wire electrode feed results in a self-correcting arc length system.

Motor generator or dc rectifier power sources of either type may be used.

With a pulsed direct current power supply, the power source pulses the dc output from a low background value to a high peak value.

Because the average power is lower, pulsed welding current can be used to weld thinner sections than those that are practical with steady dc spray transfer.

Manual and Automatic Welding Guns

Welding guns for MIG welding are available for manual manipulation (semiautomatic welding) and for machine or automatic welding.

Because the electrode is fed continuously, a welding gun must have a sliding electrical contact to transmit the welding current to the electrode.

The gun must also have a gas passage and a nozzle to direct the shielding gas around the arc and the molten weld pool.

Cooling is required to remove the heat generated within the gun and radiated from the welding arc and the molten weld metal.

Shielding gas, internal circulating water, or both, are used for cooling.

An electrical switch is needed to start and stop the welding current, the electrode feed system, and shielding gas flow.

Semiautomatic MIG Welding Guns

Semiautomatic, hand-held guns are usually similar to a pistol in shape.

Sometimes they are shaped similar to an oxyacetylene torch, with electrode wire fed through the barrel or handle.

In some versions of the pistol design, where the most cooling is necessary, water is directed through passages in the gun to cool both the contact tube and the metal shielding gas nozzle.

The curved gun uses a curved current-carrying body at the front end, through which the shielding gas is brought to the nozzle.

This type of gun is designed for small diameter wires and is flexible and maneuverable.

It is suited for welding in tight, hard to reach corners and other confined places. Guns are equipped with metal nozzles of various internal diameters to ensure adequate gas shielding.

The orifice usually varies from approximately 3/8 to 7/8 in. (10 to 22 mm), depending upon welding requirements.

The nozzles are usually threaded to make replacement easier. They can easily be removed with a pair of welding pliers.

The conventional pistol type holder is also used for arc spot welding applications where filler metal is required.

The heavy nozzle of the holder is slotted to exhaust the gases away from the spot.

The pistol grip handle permits easy manual loading of the holder against the work.

The welding control is designed to regulate the flow of cooling water and the supply of shielding gas.

It is also designed to prevent the wire freezing to the weld by timing the weld over a preset interval.

A typical semiautomatic gas-cooled gun is shown in figure 10-46.

mig welding gun

Air Cooled Guns

Air-cooled guns are available for applications where water is not readily obtainable as a cooling medium. These guns are available for service up to 600 amperes, intermittent duty, with carbon dioxide shielding gas. However, they are usually limited to 200 amperes with argon or helium shielding. The holder is generally pistol-like and its operation is similar to the water-cooled type. Three general types of air-cooled guns are available.

  1. A gun that has the electrode wire fed to it through a flexible conduit from a remote wire feeding mechanism. The conduit is generally in the 12 ft (3.7 m) length range due to the wire feeding limitations of a push-type system. Steel wires of 7/20 to 15/16 in. (8.9 to 23.8 mm) diameter and aluminum wires of 3/64 to 1/8 in. (1.19 to 3.18 mm) diameter can be fed with this arrangement.
  2. A gun that has a self-contained wire feed mechanism and electrode wire supply. The wire supply is generally in the form of a 4 in. (102 mm) diameter, 1 to 2-1/2 lb (0.45 to 1.1 kg) spool. This type of gun employs a pull-type wire feed system, and it is not limited by a 12 ft (3.7 m) flexible conduit. Wire diameters of 3/10 to 15/32 in. (7.6 to 11.9 mm) are normally used with this type of gun.
  3. A pull-type gun that has the electrode wire fed to it through a flexible conduit from a remote spool. This incorporates a self-contained wire feeding mechanism. It can also be used in a push-pull type feeding system. The system permits the use of flexible conduits in lengths up to 50 ft (15 m) or more from the remote wire feeder. Aluminum and steel electrodes with diameters of 3/10 to 5/8 in. (7.6 to 15.9 mm) can be used with these types of feed mechanisms.

Water-cooled Guns

Water-cooled guns for manual MIG welding similar to gas-cooled types with the addition of water cooling ducts. The ducts circulate water around the contact tube and the gas nozzle. Water cooling permits the gun to operate continuously at rated capacity and at lower temperatures.

Water-coded guns are used for applications requiring 200 to 750 amperes. The water in and out lines to the gun add weight and reduce maneuverability of the gun for welding.

Air vs. Water Cooled Welding Guns

The selection of air- or water-cooled guns is based on the type of shielding gas, welding current range, materials, weld joint design, and existing shop practice. Air-cooled guns are heavier than water-cooled guns of the same welding current capacity. However, air-cooled guns are easier to manipulate to weld out-of-position and in confined areas.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages of MIG Welding

  • The major advantage of gas metal-arc welding is that high-quality welds can be produced much faster than with SMAW or TIG welding.
  • Since a flux is not used, there is no chance for the entrapment of slag in the weld metal.
  • The shielding gas protects the arc so that there is very little loss of alloying elements as the metal transfers across the arc. Only minor weld spatter is produced, and it is easily removed.
  • This process is versatile and can be used with a wide variety of metals and alloys, including aluminum, copper, magnesium, nickel, and many of their alloys, as well as iron and most of its alloys. The process can be operated in several ways, including semi- and fully automatic. MIG welding is widely used by many industries for welding a broad variety of materials, parts, and structures.

Disadvantages of MIG Welding

  • The major disadvantage of this process is that it cannot be used in the vertical or overhead welding positions due to the high heat input and the fluidity of the weld puddle.
  • The equipment is complex compared to equipment used for the shielded metal-arc welding process.

Related Read: MIG Welding vs TIG welding

Arc Power and Polarity

The vast majority of MIG welding applications require the use of direct current reverse polarity (electrode positive).

This type of electrical connection yields a stable arc, smooth metal transfer, relatively low spatter loss, and good weld bead characteristics for the entire range of welding currents used.

Direct current straight polarity (electrode negative) is seldom used, since the arc can become unstable and erratic even though the electrode melting rate is higher than that achieved with dcrp (electrode positive).

When employed, dcsp (electrode negative) is used in conjunction with a “buried” arc or short-circuiting metal transfer. Penetration is lower with straight polarity than with reverse polarity direct current.

Alternating current has found no commercial acceptance with the MIG welding process for two reasons: the arc is extinguished during each half cycle as the current reduces to zero, and it may not reignite if the cathode cools sufficiently; and rectification of the reverse polarity cycle promotes the erratic arc operation.

Metal Transfer

Filler metal can be transferred from the electrode to the work in two ways: when the electrode contacts the molten weld pool, thereby establishing a short circuit, which is known as short circuiting transfer (short circuiting arc welding); and when discrete drops are moved across the arc gap under the influence of gravity or electromagnetic forces. Drop transfer can be either globular or spray type.

Shape, size, direction of drops (axial or nonaxial), and type of transfer are determined by a number of factors.

The factors having the most influence are:

  1. Magnitude and type of welding current.
  2. Current density.
  3. Electrode composition.
  4. Electrode extension.
  5. Shielding gas.
  6. Power supply characteristics.

Axially directed transfer refers to the movement of drops along a line that is a continuation of the longitudinal axis of the electrode. Nonaxially directed transfer refers to movement in any other direction.

Short Circuiting Transfer

Short-circuiting arc welding uses the lowest range of welding currents and electrode diameters associated with MIG welding.

This type of transfer produces a small, fast-freezing weld pool that is generally suited for the joining of thin sections, out-of-position welding, and filling of large root openings.

When weld heat input is extremely low, plate distortion is small. Metal is transferred from the electrode to the work only during a period when the electrode is in contact with the weld pool. There is no metal transfer across the arc gap.

The electrode contacts the molten weld pool at a steady rate in a range of 20 to over 200 times each second. As the wire touches the weld metal, the current increases. It would continue to increase if an arc did not form. The rate of current increase must be high enough to maintain a molten electrode tip until filler metal is transferred. It should not occur so fast that it causes spatter by disintegration of the transferring drop of filler metal. The rate of current increase is controlled by adjustment of the inductance in the power source. The value of inductance required depends on both the electrical resistance of the welding circuit and the temperature range of electrode melting. The open-circuit voltage of the power source must be low enough so that an arc cannot continue under the existing welding conditions. A portion of the energy for arc maintenance is provided by the inductive storage of energy during the period of short-circuiting.

As metal transfer only occurs during short-circuiting, shielding gas has very little effect on this type of transfer. Spatter can occur. It is usually caused either by gas evolution or electromagnetic forces on the molten tip of the electrode.

Globular Transfer

With a positive electrode (dcrp), globular transfer takes place when the current density is relatively low, regardless of the type of shielding gas. However, carbon dioxide (CO2) shielding yields this type of transfer at all usable welding currents. Globular transfer is characterized by a drop size of greater diameter than that of the electrode.

Globular, axially directed transfer can be achieved in a substantially inert gas shield without spatter. The arc length must be long enough to assure detachment of the drop before it contacts the molten metal. However, the resulting weld is likely to be unacceptable because of lack of fusion, insufficient penetration, and excessive reinforcement.

Carbon dioxide shielding always yields nonaxially directed globular transfer. This is due to an electromagnetic repulsive force acting upon the bottom of the molten drops. Flow of electric current through the electrode generates several forces that act on the molten tip. The most important of these are pinch force and anode reaction force. The magnitude of the pinch force is a direct function of welding current and wire diameter, and is usually responsible for drop detachment. With CO2 shielding, the wire electrode is melted by the arc heat conducted through the molten drop. The electrode tip is not enveloped by the arc plasma. The molten drop grows until it detaches by short circuiting or gravity.

Spray Transfer

In a gas shield of at least 80 percent argon or helium, filler metal transfer changes from globular to spray type as welding current increases for a given size electrode. For all metals, the change takes place at a current value called the globular-to-spray transition current.

Spray type transfer has a typical fine arc column and pointed wire tip associated with it. Molten filler metal transfers across the arc as fine droplets. The droplet diameter is equal to or less than the electrode diameter. The metal spray is axially directed. The reduction in droplet size is also accompanied by an increase in the rate of droplet detachment, as illustrated in figure 10-47. Metal transfer rate may range from less than 100 to several hundred droplets per second as the electrode feed rate increases from approximately 100 to 800 in./min (42 to 339 mm/s).

fig10 47

MIG Welding Procedures

1. The welding procedures for MIG welding are similar to those for other arc welding processes.

Adequate fixturing and clamping of the work are required with adequate accessibility for the welding gun.

Fixturing must hold the work rigid to minimize distortion from welding. It should be designed for easy loading and unloading.

Good connection of the work lead (ground) to the workpiece or fixturing is required. Location of the connection is important, particularly when welding ferromagnetic materials such as steel.

The best direction of welding is away from the work lead connection.

The position of the electrode with respect to the weld joint is important in order to obtain the desired joint penetration, fusion, and weld bead geometry.

Electrode positions for automatic MIG welding are similar to those used with submerged arc welding.

2. When complete joint penetration is required, some method of weld backing will help to control it.

A backing strip, backing weld, or copper backing bar can be used.

Backing strips and backing welds usually are left in place. Copper backing bars are removable.

3. The assembly of the welding equipment should be done according to the manufacturer’s directions.

All gas and water connections should be tight; there should be no leaks.

Aspiration of water or air into the shielding gas will result in erractic arc operation and contamination of the weld.

Porosity may also occur.

4. The gun nozzle size and the shielding gas flow rate should be set according to the recommended welding procedure for the material and joint design to be welded.

Joint designs that require long nozzle-to-work distances will need higher gas flow rates than those used with normal nozzle-to-work distances.

The gas nozzle should be of adequate size to provide good gas coverage of the weld area.

When welding is done in confined areas or in the root of thick weld joints, small-size nozzles are used.

5. The gun contact tube and electrode feed drive rolls are selected for the particular electrode composition and diameter, as specified by the equipment manufacturer.

The contact tube will wear with usage and must be replaced periodically if good electrical contact with the electrode is to be maintained and heating of the gun is to be minimized.

6. Electrode extension is set by the distance between the tip of the contact tube and the gas nozzle opening.

The extension used is related to the type of MIG welding, short-circuiting or spray type transfer.

It is important to keep the electrode extension (nozzle-to-work distance) as uniform as possible during welding.

Therefore, depending on the application, the contact tube may be inside, flush with, or extending beyond the gas nozzle.

7. The electrode feed rate and welding voltage are set to the recommended values for the electrode size and material.

With a constant voltage power source, the welding current will be established by the electrode feed rate.

A trial bead weld should be made to establish proper voltage (arc length) and feed rate values.

Other variables, such as slope control, inductance, or both, should be adjusted to give good arc starting and smooth arc operation with minimum spatter.

The optimum settings will depend on the equipment design and controls, electrode material and size, shielding gas, weld joint design, base metal composition and thickness, welding position, and welding speed.

As with any welding process, make sure you follow the safety advice for MIG welding.

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About Jeff Grill

Jeff Grill hails from Long Island, a 118 mile stretch of land that starts just off the coast of Manhattan and stretches deep into the Atlantic ocean. He has always been interested in welding from an early age and has the cuts and bruises to prove it as he set out to work with a variety of metals.

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