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The three most common welding processes are MIG, TIG, and Stick. Each has their own unique advantages and disadvantages, and while all being types of welding, are surprisingly different in how they function.
The Basics: What are MIG, TIG, and Stick Welding?
Let’s start with Stick or SMAW (Shielded Metal Arc Welding) welding, the easiest and simplest method. Stick welding uses a simple set up: you heat up an electrode along with your work surface, it melts and mingles with the melted portion of what you’re working on, and forms a quick and dirty weld.
MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welding is similar to Stick welding in that it uses an electrode, but rather than a stiff, solid electrode it uses electrode wires, spool fed through a gun.
TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) welding uses a non-consumable electrode. Tungsten has an incredibly high melting point (the highest of all pure metals), so can be heated to any temperature you would care to imagine and still retain its shape. This means the tungsten can be heated to melt the surface you’re working on without consuming your electrode, at the cost of needing a separate filler rod (hand fed using your off hand) to fill in the weld.
And that’s the basics of how all 3 work, so let’s get into why you would use any of the above over the other 2.
What Are The Differences Between MIG, TIG, and Stick Welding?
Aside from the obvious differences in how the process works (stiff electrode, electrode spool, and tungsten reusable electrode plus a filler), each has certain circumstances they can be used in, and metals they can be used on.
Stick welding, for instance, is in some ways the most versatile of the three. It can be used on a wide variety of metals: steel, stainless steel (including welding pieces of these two different materials together), nickel alloys, chrome, and even aluminum (though it’s not the greatest at this). The catch is your material needs to be fairly thick (1/16” or thicker) to do it. On the bright side, it’s usable in windy conditions outdoors, and can even be used to weld rusty or corroded metal in a pinch.
It’s also very easy to learn and dirty cheap as far as welding goes, with the main drawback being it will not make pretty welds. It doesn’t much matter how good you are, a Stick weld is going to be rougher and uglier than using any other process.
MIG welding is the next step up in complexity. It’s what you could consider your “standard” welding. Where Stick welding can be performed by pretty much anybody with a little practice, you’re going to want more hands on experience with MIG welding before trying your own projects. MIG welding can be used on any metal, and produces clean, nice looking welds in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing.
Your drawbacks here are the only advantaged Stick welding has over it: MIG welding needs a VERY clean surface; no rust, no contaminants, or even moisture should be on the surface you’re welding. It’s also basically unusable outdoors, especially in the wind.
TIG welding is the most complex process but is very rewarding if you take the time to learn it. TIG welding has a lot of factors to consider that other processes don’t, and can be very tricky until your muscle memory kicks in on what you need to do. It’s also extremely slow, and requires a completely clean work surface. Even if it wasn’t impacted by the wind (which it is, don’t try to TIG weld outdoors), the potential for dust contaminating your weld is something you wouldn’t want to risk. It can also be very expensive to get into.
But for all those drawbacks, TIG welding produces the finest welds possible, being almost unnoticeable if done well, and that’s why it’s preferred by artists or people looking to do very delicate work.
Let’s break down in detail the strengths and weaknesses of MIG welding.
A quick refresher: MIG welding uses spooled electrode wire, which is fed into the gun as you use it. The wire is heated, and contains the filler used to meld with the surface of whatever you’re welding.
MIG welding requires a separate shielding gas be used when you’re welding, and what kind depends on the conditions and type of material you’re welding. This shielding gas prevents nitrogen and oxygen from melding with what you’re welding, which prevents porous, rough, incomplete, or otherwise “dirty” welds.
Of the three welding processes we’re talking about, it is most similar to Stick welding in what it can do, but the similarities end there. MIG welding is a more sophisticated process that produces better and cleaner welds than Stick welding, but at the same time is still incredibly easy to use, being sometimes half-jokingly compared to a hot glue gun. It’s pretty much just point and click at its basic level, and relies mostly on patience and a steady hand to produce superb results.
MIG welding is primarily used for jobs that require strong, clean welds. This makes it especially common in the automotive industry, as MIG welding produces a weld that is very resistant to impacts. It’s also commonly used in plumbing, robotics, construction, and any other industry that prefers strength to aesthetics.
The only true drawback is it can’t be effectively used outdoors, and that’s the only reason Stick welding still has a place in some of those same industries.
In short: use MIG welding for most of your welding needs. It’s easy to learn and use, produces exceptional welds for most purposes, is usable in a wide variety of conditions, and is a skillset that is always in demand.
And on to Stick welding.
A quick refresher: Stick (or SMAW) welding uses a stiff, inflexible electrode that is slowly consumed and replaced over the course of welding. This stick contains both the filler needed and the shielding gas (flux) required for welding.
Stick welding is an archaic process mostly obsoleted by MIG welding at this point, but does have a few things to recommend it over MIG welding in some niche circumstances.
The major standout is probably in the realm of farm work. Stick welding works on pretty much any metal you can throw at it (though is terrible at welding thinner materials) and, unlike MIG and TIG welding, works just as well outdoors as indoors, since it is barely affected by changes in the way the wind is blowing. This makes it perfect for doing stuff like spot repairs on a broken down tractor or trailer that needs fixing.
Stick welding is also very cheap to get into, and easy to set up and get started, having very inexpensive equipment compared to other processes. Finally, it works just as well on rusted or corroded materials as not, making it easy to pick up and use in any circumstance.
For many that’s probably enough to recommend it as a cheap alternative for something you’re not going to be doing a lot but may need in a pinch. But in a professional sense anything Stick can do, MIG can do better, and more efficiently (Stick welders only have about a 25% duty cycle on average, so about 2 and a half minutes of up time followed by 7 and a half of downtime on average).
Stick welding produces very sloppy, rough welds and not much can be done to mitigate that. The welds aren’t just ugly, but also less durable. Not so much as to make Stick welds unsafe, mind you, but they can’t stand up to the same punishment as MIG welds, which produce a truer blending of the two sides of the weld, where Stick welds are often as much hardened slag as anything else.
In short: Stick welding is inexpensive and works outdoors and on rusty equipment, making it perfect for farm work, but the inferior quality of its welds make it not recommended for much else.
Finally, we look at “the artist’s process”, TIG welding.
A quick refresher: TIG welding uses a reusable tungsten electrode, combined with a separate filler rod to produce its welds.
The main drawbacks to TIG welding are the same as MIG, but even more so. You can’t really TIG weld outdoors, and your work surface needs to be clean enough to eat off of (and if you do so, clean it again).
On top of that, TIG welding is complex. Where MIG and Stick welding basically just require you to set up the gun, point, and shoot, TIG welding needs you to balance the gun in one hand, the filler rod in the other, and manipulating a foot pedal for proper heat regulation on top of that. On paper it’s not that complicated but it’s a lot like patting your head and rubbing your belly while hopping on one leg: doable, but takes a bit of getting used to.
As a reward for all that effort you get unparalleled welds in the realm of aesthetics. The beading is small and easy to hide, as well as uniform so it can be worked into art pieces seamlessly, and is the only way to go for very delicate work.
While you have to jump through a lot of hoops to TIG weld, and it’s too slow to be practical for most professional jobs, for people that want to use welding as a way to express their artistry it’s a perfect process.
In short: TIG welding is difficult to use and finicky, with a lot of hoops to jump through and practice needed to make good use of. It’s slow, demanding, and expensive to get into…but you can’t argue with the results of a master TIG welder’s labor.
So, pulling it all together:
Which Welding Process Is Right for You?
Use Stick Welding if:
You are on a budget. Stick welding is the cheapest type of welding to get into.
You need to do work outdoors. Stick welding isn’t overly affected by wind, so it’s safe and effective to use in outdoor conditions.
You don’t mind rough, unsightly welds. Stick welds are bulky, noticeable, and thick, so don’t use it on anything you want to look nice.
You don’t plan to weld much. Stick welding is extremely easy to learn and set up, and easy to store when you’re done with it, on top of the advantage of it being cheap.
You can’t clean your working surface. Stick welding is close to the only process that can be used on rusty or corroded surfaces.
Use MIG Welding if:
You want to start a professional career. MIG welding is widely used in a variety of industries, and especially for automotive manufacturing and repair. It’s almost always in demand.
You prefer something that is easy to learn, but hard to master. MIG welding is easy to pick up and go with, but has a lot of flexibility and nuance to it that can show in your work.
You work primarily indoors. MIG welding doesn’t work very well outside or in particularly unclean environments.
You want versatility. MIG welding works on any metal, and can weld fairly thin materials, making it a very flexible skill to learn.
Use TIG Welding if:
You value precision above all else. TIG welding is pretty much the only choice for delicate welds or use on very thin materials.
You’re an artist. TIG welds are aesthetically pleasing, uniform, and can be made very small.
You don’t mind putting in the time to learn. TIG welding has a very steep learning curve, and the factors required both in the moment to moment usage and even the initial setup can be daunting.
You are patient/not in a rush. TIG welding is the slowest of all the common welding processes, and requires a lot of patience to finish a project.
Quick Breakdown: Advantages and Disadvantages of MIG, TIG, and Stick Welding:
No matter what type of welding you decide to do, there are a number of important pieces of equipment you’ll need or want to do the job. Chief among these are your proper welding apparel.
One of the most important is your choice of welding helmet, and I do urge you to get a helmet rather than a more stereotypical mask (the flip down variety). In either case, the shaded view-port shields your eyes from the harsh glare produced when welding, which can destroy your sight in the long term. It also protects your face from flash burns. What a welding helmet does that a mask does not, however, is protect the rest of your head. For in line or flat welding this isn’t as big of a concern, but for out of position welds you’ll be grateful for something preventing hot metal droplets from dripping into your ears or on your throat.
Similarly a welder jacket performs the same service for the rest of your body. You want something fireproof or at least resistant and that covers your entire upper body, from chin to below the waist, and all the way down to your wrists for the sleeves. It should be properly fitted and able to keep you cool while protecting you on hot days. There are many different styles, be sure to pick one best suited for your body type.
Good welding boots or general purpose work boots are a must for any labor intensive job, and welding is no exception. Like all work boots these should be slip resistant, comfortable, and protective (with steel toes for certain and a metatarsal guard and shanks are always a plus), but most importantly these boots should be fire and shock resistant, as you’ll be dealing with a lot of both. Kevlar threading is an important basic factor to look for, as Kevlar is durable and self extinguishing.
Last but not least you need welding gloves. These should be durable, fireproof, and heat resistant (not the same thing). If you’re TIG welding, look for flexible gloves with less heat resistance and get a TIG finger, but for all other types of welding, durability is the key factor.
In addition to these must haves, depending on your circumstances a welding cart is usually nice to have, to cart around your tank of shielding gas, tools, and welder itself.
Likewise you could potentially need to invest in a welder generator, a generator for off-site work to run power tools that comes with an integrated welding machine.
No welding process is “one size fits all”, and a professional welder might find themselves swapping between at least two of these processes to get the job done. MIG welding is the most generally useful, but it’s always good to have at least a basic understanding of Stick welding for when a job might call for it, and TIG welding experience looks very nice on your resume, being a fairly specialized skillset to have.
All are valid, and being a well rounded welder is a key to success in this industry.