Whether you’re doing metal work in a professional environment on an industrial scale, in your own home shop for DIY purposes or as a HVAC technician, a plasma cutter is a tool that will offer you quick and clean cuts as long as you know what you’re doing!
Not every plasma cutter is the same and not every one of them would be the best plasma cutter option for you. The cutting capacity, features and amperage can effect just how well a plasma cutter can work for you and also influence its upfront cost.
In this guide we’ll be taking a look at the best plasma cutter options available on the market for you to choose and going through what to expect, things you will need to consider and other questions you may have; starting off with some plasma cutter reviews.
Brands like Hypertherm and Hobart offer heavy duty, reliable and advanced 220v cutting machines that will suit all of your metal cutting needs. That is if you have the budget to afford them and available power outlets.
But what justifies the cost of these plasma cutters when compared to cheaper options?
The answer lies in the components that make up the machine and its features such as pilot arc settings and the ability to adjust air pressure and amperage.
A high end plasma cutter will just perform better, providing you with quicker and cleaner cuts and be able to handle thicker gauge metals. Higher quality components means a more efficient duty cycle (less downtime), a longer life span and less of a requirement for consumables to be replaced.
Quick Picks: High End Plasma Cutters Compared
|Plasma Cutter||Voltage||Clean Cut Capacity||Severance Cut Capacity||Duty Cycle||Torch Lead Length|
|Hypertherm Plasma Cutter Powermax30 XP||110/240||3/8″||5/8″||30% @ 240v, 20% @ 120v||15ft|
|Hobart Plasma Cutter Airforce 40i||240||5/8″||7/8″||Duty Cycle: 50% @ 240v||12ft|
|Miller Plasma Cutter Spectrum 625 X-treme||120/240||5/8″||7/8″||Duty Cycle: 50% @ 140v, 27% @ 91v||12ft|
*All links above will take you to the latest prices on Amazon.com or you can read our in-depth plasma cutter reviews below.
The Hypertherm Powermax range includes some of their highest performing plasma cutters with the Powermax30 XP being one of the best plasma cutters that they offer.
It’s certainly a worthwhile investment if you have the cash to front because you won’t need any other metal cutting equipment for many, many years to come.
It has a maximum input of 240v making it a powerful cutter, but unlike many other models, it comes with a 110v adapter so you can still use it in a workshop that only has a 110v outlet. With that being said, you wouldn’t be using the cutter to its full potential as the power input into the cutter is directly outputted in cutting power.
This plasma cutter is also quite flexible, being designed to handle cuts of 5/8″ (16mm) thick metal while also being able to produce spectacularly fine, detailed cuts of sheet metal. It can certainly cut any type of metal with high quality, reducing the after care needed on your work.
The cutter is small, compact and lightweight making it easy to carry between locations and comes with a hard carry case to keep it safe in transit. Although if you are thinking of transporting it between different places you may also want to consider having a portable air compressor.
The torch itself has an extremely comfortable to use, ergonomic design making it easy for you to perform free-hand cutting if you want to do so. The controls on the main body are easy to read, understand and operate.
With all that said, you are not just getting the plasma cutter with this purchase either, but it includes nearly everything you’ll need to get started. You’ll receive an array of different consumables for fine cutting as well as electrodes, shield, swirl ring, retaining cap, safety equipment and shoulder strap! This all adds value to the overall package you’re getting.
Extended Reach Cutting
Extended Reach Gouging
Fine Feature Cutting
For even more cutting applications such as: flush cutting, marking, mechanized cutting and more you may wish to take a look at the Hypertherm Powermax45 XP found on Amazon.
Hobart is another brand that offers plasma cutters considered to be high quality and reliable and the Airforce 40i is one of their best examples. It strictly requires and 240v input to function correctly but given that, it cuts well, efficiently and cleanly.
It’s a great go-between for light and heavy users with the ability to cut through sheet metal with ease and also sever cut mild steel at a maximum of 7/8″ thick. Clean cutting 5/8″ thick mild steel is also not a problem for this powerful machine.
The interface for this plasma cutter is so easy to use and understand that if you already have an air compressor, it’s ready to use right out of the box. There are indicator lights that tell you when air pressure is low and an easy to ready dial to set the amperage you desire.
It has built in auto refire technology allowing you cut through metal that has been painted, cated, expanded or perforated. The wind tunnel technology present on this device gives it a longer lifespan by preventing abrasive particles from entering and damaging its internal components.
When compared to the Hypertherm Powermax30 XP it’s just as good performance-wise but is it better value for money? I wouldn’t say so, as you get more extras included with a single purchase of the Hypertherm plasma cutter that give you a better user experience with the tool.
This is one of the most powerful but most expensive plasma cutters of the market. For optimal cutting it requires a 240v input but can adapt to a 120v input which is handy for those who don’t have the higher voltage outlets available.
This machine is the cutting edge of technology being able to cut through any metal including clean cuts on 5/8″ mild steel, similar to the other models we have seen so far.
But what makes the Miller plasma cutter stand out from the rest is it’s design focused on user experience! The torch itself is very comfortable, reducing the fatigue in your wrist and arm as you use it. The torch is super easy to connect to the main body and the cable is very flexible giving you more movement range as you cut.
This cutter is highly efficient with consumables too, with a built in cooling system to prevent heat damage to them. This means you’ll not need to replace the consumable parts as often as with other models. And just like the Hobart Airforce 40i it has auto-refire technology.
To top it all off, you’ll receive a hard carry case and shoulder strap to move this sleek and compact cutter around and between workstations. It’s extremely light, weighing in at only 21 pounds, it truly is a great, high performance piece of kit to have in your home or business workshop.
Budget Plasma Cutter Reviews 2019
For lightweight metal work such as cutting sheet metal, brands such as Lotos and Biltek offer 120v plasma cutters which are relatively inexpensive. Perfect for those who have no need to cut through thick metal plating and like to have a plasma cutter on hand for when they might need it.
With a budget plasma cutter you are never going to beat the performance and quality that is offered by high-end brands such as Miller and hypertherm. But with that being said, even if you are on a budget you can still get a plasma cutter that works for you!
What you need to remember though is the reason the high end models are more expensive is because they use better quality components and are more consumable efficient. As a result of this they have a higher lifespan and are easier on the consumables which is better for your wallet in the long run.
Quick Picks: Budget Plasma Cutters Compared
*All links above will take you to the latest prices on Amazon.com or you can read our in-depth plasma cutter reviews below.
With such a high duty cycle if you are using the cutter at an amperage of 50, you can keep on cutting light metal continuously before the device starts to lose performance which shows its quality out of the budget options.
A fantastic feature that the Lotos plasma cutter has is that you can decide on a comfortable grip as the trigger can be adjusted. This is a rare feature and one I think we should see more of! It is however less convenient in the way it chews through consumable; at a faster rate than high end cutters.
And unfortunately, the consumable pieces are quite expensive compared to other models which is a major downside to this otherwise fantastic budget plasma cutter. Other than that it is a solid piece of kit and well worth investing in if you need quality but can’t afford to pay too much upfront.
The Suncoo plasma cutter is much more simplistic in design that all others we have seen so far in this article, with only one dial used to change amperage and a cutting speed switch.
What it does have going for it is an LED output display that tells you your current and power/protection indicator lights.
Performance-wise this is similar to the Lotos plasma cutter in that it has the same cutting capacity, voltage and duty cycle but it does not give the same user experience. The torch is not as comfortable but if that is something you are willing to sacrifice, you may wish to go for this cheaper option.
With that being said, it does cut surprisingly well leaving little clean up work to be done afterwards making this a great little budget plasma cutter option. It also is very compact and small allowing you to transport it with ease.
It even has a carrying handle built onto it.A drawback is that the instruction manual is very lacking when compared to other models which give you a lot more info on the product. The manufacturer recommends visiting this Youtube video to get a more indepth look at the product.
The final plasma cutter review is the budget plasma cutter by biltek. It’s the best plasma cutter for those on a really low budget and rarely needs to cut metal except for the odd DIY job here and there.
And the reason for this is not because the Biltek can’t perform the job as well as the other budget plasma cutter models we have looked at, it’s because it’s less reliable.
It has less effective cooling mechanisms resulting in heat being transferred to the consumables more, reducing their lifespan and causing you to have to replace them more often.
But if you are going to be rarely using this cutter then this package is actually a very good deal. You’ll receive a bunch of replacement consumables with it alongside four hose clamps which makes a purchase quite good value for money considering how inexpensive it is.
Overall this is a good bit of kit for a beginner to have in their workshop for a great price. IT’s the best plasma cutter option for those who want to get their feet wet and try out using a plasma cutter before buying a more robust model for heavy duty and frequent metal working.
What Is a Plasma Cutter?
For those of you who are unsure, a plasma cutter is a device used by metal workers such as HVAC technicians, vehicle mechanics, those that work in fabrication industries and DIY enthusiasts to shape and cut metal.
They provide clean, accurate cuts relatively quickly so that more work can be done to a higher quality.
Since the cuts are mostly cleaner than other metal cutting tools and mechanisms, less after care is needed to be performed on the work, meaning you don’t have to go over the cuts with a grinder so much to get your piece of metal into the correct shape and up to standard.
What is Plasma
Now to get an idea of how a plasma cutter does this the question “what is plasma” needs to be answered. Many people think plasma is some kind of chemical substance but this is untrue.
If you think of the three states of matter: solid, liquid and gas; substances can pass between these stages through the transfer of energy based on the heating and cooling thresholds of the substance in question.
For example H2O is ice (solid state) when below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. It starts to become water (liquid state) at above 32 degrees Fahrenheit and then becomes steam (gaseous state) at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
Plasma is a fourth state of matter in which the gas is heated further to become ionized and electronically active. Plasma is ready to transfer the large amount of energy that it contains onto other conductive materials and when done in a controlled way, we have an efficient mechanism for cutting metal.
What Can a plasma Cutter Be Used For?
It depends on the cutting capacity of the model you have. Plasma cutters that are 220v-240v are usually powerful enough to clean cut through 5/8″ mild steel and severance cut through 7/8″ thick mild steel. These types of cutters can usually cut through any metal at all.
This gives an incredible versatility to the applications your plasma cutter can be used for and it depends on what it is you do.
If you are an HVAC technician for example, you can use it for cutting sheet metal to replace parts of ducting. A DIY enthusiast can use it to make their own rotary smoker or replace metal plating on a vehicle. Even an artist can use a plasma cutter to make metal sculptures!
How to Choose the Best Plasma Cutter
When deciding on a plasma cutter, your first priority is going to be your wallet. Getting the best value for your money is paramount and this can be achieved by making sure you are getting a plasma cutter that is perfect for what you intend to use it for and that it lasts for years to come.
As you can see form the best plasma cutter reviews above, if you are looking for higher performance plasma cutters, you are understandably going to be paying more. Please take the following considerations into account before making a purchase:
How Much Power Is Needed?
The lower power plasma cutter models will mostly only require a power input of 110/120v and 20 amps. As mentioned above, for light metal work this may be all you need.
High powered plasma cutters often require 220/240v and up to 50 amps which means you’ll need a 220/240v outlet in your workshop and if you don’t you may wish to opt in to the Hypertherm Powerline range or the Miller Spectrum range which can adapt to 110/120v outlets.
As a general guide:
25 amp units are good enough if you are regularly cutting metals that are 1/4″ thick or less.
50 amp units are more than enough if you are regularly cutting metals that are 1/2″ thick.
80 amp units will be needed if you are working with metals that are 1” thick or more.
Duty cycle is a measurement of the ability of the plasma cutter to work during an hour time frame before overheating and losing performance depending on the temperature, amperage and workload (thickness of the material you are cutting).
In other words, a plasma cutter does not operate continuously but rather intermittently and has to be put down for a rest after continuous cutting.
The duty cycle is denoted as a percentage and sometimes different manufacturers or brands can give duty cycle based of different parameters.
The Hobart Plasma Cutter Airforce 40i gives a duty cycle of 50% at 240v.
This means that the plasma cutter can work at a 240v input for 50% of an hour. 30 minutes.
On the other hand
The Lotos Plasma Cutter LT5000D gives a duty cycle of 60% at 50 amps
This means that the plasma cutter can work at a 50 amp input for 60% of an hour. 36 minutes.
Some plasma cutters have helpful features or included extras that others do not and this can really add a lot of value to your purchase and experience with the unit.
Pilot arc plasma cutters are the newest technological innovation with this tool. It is a mechanism that can be turned on or off via the user interface. It works to protect the consumables and the torch itself giving your equipment a much longer life expectancy.
Most high end plasma cutters have a pilot arc feature and this is one of the reasons they come at a higher upfront cost. But due to the longer life expectancy of your equipment, and the lower requirement for consumable replacement, it can save you money in the long run.
Plasma cutters are traditionally quite bulky and heavy pieces of kit. Due to technological innovation, modern models are becoming ever smaller and lighter and this is always a plus, as it allows you to save space in your workshop, keep it tidy and also to be more easily able to carry your plasma cutter between locations.
There are also plasma cutters with built in compressors which even further save you space and relieve you of the burden of having this heavy equipment to transport around.
However, If you do like the idea of a plasma cutter with a built in compressor, be aware that you will be sacrificing performance for convenience.
It’s always nice to get extras alongside your plasma cutter purchase. Many of the higher end models and some of the budget options give you spare consumables, carrying cases, should straps and other bonuses that save you from having to purchase these things separately.
Look out for these fantastic deals because they really do save you money!
Plasma Cutter Components
When you buy a plasma cutter it will come with three main parts which are essential to its working: the main body, the grounding clamp and the torch. They usually do not come with an air compressor which is a seperate piece of equipment you will need to have for the plasma torch to function.
The Main Body
The main body has four inputs. The power is the most obvious and this would be in the form of a power cable with an adaptor to plug into an outlet. There is also the input for the grounding clamp, the torch hose and the compressed air.
It will also have a user interface which is the variety of switches, dials and gauges you will use to adjust the settings and read information from to monitor things like amperage and air pressure. These are very important as a drop in air pressure or amperage will result in less clean and slower cutting which can negatively impact your work.
The appearance of the user interface and the options you have available to you can vary between plasma cutters as more high end models with have more features and functions for you to take advantage of.
The Grounding Clamp
The use of the grounding clamp is quite simple, you just clamp it around the piece of metal you are cutting, ensuring the surface that you clamp onto is clean.
The purpose of the grounding clamp is to create a circuit between the metal you are cutting and the plasma torch since the torch uses the electrical charge of the plasma to cut through the metal. It serves to protect your device and yourself by ensuring the electrical charge is directed into the ground and not into the materials you are working with or your equipment.
The Plasma Torch
The torch itself has two main functions. They are to concentrate the plasma arc and to cool the consumables that are attached to it to maintain their function.
The torch consists of the following consumables:
Nozzle: This part directs the plasma arc onto your work. They can come in various forms that can perform different cutting applications such as precision cutting, drag cutting and gouging.
If you look in the centre of your nozzle there is a small hole through which the plasma arc is projected. Gradually this hole will become wider over time causing the arc to lose focus and resulting in less clean cuts.
Shield: The shield is responsible for protecting the other consumables from the excessive sparks and debris that kick up from your project whilst you are cutting.
Some shields are designed for drag cutting allowing you to place the torch directly on to your work which is helpful for the inexperienced who are not yet used to freehand cutting.
Electrode: The electricity used for cutting is directed from the main body into the torch until it reaches a cathode block. The electrode is in contact with the cathode block and works to direct the current onto your piece of metal.
Electrodes are usually made out of copper or silver and contains either hafnium or tungsten which are great electrical conductors. Good electrodes will have a cooling device attached to them to direct the generated heat away from the electrode and the nozzle.
Swirl Ring: The main function of the swirl ring is to help to cool the electrode and the nozzle as the compressed gas travels through them. It directs the gas in different directions causing the cooler gas to be closest to the nozzle.
Without a swirl ring, the gas temperatures would mix and get hotter which would lead to your nozzle burning out very quickly. It’s a critical component and it’s worth investing in high quality ones.
Retaining Cap: The retaining cap is simply the mechanism that fastens all of the consumables together to make up the plasma torch as a whole.
Just remember that the consumables for a plasma torch can be particular to the brand and model that you have. Always follow the manufacturer’s instruction manual when buying consumables so that you know you are getting the best plasma cutter experience and are not inadvertently decreasing the lifespan of your device.
What Gas Do You Use for a Plasma Cutter?
Again, this can depend on the model and brand that you are using as the manufacturer may recommend one gas over another. Generally speaking, just shop air is used but also nitrogen, argon and oxygen among others.
Some gasses are better for particular metals or metal thicknesses than others:
Compressed Air: This is the most affordable and commonly used gas with a plasma cutter but it is the least effective and is best only used with low power models. If used with high end models you are not optimizing to get the best performance out of your plasma cutter.
Nitrogen: Best used with plasma cutter that have high currents and for cutting metals up to 3” thick. Nitrogen can produce very fine and high quality cuts with thinner metals.
Oxygen: The cut produced by oxygen can be rough on aluminum or stainless steel but extremely high quality when used with the mechanized cutting of carbon steel up to thicknesses of 1 – 1/4″.
Argon-Hydrogen Mixtures: This is a required gas for the mechanized cutting of any metal that is thicker than 3”. Other than that it is commonly used for cutting steel or aluminum to produce clean, high quality cuts and is also great for gouging.
What Air Pressure is Required for Plasma Cutting?
When working with a plasma cutter you will find that you can adjust the air pressure either electronically via the user interface or by an air pressure valve in the back. You may be wondering which PSi is best to work with?
You can play around with the air pressure to try and find what works for you but the best way to find out is to simply consult the user manual. With plasma cutters, the user manual is your best friend and will tell you exactly what you need to cut efficiently for your particular model including the what air pressure, amperage and other settings it should be set to.
The plasma cutter is the metal workers tool of choice for cutting metal. Even though it does have it caveats, it is often the quickest, cleanest, cash efficient and safest method of cutting method when compared to a propane torch or oxyfuel.
When you are looking for a plasma cutter you want to include in your home or business workshop, remember to consider the types of metals you are going to be cutting and their thicknesses and if you find you don’t necessarily need a high end model then you are saving yourself money.
However if you are cutting metals above 1/4″ thick you may want to invest in a high end machine as it will last you for years, save you money down the line and give you the cleanest and quickest cuts as well as flexibility.
That’s it for the Heattalk best plasma cutter guide for now, if you have any experience of comments you would like to add, please feel free to comment below.
About the Author
Dave Miller is a HVAC technician with over 10 years in the industry. Dave created HeatTalk with the ambition for it to become a resource for individuals looking for answers, whether they be a layman, student or a professional.