In a quiet battle that wages in the inner sanctum of many fab shops, a welding debate pits the Old Guard against the next generation of welders. Though most trade schools have given the nod to semi-auto welding processes, seasoned veterans who’ve finessed their hard-earned technique by burning truckloads of rod aren’t necessarily convinced.
So which is better, SMAW or hard wire? Well, regardless of where you stand on the issue, the fab industry is undergoing a paradigm shift. Out with stick and in with MIG and FCAW. Whether this shift is motivated by the more operator friendly nature of MIG/FCAW or semi-auto’s higher weld deposition is debatable. What is clear is that the bias against stick welding is wide spread.
But wait, the stick artisans argue, MIG is useless outdoors and FCAW chokes with fumes. The roll drives that feed wire are finicky and more problem prone than the simpler shielded arc setup. Plus, semi-autos are less forgiving to incorrect volt/current settings, the CV welding units more temperamental than their CC counterparts.
However, when MIG setups are dialed in and utilized in controlled environments, there’s no denying their supremacy. The auto feed wire eliminates the need to constantly change rods and gas shielding negates slag removal. FCAW, with its slag system, adds outdoor capability with much greater deposition rates than stick. Also, the shorter electrode stick out is easier to manipulate and requires less talent to master.
Does this mean stick is dead? Hardly. Those fabricators and weekend warriors that work outside will probably never abandon stick, especially if simplicity, affordability, and portability are preferred. SMAW is incredibly versatile, well suited to a wide range of metals and thicknesses. Moreover, the longer rod- –a bane to those lacking dexterity—is priceless when welding in confined spaces that forbid the more cumbersome semi-auto gun.
The answer to the question then—manual or semi-auto—depends on the unique circumstances of the job, the merits and demerits of each weighed on a case by case basis.