Whether you weld full-time as a profession or occasionally at home--for that matter, if you use any type of welder period--one of the most important components you need to be outfitted with isn't necessarily the most expensive. Regardless the type or quality of machine used, what really counts when it comes to your personal safety is having the best face protection you can afford. Your eyesight is not expendable, so do yourself a favor and take the precautions to ensure you're properly covered whenever you strike an arc!

When it comes to choosing the right welding helmet, there are two major factors to consider first: quality and comfort. Obviously, you should have the best technological features available, but as with anything, that all comes with a price. At the same time, the most expensive helmet on the market might not turn out to be the best-fitting for you. Unless you're familiar with a particular brand or style, it's a good idea to visit a welding supply or two and try a few different models on for size. Keep in mind that you want to provide protection, not distraction, so weight, ergonomics, and physical attributes (lens size, adjustability, and location of controls) should all be considered.

Back to the technology aspect, while not all of us are of the auto-darkening mode when it comes to welding helmets, quality still matters. For the "nodders" out there who still prefer a standard type helmet, having the proper shade characteristics (most often #10 filter, but higher-amp arcs will require more shade) and appropriate UV/IR coating is very important. Beyond that, it pretty much boils down to personal preference when it comes to the remaining aspects. On the other hand, auto-darkening helmets are like anything that offers added convenience--loaded with features--thus require more things for you to consider!

Just like the standard-lens helmets, ultimately you want your auto-darkening one to have the right filtering capabilities to protect your eyes. But at the same time, you also want the automatic shading to perform accurately and consistently. By design, this type of lens is constructed with a sealed liquid crystal that relies on sensors (powered by battery or solar--or both) to activate the darkening function. While cheaper no-name helmets may indeed perform this task, who's to say for how long or even how precise? Furthermore, those helmets may not meet current safety standards (min. ANSI Z87.1), not to mention fail to darken at the speed in which they're advertised. That functional delay alone can be detrimental, as each time you start an arc, your eyesight's susceptible to damage.

HTP America | 800-USA-Weld | www.usaweld.com

Once you see the light and realize the importance of quality, then you can weigh the "variables"--in shading and control features. Obviously, not all auto-darkening helmets are created the same, as not everyone welds the same, let alone with the same type of machine. Therefore, you have to consider your own personal needs when selecting the range of shade as well as the switching speed, which is the time it takes the lens to go from light to dark. Typically, the faster the better--but with increased speed comes increased price. For an individual who welds regularly on a daily basis, it pays to have a helmet with a 1/20,000-second reaction time; an occasional welder may not require that level of sensitivity, thus a standard 1/16,000-second switching speed is sufficient (and more affordable). On top of reaction time, you'll also want to make sure the lens darkens accordingly with the type of welding you perform--as a general rule, the more amperage produced, the more shading that's required. So while most helmets filter from #9 (light) up to #12 (darkest) with a #3 or #4 natural light shade, you may need a higher adjustment level, in which case you'll need one that is capable of darkening to #13 (or higher, which isn't common though). For TIG applications, you'll need a suitable low-amperage capability. Additionally, many newer helmets have different work mode options that allow the user to perform even more tasks than just welding.

Finally, after considering the darkening aspects make sure the helmet you choose is fairly easy to use. Most intermediate-level models feature internal controls (meaning the helmet must be removed to adjust levels of darkness, sensitivity, and delay, if applicable), but externally mounted controls are available. Power-wise, along with having solar-assist, a replaceable battery is preferred, as the internal/non-replaceable batteries can be an issue, especially when they run low and you're left relying on the sun to recharge (that is if you're welding on a sunny day to begin with!). Lens replacement is unavoidable, so it's nice to know whether or not they're available when the time comes, if not included with the helmet to begin with. Lastly, as previously mentioned, take into consideration the particular weight of a helmet--if it feels a little heavy at first, just imagine how much heavier it'll be after you've been welding for any decent length of time. A mere pound might seem insignificant initially, but it's better if that pound's in the minus category rather than the plus. However, quality headgear with ample padding will carry some of that load, but ultimately, it's your neck muscles that will truly benefit from a lighter weight helmet.

Between HTP, Hobart, Miller, and Lincoln, we've compiled a variety of welding helmet options for you to choose from. Along with the garden-variety "cheapies" we've warned you about, there are also higher-end helmets currently available--but for those who weld at that level, you shouldn't need our advice in the first place!

Miller Electric | www.millerwelds.com

Miller's Performance Series helmets are perfect for the hobbyist welder--and priced accordingly. Featuring the same shade/filtering characteristics as the Digital Elites, these come with a standard-size lens (with external-replacement cover plates) and are available in a variety of styles--shown is the Fireball model. Comes with 2-year warranty.

Lincoln Electric | www.lincolnelectric.com

Hobart | www.hobartwelders.com

Moving down the line, Hobart's XVS line is still considerably lightweight, but variability options and viewing size are more limited--which unless you're a full-time welder, shouldn't be a huge factor (if TIG welding applies, step up to the XVP line). Comes with 2-year warranty.

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