It's a well-known fact that having the correct tools makes any job easier, and in turn, a well-equipped shop makes a classic pickup project a heck of a lot more enjoyable and successful. In my case, and I'm assuming many of yours as well, the equipping of a home shop is one that's achieved over the course of time. Initially starting with a satisfactory selection of basic handtools like socket sets, combination wrench sets, screwdrivers, pliers, clamps of various types, an ever-handy array of hammers and a prybar or two.

From that point comes assorted power tools, both handheld examples such as grinders, drills, saws, etc., and fixed power tools like air compressors, bench grinders, drill presses, and welding equipment (arc, MIG, and/or TIG). In my case, handheld power tools, certain specialty tools, and fixed or bench-top tools are added (in a seemingly endless cycle) to my arsenal in an as-needed (or sometimes as wanted) manner.

Over the years I've noticed that aside from my handtools, required in nearly every facet of mechanical work, there are a few power tools that see much more use than others. In my case, it's been my compressor, my MIG, my stationary belt sander, and either my cut-off wheel equipped die grinder or my 4½-inch electric grinder also fitted with a cut-off wheel.

The last two (along with the occasional Sawzall situation) have been indispensable for cutting and fabricating nearly any and all my metalworking chores. That is until fairly recently when I finally acquired what has now become another one of my most often used power tools – a plasma cutter. And let me tell you, I thought I had my cutting chores deftly handled by the use of my die grinder and electric grinder – that was until I used my plasma cutter for the first time. From that point on it has become my go-to tool for metal cutting of nearly every kind.

For those unfamiliar with plasma cutters, or those who might be considering the purchase of one in the future, lemme try to give you a bit of expressly non-professional info, a touch of personal opinion, in this regard.

Plasma Cutters and How They Work
Nowadays, plasma cutters come in all sizes. There are large industrial plasma cutters that use robotics to make precise cuts. There are also compact units that are perfect for use in autobody shops, small manufacturing concerns, and home shops/garages like yours and mine. Regardless of size, all plasma cutters function on the same principle and are constructed around the same basic design.

Plasma cutters work by sending a pressurized gas, such as nitrogen, argon, compressed air, or oxygen, through a small-diameter passage in the cutter handle. In the center of this passage there is a negatively charged electrode. When electrical power is supplied to the negative electrode (the trigger pressed), and the tip of the nozzle is lowered to the metal to be cut, a circuit is completed and a powerful spark is generated between the electrode and the metal. As the inert gas blows through the passage, the spark super-heats the gas until it reaches the fourth state of matter (The four states being in order: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma).

This reaction creates a stream of directed plasma (super-heated gas), at approximately 30,000-degrees Fahrenheit and moving at about 20,000 feet-per-second, which transforms metal to molten slag, while the shielding gas blows the slag out of the way. The plasma itself conducts the electrical current, and the cycle of creating the arc is continuous as long as power is supplied to the electrode and the plasma stays in contact with the metal that's being cut. In order to ensure this contact, to protect the cut from oxidation, and to regulate the plasma, the cutter nozzle has a second set of passages that provide a constant flow of shielding gas around the cutting area. The pressure of this gas flow effectively controls the radius of the plasma beam.

Plasma cutting can be used on any type of conductive metal, though in our restoration/fabrication cases mild steel, aluminum, and stainless are the most common metals we run across. With mild steel you'll experience faster cuts in thicker objects than you will with alloys. Plasma cutting produces enough energy to melt the metal and also creates the momentum needed to blow the melted slag away. Because of this, plasma cutting can cut non-ferrous materials, requires a lower skill level, and offers faster travel speeds versus sawing or the use of oxyacetylene torches. Plus, it doesn't require the use of flammable or explosive gasses and therefore is safer to operate.