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Surviving the garage as a DIYer is all about knowing when and where to save money. As much as you'd like to cut costs every step of the way, that's how you wind up with enough cheap junk to scare yourself out of getting things done.
If you’re trying to stick metal together on the cheap, Harbor Freight’s Chicago Electric welders seem like the perfect solution. Only, it’s hard to get a good read on what they’re all about by listening to just what others have to say. You'll often tap into overly negative reviews that tear it apart just because it is so cheap or overly positive reviews that hype it up for the same reason.
Reviews that lean too far one way or the other make it hard for potential buyers to get the honest take they need. They don't want to miss out on a solid but cheap machine because someone knocked it, or end up with something that simply won't do what they were led to believe it would by someone who oversold it. That’s especially true when their budget forces them to seek out the cheapest solutions possible.
I'll cut right to the chase. I've beaten the snot out of Chicago Electric's 125 flux welder. Most recently, it's seen me through the brutal rust-purging my 1969 Dodge Charger has undergone for the second time. While it's done everything I could ask a cheap welder to do, I won't overhype it. Instead, I want to talk through what this welder brings to the table of folks stuck to a shoestring budget.
Of course, you should take my input with a grain of salt. I'm no pro welder, and I do not claim to be. I’m just a guy in his garage trying to put a car together on the cheap.
Chicago Electric 125 Flux Welder Overview
This is a 125-amp wire welder. It runs on 120-volt power, uses flux-core welding wire, and is capable of welding 18-gauge to 3/16-inch thick steel. It retails for right around $140 at Harbor Freight, but often goes on sale, making for one of the most economically priced options for anyone considering wire welding.
To be clear, it is a flux-only machine and cannot be outfitted with gas to run MIG. If that’s something you’re interested in, you will need to consider a different machine. Some might view that as a drawback, but I consider it a simple design feature those who want to save money are willing to accept.
As far as settings and operations go, this machine is as simple as it gets. Wire speed is controlled with a dial with settings ranging from 1-10, while amperage is controlled by a high/low switch next to the power switch on the face of the machine. Suggested settings for the project are found under the hood, along with the wire feed system. It is as simple as it gets, which may or not work in its favor for aspiring welders.
What’s Good About the Cheap Flux Welder
Starting with the good, the main draw to this machine is how cheap it is. Not only that, but it runs on 120-volt power, meaning you don't need a special hookup to get moving. And because it's a flux-core wire welder, you only need to buy welding wire, with no additional regulators or gas bottles making their way into the mix.
Not only is the initial investment low, but the cost to operate is also low too, with only your safety gear and flux-core wire being the only other investments you need to make. That said, you will want to run out and buy some good flux core wire to get the most out of this machine. I personally like to run Lincoln flux core wire through it. I know. Blasphemous. It works, though.
The performance is what I'll call good enough, as it's relatively limited in terms of adjustability. However, you have everything you need to dial it in to easily stick two pieces of sheet metal together. I rarely use it for thicker pieces of metal, but I have found it easier to work with outside of the realm of thin sheet metal.
As long as you’re patient enough, you can use it to graft patches into sheet metal however the job demands you to with plug and spot welding being a particular strong suit. Make no mistake, your welds will be ugly and you will spend a lot of time grinding and going back over things, but that is to be expected with a flux core wire welder anyway.
The Hits You Take
The good can be summarized as “it’s cheap and it works.” Which you probably already knew by the above. What you want to know about are the pitfalls that might offset the benefits, and there are a few things you need to be aware of.
The biggest issue with this welder is its wire feed consistency. It just doesn't operate all that smoothly. Even with everything set up correctly, the feed tends to want to skip how much is fed through. It's not enough of an issue to keep you from performing plug or stitch welds, as I have, but it's kept me from even attempting to lay a bead longer than an inch or two.
The other main drawback is that you can't precisely control amperage. Granted, the high-low settings are generally enough for the type of work it's intended for, but it can be frustrating while doing bodywork. Not being able to fine-tune things means you're forced to work at the machine's pace rather than as the piece demands.
The last problem I ran into is specific to my machine but worth mentioning nonetheless. It seems some wiring came loose in the trigger mechanism, causing interruptions in controls and adding to my gripes with consistency. I regularly find myself having to reposition the gun to keep working. You may not run into this, but it's something to keep in mind.
Is It the Last Welder You’ll Ever Buy?
Patience and low expectations are a must for this machine. After all, it is a cheap welder, and there's only so much you can ask of it. That said, I've used it to weld my car together on multiple occasions. While the experience can be frustrating, the majority of the welds I laid have held up just fine over the past five years. So, I recommend it to those who need a welder for under $200.
However, I do strongly encourage anyone who's even remotely serious about welding to save up a little more money if they can. I, personally, would if I could go back and do it again, and will likely buy something a little higher on the ladder for future projects.
At the very least, having something that can run MIG and offer a little more control over machine settings will ultimately save a lot of time on the back end and help better develop your skills.
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