MIG Welding Shielding Gas Basics

Live welding with a Bernard W-Gun semi-automatic water-cooled MIG gun
Shielding gas can play a significant role in improving, or impeding welding performance.

MIG (GMAW) welding with shielding gas and a solid wire electrode produces a clean, slag-free weld. This comes without the need to stop welding to replace the electrode, as in Stick welding. Increased productivity and reduced clean up are just two of the benefits possible with this process.

To achieve these results in your specific application, it helps to understand the role of shielding gas, the different shielding gases available and their unique properties.

The primary purpose of shielding gas is to prevent exposure of the molten weld pool to oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen contained in the air atmosphere. The reaction of these elements with the weld pool can create a variety of problems, including porosity (holes within the weld bead) and excessive spatter.

Different shielding gases also play an important role in determining weld penetration profiles, arc stability, mechanical properties of the finished weld, the transfer process you use and more.

Choosing MIG gun consumables that provide consistent and smooth shielding gas delivery are also important to making successful MIG welds.

Choosing The Right Shielding Gas

Many MIG welding applications lend themselves to a variety of shielding gas choices. You need to evaluate your welding goals and your welding applications in order to choose the correct one for your specific application. Consider the following as you make your selection:

  • The cost of the gas
  • The finished weld properties
  • Preparation and post-weld clean up
  • The base material
  • The weld transfer process
  • Your productivity goals.

The four most common shielding gases used in MIG welding are Argon, Helium, Carbon Dioxide and Oxygen. Each provides unique benefits and drawbacks in any given application.

Porosity on a weld bead caused by inadequate shielding gas coverage
Porosity, as can be seen on the face and interior
of the weld bead, can be caused by inadequate shielding gas and can dramatically weaken
the weld. 

Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

The most common of the reactive gases used in MIG welding is Carbon Dioxide (CO2). It is the only one that can be used in its pure form without the addition of an inert gas. CO2 is also the least expensive of the common shielding gases, making it an attractive choice when material costs are the main priority. Pure CO2 provides very deep weld penetration, which is useful for welding thick material. However, it also produces a less stable arc and more spatter than when it is mixed with other gases. It is also limited to only the short circuit process.

Argon

For companies that place an emphasis on weld quality, appearance and reducing post-weld clean up, a mixture of between 75 – 95 percent Argon and 5 – 25 percent CO2 may be the best option. It will provide a more desirable combination of arc stability, puddle control and reduced spatter than pure CO2. This mixture also allows the use of a spray transfer process, which can produce higher productivity rates and more visually appealing welds. Argon also produces a narrower penetration profile, which is useful for fillet and butt welds. If you’re welding a non-ferrous metal — aluminum, magnesium or titanium — you’ll need to use 100 percent Argon.

Oxygen

Oxygen, also a reactive gas, is typically used in ratios of nine percent or less to improve weld pool fluidity, penetration and arc stability in mild carbon, low alloy and stainless steel. It causes oxidation of the weld metal, however, so it is not recommended for use with aluminum, magnesium, copper or other exotic metals.

Helium

Helium, like pure Argon, is generally used with non-ferrous metals, but also with stainless steels. Because it produces a wide, deep penetration profile, Helium works well with thick materials, and is usually used in ratios between 25 — 75 percent Helium to 75 — 25 percent Argon. Adjusting these ratios will change the penetration, bead profile and travel speed. Helium creates a ‘hotter’ arc, which allows for faster travel speeds and higher productivity rates. However, it is more expensive and requires a higher flow rate than Argon. You’ll need to calculate the value of the productivity increase against the increased cost of the gas. With stainless steels, Helium is typically used in a tri-mix formula of Argon and CO2.

This graphic shows the difference that consumables can make in shielding gas coverage. The photo on the left shows good coverage, while the coverage in the photo on the right allows the air environment to seep into and contaminate the gas.
This graphic shows the difference that consumables can make
in shielding gas coverage. The photo on the left shows good coverage, while the coverage in the photo on the right allows
the air environment contaminate the shielding gas.

Getting the Shielding Gas to the Weld Pool

All of your efforts selecting the right shielding gas will be wasted if your equipment isn’t getting the gas to the weld. The MIG gun consumables (diffuser, contact tip and nozzle) play a crucial role in ensuring that the weld pool is properly protected.

Bernard Centerfire nozzle so you can see the inner components within the nozzle around which the shielding gas flows
This cutaway shows a consumable system in which the
contact tip is seated in the diffuser and held in place
by the spatter guard inside the nozzle.

If you choose a nozzle that is too narrow or if the diffuser becomes clogged with spatter, for example, there might be too little shielding gas getting to the weld pool. Likewise, a poorly designed diffuser might not channel the shielding gas properly, resulting in turbulent, unbalanced gas flow. Both scenarios can allow pockets of air into the shielding gas and lead to excessive spatter, porosity and weld contamination.

When selecting MIG gun consumables, choose ones that resist spatter build up and provide a wide enough nozzle bore for adequate shielding gas coverage. Some companies offer nozzles with a built in spatter guard that also adds a second phase of shielding gas diffusion. This results in even smoother, more consistent shielding gas flow.

Choosing the right shielding gas for your specific application will require a careful analysis of the type of welding you’re doing as well as your operational priorities. Using the guidelines above should provide a good start to the learning process. Be sure to consult your local welding supply distributor prior to making a final decision.