Maybe you're new in the shop, or you're looking to upgrade your certifications. Either way, you need to know more about these "plasma cutters" your coworkers are talking about. In essence, a plasma cutter is a specialized power tool that utilizes high levels of electricity to turn a gas into a plasma. This, in turn, produces enough heat that a plasma cutter can slice through metals of various widths.
Modern plasma cutters come with a variety of different capacities, as well as with differing price tags. Accordingly, you'll need to find a high-quality model that meets your $500 budget limit. This guide will help you achieve this goal by analyzing the most important specifications and features in a high-quality plasma cutter while also reviewing 5 of this year's top-tier plasma cutters under $500.
How Plasma Cutters Work & Their Benefits
At a basic level, plasma cutters operate by feeding in an inert gas (such as nitrogen) and supercharging it with a high volume of electricity. Under the circumstances created within a plasma cutter, this results in the creation of plasma, the highly volatile fourth stage of matter. A plasma cutter directs this new column of plasma outward, allowing a user to cut through many types of thick gauge metal with a high degree of precision.
Plasma cutters offer several noteworthy benefits. First, they have an unmatched degree of precision thanks to the very narrow column of plasma created within the unit's body. Also, plasma cutters can cut through almost all thick gauge metals in a single pass due to their high operational temperatures. Finally, plasma cutters can be obtained at reasonably affordable prices, making them an excellent pick for metalworking shops that want to invest in a versatile tool.
Choosing A High-Quality Plasma Cutter Under $500
While looking over a prospective plasma cutters specification sheet, you should take special care to attend to its power specifications. While this naturally means that you should determine whether or not your prospective model’s input voltage is compatible with your shop’s 220/240 volt or 110-volt outlets, this attention to detail should also determine whether or not your chosen model's amperage is up to snuff.
A plasma cutter's duty cycle is equally essential in this domain, with longer duty cycles implying that the unit can operate for longer before needing to cool down. It may also be worth your time to compare a unit's output current as well because this specification has a direct impact on how capable your prospective plasma is when it comes to slicing through thick metal.
Metal Type & Thickness
Before buying a particular plasma cutter model, you'll want to be sure that it is graded to operate efficiently with your desired metal types and thicknesses. Generally, plasma cutters are rated into low, mid, and top tiers, with the plasma cutter's ability to slice through denser and thicker pieces of metal with greater degrees of efficiently increasing as their tier rises.
Cut Quality & Cutting Speed
A high-quality plasma cutter will always include a reliable cut quality and speed. Often, this qualitative metric can be compared by examining a unit's "inches per speed" specification. Generally speaking, a high-quality unit will have a steady speed that does not compromise quality, based upon its overall capacity. User reviews are also a great source of information in this domain due to the overall subjectiveness of “quality.”
Build Quality & Portability
When it comes to purchasing a multi-hundred dollar tool, you’ll want to find a model that possesses an exceptionally durable build quality. Given the amount of wear and tear put on a plasma cutter, both inside and out, your chosen model should be built only from materials that can stand up to excessive heat as well as blunt forces (caused by drops or impacts). However, a unit’s durability should not compromise its overall portability.
Plasma cutters do require a few consumables, namely the nozzles used to direct the plasma flow and the internal electrodes. From time to time, these components will need to be replaced because their continuous exposure to super-hot plasma causes them to degrade. Be sure to only purchase plasma cutters that use readily available consumables, particularly if you can pick them up at a local hardware store.
There are numerous other features that every high-quality plasma cutter should include. For example, all indicators and control panels on a prospective unit should be as user-friendly and easy-to-read as possible. Meanwhile, the unit's starter should be easy to operate, even for a novice.
Meanwhile, many regular plasma cutter users value a unit that includes at least a few automated functions, such as an overheat kill switch. Those with a built-in inverter are also great if you anticipate a need to operate your plasma cutter outside your workshop or anywhere where a standard plug-in is unavailable.
Price & Warranty
Finally, you should absolutely get a fair price for your plasma cutter, based primarily upon its overall assortment of productive features. Though prices will vary, most regular users agree that most of the best general-use plasma cutters can be purchased for at or below $500. While you compare price tags, though, be sure to factor in the added value provided by a long-lasting warranty.
5 Best Plasma Cutters Under $500 Reviewed
1. PRIMEWELD Premium & Rugged
Our Top Pick
60% @ 50 amps
First and foremost, let’s look at the PRIMEWELD Premium & Rugged, our top pick for the best plasma cutter under $500. While this model is a definite bargain, you'll be endlessly impressed once you kick this unit into action and operate it at its optimal duty cycle of 60% at 50 amps. While it may not include a pilot arc, this model easily makes up for it by being able to cleave through 5/8”(16mm) mild steel and 1/2”(12mm) aluminum without losing any efficiency.
This model’s exceptional capacity for cutting is made possible through a set of state-of-the-art MOSFET transistors, each of which efficiently translates this model's 220-volt maximum input voltage. To top it all off, this model comes with a 3-year warranty that you can count on because it is backed by a trusted name in the welding industry. Altogether, the PRIMEWELD Premium & Rugged is often called the “ultimate plasma cutter.” We couldn’t agree more, so we heartily recommend it for almost all plasma cutting jobs.
2. Forney Easy Weld 251
Best Rated Plasma Cutter Under $500
Varies (different options available)
Though it won't come as a surprise to seasoned plasma welders, the Forney Easy Weld 251 continues to hold the title of best rated plasma cutter under $500. This model’s excellent user ratings only tell half the story, though, because this model’s true quality lies in its performance. To be specific, this model’s drag torch technology is able to create smooth, consistent cuts through ¼” thick steel, stainless steel, galvanized steel, brass, and copper.
Forney certainly designed the Easy Weld 251 for use away from the workshop, which is why it doubled down on making this model's 120-volt input compatible with most types of worksite generator. You can even use this model with an extension cord if necessary, with #12 AWG or larger cords providing the most consistent and safe electricity transmission.
Also, this model's user-interface is particularly user-friendly. This can be immediately seen when it comes to malfunction troubleshooting, which is always indicated through a series of color-coded lights on the unit's control panel.
3. Lotos CT520D
Best Multifunction Plasma Cutter Under $500
60% @ 50 amps
110 - 220 volts
You may not have seen a model like this in the store, but the Lotos CT520D is undoubtedly the best multifunctional plasma cutter under $500. Few other models on the market today can offer what the Lotos CT520D has packed into a single unit, namely, the ability to power both TIG and STICK welding when plasma cutting is not needed. Both of these alternative modes operate at up to 200 amps, thus allowing you to weld with the same amount of power of far more expensive, single-mode units.
When used as a plasma cutter, the Lotos CT520D meets and exceeds specification expectations by providing a reliable 60% at 50 amp duty cycle. Also, this model’s 85% energy efficiency rating comes as a major surprise when taking into account how efficiently and quietly this unit operates overall. Portability is a bit of a heel for this 32 lbs. unit, though.
Altogether, the Lotos CT520D can be counted on to cut through stainless steel, alloy steel, carbon steel, and other nonferrous metals efficiently. Those looking to get some extra value out of their plasma cutter purchase will certainly appreciate this 3-in-1 as a result.
4. PRIMEWELD CT520DP
Top of the Range Under $500
60% @ 50 amps
110 -220 volts
While the PRIMEWELD CT520DP may look like some of the other models in this collection, it is actually one of the current top-of-the-range options under $500. That's because this model also manages to pack in 200 amp TIG and STICK welding modes, each of which can make work of most standard types and thicknesses of metal. Meanwhile, this model's plasma cutter mode can clean-cut a ½" slab of metal without losing almost any of its 50 amp output efficiency.
The PRIMEWELD CT520DP’s implementation of pilot arc technology is a bit different than its competitors, not least when it comes to its performance with most common torches. But that being said, this model’s pilot arc still provides an industry-standard amount of flexibility when it comes to torch use. At 32 lbs., you may find it a bit more challenging to move this model from place to place. But all the same, this model remains a decent option if the other models in this collection are not available to you.
5. Lotos LTP5500D
Best Non-Touch Pilot Arc Plasma Cutter Under $500
60% @ 55 amps
Yes, 30-day guarantee
Finally, we have the Lotos LTP5500D, which certainly wins the top award for the best non-touch pilot arc plasma cutter under $500. That’s because this model’s pilot arc can cut through rust and paint safely, while at the same time completing a seamless 1” or ½” maximum severance cut on mild steel, alloy steel, or copper. Even when operating at its 60% duty cycle, this model still manages to utilize all 55 amps of its output, regardless of the cathode brand used.
Taking this unit out of your workshop will never be a hassle. That’s because the Lotos LTP5500D weighs only 15 lbs., making it the most portable option in its class. While you’re working in the shop, though, this model’s set up takes only mere minutes due to is use of a pre-installed NPT 1/4” industry type D plug and air filter regulator.
Types of Plasma Cutters
There are several primary types of plasma cutters, each of which come with different operational capacities based upon their size and portability rating. Heavy-duty plasma cutters are the most common overall given their ability to tackle almost any metal cutting job that does not require portability. Inverter type plasma cutters, on the other hand, are only able to cut through specific metal widths, though they are far more portable.
Also, semi-portable plasma cutters are the middle ground between portability and functionality. Plasma cutters who want to be ready for any situation will probably find these models most suited to their needs, based upon its ability to cut through many metals while remaining decently compact.
Plasma Cutter Pricing Range Expectations
Plasma cutters are, generally speaking, reasonably expensive power tools. Even when buying from a discounted online retailer, many plasma cutters cost upwards of $1,000 or more. In fact, some heavy-duty models can cost as much as $3,000! That's why shoppers on a budget should always keep their eye out for an affordable model priced at $500 or less.
Usually, these budget-friendly models contain fewer features than their more expensive competitors but are often just as capable in the hands of an experienced welder. Also, cheaper plasma cutters tend to be more compact, making them more portable than even the most expensive models.
Safety Precautions When Using a Plasma Cutter
Novice and experienced welders alike should take the utmost care when operating a plasma cutter. This is because plasma cutters pose a genuine threat to their operators and anyone in the general vicinity who is not adequately equipped.
Accordingly, everyone working in the same space as a plasma cutter should wear undamaged, flame-resistant clothing, and gloves (ideally made from a tightly woven material such as leather, wool, or heavy denim). High top boots are also recommended, preferably with some type of flame resistant covering. Also, proper welding-grade eye and mouth protection is a must.
This guide can also provide more specifics into plasma cutter safety procedures.
People Also Ask (FAQs)
What are some uses for plasma cutting?
Plasma cutting sees uses across the heavy labor spectrum, with the majority of plasma cutting taking place in automotive and industrial settings. That being said, plasma cutting also occasionally sees use in home fabrication. Also, some trained artists with experience in one of these industrial fields may choose to create art using a plasma cutter's precision touch.
What can plasma cut through? Can a plasma cutter cut wood or plastic?
In theory, plasma cutters can cut through almost any metal, so long as you have a sufficiently robust power supply and conduit. However, despite the exceptional power a plasma cutter possesses, it cannot cut through wood or plastic. This is because neither wood nor plastic is electrically conductive, which is crucial for the plasma cutters heating process to take place.
What is pilot arc technology and its significance with plasma cutting machines?
Pilot arc technology is built into some modern plasma cutting units, primarily to enhance a user’s control while the unit is engaged. In essence, pilot arc technology allows a plasma cutters plasma stream to heat (and thus cut) a piece of metal without needing to come into contact with it directly. This, in turn, allows a user more flexibility when it comes to making custom cuts.
What are the different types of torches that are used with plasma cutters?
There are several types of torches utilized for plasma cutting. These include handheld torches (the most common), mechanized torches, and robotic torches. Within these broader categories, plasma cutting torches are often further differentiated based upon their length, cathode size, and column size (measured in degrees).
What other equipment will I need with these machines?
You'll need a few other types of equipment if you want to operate your plasma cutter efficiently and safely. First and foremost, you'll need a source of pressurized air or compressed air to facilitate the plasma transfer process. Next, you'll want a desiccant air dryer and filtration system in order to keep the air in your workspace free of contaminants. Finally, you’ll routinely need to obtain new consumables, including torch nozzles and cathodes.
What are some tips for using plasma cutters?
Of course, you should always wear fully-certified welding equipment when interacting with a plasma cutter. Also, the use of a drag shield can improve your cut’s quality. This helpful guide also provides more specific tips.
Where is the best place to buy plasma cutting machines?
Though you can often find affordable models on a manufacturer’s website, Amazon remains the best source for plasma cutters under $500. In addition to possessing an expansive selection of the industry’s leading brands, Amazon’s plasma cutters often cost less due to Amazon’s ability to save money during the bulk shipping process.
Altogether, you'll need to do your research before investing an expensive power tool like a plasma cutter. That being said, you'll be sure to find a bargain if you buy one of the top 5 models reviewed above.
Even among these standout options, the PRIMEWELD Premium & Rugged remains supreme. Those who can't decide on the plasma cutter that's right for their workshop's needs can trust us when we say that this model's state-of-the-art MOSFET transistors and 3-year warranty are the absolute best in its class.