What You Should Know About Shielding Gas

Image of a welder bending over a table welding.
Sometimes overlooked as a factor in weld quality and productivity, shielding gas can play a significant role in improving welding performance.

Consistent productivity, high quality and low costs are all key components in a successful welding operation. Gaining these advantages depends on everything from the equipment and filler metals to the skill of the welding operators and the techniques being used in the process. The shielding gas also plays a critical role.

Both the gas metal arc welding (GMAW) process (using solid or metal-cored wires) and the gas-shielded flux-cored arc welding (FCAW) process require the use of an external shielding gas, each type of which offers distinct characteristics. Knowing how to select the appropriate one for the application can go far in helping obtain the desired welding performance and minimizing the downtime for rework caused by poor weld quality.

To help, following are some basics of what you should know about shielding gases.

The role of shielding gases

The primary purpose of shielding gas is to protect the molten weld pool against elements in the atmosphere, including oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen. The reaction of these elements with the weld pool can create a host of problems, including (but not limited to) porosity and excessive spatter.

Shielding gas also plays an important role in determining weld penetration profiles, helping maintain arc stability and achieving the desired mechanical properties in the finished weld. Shielding gas can also affect the transfer of the filler metal from the arc to the weld joint, which in turns contributes to the efficiency of the welding process and the quality of the weld. Other important factors that shielding gas help determine include the weld bead appearance, and weld toughness and strength.

Selecting the right shielding gas

The four most common shielding gases used in the welding process are carbon dioxide, argon, helium and oxygen. Each has specific characteristics and factors such as cost, available labor (i.e., for weld preparation) and the weld properties desired — all considerations when selecting which shielding gas is best for a given welding application.

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 to seep into and contaminate the gas.

Carbon dioxide (CO2): This gas is the most common of the reactive gases used in the welding process and also the least expensive of the shielding gases. It is also the only one able to be used without the addition of an inert gas. One of the biggest advantages of pure CO2 is that it provides deep weld penetration, which is useful when welding thick material. It does, however, tend to create a less stable arc and more spatter than when it is mixed with other gases, including argon. This additional spatter can lead to downtime for post-weld cleaning. Pure CO2 is also limited to use in short circuit welding processes.

Argon: When welding aluminum, magnesium or titanium, it is common to use 100 percent argon as a shielding gas due to its stable arc features. Adding argon to a CO2 shielding gas is also an option for materials like carbon steel. It provides consistent weld quality and appearance and good weld pool control, and can help minimize post-weld cleanup. Argon also produces a narrow penetration profile, making it useful for fillet and butt welds.

Typical mixtures include a balance of 75 to 95 percent argon with 25 to 5 percent CO2. An argon/CO2 shielding gas mixture allows the use of a spray transfer process, which lends itself to high productivity rates and visually appealing welds.

Helium: Helium is generally used when welding non-ferrous metals. It is also used in a tri-mix formula of argon and CO2 for welding stainless steels. The gas produces a wide, deep penetration profile, making it suitable for welding thick materials, and also creates a hot arc, which helps increase travel speeds and productivity rates. Helium is typically used in ratios of 25 to 75 percent helium with an appropriate balance of argon. Adjusting these ratios changes the weld penetration, bead profile and travel speeds.

It’s important to note that helium is more expensive than other gases and requires a higher flow rate than argon (because it is so light).  For this reason, it’s imperative that companies calculate the value of the productivity increase against the increased cost of this gas.

Oxygen: Oxygen is a reactive gas typically used in ratios of 9 percent or less. The addition of the gas to a mixture with argon helps to improve weld pool fluidity, weld penetration and arc stability, particularly when welding carbon, low alloy and stainless steels. Because the gas causes oxidation of the weld metal, it is not recommended for use with aluminum, magnesium, copper or other exotic metals.

Tips for getting the most out of your shielding gas

Image of porosity on a weld bead
Porosity, as can be seen on the face and interior of the weld bead, can be caused by inadequate shielding gas

To achieve the best results out of a chosen shielding gas, it’s important to select the proper front-end consumables. These consumables — the gas diffuser, contact tip and nozzle — play a critical role in delivering the shielding gas to the weld pool and also protecting it from the atmosphere. Consider these tips to help with the selection.

1.    Choose consumables that have a smooth surface to help resist spatter build-up that could block shielding gas flow and lead to issues, such as porosity.

2.    Choose an appropriate size nozzle for the application. A nozzle that is too narrow for the application can easily become clogged with spatter, again, hindering its ability to deliver enough shielding gas to the weld pool to protect it.

3.    Consider using nozzles with a built-in spatter guard. These designs add a second phase of shielding gas diffusion, resulting in even smoother, more consistent shielding gas flow.

4.    Be certain to select quality gas diffusers to ensure smooth and balanced gas flow. Consult with a trusted welding distributor for recommendations.