A plasma cutter under $500: What to expect?
You might be pleasantly surprised at the quality of plasma cutter $500 will buy you. Plasma cutters below this price point are typically manufactured in China rather than in the US or Europe, so quality control can be an issue. But in general, metalworkers have found that these budget plasma cutters are robust enough to last for years of use without breaking down.
The main difference you’ll find is that cheap plasma cutters typically don’t have the same cutting depth as their more expensive counterpart. Only a handful of plasma cutters under $500, like the Lotos LTP5500D and the Amico Cut-50, are rated to a cutting ability of one inch. However, many budget plasma cutters struggle to cut to their maximum rated depth on hard metals like stainless steel.
If you’re cutting through thick, tough materials routinely, you might be better served by a more expensive plasma cutter. Otherwise, you’ll get plenty of life and use out of a budget cutter.
Features to consider before you buy a plasma cutter
Not every plasma cutter is the same, even in the sub-$500 price range. In fact, they differ in a wide variety of features so that a specific cutter might excel at one use, but not another. It’s important to get the right cutter for the type of work you do most often. Here, we’ll explain the top features you need to know about when choosing a plasma cutter under $500.
The cutting ability of a plasma cutter is how deep a cut it can make. That is, the cutting ability is equal to the thickness of metal sheeting can it cut through. Most budget plasma cutters have a cutting ability of 0.5 inches or less, but models like the Lotos LTP5500D and the Amico Cut-50 can make cuts of up to one inch deep.
It’s important to note that you generally want to cut less than your plasma cutter’s rated cutting ability. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a sharp and unseemly kerf at the bottom of the cut. With a 0.75-inch-rated cutter like the Vivohome CT5200DF, for example, you will want to cut metal sheets around 0.5 inches thick and thinner.
It’s easy to ignore voltage when considering a plasma cutter, but this is a key consideration. Your plasma cutter’s voltage will determine whether you can use a standard electrical outlet in your home workshop – which operates at 120 volts – or whether you will need a 240-volt capable shop outlet or generator to power your cutter.
If you don’t have a 240-volt outlet available already, it’s a good idea to choose a 120-volt-ready plasma cutter like the HeroCut 35i or the Forney Easy Weld 251. Note that 120-volt-only plasma cutters typically have lower cutting abilities since they have less power available. Many plasma cutters, including the PrimeWeld 3-in-1, the Lotos LTP5000D, and the Vivohome Portable model, are capable of running on either 120-volt or 240-volt power depending on what you have available.
Duty cycle might not matter much if you typically make small cuts. But if you’re working with long sheets or thick materials, duty cycle is critical.
A plasma cutter’s duty cycle is the percentage of time, out of 10 minutes total, that you can use your plasma cutter without causing it to overheat. Duty cycle is typically rated at 50 amps, and most of the plasma cutters we reviewed can run at 60% capacity at that current – or 6 minutes out of every 10. Some cutters, like the Vivohome CT5200DF and HeroCut 35i, are rated to run continuously at lower currents.
Plasma cutters also give three different cut ratings that accompany their cutting ability.
The first is the rated cut, which is the thickness of metal that can be cut at a rate of 10 inches per minute. That is, if you move the plasma cutter along the metal quickly, the rated cut is the cut depth you can achieve.
The second is the quality cut rating, which is the thickness that you can cut while moving along the metal at a lower speed. The quality cut rating is typically relevant if you are cutting through thick sheets of metal.
The third rating is the sever cut, which is the maximum cut thickness that can be achieved. This is typically a slow cut that requires keeping the plasma cutter in place for long periods. It may leave a kerf at the bottom edge of the cut.
Budget plasma cutter models from Lotos use what is known as pilot arc technology. With a pilot arc, it is not necessary to touch the tip of your plasma cutter to the material you’re cutting through.
This offers several important advantages. First, it increases the life of your consumables since you’re not pressing them against the metal being cut. Second, a pilot arc cutter can cut through almost any material – including rough, painted, or rusty surfaces. It produces relatively little slag compared to traditional cutters on these surfaces, too.
Many professional metalworkers prefer pilot arc tools because they can also be used with CNC machines.
There are a couple decisions you need to make when it comes to choosing the cutting torch for your plasma cutter. The most common type of torch is a high-frequency torch, which do not use any moving parts and are fairly durable. They do require some maintenance, though, and can create electrical signals that interfere with computers in your workshop.
The other common type of torch, which is used in the two Lotos cutters we reviewed, is a pilot arc torch.
If you are only cutting through thin sheets of metal, you can likely use a cheap single flow drag torch, like the one included with the Forney Easy Weld cutter. Thicker sheets of metal might require you to invest in a larger dual flow torch with additional shielding.
Another thing to consider is whether your torch comes with a drag shield, which attaches to the torch cup and holds the tip about 0.125 inches away from the surface of the metal. This helps you get a cleaner cut and allows your consumables to last longer.
Dimensions, weight, and portability
Plasma cutters are designed to be portable, at least compared to traditional oxy-acetylene metal cutters. So, it’s worth looking at the weight and size of a prospective plasma cutter and thinking about how frequently you will need to move it.
The plasma cutters we reviewed range in weight from just 13 pounds for the HeroCut 35i to over 30 pounds for the PrimeWeld 3-in-1 and the Vivihome CT5200DF. All of the cutters have carrying handles, but none are mounted on wheels.
A plasma cutter is a significant investment in your workshop, so you want to know that your tool will work for years to come. Unfortunately, the warranty period on budget plasma cutters under $500 is often short – the longest warranties we found were just one year, and units like the HeroCut 35i don’t come with a warranty at all. Depending on where you purchase your plasma cutter, you may be able to buy additional purchase protection.