Gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW), also known as tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding, is an arc welding process that uses a nonconsumable tungsten electrode to produce the weld. The weld area is protected from atmospheric contamination by a shielding gas (usually an inert gas such as argon), and a filler metal is normally used, though some welds, known as autogenous welds, do not require it. A constant-current welding power supply produces energy which is conducted across the arc through a column of highly ionized gas and metal vapors known as a plasma.
GTAW is most commonly used to weld thin sections of stainless steel and light metals such as aluminum, magnesium, and copper alloys. The process grants the operator greater control over the weld than competing procedures such as shielded metal arc welding and gas metal arc welding, allowing for stronger, higher quality welds. However, GTAW is comparatively more complex and difficult to master, and furthermore, it is significantly slower than most other welding techniques. A related process, plasma arc welding, uses a slightly different welding torch to create a more focused welding arc and as a result is often automated.
This process was perfected in 1941, and became known as heliarc or tungsten inert gas welding, because it utilized a tungsten electrode and helium as a shielding gas. Initially, the electrode overheated quickly, and in spite of tungsten's high melting temperature, particles of tungsten were transferred to the weld. To address this problem, the polarity of the electrode was changed from positive to negative, but this made it unsuitable for welding many non-ferrous materials. Finally, the development of alternating current units made it possible to stabilize the arc and produce high quality aluminum and magnesium welds.
Developments continued during the following decades. Linde Air Products developed water-cooled torches that helped to prevent overheating when welding with high currents. Additionally, during the 1950s, as the process continued to gain popularity, some users turned to carbon dioxide as an alternative to the more expensive welding atmospheres consisting of argon and helium. However, this proved unacceptable for welding aluminum and magnesium because it reduced weld quality, and as a result, it is rarely used with GTAW today.
In 1953, a new process based on GTAW was developed, called plasma arc welding. It affords greater control and improves weld quality by using a nozzle to focus the electric arc, but is largely limited to automated systems, whereas GTAW remains primarily a manual, hand-held method. Development within the GTAW process has continued as well, and today a number of variations exist. Among the most popular are the pulsed-current, manual programmed, hot-wire, dabber, and increased penetration GTAW methods.
Manual gas tungsten arc welding is often considered the most difficult of all the welding processes commonly used in industry. Because the welder must maintain a short arc length, great care and skill are required to prevent contact between the electrode and the workpiece. Unlike most other welding processes, GTAW normally requires two hands, since most applications require that the welder manually feed a filler metal into the weld area with one hand while manipulating the welding torch in the other. However, some welds combining thin materials (known as autogenous or fusion welds) can be accomplished without filler metal; most notably edge, corner, and butt joints.
To strike the welding arc, a high frequency generator provides a path for the welding current through the shielding gas, allowing the arc to be struck when the separation between the electrode and the workpiece is approximately 1.5–3 mm (0.06–0.12 in). Bringing the two into contact in a "touch start" ("scratch start") also serves to strike an arc. This technique can cause contamination of the weld and electrode. Once the arc is struck, the welder moves the torch in a small circle to create a welding pool, the size of which depends on the size of the electrode and the amount of current. While maintaining a constant separation between the electrode and the workpiece, the operator then moves the torch back slightly and tilts it backward about 10–15 degrees from vertical. Filler metal is added manually to the front end of the weld pool as it is needed.
Welders often develop a technique of rapidly alternating between moving the torch forward (to advance the weld pool) and adding filler metal. The filler rod is withdrawn from the weld pool each time the electrode advances, but it is never removed from the gas shield to prevent oxidation of its surface and contamination of the weld. Filler rods composed of metals with low melting temperature, such as aluminum, require that the operator maintain some distance from the arc while staying inside the gas shield. If held too close to the arc, the filler rod can melt before it makes contact with the weld puddle. As the weld nears completion, the arc current is often gradually reduced to allow the weld crater to solidify and prevent the formation of crater cracks at the end of the weld.
It is essential that the welder wear suitable protective clothing, including leather gloves, a closed shirt collar to protect the neck (especially the throat), a protective long sleeve jacket and a suitable welding helmet to prevent retinal damage or ultraviolet burns to the cornea, often called arc eye. The shade of welding lens will depend upon the amperage of the welding current. Due to the absence of smoke in GTAW, the arc appears brighter than shielded metal arc welding and more ultraviolet radiation is produced. Exposure of bare skin near a GTAW arc for even a few seconds may cause a painful sunburn. Additionally, the tungsten electrode is heated to a white hot state like the filament of a lightbulb, adding greatly to the total radiated light and heat energy. Transparent welding curtains, made of a polyvinyl chloride plastic film, dyed in order to block UV radiation, are often used to shield nearby personnel from exposure.
Welders are also often exposed to dangerous gases and particulate matter. Shielding gases can displace oxygen and lead to asphyxiation, and while smoke is not produced, the arc in GTAW produces very short wavelength ultraviolet light, which causes surrounding air to break down and form ozone. Metals will volatilize and heavy metals can be taken into the lungs. Similarly, the heat can cause poisonous fumes to form from cleaning and degreasing materials. For example chlorinated products will break down producing poisonous phosgene. Cleaning operations using these agents should not be performed near the site of welding, and proper ventilation is necessary to protect the welder.
Engineers prefer GTAW welds because of its low-hydrogen properties and the match of mechanical and chemical properties with the base material. Maximum weld quality is assured by maintaining the cleanliness of the operation—all equipment and materials used must be free from oil, moisture, dirt and other impurities, as these cause weld porosity and consequently a decrease in weld strength and quality. To remove oil and grease, alcohol or similar commercial solvents may be used, while a stainless steel wire brush or chemical process can remove oxides from the surfaces of metals like aluminum. Rust on steels can be removed by first grit blasting the surface and then using a wire brush to remove any embedded grit. These steps are especially important when negative polarity direct current is used, because such a power supply provides no cleaning during the welding process, unlike positive polarity direct current or alternating current. To maintain a clean weld pool during welding, the shielding gas flow should be sufficient and consistent so that the gas covers the weld and blocks impurities in the atmosphere. GTA welding in windy or drafty environments increases the amount of shielding gas necessary to protect the weld, increasing the cost and making the process unpopular outdoors.
Because of GTAW's relative difficulty and the importance of proper technique, skilled operators are employed for important applications. Welders should be qualified following the requirements of the American Welding Society or American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Low heat input, caused by low welding current or high welding speed, can limit penetration and cause the weld bead to lift away from the surface being welded. If there is too much heat input, however, the weld bead grows in width while the likelihood of excessive penetration and spatter increase. Additionally, if the welder holds the welding torch too far from the workpiece, shielding gas is wasted and the appearance of the weld worsens.
If the amount of current used exceeds the capability of the electrode, tungsten inclusions in the weld may result. Known as tungsten spitting, it can be identified with radiography and prevented by changing the type of electrode or increasing the electrode diameter. In addition, if the electrode is not well protected by the gas shield or the operator accidentally allows it to contact the molten metal, it can become dirty or contaminated. This often causes the welding arc to become unstable, requiring that electrode be ground with a diamond abrasive to remove the impurity.
The equipment required for the gas tungsten arc welding operation includes a welding torch utilizing a nonconsumable tungsten electrode, a constant-current welding power supply, and a shielding gas source.
The internal metal parts of a torch are made of hard alloys of copper or brass in order to transmit current and heat effectively. The tungsten electrode must be held firmly in the center of the torch with an appropriately sized collet, and ports around the electrode provide a constant flow of shielding gas. Collets are sized according to the diameter of the tungsten electrode they hold. The body of the torch is made of heat-resistant, insulating plastics covering the metal components, providing insulation from heat and electricity to protect the welder.
The size of the welding torch nozzle depends on the amount of shielded area desired. The size of the gas nozzle will depend upon the diameter of the electrode, the joint configuration, and the availability of access to the joint by the welder. The inside diameter of the nozzle is preferably at least three times the diameter of the electrode, but there are no hard rules. The welder will judge the effectiveness of the shielding and increase the nozzle size to increase the area protected by the external gas shield as needed. The nozzle must be heat resistant and thus is normally made of alumina or a ceramic material, but fused quartz, a glass-like substance, offers greater visibility. Devices can be inserted into the nozzle for special applications, such as gas lenses or valves to improve the control shielding gas flow to reduce turbulence and introduction of contaminated atmosphere into the shielded area. Hand switches to control welding current can be added to the manual GTAW torches.
The preferred polarity of the GTAW system depends largely on the type of metal being welded. Direct current with a negatively charged electrode (DCEN) is often employed when welding steels, nickel, titanium, and other metals. It can also be used in automatic GTA welding of aluminum or magnesium when helium is used as a shielding gas. The negatively charged electrode generates heat by emitting electrons which travel across the arc, causing thermal ionization of the shielding gas and increasing the temperature of the base material. The ionized shielding gas flows toward the electrode, not the base material. Direct current with a positively charged electrode (DCEP) is less common, and is used primarily for shallow welds since less heat is generated in the base material. Instead of flowing from the electrode to the base material, as in DCEN, electrons go the other direction, causing the electrode to reach very high temperatures. To help it maintain its shape and prevent softening, a larger electrode is often used. As the electrons flow toward the electrode, ionized shielding gas flows back toward the base material, cleaning the weld by removing oxides and other impurities and thereby improving its quality and appearance.
Alternating current, commonly used when welding aluminum and magnesium manually or semi-automatically, combines the two direct currents by making the electrode and base material alternate between positive and negative charge. This causes the electron flow to switch directions constantly, preventing the tungsten electrode from overheating while maintaining the heat in the base material. Surface oxides are still removed during the electrode-positive portion of the cycle and the base metal is heated more deeply during the electrode-negative portion of the cycle. Some power supplies enable operators to use an unbalanced alternating current wave by modifying the exact percentage of time that the current spends in each state of polarity, giving them more control over the amount of heat and cleaning action supplied by the power source. In addition, operators must be wary of rectification, in which the arc fails to reignite as it passes from straight polarity (negative electrode) to reverse polarity (positive electrode). To remedy the problem, a square wave power supply can be used, as can high-frequency voltage to encourage ignition.
The electrode used in GTAW is made of tungsten or a tungsten alloy, because tungsten has the highest melting temperature among pure metals, at 3,422 °C (6,192 °F). As a result, the electrode is not consumed during welding, though some erosion (called burn-off) can occur. Electrodes can have either a clean finish or a ground finish—clean finish electrodes have been chemically cleaned, while ground finish electrodes have been ground to a uniform size and have a polished surface, making them optimal for heat conduction. The diameter of the electrode can vary between 0.5 millimeter and 6.4 millimeters (0.02–0.25 in), and their length can range from 75 to 610 millimeters (3–24 in).
A number of tungsten alloys have been standardized by the International Organization for Standardization and the American Welding Society in ISO 6848 and AWS A5.12, respectively, for use in GTAW electrodes, and are summarized in the adjacent table. Pure tungsten electrodes (classified as WP or EWP) are general purpose and low cost electrodes. Cerium oxide (or ceria) as an alloying element improves arc stability and ease of starting while decreasing burn-off. Using an alloy of lanthanum oxide (or lanthana) has a similar effect. Thorium oxide (or thoria) alloy electrodes were designed for DC applications and can withstand somewhat higher temperatures while providing many of the benefits of other alloys. However, it is somewhat radioactive. Inhalation of the thorium grinding dust during preparation of the electrode is hazardous to one's health. As a replacement to thoriated electrodes, electrodes with larger concentrations of lanthanum oxide can be used. Electrodes containing zirconium oxide (or zirconia) increase the current capacity while improving arc stability and starting and increasing electrode life. In addition, electrode manufacturers may create alternative tungsten alloys with specified metal additions, and these are designated with the classification EWG under the AWS system.
Filler metals are also used in nearly all applications of GTAW, the major exception being the welding of thin materials. Filler metals are available with different diameters and are made of a variety of materials. In most cases, the filler metal in the form of a rod is added to the weld pool manually, but some applications call for an automatically fed filler metal, which often is stored on spools or coils.
As with other welding processes such as gas metal arc welding, shielding gases are necessary in GTAW to protect the welding area from atmospheric gases such as nitrogen and oxygen, which can cause fusion defects, porosity, and weld metal embrittlement if they come in contact with the electrode, the arc, or the welding metal. The gas also transfers heat from the tungsten electrode to the metal, and it helps start and maintain a stable arc.
The selection of a shielding gas depends on several factors, including the type of material being welded, joint design, and desired final weld appearance. Argon is the most commonly used shielding gas for GTAW, since it helps prevent defects due to a varying arc length. When used with alternating current, the use of argon results in high weld quality and good appearance. Another common shielding gas, helium, is most often used to increase the weld penetration in a joint, to increase the welding speed, and to weld metals with high heat conductivity, such as copper and aluminum. A significant disadvantage is the difficulty of striking an arc with helium gas, and the decreased weld quality associated with a varying arc length.
Argon-helium mixtures are also frequently utilized in GTAW, since they can increase control of the heat input while maintaining the benefits of using argon. Normally, the mixtures are made with primarily helium (often about 75% or higher) and a balance of argon. These mixtures increase the speed and quality of the AC welding of aluminum, and also make it easier to strike an arc. Another shielding gas mixture, argon-hydrogen, is used in the mechanized welding of light gauge stainless steel, but because hydrogen can cause porosity, its uses are limited. Similarly, nitrogen can sometimes be added to argon to help stabilize the austenite in austentitic stainless steels and increase penetration when welding copper. Due to porosity problems in ferritic steels and limited benefits, however, it is not a popular shielding gas additive.
Aluminum and magnesium are most often welded using alternating current, but the use of direct current is also possible, depending on the properties desired. Before welding, the work area should be cleaned and may be preheated to 175 to 200 °C (350 to 400 °F) for aluminum or to a maximum of 150 °C (300 °F) for thick magnesium workpieces to improve penetration and increase travel speed. AC current can provide a self-cleaning effect, removing the thin, refractory aluminium oxide (sapphire) layer that forms on aluminium metal within minutes of exposure to air. This oxide layer must be removed for welding to occur. When alternating current is used, pure tungsten electrodes or zirconiated tungsten electrodes are preferred over thoriated electrodes, as the latter are more likely to "spit" electrode particles across the welding arc into the weld. Blunt electrode tips are preferred, and pure argon shielding gas should be employed for thin workpieces. Introducing helium allows for greater penetration in thicker workpieces, but can make arc starting difficult.
Direct current of either polarity, positive or negative, can be used to weld aluminum and magnesium as well. Direct current with a positively charged electrode (DCEP) allows for high penetration, Short arc length (generally less than 2 mm or 0.07 in) gives the best results, making the process better suited for automatic operation than manual operation. Shielding gases with high helium contents are most commonly used with DCEN, and thoriated electrodes are suitable. Direct current with a negatively charged electrode (DCEN) is used primarily for shallow welds, especially those with a joint thickness of less than 1.6 millimeters (0.06 in). A thoriated tungsten electrode is commonly used, along with a pure argon shielding gas.
When welding dissimilar metals, the joint must have an accurate fit, with proper gap dimensions and bevel angles. Care should be taken to avoid melting excessive base material. Pulsed current is particularly useful for these applications, as it helps limit the heat input. The filler metal should be added quickly, and a large weld pool should be avoided to prevent dilution of the base materials.