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Buyers’ Guide: How to Choose the Best Plasma Cutter With Built in Compressor

A plasma cutter is an incredibly useful device that plasma in order to cut through a range of materials – including steel, aluminium and more conductive metals. This is an invaluable tool in manufacturing that offers impressive levels of accuracy and it’s also a great addition to the serious home workshop.

In this plasma cutter buyers’ guide, we’ll look into some of the best plasma cutters with built in compressors on the market and describe how to ensure you’re getting a good instrument to add to your tool box.

Last update on 2017-10-19 PST - Details

What is a Plasma Cutter?

First, let’s look in a little more detail at precisely what a plasma cutter is and how it works.

Essentially, plasma is the fourth form of matter (with solid, liquid and gas being the other three) and can be created by applying electricity to a gas.

This is precisely what happens in a plasma cutter where an electric arc is applied to the gas in order to excite the gas particles and make them electrically conductive.

Depending on the unit you use, your plasma cutter will use oxygen, nitrogen or even environmental air as the gas and force this inside the torch.

Meanwhile, electricity is generated from an external power supply and applied to the high pressure flow of gas.

This creates a ‘plasma jet’ which has an incredibly high temperature up to 40,000 degrees F! This makes short work of most materials and allows for a very clean cut.

1. Hobart 500564 Airforce 12i Plasma Cutter

Finally, we have the Hobart 500564 Airforce, which is priced very similarly to the Forney and has similar specs on paper.

This device is once again a plasma cutter with built in compressor and has some smart design features such as a smaller heat-affected zone to prevent warping.

It also lets you use a no gas pressure mode for tuning the flame and ultimately allows you to achieve a more exact cut with a thinner kerf and less slag and mess to clean up after.

Weight wise, the Airforce comes in slap bang in the middle at 31 pounds – which is pretty light and portable all things considered.

It also has very similar requirements and performance in terms of power. It is recommended for cutting 1/8 inch steel and goes up to ¼ inch. It also has a built in inverter power supply.​

Pros

  • Built in air compressor
  • 20 Amp circuit, most powerful in its segment
  • Extra consumables
  • Post-flow air cooling
  • Lightweight and portable
  • LED indicators for pressure/temperature readings

Cons

  • Although 20A circuit is powerful, generally houses have a 15A circuit.

2. Forney 317 Plasma Cutter 115FI with Built-In Compressor, 120-Volt

Next up with have the Forney 317 Plasma Cutter. This device comes in several flavors but the one we’re looking at here is the most comparable unit at 120V. Again, it’s a portable but powerful device which is what has earned it its place in the top spot here alongside the Air Cut.

Looking at the specs, this device weighs in a little heavier at 38.9 pounds – something to consider if you intend on using it a lot by hand. The cord is also shorter at 7 foot – though this will be fine for most uses. This cutter once again runs on 15 amps and is similarly powerful. Portability is enhanced by the in built inverter power supply.

The product describes the recommended cut as 1/8th thickness though says it can ‘severe ¼’’’. One quarter is larger than three sixteenths (the maximum capability of the Air Cut), however it’s worth noting that the wording suggests that perhaps the performance suffers at these higher thicknesses. Suffice to say that the performance between these two is comparable and it’s not immediately obvious which comes out on top! What we also get here is the cut speeds which are 20 inches per minute.​

There are also some additional perks to this device. ‘Drag torch’ technology for example means that the torch can be dragged directly across metal surfaces for precise cuts and it also has thermal overload protection and smart heat management.

Of course if you’re looking for a little more power then you can upgrade to the 230V option which has dual inputs and a removable torch and ground cable. This has a greater maximum thickness but of course this is reflected in both the price and the weight. There’s also a lower powered option for more portability.

What might clinch it for some readers though is that the Forney is somewhat cheaper at 120V than the Air Cut.​

However, both have their pros and cons and both will make a great tool for cutting metals. Customer reviews are again largely positive but limited.​

Pros

  • Drag cutting technology makes cut more precise
  • Built in compressor
  • Might be good for beginners

Cons

  • Slower than others in terms of cutting speed
  • Slow ignition – takes 3 seconds to start working
  • Higher weight than other products in this segment

3. Thermal Arc 1-1110-1 Air Cut 15C Plasma System

This is a portable, light and powerful little performer. At just 29 pounds and with a convenient handle, you can easily bring this with you on a job and it won’t take up too much space in the van. What’s more is that it also offers a lot of cutting power and great cutting speed as well.

The recommended cut for this device is 3 millimeters or 1/8’’. However, the maximum capability is 5 millimeters or 3/16 inches. This runs on 120 volts with a 15 amp plug as standard. The company (Thermadyne) claims that this gives the device a 25% edge over the competition in terms of performance (these things are always rather hard to quantify but it certainly sounds good on paper).

There are a couple more thoughtful features here too, which also put the product in a good position. For starters, the cord is an impressive 20 foot long, which is very handy for a range of different applications. The trigger is easily accessible when gripping the torch and the device claims to be suitable for rust and paint as well.

With all this in mind, you have here a very capable plasma torch that should be suitable for all hobbyist uses and most commercial applications. It packs a lot of punch for its small size and is generally a well thought out product – though you do pay for it as this is the most expensive item that we’ll be looking at here.​

Pros

  • Pilot Arc - No other plasma cutter has this feature in this segment, Can cut rusty/painted metals
  • Built in compressor
  • Highest cut thickness in segment
  • Best performance - Even cuts through 3/8” at good speed
  • Lightweight (29 lbs.), Portable
  • Long cables

Cons

  • No extra consumables

Things to Look for When Choosing a Plasma Cutter

When choosing your plasma cutters to use at home or in shop, there are a few important things to consider that will help you choose the best model.

For starters, you should narrow your search to the best plasma cutters with built in compressor. What this means is that the air/gas compressor will be built into the unit itself, making it a self-contained and fully functional tool rather than something that requires an additional, external gas supply. If you’re not running a manufacturing factory yourself, then this is the type of plasma cutter you should look for.​

There are then a few other factors to consider and we will be rating different plasma cutters based on some of these points. They are:

Electrical outlets: Plasma cutters create temperatures that are extremely high and as you might imagine, this requires a fair amount of power to operate well. Plasma cutters with build in compressors can be designed for 110 volt outlets or 220 volt outlets and will come with their own amperage rating. Consider as well that plugging other tools into the same circuit will force them to share power.​

Portability: The portability is only a factor depending on how you intend on using your device. Getting a plasma cutters with built in compressors though will make this less of an issue for starters but just make sure your cutter comes with a handle and is light enough if that’s how you intend on using it.​

The most portable plasma cutters will have built-in inverters. That means that they can take DC power and then use a high frequency transistor inverter to take it from 10kHz to 200kHz. Don’t worry if that’s all jargon – just know that it allows for an even smaller housing for the plasma cutter which is ideal fi you intend on taking your device on the road with you.

Duty cycle: Finally, make sure to look into the ‘duty cycle’ and average thickness. This tells you how long the plasma cutter can be used and its maximum cutting ability and what thickness of material its capable of cutting through. As a general rule, cutters with high amperages will be able to cut through thicker materials and will also have greater duty cycles when at lower amperages.​

Price: Of course all these things also affect the price. If you have plasma cutter with built in compressor and inverter and it has an impressive duty cycle, then you can bet it will cost more than something will less impressive specs. Here you need to make the choice between a device that does only what you need it to as cheaply as possible, versus a device that will last a long time and offer the best performance – possibly being the better investment if you do a lot of cutting.​

With all that in mind, we’ve narrowed down the best plasma cutters that will provide a good bang (or buzz) for your buck.

Extras

Remember as well to pick up some extras along with your purchase. Good accessories and supplies include:

  • Spare electrodes – These require occasional replacing
  • Consumables – The housing which can eventually wear out over time due to the heats being used
  • Shield cup
  • Silicone grease
  • Air dryer/regulator – Useful for reducing slag

These extras will help your device to last longer and will ensure that it doesn’t give out just when you need to use it!

Conclusions

To conclude, any one of these plasma cutters with built in air compressor will be more than up to the task for most uses around the home. They each run off a regular mains supply and can cut through a similar thickness of material.

The main differences lie in the performance and the design. Take a look at the Amazon reviews and images and decide for yourself. Either way, you’ll be able to start cutting straight out of the box and should have a very positive experience.

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