Introduction: Seeing As You Weld

About: I miss the days when magazines like Popular Mechanics had all sorts of DIY projects for making and repairing just about everything. I am enjoying posting things I have learned and done since I got my first to…

I use a 2004 Lincoln auto-darkening welding helmet with a Miller Thunderbolt 225 stick welder (230 volts) and with a Hobart 125EZ flux core wire feed welder. The stick welder throws a lot of light when welding, and seeing the joint as I weld is not a problem with it. Seeing the joint as I weld with the wire feed welder has been difficult to impossible. But, I recently made a very helpful discovery.

The photo shows a weld I have started with the wire feed welder. The weld is on 3/16 inch steel. The ends of the pieces have been chamfered for good penetration of the weld. The weld as shown was made by following what I could see in my auto-darkening helmet. You can see that it follows the joint quite nicely. 

Step 1: What I Had Been Seeing Until Recently

Until recently, all I could see of the joint when viewing through my auto-darkening helmet is replicated in the photo with this step. It is the same photo in the previous frame, but manipulated in photo editing software to approximate what I was able to see. The bright blue arc has been created on my computer.

Step 2: What I Am Able to See Now

The image shown here is also the same image from the Introduction, but manipulated in photo-editing software to approximate what I see in my auto-darkening hood. Adjust the view angle of your computer screen so you can see the maximum detail. I cannot see as well as I would with my stick welder, but notice the unwelded sides of the joint are visible just ahead of the arc.
As I move the arc side to side a little to weave the weld, I can see the crest of the ground portion of the joint clearly enough to make a straight welding bead. There is often a lot of smoke from the weld, and that can obscure the view some, too. This arc in the photo has also been created on my computer. (This photo is only an approximation for purposes of illustration, and not an accurate depiction of actual light levels visible through the helmet. You may see more or less through your helmet, or on your Internet browser here. But, I was able to see much more due to what I am describing in this Instructable.)

Step 3: What Made the Difference

The big improvement in what I can see is due to fresh batteries in my welding helmet's auto-darkening module. I will say more about that later. But, there are a couple of other things to check, too.

First, your welding helmet has a clear protective lens in front of and behind the auto-darkening module. The photo shows the clear lens from an older helmet with a fixed #10 shade lens. I gave it no thought until one day I removed it. Notice how discolored it is. I replaced it with a new clear lens.

Step 4: Wipe Away the Dirt and Dust

Welding makes a lot of smoke and dirt. Shops are dirty and dusty. The lens of a welding helmet gets covered with whatever is in the air in your shop. I wiped the front lens on my auto-darkening helmet after doing only a few welds, and already I found some dirt on the lens. A dirty lens restricts the view, too. Wipe away the dirt from both the inner and the outer protective lenses.

Step 5: Just Get a New Helmet?

Recently I did an Instructable in which I showed how to make a guide to keep the arc on the joint line. Some said I simply needed more background light from an extra light source, like this one that attaches to the welder's gun. I asked my brother-in-law what he thought about the LED light source in the link above. He said, "If you need to add light to see when you are welding, you just need a new helmet. Those helmets go bad after about five years. Just go to Harbor Freight and get a new helmet!" 

Some have said I need an adjustable shade auto darkening helmet so that I can select a #9 shade when seeing is difficult. But, I looked on-line at the PDF manuals for some different auto-darkening helmets and all recommended a #10 shade for the amperage range my wire feed welder produces. My Lincoln helmet darkens to #10 with no adjustment for other shades provided. In 2004 such features were not available where I bought my helmet, if at all.

The photo shows my Lincoln helmet. As I mentioned, I bought it in 2004. I did not get a wire feed welder until 2009. By that time its performance may have degraded due to aging batteries and I never had the opportunity to see how it worked with a wire feed welder when the helmet was new.. See more about that in step 7.

Step 6: But, I Am Too Cheap to Buy a New Helmet!

I thought for a day or two about buying a new helmet, but wanted to check some other possibilities. I tried illuminating the joint area with supplemental light, but that was not satisfactory.

On a whim I decided to put new batteries in my helmet. The old batteries were not leaking, yet. Although my helmet does not have a low battery indicator and the manual says almost nothing about when to change the batteries, I assumed the two AAA batteries my helmet uses were still good. With no load they show they still hold 1.25 volts each. The auto-darkening module in my helmet still comes "on" when I press the lens to activate the micro-switch behind it. The lens darkens when an arc flashes, even when my grinder throws sparks. The lens lightens when the arc ceases. What more is needed? 

The photo shows the auto-darkening module from my helmet and the battery door on it. 

Step 7: What I Learned

When I installed new AAA alkaline batteries in my helmet; suddenly it darkened a bit less than it had been darkening, and I could see the welding joint while I am welding. I surmised the auto-darkening circuit needs fresh batteries to limit the amount of darkening to the proper level. I have a fixed #10 shade helmet with a new lens. The shade in my auto-darkening helmet using new batteries is now the same as the new fixed shade #10 glass lens in  the older helmet. With partially depleted batteries my auto-darkening helmet was darkening too much. In the future, I plan to check my batteries periodically and replace them when I notice I am not seeing the joint during welding or when they read 1.4 volts. That is an arbitrary figure, but one I will use as a starting guide for myself. I added a label inside my helmet as a reminder to check the batteries. See the photo. Update: my vision during welding is still not all I expect. I believe it may have even declined a little. I ordered a #9 fixed shade lens for my non-darkening helmet, and that has made a big difference. I am 67 years old and it is not uncommon for one's vision to dim with age.

Step 8: "But, My Helmet Uses Solar Cells."

If your helmet has solar cells on its front to capture light for powering the auto-darkening module, that does not mean it does not still have batteries. It does. The batteries may be standard alkaline cells, and there may be a low battery indicator in the form of a colored LED. Or, the batteries may be built-in rechargeables. One weldor brought his inexpensive Harbor Freight auto-darkening helmet back to life by replacing a bad internal button battery. He replaced those button batteries with a battery holder and AAA alkaline batteries. You can read about what he did here.

When I think about the comment my brother-in-law made, there is a reason why helmets last only about five years. Internal recharageable batteries in cell phones and other devices regularly last only about four or five years before they no longer take a full charge and need to be replaced. If you pay $100 or more for an auto-darkening welding helmet, the maker probably sells replacement batteries you can install yourself without breaking plastic to crack something open. If you get a budget helmet, you will either discard it after a few years and buy another, or you will have to improvise to replace the battery. And, the straps in the name brand helmet will last longer before breaking.

The image is from the link above about repairing a Harbor Freight helmet.