Welding Processes: An In-Depth Look at SMAW

June 30, 2024

Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW) is a manual arc welding process commonly known as “stick welding,” stands as one of the most fundamental and widely used welding processes in the industry. Developed in the early 20th century, this versatile method has remained a cornerstone of welding technology for over a hundred years. Despite the advent of more advanced welding techniques, SMAW continues to be indispensable in various applications due to its unique advantages. However, like any welding process, it also has limitations that may make other methods more suitable in certain situations.

Historical Context

The origins of SMAW can be traced back to the late 19th century. In 1885, Nikolay Benardos and Stanislav Olszewski patented the first electric arc welding method using carbon electrodes. However, it was Oscar Kjellberg who is credited with inventing the coated electrode in 1904, which marked the birth of modern SMAW. This innovation significantly improved the quality of welds by providing better arc stability and weld metal protection.

What Is SMAW?

SMAW is an arc welding process that utilizes a covered, consumable metal electrode to create and maintain an electric arc between the electrode and the base metal. The electrode is coated with a flux material that melts during the welding process, creating a protective gas shield and a slag covering to protect the weld pool from atmospheric contamination.

Key Components of SMAW

  1. Power Source: Typically a constant current power supply, which can be AC or DC.
  2. Electrode Holder: A device that securely holds the electrode and conducts electricity to it.
  3. Ground Clamp: Connects the workpiece to the power source, completing the electrical circuit.
  4. Electrode: A flux-coated metal rod that conducts electricity and provides filler material.
  5. Workpiece: The metal being welded.

Types of Electrodes

SMAW electrodes are classified based on their chemical composition, mechanical properties, and intended use. The American Welding Society (AWS) uses a system of letters and numbers to designate electrodes. For example:

  • E6010: A cellulose-sodium electrode for all-position welding with deep penetration.
  • E7018: A low-hydrogen electrode with iron powder in the coating, offering high-quality welds with good mechanical properties.

The choice of electrode depends on factors such as:

  • Base metal composition
  • Required weld strength
  • Welding position
  • Power source type (AC or DC)

Power Requirements

The power requirements for SMAW can vary significantly based on the electrode type and size, as well as the thickness of the base metal. Typically:

  • Voltage ranges from 16 to 40 volts
  • Amperage can range from 20 to 550 amps

Larger electrodes generally require higher currents and are used for higher deposition rates. The specific power settings are crucial for achieving optimal weld quality and are often specified in welding procedure specifications (WPS).

SMAW in the Context of Arc Welding Processes

Shielded Metal Arc Welding, also known as manual metal arc welding or stick welding, is one of several arc welding processes used in modern fabrication. To better understand SMAW’s place in the welding world, it’s helpful to compare it with other common arc welding methods:

  1. Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW/MIG): Uses a continuous wire electrode and external shielding gas.
  2. Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW/TIG): Uses a non-consumable tungsten electrode and external shielding gas.
  3. Flux Cored Arc Welding (FCAW): Similar to GMAW but uses a tubular electrode filled with flux.
  4. Submerged Arc Welding (SAW): Uses a continuous consumable electrode with a separate granular flux.

Each of these welding methods has its own advantages and ideal applications, but SMAW remains one of the simplest welding processes, particularly suited for outdoor work and repairs.

The SMAW Process in Detail

Arc Initiation and Maintenance

The welding arc in SMAW is initiated when the tip of the electrode touches the workpiece and is quickly withdrawn to a short distance. This creates an electric arc between the electrode and the workpiece. Maintaining a constant arc length is crucial for consistent weld quality.

Electrode Consumption

As the welding process continues, the consumable electrode melts, providing both the filler metal for the weld and the protective slag covering. The rate at which the electrode melts is directly related to the welding current and affects the overall welding speed.

Weld Pool Formation

The intense heat of the electric arc creates a molten weld pool on the workpiece. As the electrode moves along the joint, this molten metal solidifies behind it, forming the weld bead. The size and shape of the weld puddle are indicators of proper welding technique and parameters.

Slag Formation and Removal

The flux coating on the electrode melts and forms a protective slag over the molten weld metal. This slag protects the cooling weld from atmospheric contamination and helps shape the weld bead. After welding, this slag must be removed to reveal the finished weld surface.

Detailed Step-by-Step SMAW Process

  1. Preparation:
    • Clean the base metal to remove any rust, paint, oil, or other contaminants.
    • Set up the welding machine according to the electrode manufacturer’s recommendations.
    • Ensure proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is worn, including welding helmet, gloves, and flame-resistant clothing.
  2. Equipment Setup:
    • Connect the electrode holder to the electrode terminal of the power source.
    • Attach the ground clamp to the workpiece or welding table.
    • Select and insert the appropriate electrode into the electrode holder.
  3. Striking the Arc:
    • Position the electrode at a 20-30 degree angle to the workpiece.
    • Initiate the arc using either the scratch or tapping method:
      • Scratch method: Drag the electrode tip along the surface like striking a match.
      • Tapping method: Quickly tap the electrode on the workpiece and lift slightly.
    • Once the arc is established, maintain a consistent arc length (typically equal to the electrode diameter).
  4. Welding:
    • Move the electrode along the joint at a steady speed, maintaining the correct angle and arc length.
    • Control the travel speed to ensure proper penetration and bead formation.
    • For multi-pass welds, clean each pass with a wire brush before laying the next bead.
  5. Ending the Weld:
    • To terminate the arc, quickly pull the electrode away from the workpiece.
    • Some welders prefer to “crater” the end of the weld by pausing briefly before breaking the arc, which can help prevent weld defects.
  6. Post-Weld Cleaning:
    • Allow the weld to cool slightly.
    • Remove the slag covering using a chipping hammer and wire brush.
    • Inspect the weld for any defects or inconsistencies.

Welding Parameters and Technique

Welding Current and Voltage

The choice of welding current (amperage) and voltage significantly affects the weld’s characteristics. Higher currents generally provide deeper weld penetration but require more skill to control the larger weld pool. The welding voltage, typically between 17 to 40 volts, influences arc stability and weld bead shape.

Electrode Angle and Movement

The electrode angle relative to the workpiece affects weld penetration and bead shape. For most applications, a 20-30 degree angle in the direction of travel is recommended. Various electrode movements (straight, weave, etc.) can be employed depending on the joint design and desired weld properties.

Welding Speed

The speed at which the electrode moves along the joint (travel speed) affects weld penetration and bead size. Too slow a speed can result in excessive heat input and potential burn-through, while too fast a speed can lead to lack of fusion or incomplete penetration.

Welding Positions

SMAW can be performed in all welding positions: flat, horizontal, vertical, and overhead. Each position requires specific techniques and may benefit from different electrode types. The ability to weld in all positions is one of SMAW’s key advantages over some other welding methods.

Electrode Selection and Characteristics

Types of Electrodes

SMAW electrodes are classified based on their composition and intended use. Common types include:

  • E6010: Cellulose-sodium electrode for deep weld penetration
  • E6011: Similar to E6010 but for AC use
  • E7018: Low-hydrogen electrode for high-quality welds with good mechanical properties
  • E308L: Stainless steel electrode for welding austenitic stainless steels

Electrode Coatings

The flux coating on covered electrodes serves several purposes:

  1. Provides a protective gas shield
  2. Forms a slag to protect the cooling weld
  3. Adds alloying elements to the weld metal
  4. Stabilizes the arc

Different electrode coatings are designed for specific applications and base metals.

Consumable Electrode Considerations

The choice of consumable electrode affects not only the weld’s mechanical properties but also its corrosion resistance and other characteristics. Factors to consider when selecting an electrode include:

  • Base metal composition
  • Required weld strength
  • Welding position
  • Power source type (AC or DC)
  • Environmental conditions

Power Sources and Electrical Characteristics

Arc Welding Power Sources

SMAW typically uses a constant current (CC) power source, which can be either AC or DC. Modern inverter-based power sources offer advantages in portability and control over traditional transformer-based units.

Polarity Considerations

When using DC, the electrode can be either positive (DCEP) or negative (DCEN). DCEP (also known as reverse polarity) is more common as it generally provides deeper weld penetration and a more stable arc. However, some electrodes are designed for DCEN or AC use.

Welding Cables

Proper sizing of welding cables is crucial for optimal performance. Undersized cables can lead to voltage drop and reduced weld quality. The length and diameter of welding cables should be matched to the welding current and duty cycle of the application.

Advantages of SMAW

  1. Versatility: SMAW can be used on a wide range of metals and alloys, including steel, stainless steel, cast iron, and nickel alloys.
  2. Portability: The equipment is relatively lightweight and compact, making it ideal for field work and remote locations.
  3. Cost-Effectiveness: SMAW equipment is generally less expensive than other welding systems, making it accessible for small workshops and hobbyists.
  4. All-Position Welding: With the right electrodes and technique, SMAW can be performed in all positions (flat, horizontal, vertical, and overhead).
  5. Weather Resistance: SMAW performs well in outdoor environments and can withstand moderate wind and moisture.
  6. No External Gas Required: Unlike GMAW or GTAW, SMAW doesn’t need an external shielding gas supply, simplifying logistics for remote work.
  7. Thick Material Capability: SMAW is effective for welding thick materials, often used in heavy industrial applications.

Disadvantages of SMAW

  1. Lower Productivity: Compared to semi-automatic processes like GMAW, SMAW has a lower deposition rate and requires frequent electrode changes.
  2. Skill Intensive: Mastering SMAW requires significant practice and skill development, especially for out-of-position welding.
  3. Slag Removal: The flux coating produces slag that must be removed after welding, adding to post-weld cleanup time.
  4. Limited Suitability for Thin Materials: SMAW is generally not recommended for materials thinner than 3mm due to the risk of burn-through.
  5. Porosity in Reactive Metals: SMAW is not suitable for highly reactive metals like titanium or zirconium due to the risk of atmospheric contamination.
  6. Fume Generation: The flux coating can produce more fumes compared to other welding processes, necessitating good ventilation.

Comparative Analysis with Other Welding Methods

While SMAW is versatile, other welding methods may be preferable in certain situations:

  • For thin materials, GTAW (TIG welding) often provides better control and less distortion.
  • For high-volume production welding, GMAW (MIG welding) or FCAW can offer higher deposition rates.
  • For welding reactive metals like titanium, GTAW with inert gas shielding is typically preferred.

However, SMAW remains advantageous for its portability, versatility in outdoor conditions, and ability to weld a wide range of materials with minimal equipment.

Advanced SMAW Techniques

Vertical-Up Welding

Welding in the vertical-up position requires specific techniques to control the molten weld pool against gravity. A weave pattern is often employed to ensure proper fusion and penetration.

Overhead Welding

Overhead welding is one of the most challenging positions in SMAW. It requires careful control of the weld puddle and typically uses smaller diameter electrodes with lower currents to prevent molten metal droplets from falling.

Root Pass Techniques

For pipe welding and other critical applications, the root pass (first weld pass) is crucial. Electrodes like E6010 are often used for their ability to provide deep weld penetration and control in tight spaces.

Quality Control and Inspection

Ensuring weld quality in SMAW involves both process control and post-weld inspection. Common quality control measures include:

  1. Visual inspection of the finished weld surface
  2. Non-destructive testing methods like radiography or ultrasonic testing
  3. Destructive testing of weld samples for mechanical properties
  4. Monitoring of welding parameters during the process

Proper training and certification of welders are also crucial for maintaining consistent weld quality across various applications.

Industrial Applications of SMAW

SMAW finds extensive use across various industries due to its adaptability and reliability:

  1. Construction: Used in steel erection, bridge building, and general construction work.
  2. Shipbuilding: Ideal for thick plate welding and repair work in maritime environments.
  3. Pipeline Welding: Commonly used for joining pipe sections in the oil and gas industry.
  4. Automotive Repair: Utilized in body work and frame repair for vehicles.
  5. Agriculture: Used for repairing farm equipment and machinery.
  6. Mining: Applied in the maintenance and repair of heavy mining equipment.
  7. Sculpture and Art: Many metal artists use SMAW for creating large-scale sculptures.

Recent Advancements in SMAW Technology

While the basic principles of SMAW have remained unchanged, there have been notable advancements:

  1. Improved Electrode Formulations: Development of electrodes with better arc stability, reduced fume emissions, and enhanced mechanical properties.
  2. Inverter Power Sources: Modern inverter-based welding machines offer better control, efficiency, and portability compared to traditional transformer-based units.
  3. Digital Controls: Some high-end SMAW machines now feature digital interfaces for precise control and monitoring of welding parameters.
  4. Pulsed SMAW: This variation allows for better control of heat input and can improve weld quality in certain applications.

Safety Considerations

Safety is paramount in any welding operation, and SMAW is no exception. Key safety considerations include:

  1. Eye Protection: Always use a welding helmet with the appropriate shade lens to protect against arc flash.
  2. Respiratory Protection: Use proper ventilation and wear a respirator when necessary to avoid inhaling welding fumes.
  3. Fire Prevention: Keep a fire extinguisher nearby and clear the welding area of flammable materials.
  4. Electrical Safety: Ensure proper grounding and insulation of equipment to prevent electric shock.
  5. Burns Protection: Wear appropriate PPE, including leather gloves, long-sleeved jackets, and steel-toed boots.
  6. Training: Proper training and certification are essential for safe and effective SMAW operations.

Future Outlook

Despite being one of the oldest welding processes, SMAW continues to evolve and maintain its relevance in the welding industry. Future developments may include:

  1. Smart Electrodes: Electrodes with embedded sensors to provide real-time feedback on weld quality.
  2. AI-Assisted Welding: Integration of artificial intelligence to help optimize welding parameters and technique.
  3. Eco-Friendly Electrodes: Development of electrodes with reduced environmental impact and lower fume emissions.
  4. Virtual Reality Training: Enhanced training methods using VR technology to improve skill development without material waste.

STI Group: SMAW in Action

STI Group, a leading industrial services company, exemplifies the continued relevance and effectiveness of SMAW in modern industrial applications. As a trusted provider of fabrication, construction, and maintenance services across industries such as oil and gas, power generation, and chemical processing, STI Group relies on SMAW for its versatility and reliability. The company’s expert welders utilize SMAW for various applications, including field work in remote locations, all-position welding for complex structures, and joining thick materials in challenging environments. STI Group’s commitment to quality is evident in their rigorous welder certification programs, adherence to industry standards, and continuous improvement of SMAW techniques. The successful implementation of SMAW demonstrates how this time-tested welding process remains a cornerstone of industrial specialty welding, even as newer technologies emerge.

Other Welding Processes

GMAW Welding Processes: An In-Depth Look

FCAW Welding: Comprehensive Guide to FCAW Welding Techniques

More Resources

Cary, H. B., & Helzer, S. C. (2005). Modern Welding Technology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. Find in WorldCat

Weman, K. (2011). Welding Processes Handbook. Elsevier. View on Elsevier

American Welding Society. (2015). AWS A5.1/A5.1M:2012 Specification for Carbon Steel Electrodes for Shielded Metal Arc Welding. Search on AWS website