Gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW), also known as tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding, is an arc welding process that uses a non-consumable tungsten electrode to produce the weld. The weld area is protected from atmospheric contamination by an inert shielding gas (argon or helium), 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 electrical 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 non-ferrous metals such as aluminum, magnesium, and copper alloys. The process grants the operator greater control over the weld than competing processes 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.
Manual gas tungsten arc welding is a relatively difficult welding method, due to the coordination required by the welder. Similar to torch welding, 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. Maintaining a short arc length, while preventing contact between the electrode and the workpiece, is also important.
To strike the welding arc, a high frequency generator (similar to a Tesla coil) provides an electric spark. This spark is a conductive path for the welding current through the shielding gas and allows the arc to be initiated while the electrode and the workpiece are separated, typically about 1.5–3 mm (0.06–0.12 in) apart.
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 always kept inside the gas shield to prevent oxidation of its surface and contamination of the weld. Filler rods composed of metals with a 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.
Gas tungsten arc welding, because it affords greater control over the weld area than other welding processes, can produce high-quality welds when performed by skilled operators. Maximum weld quality is assured by maintaining cleanliness—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. GTAW 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.
The level of heat input also affects weld quality. 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 welding torch is too far from the workpiece the shielding gas becomes ineffective, causing porosity within the weld. This results in a weld with pinholes, which is weaker than a typical weld.
If the amount of current used exceeds the capability of the electrode, tungsten inclusions in the weld may result. Known as tungsten spitting, this can be identified with radiography and can be 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 the electrode be ground with a diamond abrasive to remove the impurity.