What is a plasma cutter used for?

A plasma cutter is used for cutting various types of metals like steel, aluminum, and copper in industries such as manufacturing, construction, and automotive repair.

Basic Working Principle

Explanation of how a plasma cutter works

A plasma cutter uses electrical energy to convert pressurized air into an electric arc. This process transforms the air into plasma, a hot substance capable of cutting through various types of metal like steel, aluminum, and copper. When you initiate the cut, the electric arc fires through a nozzle and comes into contact with the metal, slicing through it as it travels along the surface.

The core of this technology lies in the generation of the electric arc. When you trigger the plasma cutter, the electric circuit completes, firing the arc from the electrode within the torch. This arc heats up the compressed air or gas to temperatures as high as 30,000°F, turning it into plasma. The pressurized air then focuses the plasma, propelling it at high speeds towards the workpiece.

Components of a plasma cutter

  • Power Supply: The power supply regulates the electrical energy feeding into the cutter, converting it into a DC voltage between 200 and 400V. This voltage sustains the plasma arc throughout the cutting process.
  • Arc Starting Console (ASC): The ASC produces a high-frequency, high-voltage circuit that initiates the plasma arc. It’s the catalyst for turning the compressed air into plasma.
  • Plasma Torch: This is the handheld or mechanically controlled device housing the consumable electrode. It focuses and directs the plasma at the material you’re cutting.
  • Nozzle and Electrode: These are located inside the plasma torch. The electrode conducts electricity from the power supply, while the nozzle focuses the plasma flow.
  • Air Compressor: The air compressor provides the pressurized air needed for the cutter. Some models have a built-in compressor, while others require an external one.
  • Ground Clamp: This completes the electrical circuit when clamped to the workpiece, ensuring a stable arc for precise cutting.

For more on how plasma cutters work, you can visit the Wikipedia page on Plasma Cutting.

Types of Plasma Cutters

Handheld vs. Mechanized Plasma Cutters

Handheld plasma cutters offer portability and flexibility, making them ideal for on-site repairs, small workshops, and DIY projects. These cutters generally have a more straightforward design, with the operator manually guiding the plasma torch over the material. On the flip side, they may lack the precision and speed of their mechanized counterparts.

Mechanized plasma cutters, often integrated into CNC (Computer Numerical Control) systems, excel in industrial settings where high precision and repeatability are required. These cutters usually come with advanced features like automated torch height control and can work in tandem with computer software to execute complex cuts. They’re commonly used in mass production, automotive manufacturing, and aerospace industries.

For a deeper understanding of these types, you can visit the Wikipedia page on Plasma Cutting.

Comparison between Low-Amperage and High-Amperage Systems

These units are lightweight, portable, and often cheaper, making them an excellent choice for small workshops or DIY enthusiasts who don’t need to cut through thick, industrial-grade metals.

High-amperage systems, on the other hand, can operate at 80 amps or more. They can slice through metals over one inch thick and are usually found in industrial applications where heavy-duty cutting is the norm. These systems require a more substantial power source and may also need additional features like water or gas cooling systems to manage the heat generated during cutting.

Materials That Can Be Cut

Types of Metals and Materials Commonly Cut

Plasma cutters can handle a variety of metals and materials with ease. Some of the most common include:

  • Steel: Both mild steel and stainless steel are commonly cut materials due to their widespread use in construction and manufacturing.
  • Aluminum: Lightweight and highly conductive, aluminum is another popular choice, especially in the automotive and aerospace sectors.
  • Copper: Though less commonly cut than steel or aluminum, copper also gets sliced using plasma cutters, particularly in electrical applications.
  • Brass and Bronze: These materials are less frequently cut but are still within the capabilities of most plasma cutting systems.

For a comprehensive list of materials compatible with plasma cutting, you can visit the Wikipedia page on Plasma Cutting.

Limitations on Materials

While plasma cutters are versatile, they do have limitations. For instance:

  • Non-Metallic Materials: Plasma cutters are not suitable for cutting wood, plastic, or glass as they rely on the conductivity of the material to operate efficiently.
  • Thin Metals: Extremely thin metals can warp or get damaged due to the intense heat generated by the plasma.
  • Highly Reflective Metals: Materials like gold and silver are less suitable for plasma cutting because they reflect too much heat, making the process inefficient.
  • Metals with Special Coatings: Some coated or treated metals may require special consideration, as the coating can interfere with the plasma cutting process or produce harmful fumes.


Applications in Different Industries


In manufacturing, plasma cutters are essential tools for cutting various types of metals in bulk. They help in producing everything from machine parts to consumer electronics. For those interested in the industrial applications of this technology, the Wikipedia page on manufacturing provides more insight.


Construction sites often require precise cutting of steel beams, pipes, and metal sheets. Plasma cutters provide the accuracy and portability needed in such environments. The ease of setup and quick operation enable construction workers to meet their tight schedules without compromising on quality. To know more about its usage in construction, you can visit the Wikipedia page on construction.

Automotive Repair

In automotive repair shops, plasma cutters come in handy for custom modifications and repairs, such as cutting through exhaust systems or body panels. They offer a quick and efficient way to slice through metal, which can be crucial in urgent repair situations.

Artistic Metalwork

Artists who specialize in metal sculptures and installations often use plasma cutters for their ability to make intricate, detailed cuts. The tool allows for a great deal of creativity and opens up new possibilities in artistic expression. For those intrigued by this form of art, the Wikipedia page on metalwork offers additional information.


Shipbuilding involves the assembly of massive structures that require large and precise cuts in thick plates of steel. Here, high-amperage plasma cutters are usually the tool of choice, offering both the power and precision needed for such large-scale applications. To dive deeper into this industry, the Wikipedia page on shipbuilding is a useful resource.

How much does a typical plasma cutter cost?

A basic handheld plasma cutter can cost around $500 to $1,000. Mechanized, industrial-grade units can range from $2,000 to $10,000 depending on features and specifications.

How efficient is a plasma cutter compared to an oxy-fuel cutter?

A plasma cutter can cut metals up to three times faster than an oxy-fuel cutter. For instance, it can slice through a 1-inch thick steel plate at a speed of about 20 inches per minute.

What is the typical lifespan of a plasma cutter?

The lifespan of a plasma cutter varies based on usage and maintenance, but generally, a quality unit can last up to 10 years with proper care.

What types of materials can a plasma cutter not cut?

Plasma cutters are not suitable for cutting non-metallic materials like wood, plastic, and glass. They are also less efficient with highly reflective metals like gold and silver.

What is the size and weight of a handheld plasma cutter?

A typical handheld plasma cutter is around 20 inches in length, 10 inches in width, and weighs approximately 50 pounds, making it portable for on-site jobs.

How much does it cost to operate a plasma cutter?

The operating cost can vary, but it's typically around $20 to $50 per hour, which includes electricity, replacement parts, and compressed air or gas.

What are the key advantages of using a plasma cutter?

The main advantages include speed, as it can cut up to 20 inches per minute on a 1-inch thick plate, precision with a typical kerf width of around 1.5mm, and versatility in cutting various metals.

Are there any significant disadvantages to using a plasma cutter?

The primary disadvantages include the initial high cost of purchase, and potential warping of very thin metals due to the heat generated during the cutting process.

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