GTAW (Gas tungsten arc welding), also known as TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) 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 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 often considered the most difficult of all the welding processes commonly used in industry. Because the welder must maintain a short arc length, great care and skill are required to prevent contact between the electrode and the workpiece. 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. However, some welds combining thin materials (known as autogenous or fusion welds) can be accomplished without filler metal; most notably edge, corner, and butt joints.
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. The electric arc produced can reach temperatures of at least 5000° C. This high voltage, high frequency burst can be damaging to some vehicle electrical systems and electronics, because induced voltages on vehicle wiring can also cause small conductive sparks in the vehicle wiring or within semiconductor packaging. Vehicle 12V power may conduct across these ionized paths, driven by the high-current 12V vehicle battery. These currents can be sufficiently destructive as to disable the vehicle; thus the warning to disconnect the vehicle battery power from both +12 and ground before using welding equipment on vehicles.
An alternate way to initiate the arc is the "scratch start". Scratching the electrode against the work with the power on also serves to strike an arc, in the same way as SMAW ("stick") arc welding. However, scratch starting can cause contamination of the weld and electrode. Some GTAW equipment is capable of a mode called "touch start" or "lift arc"; here the equipment reduces the voltage on the electrode to only a few volts, with a current limit of one or two amps (well below the limit that causes metal to transfer and contamination of the weld or electrode). When the GTAW equipment detects that the electrode has left the surface and a spark is present, it immediately (within microseconds) increases power, converting the spark to a full arc.
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 never removed from the gas shield to prevent oxidation of its surface and contamination of the weld. Filler rods composed of metals with 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.
While the aerospace industry is one of the primary users of gas tungsten arc welding, the process is used in a number of other areas. Many industries use GTAW for welding thin workpieces, especially nonferrous metals. It is used extensively in the manufacture of space vehicles, and is also frequently employed to weld small-diameter, thin-wall tubing such as those used in the bicycle industry. In addition, GTAW is often used to make root or first pass welds for piping of various sizes. In maintenance and repair work, the process is commonly used to repair tools and dies, especially components made of aluminum and magnesium. Because the weld metal is not transferred directly across the electric arc like most open arc welding processes, a vast assortment of welding filler metal is available to the welding engineer. In fact, no other welding process permits the welding of so many alloys in so many product configurations. Filler metal alloys, such as elemental aluminum and chromium, can be lost through the electric arc from volatilization. This loss does not occur with the GTAW process. Because the resulting welds have the same chemical integrity as the original base metal or match the base metals more closely, GTAW welds are highly resistant to corrosion and cracking over long time periods, GTAW is the welding procedure of choice for critical welding operations like sealing spent nuclear fuel canisters before burial.