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On top of every good welder’s head is a good welding helmet, protecting the wearer from the hazards of the occupation. Not only does a quality welding helmet shield the user from the intense glare of a welding arc, it also protects his or her face and neck from hot shards of welding flux, metal shavings, and other dangerous materials. A professional welder would never work without a helmet, and amateur welders should follow that example.
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Whether you are a professional welder with years of experience or an amateur weekend warrior making a few basic repairs, it is important to find the best safety gear available when using any form of welding equipment. Here are some important elements to consider when shopping for a new welding helmet.
A quality welding helmet provides protection in a number of different ways, some more obvious than others. Attempting to weld without one would be foolish at best, since the act of welding creates specific hazards that cannot be addressed with other forms of protective gear. Safety goggles alone would not protect the welder’s face and neck from hot shrapnel, and typical sunglass lenses cannot darken enough to protect the welder’s vision. A full-face welding helmet addresses these safety and comfort issues.
By design, welding often creates a shower of hot debris. Small pieces of welding flux can easily burn the welder’s skin or penetrate an eye.
A welding helmet provides full head and neck shielding while the wearer works in close proximity to hot shards of flying debris.
The lenses of a welding helmet, especially one with an auto-darkening feature, are designed to protect the welder’s eyes from the intense light of an arc. Without this feature, welders would suffer serious retinal damage from constant exposure to a light source as bright as the sun.
In the past, welders routinely suffered from painful neuromuscular conditions, triggered by the use of heavy welding helmets. Today’s lighter models still allow wearers to tilt their heads down to lower the mask into position, but the masks can be worn comfortably for several hours at a time.
Welding helmet models with faster lens reaction times are better for those who weld for extended durations, but can also be more expensive.
There are various levels of welding helmet models on the market, starting with basic versions for amateur, home-based welders, and ending with commercial grade versions for professional welders. Most welding helmet customers who plan to do a modest amount of welding will fall somewhere in between.
There are a number of important differences between an entry-level and professional grade helmet, primarily when it comes to protection from the extreme brightness of a welding arc.
Some shops have strict rules on the type of helmet an employee can wear on the job. A number of companies no longer allow standard glass lenses with a fixed darkening setting, for example. Too many wearers have filed medical claims for eye damage, because the lenses did not offer enough protection.
Here are some important elements to consider when shopping for a new welding helmet.
When shopping for an acceptable welding mask, it pays to consult with an employer or supervisor first.
For decades, virtually all welding helmets used standard glass lenses to protect the wearer from intense light exposure. These lenses were usually darkened to what would be considered a #10 level, by modern standards. This level of darkness works well for some forms of welding, but not for all. It is possible to replace the default #10 darkening lens with a deeper grade (typically #11 to #13), but not always practical. Standard glass lenses work well for those who perform the same type of welds on the same types of materials, but welders who work with different welding machines and materials every day may find an auto-darkening lens more practical.
The auto-darkening lens option has become increasingly popular over the years. An auto-darkening lens is generally powered by a small battery, although solar power is also an option. When bright light hits the lenses, they shift instantly from the level of a smoky sunglass lens to either a fixed or variable protection level. Once a welder positions the tool and starts the machine, the auto-darkening lens reacts within microseconds. When the light intensity lessens, the lens automatically reverts to a lower setting, allowing the welder to inspect the work.
The overall weight of a helmet is also a consideration, since a one pound difference in weight can have a significant impact on comfort through an eight hour shift.
Auto-darkening lenses come in two varieties: fixed and variable.
An auto-darkening helmet with a fixed, #10 lens will always darken to #10 when activated. A helmet with variable shade will darken to a level appropriate for the brightness of the light flare, shading anywhere from #9 to #13.
The variable shade helmet is far more convenient for someone performing different kinds of welds with different materials. However, variable shade helmets are almost always more expensive. If you consistently perform a single type of weld, you can opt for a cheaper helmet with a fixed shade.
If you weld with the same materials regularly, a fixed shade is perfectly fine, but for more variety in your welding jobs, a variable shade lens is better.
When comparing different welding helmet models from different manufacturers, one popular selling point is “lens reaction time.” Indeed, a faster lens reaction time does indicate higher overall quality, but a slower lens reaction time is not necessarily a deal breaker, especially for amateur or occasional welders. Professional welders working on commercial projects tend to benefit more from helmets with faster reaction times.
Essentially, the lens reaction time is a measurement of how quickly a welding helmet’s lens responds to the sudden burst of light created by a welding arc. The time is measured in thousandths of a second, with entry level models typically reacting in 1/3,600ths of a second, and professional models reacting in as fast as 1/32,000th of a second.
Lens reaction time is an important consideration when you expect repetitive exposure to the bright light of a welding arc. Even a slight delay in darkening is the equivalent of being exposed to the glare of a photographic flashbulb. One or two flashes may not cause retinal damage, but the effect of hundreds of such flashes over an eight hour shift can be cumulative.
An auto-darkening lens should provide complete protection of the wearer’s eyes almost instantaneously.
Modern welding mask designs tend to incorporate elements of other helmets, particular the dramatic lines and graphics of motorcycle or racing helmets. The outer shell on some models remains stationary to protect the head and neck, while an inner shell flips up or down to shield the face and eyes. More traditional welding masks have an internal headband that fits the head snugly. The entire mask pivots into place with a slight downward nod, and the wearer pushes it up when inspecting the work.
One important consideration is the fit of the headband. The wearer should be able to adjust the diameter of the headband to find the right combination of snugness and comfort. This may not be as important for short-term welding assignments, but those who plan to weld for several hours at a time need to make sure the headband does not trigger “hatband headaches” after a period of time.
Weight is another element to consider when shopping for welding helmets. There’s a reason most welding helmets are not constructed from steel or aluminum. A two-pound helmet may not sound very heavy, but after several hours it can cause serious muscle fatigue. Many quality helmets are actually made from lightweight materials such as fiberglass, polymers, or plastic. Even a one-pound reduction in weight can make a significant difference for wearers. When comparison shopping, it’s helpful to consider the overall weight of each helmet and avoid the heavier options.
We don’t recommend the “one size fits most” headband option, as these don’t always provide a secure fit.
The “brains” of a modern auto-darkening welding helmet reside in the visor. A small control box allows wearers to select such things as darkening levels and light sensitivity. When the controls are powered on, the welder simply snaps the helmet into position and allows the lenses to darken automatically.
The highest level of sensitivity and the highest auto-darkening setting should protect most welders from eye damage. More experienced welders often adjust these settings to improve visibility between welding operations.
Most welding helmets with auto-darkening lenses are powered by batteries in the visor, while others use solar power gathered from a photovoltaic cell on the external shell. Either method should provide the same level of protection, but solar powered helmets can be challenging to use in low light situations. There are some battery/solar hybrid models available as well.
If your helmet is powered by batteries, keep extras in your toolbox to avoid delays mid-job.
You can find a safe, durable welding helmet for $100 or a bit more. In this price range, check carefully to ensure the helmet meets ANSI protection standards, and that the helmet meets any minimum requirements set for your worksite.
More expensive helmets, in the $200 to $400 range, will offer higher quality features: larger viewing windows, more light sensors to reduce lens reaction time, and more highly adjustable headbands. More expensive models also tend to provide a wider range of shade levels, and may even offer impact protection.
Q: I just got hired as an apprentice welder at a local machine shop. Should I talk to my boss before buying my first welding helmet?
A: Consulting with your boss or a more experienced co-worker would be an excellent idea before investing in a new welding helmet. Some companies have strict requirements when it comes to darkening levels, fixed or auto-darkening capacity and weight. It is also important to make sure any helmet meets ANSI safety standards.
Q: Why is lens reaction speed so important? I can’t tell a difference between my basic helmet and my sister’s high-end, professional helmet.
A: Even the most entry-level welding helmet’s lens reaction time is faster than a blink. However, the lag time between the first burst of intense light and the darkening of the lens can make a difference in the long run. Professional welders may work for hours at a time, and each millisecond of unprotected flash does have an effect on the user’s eyes.
Q: Why do all of the welding masks I’ve checked out feel flimsy or lightweight?
A: Unlike other pieces of safety equipment, such as steel-toed work shoes or hardhats, a welding mask needs to be as light as possible to provide comfort and protection to the wearer. Heavier headgear would eventually cause muscle fatigue. The facial visor containing all of the auto-darkening and light sensitivity controls should be the heaviest part of a welding mask. Do not let the relative thinness of the material be a dealbreaker.
Q: Why do some welders complain about the design of a welding helmet? Isn’t it all about the eye protection?
A: Modern auto-darkening welding helmets with very fast lens reaction times are definite improvements over the older and heavier leather helmets with fixed lenses. However, there are still some issues that need to be addressed. One common complaint among experienced welders is that the act of tipping the visor into place forces the welding tool itself out of position. This often requires the welder to reposition the tool on the fly, and this can result in a poorer weld. Short, tack welding jobs are also harder to perform if the visor needs to be raised and lowered constantly for repositioning.
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