Whether you are a fan of shows such as American Chopper, have gotten into DIY welding, or are simply a person who enjoys tinkering, if you own a motorcycle, the thought has probably crossed your mind to make some custom changes to its frame. The trick is finding the right kind of weld to meet your needs.
What is the best kind of welding for motorcycle frames? There are a couple of different processes that will most advantageously weld motorcycle frames. These processes are called gas metal arc welding (GMAW) and gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW). These welding techniques are great for conjoining the tubing that comprises a motorcycle frame.
While GMA and GTA are considered two of the best options for motorcycle frames, several different techniques could be used, depending on the needs of the project. The key is making sure that you have the proper equipment, workspace, and safety gear before making any custom changes to your chopper.
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8 Different Welding Techniques to Consider for Your Motorcycle Frame
GMA and GTA welding processes are considered the best for joining the tubing that comprises motorcycle frames.
However, there are a handful of other options out there that may prove beneficial for your specific project. The following breakdown looks at some of the common welding processes and what is required to make them successful.
#1 – MIG Welding (GMA)
MIG welding has a couple of names, such as gas metal arc welding (GMAW), although MIG stands for metal inert gas and is its more common name.
The attractive aspect of this welding process for do-it-yourselfers is that it is one of the simplest forms of welding and can be successfully executed by beginners.
This is a very expeditious process that involves gas shielding a specific type of filler metal. The gas protects the filler metal from corrosion and harmful elements of nature. This indicates that GMA is not the best type of weld to perform outdoors. However, because you will more likely be working on your bike in a garage or some other shop, this should not be an issue.
After deciding upon a work location and getting all the frame elements set to be welded together, the following breakdown gives a brief explanation of how the GMA welding process works to join the motorcycle frame tubing:
- The welding machine has a spool of consumable wire that is fed through the wand of the welding torch.
- The welding torch creates an arc, or heated flash, that melts the fed wire at the tip of the wand.
- Upon the introduction to the base metal, the filler metal, or so the melted wire is called, helps connect the various elements of the motorcycle frame. As the wire is fed through the want, the welder is able to control speed and create smooth, straight welds along the bike’s frame.
Due to the versatile and straightforward process, GMA welding machines are among the most popular and easiest to obtain on the market. In addition, GMA will work well to join the tubing of your motorcycle frame, regardless of the thickness of the metal you intend to work with.
A final important consideration of GMA welding, as it pertains to motorcycle frames, is that the completed weld is visually appealing.
#2 – TIG Welding (GTAW)
TIG stands for tungsten inert gas, although it is alternately known as Heliarc or gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW).
The major appeal of the GTA welding process for motorcycle frames is that it is extremely clean, as no filler metal is used, leaving no unsightly spatter or conjoining lumps at the location of the weld.
This leaves your completed motorcycle with a smooth, sleek frame, regardless of how many welds were required to connect the tubing.
Like GMA welding, GTAW is best performed in a garage or shop. As it is one of the few welding processes that does not require a filler metal, gas must be used to help forge the welds. Therefore, an external tank is required to keep gas flowing during the GTAW welding process in order to protect the weld, so this gas should be inside and away from the elements.
What is TIG Welding? (GTAW) >> Check out the video below
The downside to GTA welding is that it is one of the more difficult welding processes to perfect, as welding without a filler metal is not as intuitive and takes more practice to get correct. As such, it will be a more difficult option for those beginners in the realm of custom choppers.
#3 – Flux-Cored Arc Welding (FCAW)
This welding process is very similar to that of GMA. In fact, when working on your motorcycle’s frame, you may even want to dabble with both types of welds.
As with GMA welding, a wire functions as an electrode, and the filler metal is fed through the wand of the welding torch. The filler metal melts at the tip of the wand, making the puddle to fill the base metal.
The main difference between GMA and FCAW is the source of the protective gas that protects the weld. While GMAW uses gas from an outside source, FCAW does not need an external gas supply, as it has a flux core that has the ability to create its own shield around the weld.
FCAW is a high-heat welding method that works well for thicker types of metal. So, if you are using thicker metals on your chopper, or are looking to join major elements of the frame, this may be a great option. However, GMA or GTA would likely be better for the smaller welds.
Another downside to FCAW welding is that it does leave behind some slag, requiring extensive cleanup once the weld is complete. This may make it difficult for you to get the clean, finished look you desire for your motorcycle frame.
#4 – Stick (Shielded-Metal Arc Welding)
Stick welding is a traditional welding process but continues to be updated and used to help solve contemporary welding problems.
Although it may not be as advanced or precise as GMA or, especially, GTA, it has remained a popular choice among welders, and do-it-yourselfers, because it is straightforward and cost effective.
What is STICK Welding? (SMAW) >> Check out the video below
Despite these favorable characteristics for customizing your bike at home, it has the drawback of being one of the messiest welding options available.
It can create spatter that will require extensive cleanup and potentially inhibit you from getting a finished look to your motorcycle frame.
The following steps can be used to visualize how stick welding works:
- Rather than having a spool of wire continuously fed through the welding machine, a replaceable electrode “stick” is connected to the end of the torch. This stick provides more than one purpose, serving as an electrode and filler metal.
- An arc, or flash, is formed at the tip of the wand that converts the stick into filler metal and introduces it to the base metal, creating the weld.
- “The stick is coated in flux that creates a gas cloud when heated up and protects the metal from oxidation”. While this is necessary for protecting the weld, the cooled gas settles on the weld and forms slag, requiring cleanup.
As stick welding does not require an external gas supply, it has the added advantage of being able to be executed outdoors. While it is unlikely that you would be working on your motorcycle’s frame outside, if you were, stick welds could be performed in treacherous windy and rainy conditions.
Stick welding also has the added benefit of working well on dirty, rusted, and painted products, thus making it a superior choice if you need to make a quick weld without spending too much time worrying about visual aspects.
#5 – Laser Beam Welding
This is a newer form of welding that may not be accessible for those trying to do at-home motorcycle frame customizations but can be a great option if given the opportunity.
As the name implies, laser beam welding creates a heat source through the use of a laser. It can be used on a variety of materials, including titanium, stainless steel, aluminum, and carbon steels. It is widely used at manufacturing plants because it can be automated with robotics, thus speaking further to its efficacy in welding your motorcycle’s frame
#6 – Plasma Arc Welding
Plasma arc welding uses a smaller arc to create a more precise weld but is closely related to GTAW. The torch it uses, which is highly specialized, can reach tremendous temperatures.
In this process, gas is “pressurized inside the torch’s wand, creating plasma”. By iodizing the plasma, electric conductivity is then attained; this creates the arc, or flash, producing extreme temperatures that can actually melt the base metal itself.
Since the base metal is being melted to fuse with the conjoining metal, another similarity to GTAW is created–the lack of a required filler metal.
Related reading: What are the Advantages and Limitations of Plasma Arc Machining?
Since this allows for deep penetration, this is a great process for narrow welds and, combined with the absence of filler metal, produces some of the most aesthetically pleasing welds available. Plasma arc welding also allows for high welding speeds and produces incredibly strong welds.
While all of these characteristics seem very desirable for welding your motorcycle frame, the downside of this specialized process is that it is difficult to perfect, and the incredibly high temperatures of the ionized plasma make it one of the most dangerous welds possible. Therefore, lesser experienced welders probably want to try something other than plasma arc.
#7 – Atomic Hydrogen Welding
This is another temperature-intense form of welding that was formerly referred to as arc-atom welding.
It uses hydrogen gas to shield two tungsten-based electrodes. The presence of filler metal is optional, but the temperatures it can reach are very high.
The use of atomic hydrogen welding has been made mostly obsolete by GMAW and GTAW in recent years, due largely to GMAW and GTAW being able to be executed at lower temperatures. If you have the equipment for atomic hydrogen welding, it may be an option for your motorcycle frame, but if not, you likely want to explore other options.
#8 – Electroslag
Electroslag is an advanced form of welding that joins the vertical edges of a pair of pieces of metal. This welding takes place on the edges of the metal pieces as opposed to the outside of base metal joints.
A copper electrode wire is used as the filler metal and is directed through a consumable metal guide tube. An arc is created through the introduction of electricity. The filler metal moves throughout the seam, starting at the bottom and moving up, joining the two surfaces together as a weld replaces the seam in the plates.
Electroslag welding is performed by a machine, so while it is very precise, it is unlikely you will have access to the proper welding equipment, especially when trying to customize your motorcycle frame at home.
Why Are GMA and GTA the Best Welding Processes for Motorcycle Frames?
As you have seen, there are many different types of welding techniques that you may consider for your motorcycle frame. Many factors, such as time, resources, and experience, are likely to influence the type of weld you choose to use.
Furthermore, many of the welding techniques share numerous similarities, so it is important to do an in-depth study of which process you want to perform and get a thorough understanding of the best practices that can make that type of weld successful for your motorcycle frame.
However, while each welding process has its pros and cons, GMA and GTA are not the only common processes used to join the tubing of your motorcycle frame. They are the most common techniques used in contemporary welding, overall, for many reasons.
According to Miller Welds, “Gas metal arc welding is used at all levels of metal fabrication” and is successful with a variety of materials. It is a straightforward technique to learn and can be used to weld a variety of metals It is highly successful with materials of all thickness levels.
In addition, welding speeds are typically very fast for GMA welding, as welding wire is continuously being fed through the wand.
Although a more difficult process to learn, the absence of filler metal in GTA welding makes for extremely clean welds, a highly desirable characteristic for motorcycle frames.
For the more experienced welder, GTA offers a high degree of control and precision over the weld. It prevents melt through and warping that is common in techniques that use filler metals, it creates excellent fusion, and it allows you to weld thinner material.
Not only do GTA welds look great, but they also weld clear to the root of the joint, meaning not only does the final appearance look classy, but you are assured of an exceptionally strong weld.
What Type of Metal is Used for Motorcycle Frames?
Before choosing a welding process and performing a weld, it is important to know what kind of base metal you will be working with.
Most big-ticket fabricators use drawn-over-mandrel (DOM) steel tubing for their framing needs on motorcycles. According to the Steel Tubing Institute, “DOM refers to high-strength, electrically welded tubing that has been further processed by cold drawing through dies and over mandrels to improve its uniformity, mechanical properties, and surface finish.”
DOM tubing has advanced inside and outside dimension tolerances, does not produce seams on extremely clean finishes, and is great for rigorous jobs that require strength, quality, soundness, and uniformity. As such, is a top option for motorcycle frames and dune buggies.
Welding the chopper frame >> Check out the video below
Best Practices Before Welding
Regardless of the type of welding process you intend to employ, there are a few universal best practices that will help you ensure the best possible result under the safest possible conditions:
● Build or buy a jig for the frame. This is a type of mount that allows you to set the frame for easy access. A jig will help you make sure that the frame is welded as planned and fits perfectly within the design in addition to offering a valuable third hand when performing a weld.
● Take time in the setup process. In addition to getting a jig, take the time to go over your entire welding setup before getting to work. Many manufacturers offer detailed plans for the frames they are trying to sell, so make sure you have a good vision of what you are trying to do and have all the required materials before lighting the torch.
● Make safety a priority. Read the owner’s manual of the welding device of your choice, paying particular attention to the safety precautions. Make sure that you have the proper mask, long sleeves, closed shoes, and quality leather gloves before attempting to start your welding process. You will also want to be in a well-ventilated area.
● Have a schedule in place. It can be tempting to just go to town once you start welding. However, it is important to make sure that you are following a schedule and staying properly hydrated and rested at fixed intervals throughout the building of your frame.