For the ultimate in portability a plasma cutter needs an on board air compressor. In many cases this requires a sacrifice of performance. But the Powermax30 AIR from Hypertherm manages to offer both a highly portable, lightweight design, in addition to performance that nearly matches models requiring an external air compressor.
With a max cutting thickness of 3/8″ and a duty cycle of 35% the Powermax30 AIR takes the top spot in our comparison. It’s capable of cutting a wide variety of metals including stainless steel, aluminum, mild steel, copper and their alloys. The pilot-arc ignition even allows it to cut painted materials.
Plasma cutters are a powerful tool to have whether you’re working on the ranch, in an auto body shop, or making metal yard art as a hobby. Air supply has always been an important consideration, as forced air is required to keep the cutting tip clean and cool. Traditionally an external air compressor has been needed to provide this function.
Now there are many models available with the compressors built in, making the whole process easier and more portable.
Something to keep in mind with these particular models is that there is going to be a bit of a trade-off in performance for convenience in a unit with a built in air compressor and one that uses an external compressor. If portability and convenience are high priorities these cutters make a great choice.
Without further ado here are our top picks:
The Powermax30 AIR from Hypertherm dominates the competition when it comes to units with an on-board air compressor.
It’s rated to cut 3/8″ steel at 10 inches per minute and can sever 5/8″ at 5 inches per minute. It’s inverter power supply is efficient enough to allow it to do all of this at 120V.
Hypertherm’s Auto-Voltage sensing technology allows it to operate at both 120V (20A) and 240V. And while it’s performance at 120V is impressive, it gets even better when supplied with more power. At 240V it’s duty cycle jumps to 35% for rated cuts (as compared to 20% duty cycle at 120V). This makes the Powermax30 AIR the far and away best in terms of portability and performance.
With a max recommended cutting thickness of 1/8″, this guy isn’t going to blow you away with it’s power. It’s rated at 15A so it can be used with just about any outlet. However, it has just a 30% duty cycle so it’s not designed for heavy usage.
Given it’s diminutive power supply we were a bit concerned about how this unit would perform, but within the specified recommendations it is pretty impressive. It continuously cut through 1/8″ steel with clean lines and even managed a reasonably clean cut through 3/8″ material.
The Air Cut 15C is capable of cutting a wide variety of metals. This includes stainless steel, aluminum, mild steel, copper and their alloys. The pilot-arc ignition even allows it to cut painted materials.
The Thermal Arc 15C is lightweight and with a 20′ torch lead, is super convenient for working on vehicles. At just 29 pounds, it is the lightest cutter in our comparison.
While it’s not going to win any competitions for cutting capacity, this unit pleasantly surprised us. And the 20ft torch lead is really nice for those that work specifically on cars.
The price is the highest of the three models but not by much. Besides the performance was definitely the best among the three.
Dimensions: 23.1 x 11.4 x 12.3 inches
Amperage: 15 A
Cord Length: 20′
Duty Cycle: 35% at 15A
Max Cut Thickness: 1/8″ recommended cut, up to 3/16″
Compressed Air Delivery: internal
Warranty: 1 year
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The Hobart 12ci is the most powerful of the three units we chose for this comparison. The other two units can be used with a 15A circuit while the 12ci requires a 20A. The unit weighs just 31 pounds. That puts it just a pound over the Thermal Dynamics unit.
We’re a bit biased towards Hobart’s products here at Pro Machinist Tools and for good reason. They put a huge emphasis on build quality and this translates to tools that perform well and last for years. On top of that they back everything up with a solid warranty.
This unit is no exception. It performed extremely well in cutting 1/8″ steel and easily severed 1/4″ as per their specifications. The only reason it got second instead of first was because of the higher power requirements. Normally this slight difference wouldn’t matter, but in a class where convenience is key, requiring a 20A circuit is a slight ding. (The shorter torch cord was another ding although slight)
Dimensions: 10 x 7.5 x 13 inches
Duty Cycle: 35% at 40A
Max Cut Thickness: 1/8″
Compressed Air Delivery: internal
Warranty: 5-3-1 Warranty
The Forney 317 115FI with Built-In Compressor can cut mild steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, brass, cast iron and other conductive metals. Just like the Thermal Dynamics unit this one uses 120V, 15A so it can be plugged in anywhere. And of course the lower power rating translates to relative thin max cuts.
This machine will cut 1/8″ and will sever 1/4″. Cut speeds of at least 20 inches per minute (IPM) It incorporates drag torch technology which provides more precise cuts by allowing the user to move (drag) the torch directly across the metal surface. This can be a handy feature for those new to plasma cutting, but won’t have much of an impact if you’re used to working with this type of equipment.
Our biggest complaint with this unit was the slow ignition time. It took about 3 seconds from pulling the trigger on the torch until it ignited. This can be a bit cumbersome if you’re making lots of smaller cuts.
From a performance perspective it was a bit slower than the Thermal Dynamics unit in cutting through 1/8″ steel. However it is almost $200 cheaper, so if price is a big deal, this unit could be a good option.
Weight: 38.9 lbs
Dimensions: 15 x 7.5 x 14 inches
Input Voltage: 120 V
Amperage: 15 A
Cord Length: 15′
Duty Cycle: 25% at 12A
Max Cut Thickness: 1/8″
Compressed Air Delivery: built-in piston air compressor
Here are a few of the features and specifications we take into account when making our selection.
Some cutters are designed to be used for shorter cycles. Though they maximize the amount of power available during that time, they shouldn’t be expected to perform the same under significant or heavy usage. Usually, the higher the amperage rating, the higher the duty cycle.
While many units can make a 1/4″ cut, if you’re pushing the maximum of your unit, the cuts will not be as precise or clean. If you’re looking for a unit that can go all day long under heavy load you’ll be better off making your buying decision based on the average thickness the unit is capable of cutting.
Another very important thing to consider is the input voltage of the unit. Most cutters are either 120 or 22o volts. Some cutting units are able to work with either. If your shop has a 220v outlet available, then your best bet is to go with a 220V cutter.
It helps if you think of voltage as a garden hose. The larger the hose, the more water that can go through it. That same principle applies with electricity, so if you’re got a 220v outlet, go with a cutter that can handle higher voltages. If you’re limited to 120v, you’ll probably want to have a 20A circuit installed in your shop. Most residential breakers are 15A only and are often shared by multiple outlets, which can be an issue if you’re cutter pulls too much amperage for the outlet.
You need to have a good understanding of the kinds of materials you will be cutting, and choose a unit that can handle it comfortably and quickly. The speed at which the unit cuts becomes more important depending on the length of the cuts you need to make. The closer you get to the maximum thickness rating of a unit, the slower you will have to go. And even if you slow down you’ll often have to go back and clean up the cut. Nothing is more frustrating than having to go back over every cut because you’re bumping up against your cutter’s limitations.
There two types of start methods: contact and high frequency. A contact start is a good choice if you’ll be working near computers, analytical equipment, or other sensitive electronic devices. This will ensure that it causes no interference with your other devices.
Thank you for checking out our list of plasma cutters with built in compressors. Please leave comments with any questions or with products you would like to see reviewed. For information on other units, check out our buying guide.
As always wear proper safety equipment when using cutting and welding equipment. For more information click here.
Jason is a work from home dad who has a passion for DIY projects, yard work, and SEC Football. His background is IT, but he's always fancied himself as a part-time ship welder, landscaper, and short order cook. During the week he can be found on his laptop 10 hours-a-day, but on the weekends he escapes to the local DIY Cave to play with REAL toys.