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What to Look for in Welding Helmets: Comfort, Safety & More

Plain ol Bill
16 Min Read
What to Look for in Welding Helmets: Comfort, Safety & More
What to Look for in Welding Helmets: Comfort, Safety & More

Welding helmets are a crucial aspect of personal protective equipment for any welding operator. They protect from the intense glare and eyesight-damaging light from a welding arc, fumes from the welding operation itself, stray sparks that can burn, and so much more. They’re an essential part of any welder’s kit, and they’re a purchase that can last for decades if well-maintained, so it’s important to put some thought into which helmet you’re buying.

Welding Helmets

Welding Town

So, what should you look for? What factors should you evaluate when you’re exploring welding helmets? Here’s our guide. While there’s a lot to consider, one thing is certain: you need a helmet whenever you’re welding. The only possible exception is if you’re using CNC welding machines, and they’re enclosed in their own darkening shades. Even then, it can be beneficial to keep a helmet on hand.

Comfort and Security: The Helmet’s Fit

The first thing you should pay attention to is the fit of the helmet. A good welding helmet should be fitted to your head and adjustable enough to be both comfortable and secure. The more aggravating it is to wear the helmet, the more likely you are to make mistakes when you’re welding, get distracted, or even choose not to wear it because it’s uncomfortable. The fit of the helmet can be evaluated in a few different ways.

Does it completely cover your head? A good welding helmet is a full-head helmet, and it’s generally large enough that it can protect not just your head but your neck as well. You want it to protect you from UV rays, which can cause sunburn-like burns even if nothing else reaches your exposed skin. You also want it to protect your skin and hair from spatter and sparks that leave painful burns. A lot of welding helmets are too small for what they’re meant to cover, and some welding masks leave your ears, the top and back of your head, or your neck exposed.

Is it adjustable? There’s a 100% guarantee that your head won’t fit in any helmet you try the first time you try it. All too often, helmets end up one-size-fits-all in design, which unfortunately means that one size fits no one. An adjustable helmet will have various tension and position adjustments to make sure the helmet fits comfortably and snugly enough to not move around but not so tight that it becomes painful or distracting. It should also be adjustable up and down to adjust your view.

Some welding helmets come with inner liners and headgear that can be adjusted more than the built-in adjustments the helmet itself has. The most advanced helmets have completely replaceable webbing that is both elastic and adjustable; these stretch out over time but can be replaced with a newer iteration, so you don’t have to replace an entire helmet because a little bit of strapping wears out.

At the very high end, you can find welding helmets that take measurements of your head and are custom-made just for you. Truthfully, these are more expensive gimmicks than they are useful; you don’t need that added expense when an adjustable helmet is just fine.

How much does it weigh? The heavier a helmet is, the harder it is to wear for longer periods without causing yourself problems, including neck strain, headaches, muscle tension, and more. A lighter helmet is better, but lighter helmets tend to have fewer features and less protection. The ones with the most features that are still lightweight tend to be more expensive. Generally, go for the lightest weight that still has the features you want at a price point you can afford.

Environmental Isolation

Some welding helmets have a lot more in common with PAPR medical masks or SCUBA gear than they do with a traditional welding mask. They have various powered features, including the ability to pump in their own air supply.

These are not necessary for everyday shop welding, especially if you have fume extraction set up in your shop. They’re more for cases where you need to weld in an otherwise enclosed space with no fume ventilation, like the inside of a ship or even underwater. They do a great job of protecting you from welding fumes and particles, but they’re overkill for most basic welding uses.

(Not) Seeing the Light: View Screens and Darkening Shades

There are two aspects of a welding mask that are related to the viewport, which is the actual part of the helmet you look through.

The first is the size, shape, and position of this viewport. Some welding masks have relatively small viewing ports, while others are much larger, like what you would see on a motorcycle or snowmobile helmet.

A larger viewing area gives you a better view of the whole of a weld, along with details of the welding pool, the arc itself, and the workpiece. These are better for larger projects and projects where you need to adapt on the fly.

Other welding helmets have much smaller viewports. These smaller ports are more restrictive to your vision, which means things outside the direct line of sight can be excluded. In particular, if you have a dangerous environment, and a spark sets off a fire nearby, you might not notice right away. Ideally, you have a proper environment and other PPE set up so you don’t encounter this kind of problem, though.

In general, the larger the viewport, the less likely it is to have advanced technology like auto-darkening because that tech is more expensive the larger it gets.

So what about darkening? A huge part of the purpose of a welding helmet is to be a nearly opaque viewscreen through which you can watch a weld without staring directly at the eyesight-destroying arc of your welding.

Cheaper welding helmets have a fixed level of darkening. These are fine if you have a specific kind of welding you do all the time and can tailor your helmet to that kind of welding. If you do a variety of different welding operations, though, you’ll find that different materials and different processes generate arcs of different brightnesses. Your screen might be too dark for some and not dark enough for others.

The other drawback to a fixed level of darkening in the shade is that you can’t see through it when there’s no bright spark in front of you. So, to check the state of your weld, you need to raise or lower the helmet so you can see it, then put it back in place to keep welding. This can be stressful, tedious, and even painful in rare cases. The alternative is to use an auto-darkening screen.

Auto-darkening screens use a combination of light-sensing technology and auto-darkening LCD screens that modulate based on the light coming in. They can react nearly instantly to an arc and clear up almost as quickly when the arc is over, so they’re very reactive to your operations. The downside, of course, is that these are much more expensive (and tend to have smaller viewports) than fixed-darkening shades.

Auto-darkening helmets have a “reaction time” measurement as well. This can be measured in fractions of a second, 1/3600th to 1/25000th of a second; the faster the reaction, the better. The longer it takes to transition, the more harmful light makes it to your eyes, and the more damage can build up over time.

Note that some of the less expensive auto-darkening shades don’t adapt to the level of brightness of an arc. Called fixed-darkening shades, these simply darken to a specified level, which may or may not be enough, just like a fixed-darkness shade. Generally, if you’re going for an adaptive shade, you want one with full adaptivity.

Bear in mind, too, that many auto-darkening systems can wear out over time, and they require a power source, so you need to replace or recharge batteries or make sure any solar integration is clean and functional. It’s an additional potential area of failure that can prematurely end the life of an otherwise good helmet.

Special Features for Lenses and Shades

Some welding helmets have special additional features that can make them more convenient to use, particularly if you have particular proclivities or issues.

For example, if you wear glasses, wearing a welding helmet might be less comfortable. Some welding helmets have the option to have a magnifying shade, simulating being up close to the object you’re welding so you can see better. Some more advanced helmets even have built-in lenses that can be set to your prescription, so you don’t need to wear your glasses while welding.

Another common issue is fogging. Anyone who has worn a helmet before, particularly in hot and humid areas, knows that any viewscreen can fog up with humidity, making it inconvenient to see. Some helmets have anti-fog designs, which can range from vent slits to allow air circulation to anti-fog treatments over the shades.

A Note on Standards

When you’re looking over different welding helmet options, you might come across the phrase “ANSI Approved.” ANSI is the regulating body that makes standards governing the performance of welding helmet shades, among many other things. The most recent standard comes from 2003 and is called ANSI Z87.1-2003. It specifies various tests a shade needs to pass to be certified.

The key here is that many welding helmets were formerly ANSI-approved, but that was before the increased standards that came about in 2003. Make sure any helmet you choose meets the more modern version of helmet standards.

The Role of Basic Welding Masks

There are a lot of basic welding masks on the market. These are simple frame-mounted masks that tilt up and down, have the most basic level of fixed-darkness shading, and have basically no additional protection for things like your neck, ears, or top of your head.

While you would normally want to discount these entirely, they do have a role. They’re generally very cheap and effective enough that they’re fine to use if you only weld very rarely and don’t need comprehensive, robust protection. If you’re the kind of operator who pulls out a welding torch once a month and does a few minutes of work, a basic, cheap welding mask is all you really need. On the other hand, if you’re doing a lot more welding, a better helmet is a good idea.

Masks can also be useful if you have people who do welding for you and need some kind of protection, and they forget or don’t bring their own. Having a mask as a backup helps prevent downtime and is a “better than nothing” tool to keep on hand.

Picking the Right Helmet for You

At the end of the day, the best helmet is the one that matches your needs and fits within your budget. If you weld once a week or less, you don’t need an expensive helmet with all the bells and whistles. On the other hand, if you’re welding all the time, you want something with features that can help keep you safe and operating at peak efficiency. The last thing you need is to damage your eyesight over time or burn your skin from exposure to UV radiation.

Every welding operator will have different needs and requirements out of their helmet. If you can, it’s usually a good idea to find a local supplier you can use to try out the fit and feel of various helmets, so you aren’t ordering them sight-unseen from the internet and hoping they work. Once you have some idea of the range of features you need, you can shop more intently for specific helmets and buy the one that matches your requirements.

Every welding operator needs some kind of protection. It’s just a matter of what kind of protection works best for you. It will take some evaluation and shopping to find that ideal helmet, but with thousands of options out there across every possible iteration of the factors listed above, there’s guaranteed to be something for you. You just need to find it.

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