CNC Plasma Cutter Training

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The cutter is a Hypertherm Powermax 1000
The table is a PlasmaCAM DHC (digital height control first generation).

Background Material

Hypertherm has a good explanation of what plasma is and how it can be used to cut metal. See their page What Is Plasma? for more information. The method available at the makerspace is conventional plasma cutting (first on the list).

One common description of plasma is to describe it as the fourth state of matter. We normally think of the three states of matter as solid, liquid and gas. For a common element, water, these three states are ice, water and steam. The difference between these states relates to their energy levels. When we add energy in the form of heat to ice, the ice melts and forms water. When we add more energy, the water vaporizes into hydrogen and oxygen, in the form of steam. By adding more energy to steam these gases become ionized. This ionization process causes the gas to become electrically conductive. This electrically conductive, ionized gas is called a plasma...

Numerical control is a method for computers to control equipment, also known as CNC. This content will be familiar to some members but if this is new take a minute to review the basic concepts of numeric control. Wikipedia has a good article on numeric control.

Another simple way of defining plasma is that it is controlled lightning. We use plasma to cut metals. Plasma torches work by passing electricity through the torch tip, through the plasma gas (yes plasma conducts electricity) and into the metal to cut and through the table and finally into the ground clamp attached to the table.


Before cutting through material the plasma torch needs to punch a hole through the material.
Metal piece on the end of the torch that directs the flow of the plasma and air.
Copper piece inside the torch that is on one side of the arc.
Parts or supplies that are used or worn out as the machine is used.
Width of the cut in the material, thicker material means a wider kerf with the plasma cutter.
Dross or Slag
Melted metal and junk left on the bottom of material after being cut.


The table is a PlasmaCAM DHC (digital height control first generation). Unfortunately the documentation and software are not readily available online. See the computer attached to the PlasmaCAM for documentation or request documentation during a training session.

The plasma cutter is a Hypertherm Powermax 1000 with a handheld torch (upgraded in November, 2016 to a Duramax Retrofit torch from Hypertherm) . The manuals can be downloaded from the manufacturer website under the service section. Everyone using the machine needs to read the complete operator manual. Direct links to the manual are provided below (PDF warning).

The original Powermax 1000 documentation above lists old consumable part numbers. Use the following when ordering consumable for the Duramax Retrofit Torch:

Consumable Regular Fine Cut
Shield/Deflector: 220818 220931
Retaining cap: 220854
Nozzle: 220819* 220930*
Electrode: 220842*
Long life Electrode: 220777
Swirl ring: 220857 220947

* Wear fast and come in packs of 5

Local supplier:

Metroplex Welding supply
1970 W Northwest Hwy
Dallas, TX 75220

The complete kit is also available online as: HYPERTHERM POWERMAX 65 ESSENTIAL HANDHELD CUTTING CONSUMABLE KIT 851465 Going price is $150 shipped. Hypertherm Powermax 65 Essential Handheld Cutting Consumable Kit Includes:

Part # Contents QTY
220818 Drag Cutting Shield for 65-85 A 2
220819 Drag Cutting Nozzle 65 A 7
220842 Electrode 7
220854 Retaining cap 1
220857 Swirl Ring 1
027055 Lubricant 1
058519 O-rings 5


The CNC plasma cutter is dangerous in just about every way a tool can be dangerous. It's hot, loud, heavy, automated, sharp, and powerful. This is not a comprehensive list of the dangers.

  • Rack and pinion drive for the table can sever body parts
  • Plasma torch can severely burn or sever body parts
  • The light emitted from the plasma torch is very bright and you must use shade #8 glasses or darker if you look at the light from the torch.
  • Recently cut metal parts will be extremely hot
  • Table grid and cut parts can have razor sharp edges
  • Spilled water could cause someone to slip or get electrocuted
  • Prolonged exposure to plasma cutting can cause hearing damage
  • Thick steel can be heavy and a drop hazard

Training Slide Deck

Designing Files

Cuts are made based on vectors (Illustrator, Inkscape, CAD programs) and the ideal format to import into the PlasmaCAM software is DXF (2D) which can be exported from most vector based software. Cuts can either be open like a line or a closed shape like a circle. The type of material should be kept in mind when designing files to cut because the thickness of the material causes the kerf to be wider (width of the cut). So intricate designs will be easier to cut from thin material than thick material (e.g. 20ga sheet compared to 1/4" sheet).

Cuttable Materials

The plasma can cut most materials that conduct electricity. See the list below for commonly cut materials.

  • Mild steel
  • Stainless steel
  • Aluminum
  • Copper
  • Brass

Other materials can be cut such as titanium and magnesium but it is not recommended because these metals are more flammable and it tends to burn too far and make a mess. Mild steel is easiest to cut and copper and aluminum are more difficult to cut because they conduct heat away from the cutting area much faster. Mild steel up to 1" thick can be cut, but steel that heavy is very heavy. A crane or gantry mechanism will need to be used to lift the material on and off of the table.

Preparing Files with PlasmaCAM Software

Importing Files

Do as much design elsewhere as possible because the software is fairly cumbersome and buggy. Import a DXF file from the File menu and in the dialog select the option to "Link segments" which will keep closed paths closed. If paths get imported as open paths when they should be closed double check that this option is enabled when importing the file.

There's another option for "Import paths as cuts" which can be used if the paths are ready to cut as-is without any modification. This is usually not the case unless all of the cuts are open paths without any overlapping of paths.

Creating Cut Paths

In order to be cut the paths must be designed as cut paths by PlasmaCAM. Open paths can be converted to a cut path without any options or further interaction. Closed paths will ask for a point to use for "lead-in" so there's not a bulge on the path where the pierce is made. Clicking the mouse somewhere near the path picks the location for the lead-in and ends the cut just before it comes back ground to the lead-in.

Clicking inside or outside of a closed path has an affect on the outcome of the cut path. For example if cutting out a sign where the letters should be negative space the lead-in should be inside the letters. The lead-in will be inside the letters so the letters will be throw away material, but the cut around the letter will be clean and without and bulges leaving a clean negative of the letters in the sheet. If the letters are positive space and will be kept and used the lead-in should be outside the closed path of the letters which will result in clean cut letters but the sheet will have lead-in cuts for every letter.

In other words closed path cut will have a piece to keep and a piece to throw away because of the lead-in. If both pieces need to be kept and a bulge on the path is acceptable then the lead-in length can be reduced to zero so the pierce is made on the path rather than off the path. This should only be done if both the inside and outside pieces of a closed path cut need to be kept.

Line Identification

  • White = Open Lines
  • Purple = Closed Lines
  • Green = Selected Lines
  • Blue = Machine Cut Lines

Moving and Copying Cuts

Cuts that have already been setup can be copied or moved to other locations on the table. This is useful for cutting out many copies of the same object or for moving the cut to an area on the table where material is available. Selected cuts can be moved or copied with the hotkeys M and C (see the documentation for other hotkeys).

Other Considerations

The table has support points to hold up material. In the PlasmaCAM software those support points show up as blue dots. If at all possible the support points should not be under cut paths. If a cut goes over a support point it reduces the useful lifespan of the grid which will eventually need to be replaced for a few hundred dollars.

PlasmaCAM Keyboard Shortcuts

Keyboard Shortcuts
ESC - Cancel Function DEL - Delete Lines
F1 - Zoom to Window F2 - Zoom Previous F3 - Zoom Selection
F4 - Zoom Extends (not sure what this is) F5 - Zoom Table F6 - Zoom Out
F7 - Snap Orthogonal F8 - Snap Grid F9 - Snap Nodepoints
F10 - Measure F11 - Select All F12 - Redraw Screen

Cutting with the PlasmaCAM

Members cutting for the first few times should have another member present who is familiar with the plasma cutter.

Preparing Equipment

The configuration of the machinery may change and this information should be updated to reflect any changes. Use the list below to make sure the machine is ready to cut.

  • The plasma cutter uses the 220v outlet on the South wall, so check that it is plugged in
  • Compressed air is needed for the plasma cutter. There should be a red air hose ready to be plugged in at the back
  • The table has been converted to a downdraft evacuation table, which will need to be turned on and off manually.
  • The PlasmaCAM control box should be connected to the plasma cutter (MIDI cable) and the computer (parallel cable).

Start up sequence

  1. Power on the computer
  2. Power on the PlasmaCAM table control box
  3. Start the PlasmaCAM software on the computer and initialize the machine
  4. Check torch consumables
  5. Power on the exhaust fan using the "light switch" on the South wall. Wait until you hear it spin up; may take up to 60 seconds or so.
  6. Plug in the air hose to the Hypertherm
  7. Power on the Hypertherm
  8. Check the status lights on the front for correct air pressure (use gas test amperage setting or test fire to show true gas pressure)


  1. Physically load the material to be cut onto the plasma table
  2. Select an appropriate grounding location and ATTACH THE GROUND LUG to the workpiece (not to the table)
  3. Load the file you are to cut into the Plasmacam software
  4. Set the cut order from the menu
  5. Perform a dry run to make sure everything is as planned and the design fits in the allocated space.
  6. If needed for slower speed observation, move the torch to the corners of the design to make sure it will fit the material
  7. Start the cut
  8. After each pierce make sure cut parts do not swing into the path of the torch to avoid damage to the torch and the work

Cleaning Up/Shutting Down

After you are done with your job, shut down all the equipment

  1. Initialize the machine to move the torch to the back left corner so it's ready for the next person
  2. Power off the exhaust fan
  3. Power off the Hypertherm
  4. Disconnect air line from Hypertherm
  5. Power off the computer
  6. Power off the table control box
  7. Clear the table of any material - be careful, parts will be hot! Use pliers, etc.
Leave the table like you would like to find it!


Some helpful troubleshooting tips
If the torch does fire check the following:

  • Check for proper grounding of the table, AND the work piece
  • PlasmaCAM “Cutting” is on at the table controller. The LED will be green in the Auto portion
  • Front panel of the plasma cutter for fault indications
    • Yellow Torch LED -- Check the torch head cup for tightness
    • Yellow Temp LED -- power supply is too hot
    • Gas Pressure LED
      • If flashing yellow check the air pressure
      • Should be above 60 psi MINIMUM. Remember the 2 LEDs on panel indicate pressure range
    • Red warning light on the Hyperterm during a cut and an error on the PC stating torch not detected
      • Power off the Hypertherm
      • Remove cutting head and
      • Use a brass brush chained to chassis clean the drag shield and top of electrode
      • Reassemble, power up Hypertherm and try again