We get it. Bright lights and sparks aren’t great for our eyes. In fact, 99% of welders in the US aren’t doing stupid things like welding with their eyes closed or using $5 shades they bought from the gas station. We get that we need eye protection, it’s understanding the different types that makes it hard.
What Does “Lens Shade Number” Really Mean?
Protective lenses deal with 2 types of dangerous wavelengths: Ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR). A lot of welders believe that “lens shade number” denotes how well your eye protection prevents these rays from penetrating through to your peepers. In reality, all high quality eye protection blocks 100% of UV and IR waves.
So if “Lens Shade Number” isn’t about protection, what’s it stand for? It actually denotes how dark the lens is. It has less to do with protection and more to do with comfort. When we say comfort, we mean how dark it needs to be before you stop getting blinded. The shade number you need largely depends on the processes you’re using (some create brighter light than others) and your personal preference (everyone’s eyes are a little different). For instance, someone with sensitive eyes will need a darker shade than someone without. This means there isn’t a shade number that works for everyone. Instead you’ll need to try a few to see which works best for you. That being said, here’s a nifty chart you can use as a guide if you’re unsure which lens shade to start with (see below).
Are “Fixed” or “Variable” Shade Lenses Better?
It’s like trying to compare apples to orangutans, there just isn’t a “better” lens for every situation. Fixed lenses are stuck at a specific level of tint. For instance, most traditional helmets (not auto-darkening) have a fixed lens which can’t be adjusted to be darker or lighter. Some welders argue a fixed lens is much more affordable and they’re right… to an extent. If you only weld one type of material with one type of process, fixed is the way to go. Since the brightness of your weld won’t differ, you’ll only need that one lens.
But let’s say you’re not always going to be welding mild steel. When you change your settings to adjust for the new material, you’re also going to be potentially producing a brighter or dimmer arc. There’s a good chance your current fixed lens won’t have the proper level of tint. This means you’ll either be getting blinded a lot or not be able to see because it’s too dark.
The solution then is to have several fixed lenses you can switch out depending on the situation. You can see how this solution could get very expensive, very fast. So if you use more than one type of material or more than one type of process, it might make sense to go with a variable shade lens.
What is a variable shade lens? After purchasing their first auto-darkening helmet, many welders think their variable shade lens will automatically adjust to the correct level. While your auto-darkening lens will turn brighter or dimmer depending on if you’re welding, the maximum level of tint your lens reaches won’t change. This is because everyone’s eyes are different. You might be comfortable with shade #9 where someone else with more sensitive eyes might need a #10.
So while variable lenses don’t automatically change for you, you can manually change their shade number without physically replacing the whole lens. With any variable shade helmet, you’ll find a switch that allows you to adjust your lens shade number, usually anywhere from #9 to #13.
As to which is better, fixed or variable, that’s up to you. By knowing the differences between the 2 types, you can assess your situation and decide which is best for you.
Eye protection is a serious topic surrounded by a whole lot of confusion. Knowing the facts can help you keep your eyes comfortable while still allowing you to see what you’re doing. For more in-depth info on eye protection, check out our article looking at the pros and cons of auto-darkening helmets with the button below.