One of the reasons I bought a welder was because I wanted to do cool stuff for beer brewing, and do naughty things to my truck.
I bought a cheap crappy century (or something) 120v MIG to practice with. Did that for a few months, doing little projects here and there, welded on a few couplers onto some converted kegs. I then sold that off and upgraded to a 220v Lincoln MIG .. a dream compared to the other one. At which point I designed my beer sculpture, bought a bunch of stainless 1" square tubing and went to town. I think it came out awesome, if not perfect. I spent more time grinding down the welds than I did welding to get a nice look.
For you other would be welders, most home garage MIG welders don't take up a lot of room. And it's a great fun hobby if you can find things to do with it, even if it is creating lawn art out of chain link. Also and more importantly, it isn't hard. It's fairly easy to make sure some .065" steel is structurally sound to support your brewing set up. With that said, making it a very nice pretty weld, or welding thinner metal is an art form. Once you start welding, and you see other welds done by professionals, it gives you a whole new appreciation for just how hard that is. And it's a skill that I'll probably never achieve in my occasional use of my welder.
If all you want to do is smaller, pretty welds, then I would suggest going TIG. A bit more pricey for the welder, but oh so gorgeous welds. The main reason I went with a MIG is that I wanted to do thicker gauge metal as well, and in places where I couldn't reasonably get a TIG into, nor did I want to be welding all day as MIG is much faster and TIG more tedious. But keep in mind, TIG is a big jump into the 'art form' skills of welding, you'll get it down without contaminating your rod with some practice, but it is more difficult to just jump into than a 'point and shoot' MIG. But had I gone TIG, my sculpture would be far more gorgeous as well as my other brewing equipment. I'm still considering getting one to compliment my MIG, as I do find myself wanting to do some finer welding.
One thing to note about gas shielding: If you have a MIG, you don't have to have gas. A lot of wire can be flux-core wire, so when welded, it produces that protective layer similar to stick welding, and you just whack it off, and you don't have to worry about having a canister and having that canister filled. However, you can't do this with stainless steel, and if you go TIG, you will have to have shielding gas.
Another thing I would bring up is mild steel vs stainless steel. Each requires different consumables, both wire/rod as well as gas, and they do behave slightly differently when it comes to welding (I've been told stainless is harder to weld, but I haven't really found that to be so). You don't want to weld on a stainless steel coupler to a stainless steel keg with mild steel wire. Some of you who weld are probably saying 'well no duh' but when I started on this, I really didn't understand what I was doing, so this may be useful for someone, and I did do exactly what I described. I have to keep it dry lest it start rusting..
Stainless is definitely shiny and pretty and isn't nearly as susceptible to the elements, all of which are reasons I went stainless, and my sculpture is outside, and exposed to the elements. However, if your set up is going to be reasonably protected or you're going to put on a nice coat of weather protective paint, there's absolutely no reason to go stainless unless you want to, mild steel is perfectly acceptable. And cheaper.
Stainless is also more finicky when it comes to heat, you get what's called a Heat Affected Zone, and in this area the steel can absorb oxygen and rob you of your magical stainless steel qualities, and eventually rust. This is done by the previously described shielding gas, but you have the *back side* of your weld to worry about too. This may or may not be an issue depending on what you're welding, a sculpture? Probably not. Conical fermenter? Most definitely. You will want to back-gas with co2 to make sure there's no oxygen uptake.
If you do find that your stainless has this dark-ish color after welding, or soldering a SS tube into a clover fitting like I did that seems to rust, one thing you can do to at least partially fix this is re-passivate the stainless steel. Basically a solution of some sort of acidic solution (phosphoric acid and others) will eat away at that oxide layer as well as the iron to expose the beautiful chromium ions and you've got good stainless again. While I tried to find an acid solution that would do this, and failed, I tried another suggestion of Bar Keeper's Friend (my home depot actually carries this, as well as my safeway, go figure) works just as well as far as I can tell. Probably a bit more scrubbing is involved, but it has worked wonders on my stuff.
Size of metal: I use .065" wall 1" square tubing. This thing will probably support 5 times as much weight as I put on it. Some people go with the 2" square (I think the true brutus 10 does) but no offense to Lonnie, thought was a bit overkill, though mine isn't quite the same set up, so there may very well be a good reason for it. I've seen sculptures that were just made out of angle iron and were plenty sturdy enough (and far more accessible than square tubing depending on your availability of raw metal materials), just make sure your geometry makes sense and weld on some braces and supports if necessary.
One last bit: cost. I bought my stainless for my sculpture for about $400. The welder I think was around $800. And I ended up with a sculpture that was *exactly* what I wanted, height, width, depth, support for the pumps, and I get to say: 'Yes. I made that. You may begin your worship of me now.' $1200 total for a sculpture, even if this is the *only* thing you buy your welder for, even a more expensive TIG welder, then sell it on craigslist for $600, is still *way* cheaper than buying a prebuilt one from [pick your company], that's maybe not quite exactly what you wanted dimension or layout wise (but I guess you have to keep in mind that some of those do come with pumps, stainless steel fittings, etc etc which do add up, but not to the tune of ~$1500 for the $3k model.) All you need is a bit of room to work in, a 120v MIG welder, some time (well spent if you ask me) and you've saved yourself a ton of money.
Awesome article capozzoli! I really wish this would've been around when I first started tinkering with this. I think this will help immensely for those people who are curious about it and want to give it a try.
And if I'm wrong on any of these points, please correct me. I am, again, a complete amateur and still learning.