To strike the electric arc, the electrode is brought into contact with the workpiece by a very light touch with the electrode to the base metal then is pulled back slightly. This initiates the arc and thus the melting of the workpiece and the consumable electrode, and causes droplets of the electrode to be passed from the electrode to the weld pool. Striking an arc, which varies widely based upon electrode and workpiece composition, can be the hardest skill for beginners. The orientation of the electrode to workpiece is where most stumble, if the electrode is held at a perpendicular angle to the workpiece the tip will likely stick to the metal which will fuse the electrode to the workpiece which will cause it to heat up very rapidly. The tip of the electrode needs to be at a lower angle to the workpiece, which allows the weld pool to flow out of the arc. As the electrode melts, the flux covering disintegrates, giving off shielding gases that protect the weld area from oxygen and other atmospheric gases. In addition, the flux provides molten slag which covers the filler metal as it travels from the electrode to the weld pool. Once part of the weld pool, the slag floats to the surface and protects the weld from contamination as it solidifies. Once hardened, it must be chipped away to reveal the finished weld. As welding progresses and the electrode melts, the welder must periodically stop welding to remove the remaining electrode stub and insert a new electrode into the electrode holder. This activity, combined with chipping away the slag, reduces the amount of time that the welder can spend laying the weld, making SMAW one of the least efficient welding processes. In general, the operator factor, or the percentage of operator's time spent laying weld, is approximately 25%.
The actual welding technique utilized depends on the electrode, the composition of the workpiece, and the position of the joint being welded. The choice of electrode and welding position also determine the welding speed. Flat welds require the least operator skill, and can be done with electrodes that melt quickly but solidify slowly. This permits higher welding speeds.
Sloped, vertical or upside-down welding requires more operator skill, and often necessitates the use of an electrode that solidifies quickly to prevent the molten metal from flowing out of the weld pool. However, this generally means that the electrode melts less quickly, thus increasing the time required to lay the weld.