Growing up a farmer's daughter, I was always in my dad's shop helping him work. Actually, I more or less just watched him work and handed him the tools he needed. Dad did a lot of welding and I was always fascinated by it. He would hand me a spare helmet and I would watch the bright orange sparks shooting off in every direction.

Welding helmets have come a long way since the days I'd sit on the shop stool watching Dad weld. With all the technological advancements in auto-darkening lenses, the days of flipping the helmet up and down between welds are over. But with all the features available, what's the best buy?

Six of the men in my life came together and tested helmets from five of the leading manufacturers of welding helmets. My dad Mark Sauck, brother Tyler Sauck, uncle Glenn Hruska, uncle Brian Sauck, cousin Peter Owens, and uncle Lonny Schwieger, who all have had years of welding experience, tried out every one of the five helmets.

It was obvious throughout the test that each auto-darkening welding helmet worked well, no matter its price. It was the subtle differences between the helmets that set them apart. Here's what the testers found.

Miller XLi

Lens speed: 1/18,000
Shade control: 9-13
Viewing field: 3.85 × 1.85 in.
Weight: 16 oz.

Coming in as the top pick, the testers declared the XLi to be the best value for the money. The helmet had comfortable headgear, several good options and good switching speed, and it was easy to use. The guys noted that the helmet had no reflection; the lip on the bottom of the helmet cut down any glare.

Weighing only 16 oz., this helmet came out the best in comfort and weight. All of Miller's helmets come with a comfort cushion that attaches to the headgear to add more padding; the testers found this to be a great feature.

The XLi works well with light-duty industrial applications and has new replaceable-battery, solar-assist Performance Series lens technology. It has two independent arc sensors and a well-balanced design, and it comes with a two-year limited warranty.

Price: $229. Contact Miller Electric Mfg. Co., Dept. FIN, Box 1079, Appleton, WI 54912, 800/426-4553, visit www.MillerWelds.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 178.

Jackson Halo X

Lens speed: 1/25,000
Shade control: 9-12
Viewing field: 2½ × 3⅜ in.
Weight: 6-oz. shell w/out lens

The testers ranked the Jackson helmet second overall and claimed it had the best switching speed. The helmet has a clear protective lens that is easy to change out. Adding to the Halo's ease of use are separate on and off switches.

Although the helmet is lightweight, the guys thought the headgear could be more sophisticated. They complained that it flipped down too easily.

Two AAA batteries with solar battery life extender power the helmet. It has a two-year performance guarantee.

Price: $205. Contact Jackson Products Inc., Dept. FIN, 5801 Safety Dr. N.E., Belmont, MI 49306, 800/253-7281, visit www.JacksonProducts.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 177.

Speedglas 9000

Shade control (with 90002X lens): 9-13 Viewing field: 3.57 × 1.68 in.
Weight: 17.4 oz.
Light shade: 3

The large viewing area set the 9000 apart. Not only did it have ample viewing area in the front, the helmet had tinted lenses on the sides to allow for peripheral vision. The testers thought the Speedglas lens was excellent. The push-button adjustments were easy to get at and made changing shade and sensitivity effortless. The helmet also has four exhaust vents to reduce CO2.

One downside was the headgear. The headband was basic, and the rivets pulled hair.

Price: $427.99. Contact 3M Corporate Headquarters, Dept. FIN, 3M Center, St. Paul, MN 55144-1000, 888/364-3577, visit www.hornell.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 176.

Miller XLiX

Lens speed: 1/20,000
Shade control: 9-13
Viewing field: 3.85 × 1.85 in.
Weight: 16 oz.

The XLiX has Miller's options and good switching speed. It also has comfortable headgear; however, sometimes the helmet hit the back of a tester's head when he flipped it up.

Like the XLi, the helmet has a lip around the bottom edge that blocks all glare. It also comes with replaceable-battery, solar-assist Performance Series lens technology. It has analog controls and two independent arc sensors and handles low-amperage TIG applications. It comes with a two-year limited warranty.

Price: $259. Contact Miller Electric Mfg. Co. at the address and phone number given above, or circle 175.

Miller Elite

Lens speed: 1/20,000
Shade control: 9-13
Viewing field: 3.85 × 2.38 in.
Weight: 18 oz.

The Elite offers a large viewing area — the second largest of all the helmets. The helmet is also larger in size than the others, offering ample face protection. However, the large size also lets glare in from the bottom. Tyler Sauck stated, “It was somewhat awkward to use due to the reflection.” The testers said that the Elite is a little on the heavy side but still comfortable to wear. They commented that the helmet could be improved by making the on/off switch more distinct.

The Elite's lens technology is battery-powered with solar assist. It has four independent arc sensors that provide continuous arc sensing, and according to Miller, the Elite responds to extremely low DC inverter TIG arcs. It has a rubber spatter gasket that provides lens protection, includes a magnifying lens-holding system and comes with a two-year limited warranty.

Price: $299. Contact Miller Electric Mfg. Co. at the address and phone number given above, or circle 174.

Speedglas FlexView

Shade control: 9-13
Viewing field: 4.75 × 3.6 in.
Light shade: 3
Weight: 20 oz.

Made with a professional welder in mind, the FlexView has the largest lens size of all the helmets tested. It also has four exhaust vents to reduce heat and humidity in the helmet. It features a spring-mounted filter that lifts up to reveal a clear plate for constant eye protection, which is beneficial if the welder is wearing the helmet when grinding or when he needs to check out a new weld. However, it also made adjustment of controls more difficult. The FlexView has side windows for a wide viewing area.

At 20 oz., it also is the heaviest helmet tested. The testers described it as “nose heavy” because it pulled down quite a bit.

Price: $491.66. Contact 3M Corporate Headquarters at the address or phone number given above, or circle 173.

Optrel Orion

Shade control: 9-13
Viewing area: 3.86 × 1.5 in.
Switching speed: 0.4 ms
Light state: 4

Ranking highest in ease of use, the Orion has controls on the outside, allowing for effortless adjustments. The testers appreciated this feature but also wondered if having them on the outside could be detrimental if the helmet were dropped. Optrel states that the outside controls are durable and can withstand everyday bumps.

The main feature of the Orion is the automatic setting. The sensors detect the arc intensity, then select the proper shade, adjusting even when the wearer is welding if intensity levels change.

The helmet doesn't have an obvious on/off switch; this led to some confusion upon the first use. The testers said that, when looking through the lens initially, it is much darker than those of the other helmets, almost too dark to start a weld. They also said, however, that it has a good switching speed. The Orion also has telescoping headgear, is powered by solar cells and comes with a two-year limited warranty on ADF filters.

Price: $298.08 black; $319.00 magic blue. Contact Optrel, Dept. FIN, Osborn Way, Hook, Hampshire, U.K., +44 1256 693 200, visit www.optrel.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 172.

Hobart Blaze Orange XTV

Lens speed: 1/12,000
Shade control: 9-12
Viewing field: 3.75 × 1.57 in.
Light state: 4
Weight: 1 lb.

The Hobart XTV has the lowest price of all the helmets. It has a good switching speed but only offers two positions: slow and fast. The testers stated that, overall, the helmet could use more options. Although the helmet features ratchet-style headgear with Coolmax odor-absorbing sweatband, the testers said it was a hair puller and it hit the back of their heads when they flipped it up.

The XTV is battery powered (two AAA batteries) with solar assist. It comes with five front and two back lens covers and has a two-year warranty.

Price: $179. Contact Hobart Welding Products, Dept. FIN, Box 100, Lithonia, GA 30058, 877/462-2781, visit www.HobartWelders.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 171.

Hobart Patriot XTP

Lens speed: 1/16,000
Shade control: 9-13
Viewing field: 3.81 × 1.85 in.
Light state: 4
Weight: 1 lb.

The Hobart XTP is good for low-amperage TIG applications.Tyler Sauck said it has a smooth transition when switching speeds. However, all the testers thought it could use lighter shade options because it often was too dark when they were welding. They also said the ratchet-style headgear pulled their hair and hit the back of their heads.

The XTP comes with five front and two back lens covers and has a two-year warranty.

Price: $199. Contact Hobart Welding Products at the address or phone number given above, or circle 170.