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The Xytronic 258, an all-around good starter iron

It all starts with soldering. Over the years, we’ve been on something of a mission to teach soldering to all of our readers and we hope we’ve encouraged some of you to take the plunge. If not, now’s the time! It’s really not hard to do. It just takes a little practice and a few special tools. Gather up some old technojunk you likely have sitting around and practice desoldering and then resoldering the components from the printed circuit boards (PCBs). Once you have healthy, shiny solder joins (see resources below which describe what these look like), you should be ready to try your hand at some cheap, basic kits. If you can put those together and have them work, congrats, you’re a solder samurai! Knowing how to solder opens up all sorts of possibilities… like everything else we’re going to be talking about in this series for the month.


Do the “Solder Dance,” the geek sensation that’s sweeping the nation

Besides knowing the basic soldering steps and spending a little time practicing, here are a few other tips to take to heart:

  • Spend a little money on a decent iron You don’t have to buy a fancy temperature-controllable soldering station right off the bat, but don’t get an el cheapo $10 jobbie, either. Plan to spend around $25. I like irons in the 30W range that have a thumb potentiometer so that you can adjust the heat (less heat for more sensitive components). See my Soldering Essentials Toolbox for the basic tools you’ll need. The Shed’s Make: Electronics Deluxe Toolkit has a good beginner iron and the other tools you’ll need to solder/desolder and build circuits.
  • Keep it clean, keep it HOT! People underestimate how important, especially for the beginner, it is to keep the tip of your soldering iron clean and hot and to keep your circuit board pads and component leads clean. The solder won’t stick to dirty components (hello hand grease) and the iron won’t conduct heat well unless it’s clean and “tinned” (adding solder to the tip to make it more heat-conductive). Besides tinning, you need a moist sponge (or a cup of brass shavings) to keep the tip clean and bright. You can use a dedicated green scrubby pad to “brighten” the solder pads and the component leads.
  • Helping Hands are not optional Helping Hands or Third Hands are the little jigs that hold the components and circuit boards while you solder them. Unless you have housemates to press gang into holding parts while you solder them, you’re going to quickly run out of hands. Helping Hand tools are cheap. Get several. Later in the month, we’ll show you how to make a cool customizable set that can be expanded.
  • Good light and great ventilation You want to make sure that you have really good lighting above your workspace. A light with a magnifying lens is ideal for inspecting your solder joins and looking for shorts (when solder makes electrical connections it’s not supposed to). And solder fumes are not good for us organics, so work in a well-ventilated space. As one of your first electronics projects, you can build this nifty mint tin fume extractor.

In the Make: Ultimate Workshop and Tool Guide, Joe Grand did a primer on soldering and desoldering (which originally ran in MAKE Volume 01). We’re offering it here as a free PDF download.

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Low-res screen version (876K)
Hi-res print-friendly version (4.4MB)

There are other great beginner electronics pieces in the Workshop guide, including a rundown of the basic tools you need to set up an electronics bench, how to outfit a workshop, building a portable workbench, and more.

These two videos, the first, a classic Weekend Project with Bre Pettis and Joe Grand, and the second, a segment from Make: television, should provide you with more visual instruction in soldering basics.

Maker to Maker – Soldering on Make: television

If you’re just learning soldering and have any questions, leave them in Comments below. If you’re a seasoned pro and have any tips, please share!

More:
Here is a round-up of some of our other soldering articles on Make: Online:

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


Related

Comments

  1. migpics says:

    Would the tinning of the soldering tip be the reason why at times the tip seems to work and at other times not?
    Sometimes it feels like forever for the tip to heat up.

    1. Protostack says:

      That is most definitely a factor. Tinning the tip improves the heat transfer from the tip to the join.

      1. migpics says:

        Okay, this is fantastic.
        The way this process for me has worked was sitting on a component for 5 minutes and not being able to get the lead hot enough to melt the solder. Then, out of frustration, I would tin the tip so I could ‘drip’ solder onto the connection. All of a sudden, the component would heat up and solder would start flowing!
        Now I know why this is happening. Much appreciated. Now onto the videos.

  2. Chris W says:

    As an electronic repair technician with 38 years experience I offer these pearls:

    Add a little more solder to the tip seconds before soldering even if the tip looks tinned. This will provide good heat transfer and the flux will help clean the surfaces to prevent a “cold” joint.

    Too high a temperature will cause the tip to need more frequent cleaning and tinning. It also causes PCB traces to lift off the board. 600 degrees F is plenty for most work. For field use, I have a 40 watt non-controlled iron which was so hot I could see it glowing red in a dark room. I added an inline switch with a diode across it so I can select high or low temperature. Wires larger than 18 gauge, PCB ground planes and large connectors may need higher temperatures.

    “Helping hands” are not very helpful IMHO. I have one but rarely use it. A Panavise is much more useful because it holds a larger variety of things more securely at the angle I want it.

    I have had several very expensive lights with built-in magnifiers, but I prefer separate lighting with a headband type magnifier. Optivisor makes a great one. Very comfortable, you can get different magnification lenses and they fit over glasses.

    I used to use a wet sponge before tinning, but I found that wasn’t necessary. As long as I keep the tips tinned and wipe them off when they look dirty the tips last for many years of nearly daily use. I often just use a piece of cardboard to wipe the tip. Never put the iron away with a dirty tip.

    1. Protostack says:

      I find that steel wool works a lot better than a sponge.

      Why do you recommend cleaning before putting it away ?

  3. pete says:

    In addition to a good soldering iron and appropriately sized solder a few tools I use are a “3rd hand” and “helping hands”. Both are custom made with the latter being fabricated from Loc-Line coolant hose and the former from 304 stainless steel. you can see a picture of them and a couple of other useful tools here http://picasaweb.google.com/mills.pete/Tools#

  4. jamesBrauer says:

    I generally lightly scrape any solder off of the tip with a knife prior to tinning. The whole process takes about 5 sec. I tend to clean the tip on a sponge after every solder joint, but only tin when I first start to work, and if the tip looks crusty after that.

    For heavier work, like 10 ga stranded copper for automotive power and ground to brake controllers, hitch connectors, audio, etc, I like to use a butane or propane torch. Twist the wires and use a paste flux, then hold the tip of the twist in the flame, and apply solder just below that when it gets hot enough. It is a careful balance between cooking the insulation, and getting solder to flow into the joint. But, as has been mentioned, it should make a good solder joint where the braids of the wire are fully coated and visible. Sometimes I just use a wire nut and black tape.

    Been soldering for home and work, starting at home when I was 8 years old in 1974.

  5. chizz says:

    . . .is by dismantling old equipment. It doesn’t matter if you damage components, and you can compare your work with the original. Once you get good at it you can use this to snarf basic components for the junk box, and you start to become expert at identifying parts. It’s how I started 40 years ago!