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xytronics258 Skill Set: SolderingThe 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.

solderdance 2 Skill Set: Soldering
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.


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