Toolbox: Soldering tools, part 2

Toolbox: Soldering tools, part 2

In the twice-monthly Make: Online Toolbox, we focus mainly on tools that fly under the radar of more conventional tool coverage: in-depth tool-making projects, strange or specialty tools unique to a trade or craft that can be useful elsewhere, tools and techniques you may not know about, but once you do, and incorporate them into your workflow, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. And, in the spirit of the times, we pay close attention to tools that you can get on the cheap, make yourself, or refurbish.

This week, as part of “Teach Your Family to Solder Week,” we’re looking at what you need to get started in soldering. In Part 1 of this Toolbox, we looked at essential tools. In this installment, we’ll look at some of the support tools that can make soldering more enjoyable, go faster, be less fumey, etc.


We’ve written about the “Dry Solder Tip Cleaners” (aka “Cleaning Genie”) a number of times. They’re sold under different names, but it’s basically a little container of metal shavings that you clean the solder tip in (instead of the damp sponge found on most spring-type soldering stands). Elliot Williams of HacDC writes: “Tip cleaner/tinner is good for rejuvenating oxidized tips, but cleaning your tips with one of these metal sponge thingies makes it almost unnecessary in the first place. Rant #25692: Water rusts/oxidizes metal. Oxidized metal doesn’t transfer heat well. Why the hell would you ever want to touch your soldering iron tip to a sponge with cold water in it?”

You can easily make your own such cleaner by getting a copper scrubby pad at the grocery store and stuffing it into a small container.


A solder dispenser is not really an essential tool, but can come in very handy, especially if you’re doing a lot of near-production-line soldering. Scott Austin, of Dorkbot DC and Dorkbot Baltimore, says: “A larger project of mine (over 60 dip sockets in each of two projects) required lot of soldering. I bought a solder dispenser and borrowed a friend’s soldering station. I was able to solder the sockets (700-800 soldering joints) very quickly with this set-up.”


While we talked about solder suckers and solder braid in the last Toolbox, there’s also the desoldering bulb (which works similarly to the sucker). Scott Austin says: “A desoldering bulb works pretty well. But you do have to work quickly: heating the joint with the iron and then positioning and using the bulb before the solder cools. If you find yourself desoldering a lot, I really like the combination desoldering iron/bulb tool. They’re not that expensive and you don’t have be doing the dangerous juggling between soldering iron and solder sucker.”


When we start talking about soldering tips for soldering (as in ways of improving your soldering, not the tip of the iron), we’ll be talking a lot about clean, clean, clean. It’s one of the keys to successful soldering: keeping the tip of your iron clean, the components clean, the PCBs clean, some argue, even the solder itself. Besides wiping the tip on the stand sponge or metal cleaning “genie,” and tinning the tip (painting some solder on it), you want to clean it off in a chemical tip cleaner periodically to really clean off built-up crud. Multicore is a common brand. Radio Shack has its own brand.


While we’re talking about cleaning, it’s worth talking about scrubby pads. I keep some of these Scotch Brite pads on-hand and use them to “brighten” the copper traces on PCBs before I start soldering. Boards can get fingerprints, dirt, oils, and other gunk on them that can hamper a good solder bond. A quick, gentle clean with one of these can help remove all that.

As I said in the previous column, I lived with a bad iron for far too long. I also lived with a horrible pair of wire strippers (that came with the same el cheapo toolkit). A good pair of strippers makes a world of difference. Above is pair of Paladin 1117 GripP 20 Strippers, which go for $13. To the right is a stripper tool I just got from John Park. He was raving about them, I expressed interest, and being the generous soul that he is, he gifted me a pair. I love ’em! Rather than cutting the insulating jacket on the wire from the side, they cut from the end, pulling the jacket off toward the tool. It just feels like a more natural way to cut and the length of the cut and the tension are fully adjustable. They sell for around $20.


If you’re an old fart like me, your eyesight probably isn’t what it used to be. You can frequently find yourself nose-to-fiberglass with a PCB as you try to see what the heck you’re doing (not that this have EVER happened to me, mind you). You can get florescent lamps with magnifying glasses built into them, or you can go super-cheap and get one of these. Scott Austin bought one of these at Harbor Freight for $6. It’s a 5x magnifier, with a built-in 8x bifocal, three bright-white LEDs, and a flexible shaft. (Maybe if I mention to John Park that I want one… :-)


Just as I vividly remember the difference between going from my crappy 15-watt repair kit iron to a decent Xytronic pencil iron, I remember how amazing the different was when I tried soldering on a fairly expensive soldering workstation — another whole level of easy-of-use, quality, and control. If you decide to take electronics and soldering seriously, you’re going to want to invest in a decent soldering station. This one is the Weller WES-51 ($84 on Amazon). R. Mark Adams, of HacDC/Dorkbot DC, writes: I use the Weller WES-51 and love it. Seriously. More expensive than an el cheapo “houseburner” iron from Radio Shack, but worth every dime. I tell people to get a station like this and a Panavise (see Part 1). With these two items, you can do high-quality work with minimum frustration. I always tell people that you can have both of these tools for less than some people spend on a single golf club, and have way more fun! :-)


I have the Xytronic 456DLX workstation with fume extractor. I got it for $75 from Circuit Specialists (and it came with a free digital multimeter that sucks a lot less than I expected). Overall, I’m happy with it. The cord is long, with a rather thick insulating jacket, so it’s sometimes awkward to figure out how to position the extractor, the soldering stand, the unwieldy cord, and the work so that the cord is not a nuisance.

[Thanks to Becky Stern, Elliot Williams, Scott Austin, R. Mark Adams, Michael Panfeld, Andrew Righter, Katie Bechtold, Alberto Gaitaacute;n, Jay Koby, The Doctor, and everyone else at MAKE, HacDC, and Dorkbot DC who participated in the discussions on soldering tools]



22 thoughts on “Toolbox: Soldering tools, part 2

  1. pmjett says:

    I completely agree about using a desoldering iron. For some reason (at least around the techs I’ve seen) they seem to be looked at with disdain, as if you are cheating. I find it has many plusses, one of which is the desoldering iron can be used with one hand, allowing the other to wiggle components, hold the circuit board, etc. They need not be expensive- I’ve been using a $18 one for years.

  2. rallen says:

    when working in many shops, especially aerospace, medical equipment, or high $ industrial test equipment. I’ve used many desoldering irons (like the ones with the desoldering bulb) where the bulb was replaced with a rubber-stoppered glass tube with cotton filter or copper scrubby filter, and vacuum was supplied by a air-line powered venturi with a foot switch. The only complaint I had about them was that the other techs would gunk it all up and never clean it!

  3. Gareth Branwyn says:

    It really is weird, but I too have detected a geek prejudice against desoldering irons. Maybe it’s just the idea of a specialty tool that does basically the same thing that a regular iron can do seems silly to some people? But they don’t cost that much, and if you do a lot of desoldering, I’m sure it comes in really handy.

    1. pmjett says:

      There was a time when I got all of my components from desoldering junked or scavenged boards. After working through a couple of large circuit boards it becomes obvious that the “unitasker” desoldering iron can outrun anyone with an iron and a solder sucker/braid/etc. It might do one thing, but it does it efficiently!

    2. Collin Cunningham says:

      I suppose it’s the idea of having another powered hand tool (+ related tips, stand, &footprint) @ the workbench that’s kept me away from desoldering irons thus far.
      Certainly if I did more scavenging from boards, I’d have picked one up by now

  4. Dustbuster7000 says:

    Does anyone know why soldering irons are always so long? I guess it makes sense to have your hands and fingers further from the hot tip for safety reasons, but sometime I wish my hand was closer to the work for better control. It seems like while the tips vary a fair but, the barrel is always 3 or more inches long. Is it to provide thermal mass so the iron has a stable temperature? Anyone?

  5. Tim says:

    I found a great desoldering iron on MPJA, it’s like $7 and works great. Just be sure to read the instructions when you clean it, I of ruined one by not reading them. It’s available here:
    They are Out of Stock at this time.

  6. Russell Nash says:

    I just picked up some pot scrubbers that look exactly the same, but are made of stainless Steel. I’m I going to wreck anything or get any nasty surprises using this?

    1. Toolbox: Soldering tools, part 2 Becky Stern says:

      I’d imagine it could possibly scrape up your soldering tip, since that’s made of steel too (brass is softer than steel and won’t scratch it as readily). Beyond that, perhaps the solder bits might not fall off as easily once they’re cool, since solder seems to “stick” better to steel than brass, but I dunno if stainless reacts differently. Try it and let us know!

      1. Russell Nash says:

        It seems to work fine. I haven’t used one of these before so I don’t really have anything to compare it to. It works a lot better then the sponge or sticking it in flux.

  7. Chistne David says:

     Nice link. Thanks for sharing with us.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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