MAKE Asks: Soldering Hacks

MAKE Asks: Soldering Hacks

MAKE Asks: is a weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column sparks interesting conversation and is a way for us to get to know more about each other.

This week’s question: Soldering is a maker skill that seems to stand on its own. Maybe it’s the danger-factor, or because it requires such fine motor coordination. What is an unconventional method you use to make soldering easier for you?

I keep a big steel plate on my workbench. When I need to tin a wire I don’t bother taking out my panavise. I just pinch the wire between my iron and the plate, and apply the solder. This way my hands aren’t floating (I have a natural tremor in my hands) and the job gets done quickly.

Post your responses in the comments section.

34 thoughts on “MAKE Asks: Soldering Hacks

  1. Trav says:

    I like to pre-flux my wires before tinning them. I have a tube of flux purchased years ago, an iI pull it out every time I go to solder. A little flux on the wire before tinning will suck the solder right in.

    1. sparky3489 says:

      That’s actually how you’re supposed to tin wire.

      1. Herman Kopinga says:

        To Tin wires in batches (I do some small small scale production) I melt a bit of tin on a tiny piece of copper clad board. I clamp the iron in a small vice so the solder remains hot. This works like a poor-mans solder pot. Holding flux in one hand and then pick the wires up with the other hand makes you quite productive.


  2. bored_engineer says:

    For tinning wires, I have a small pot of solder that I heat up. I welded the pot up from two small pieces of square tube steel, so it can be held in a vise. Swipe the wire with a bit of flux, then dip it in the pot and it’s all done.

  3. trkemp says:

    When I am soldering two wires together in free space (not near a bench) I first tin the wires. Then hold one wire with my left thumb and first finger. I hold the other wire between my left fifth and fourth fingers. I use my right hand to ensure the wires overlap correctly and then use my right hand to solder the wires together.

    When I’m soldering wires to something more stationary I often use the same technique to hold both the wire and solder with my left hand.

    (BTW: I’m right handed, if you are left handed switch my hand references.)

  4. diluded000 says:

    When splicing two wires away from the bench: twist, flux, then bend a hook on the twisted pair. The hook hangs on the soldering iron tip while solder is applied with the other hand.

    Use a scrap of wood on the bench for soldering. Metal sinks too much heat away from the joint. You can cut a little cup in the board with a forestner bit, and squirt gel flux into it for dipping wires.

    For heavy wires, solder with a butane torch. With some flux, it heats much faster than an iron.

    While it is often taught to heat the joint, and apply solder to the opposite side. It often works quite well to put a drop of solder on the iron tip and let that flow in. The molten solder helps heat more surface area of wire than a dry tip.

    Taped wire nuts work better than solder for automotive work. You can argue otherwise, but I’ve done it both ways and prefer wire nuts.

    Wrap some extra solder around the cord of your soldering iron. This comes in handy.

  5. Doug Logan says:

    For soldering female DB9 serial connectors, I attached a male DB9 with sugru to one end of a mousetrap. The spring loaded trap mechanism holds the cable in place, leaving my free hand to hold the solder wire.

  6. S Chandra Sekhar says:

    I keep a block of rosin (the same thing violinists rub their bows on) on the table to use as flux. When tinning wires, the wire is heated with the iron and dragged over the block. It picks up some rosin that keeps a pool of molten solder on the iron fresh and shiny.

    Allows me to re-melt and re-use old solder.

  7. sparky3489 says:

    Before I discovered liquid tin, I would use a “knife” iron tip, solder and plenty of flux to cover all exposed copper on my freshly made circuit boards –

  8. bitbangerbob says:

    Take the work and iron to the solder: When soldering that first connector pin into a board, I often hold the connector in the board with one hand, the iron in the other, and move both to a bit of solder. The solder can be still on the spool or hanging over the edge of the bench, held down by whatever heavy tool is handy. You will quickly learn not to touch the pin you are soldering.

    Check that the connector is properly positioned (re-heat while pressing it in if not) and proceed to solder the rest. This is faster than taping the connector in place and eliminates the risk of adhesive residue contaminating future solder joints.

  9. asciimation says:

    We used to practice soldering by using cut off component legs to make geometric shapes. LED legs are best. Try soldering them together into a soccer ball shape. You learn to be quick so that heating one end of the wire won’t melt the joint on the other.

  10. trkemp says:

    When joining two wires don’t twist them. If you ever want to take them apart again a soldered lap joint is easy to unsolder. A twisted joint is really hard to heat up and pull apart (it’s much safer to just cut the connection out).

    Twisted and lapped connections have the same strength. As long as they are well wetted, the wire will break before the soldered connection in both cases.

  11. Mark L Evans says:

    This may seem weird as “solder advice” but my advice is to avoid solder when you can. I work in aerospace and you’d be amazed at how little solder is used. Crimped pins and splices work so much better for most things. Save the solder for pcb’s.

    1. sparky3489 says:

      You forgot to mention that those crimps and splices are sealed. That makes quite a difference from what most people that aren’t in aerospace use….and actually no, I’m not really that amazed solder isn’t used since it’s unconventional to use solder in many industries except for PCB’s. I work in electronics assembly manufacturing.

  12. David Moisan says:

    Two tips:
    If you are trying to desolder an old joint (for repair, say) and you can’t melt it, try adding a bit of new solder. It’ll reflow on the old joint. Then try desoldering again.

    If you use the yellow sponge blocks to clean your tips, please don’t be tempted to cheap out by using kitchen sponges. Regular sponges are made from synthetic junk that does not take to heat very well–and will likely destroy the plating on your tips! This is not fun.

    You can buy replacement sponge blocks online from MCM Electronics, amongst others, and they are inexpensive. If you don’t want to use a sponge, MCM also sells a coiled wire cleaner like the ones used with Hakko irons. Just don’t cheap out–your iron plating only dies once!

    1. trkemp says:

      Actually you can use cheap kitchen sponges. You just need to make sure they are cellulose sponges. Foam rubber sponges will do exactly what David says, melt to your iron and stink!

    2. sparky3489 says:

      A better alternative to a sponge is the brass ball (looks like a brass scour pad). It cleanly removes solder and eliminates oxidation all the while keeping the tip hot. There’s no sudden drop in temperature like using a wet sponge AND your tips will last longer since they aren’t constantly going through extreme temperature changes which causes fractures in the plating.

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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