A brief history of my soldering experiences

Technology
A brief history of my soldering experiences

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My first soldering iron was the kind that our camp counselor, Dave Hrynkiw, recommends we never use. You know the kind, it comes in a $10 kit and barely works. The reality is, a lot of people find one on these irons in the bottom of their toolbox and start their soldering careers with it. Big mistake.

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I ended up with a few burnt boards, traces that lifted, and an overall sour taste for soldering. It’s a shame that I was so frustrated, because soldering really isn’t difficult. You just need the proper tools.

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Fast forward about a year later. I picked up a nice mid-priced Weller iron. Unfortunately I can’t remember the model, but it had selectable heat and it worked great. I remember ordering a MiniPOV kit from ladyada. I was able to solder it together fairly easily. In fact, I was successful in making lots of kits, even a couple of CNC controller boards, which I still use today. Now that I look back on it, it wasn’t my improved technique so much as having a decent iron.

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About a year ago, I was hanging out at adafruit in NYC and asked Limor about her soldering iron recommendations. Her immediate answer was “Buy a Metcal.” I searched eBay and found a used one for about $120. It came with two tips and a nice heavy stand. I turned it on, and in about five seconds it was up to full heat. I pulled out some scrap parts and did a little test-soldering. Limor was right, this iron was amazing!

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The pen has a really nice feel, it’s lightweight, and the handle never seems to get hot. The solder melted perfectly, and everything went together so easily. I’ve been happily soldering with it ever since.

Keep in mind, I’m not suggesting everyone go out and drop $120 on a soldering iron, it just isn’t necessary. However, do take Dave’s advice and don’t bother with a super-cheap one. Spend $25 and save yourself a lot of misery.

What kind of soldering iron do you use? Let us know in the comments, it will serve as a useful resource for everyone. Thanks!

44 thoughts on “A brief history of my soldering experiences

  1. wyle_e says:

    I started with a Weller transformer-type gun, which was OK for quick work on tube equipment (ask and old fart, if necessary, about how electronic equipment was built before etched circuits). Before long, I needed a pencil iron, so I bought an Ungar 777 handle and various elements and tips. Radio Shack used to sell this system at lower prices than the genuine Ungar line; I don’t know whether it was a custom-brand deal with Ungar or an Asian knockoff, but it worked. It was what I used to assemble an IMSAI 8080A kit on contract. After soldering 22 100-pin connectors to the motherboard, I suspected that it would have been quicker to kludge up a wavesoldering tank.

  2. Pelrun says:

    I love gas irons despite their flaws – the cable on electric irons always caused me grief.

    That said, it’s hard to find a gas iron I want to use – my old Nakajima Handy Pro was perfect but it died recently and I can no longer get them. I’m suspicious of the iroda and portasol irons, since they all seem to come by default with large wedge tips.

  3. Andy says:

    Everybody loves Weller kit, but I’ve become a big fan of the Xytronics irons. I first got their 20W mains powered one, which is lovely – handle doesn’t get hot, ceramic tip heater is ready in a flash, interchangable tips are cheap and plentiful. Don’t think it cost more than £20.

    Most recently work offered to get me a solder station, so I opted for the Xytronics 137ESD. Same iron design as the mains one, but this time with a great temperature control station, heavy stand and brass tip cleaner. Even came with the pipework to connect to a fume extractor. :)

  4. LexiRedLion says:

    I went for the higher end, an Aoyue 908 Repairing System which includes hot air rework.

    Specs can be found here: http://www.aoyue.com/en/ArticleShow.asp?ArticleID=367

    1. Marc de Vinck says:

      I was wondering about those systems. They seemed to have popped up everywhere and are relatively affordable. Thanks!

    2. Johnny126 says:

      I have one of those Chinese rework stations and they are pretty good for the price. I managed to get mine in Europe for less than $100 not so long ago (after some exchange rate fluctuations).

      But I have one good tip for the owners.

      They are basically older Hakko ripoff. So after you get station get genuine Hakko tip. There is huge difference between stock crap and good tip. They are low price (about $5) and come in many different shapes for different works (look on youtube on SMD soldering and you’ll know what you should get).

      Also get good flux (I prefer flux pens, you can get them for 5$). This is another huge leap in quality and how easy it is actually to solder, even tiny SMD.

      With those tools it is really easy (after short practice ofcourse ;)) to solder almost like those proffesionals on youtube videos.

  5. https://me.yahoo.com/a/sMeEAH0n1Nj_qcREw97yl6ROUu9W#cb5c7 says:

    I have been using Weller temperature-controlled soldering stations for 30 years. WTCPN and WTCPT type. These are not as expensive as the Metcal ones, but are suitable for all but the smallest SMT work. Good general purpose tool.

    Jeff

  6. Andrew says:

    I love my butane powered SnapOn iron/torch/knife.

    It is great to solder out in a car, or remote area, without having extension cords. And once I’m done, I can just put the cover back on and put it in my pocket.

  7. Jennifer Elaan says:

    I’ve used a lot of different soldering irons. I actually got pretty good with the old 30W pencil iron, and for a while after I moved, I used a Weller station without temperature control, which kept the iron way too hot.

    With that said, I really like my Edsyn Loner 952HA, which has two independently temperature controlled irons. I keep a fine tip on the left iron, and a general purpose on the right. Edsyn regularly has specials on the 951SX, which would be my recommendation for a new iron.

    The Edsyn uses 95W irons, which are powerful but lighter weight than average (although heavier than the Metcal). They get up to temperature in seconds, and the regulation is fast enough that it responds to changing conditions at the tip. I only ever need to raise the temperature when I solder large metal objects that have too low a thermal resistance for a normal tip temperature to raise the metal to soldering temperature.

    1. Marc de Vinck says:

      I wish my Metcal had 2 tips, mine only has 1 socket.

  8. Neal says:

    I learned about Metcal from my workplace. I managed to get one that they were throwing away because the power switch broke. Fixed the power switch, now the unit is my prefered iron.
    Make sure you get a wide selection of tips – I have tips for anything from 0402 SMT to wide blade for 100+pin QFP.
    I also have the tweezers. You may only be able to use one tip at a time, but the fast warmup is a super time saver.

    1. Marc de Vinck says:

      Seems so funny to throw out a soldering iron with a broken switch….I mean, it’s a soldering iron? Funny. Nice find!

      I was thinking of asking about other tips. I want to get a blade for the 100+ pins too!

  9. Jason von Nieda says:

    I had a similar experience when I bought my first “real” iron. I had been using the Radio Shack $10 fire special for years and it just seemed like I could never solder worth a damn. I bought a WES50 on a friend’s suggestion for $89 and it’s a complete world of difference. My soldering improved a few hundred percent overnight and with a few hours of practice I can now quickly solder pretty much any SMT package in seconds.

    Get a good soldering iron!

  10. Gareth Branwyn says:

    @Andy
    I swear by Xytronic too. After my first junk iron, I got an Xytronic mid-priced iron, just ’cause it was on sale at Jameco — not sure which model, but temp adjustable, 35W, I think. I loved it. This was like ten years ago and I’ve used Xytronic ever since. My current model is the Solmax 456DLX, the fume extractor model with the 106U iron station (45W) attached. I love it.

    I had to laugh when I saw Marc’s post and the picture of that repair-kit iron. It looks exactly the same as the one that I had. Same barrel, same tip, same scorch marks on it. Ungodly piece o’ crap.

  11. AkabeForuM says:

    Most recently work offered to get me a solder station, so I opted for the Xytronics 137ESD. Same iron design as the mains one, but this time with a great temperature control station, heavy stand and brass tip cleaner. Even came with the pipework to connect to a fume extractor. :)

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      Oh yeah, I neglected to mention, here and in my Toolbox piece, that my Xytronic station also came with a brass tip cleaner, which is a nice touch. It has a satisfyingly sturdy base, which has slots along the sides for storing extra soldering tips in (although I store my tips and solder in ziplock bags to keep them out of the air and dust).

  12. Pat Arneson says:

    I’ve been very happy with my WLC10 and it’s very reasonably priced.

  13. WA5ZNU says:

    A Metcal is great, especially if you have a source of tips other than retail. I use mine all the time. I met two retired engineers from Metcal and they told me stories of its design and development. For one thing, it’s a 13 MHz ISM band transmitter. The connector is an F connector, and the RF is delivered to the tip where the circuit is completed by a magnet which opens the connection again when it reaches its Curie temperature. “It’ll solder an SMT one minute and go straight through a solder bar the next.” Really early models didn’t have SWR protection and blew out; they added some Zener diodes to it to protect it. There was also a bit of RFI trouble until they added a grounding screw under the base connector.

    Later models were off-shored, and the engineering staff (at least the ones I talked to) let go.

    1. Marc de Vinck says:

      I was aware the Metcal was RF based, but that’s about it. Thanks for all the cool insight. Metcal tips…..ebay!

  14. David says:

    I use a Pace soldering station. Not cheap, but very solid, and the tips are easy to get and quickly swapped. If you get one with a pump, you can get de-soldering, hot air, and pick-up handpieces as well. The one I use was paid for by my employer, but I wouldn’t hesitate to buy one for myself if need be.

  15. Pete says:

    Cheap and not incredibly powerful, I think it was $30 at Home Depot. Runs on 3 AA batteries, believe it or not, and it actually works pretty nicely for such a simple device. Not good enough for boards with larger welds, like TVs or older electronics, but terrific for my camera or cellphone fixes. I tried one of those Cool Heat things, Radio Shack sells them… ATROCIOUS. Was returned within the day.

  16. Juan Garcia says:

    I’ve been using a Hakko 936 for the last couple of years. Before that, I was alternating through a set of a Radio Shack irons. They were able to get the job done most of the time, but I ended up toasting a whole slew of boards and components thanks to them.

    Working exclusively (and more often than not, failing) with cheap-o irons can leave a novice/beginner thinking they’re just irredeemably bad at soldering. A proper temperature regulated iron really is the difference that builds confidence and helps you get the job done right.

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