Getting Started with Soldering*

From your choice of solder to soldering station and solder wick, the right tools can make all of the difference. With the help of our community members, we’ve put together the following list of recommended tools to have at your workbench. 

Bare Bones: Just getting started in the world of electronics and want to know the tools to have onhand to put together your first kit? This list covers just those basic workbench necessities:

    • Solder: 63/37 (63% tin and 37% lead) with multi-core flux, and in the smallest diameter you can find. This will help prevent clogging your joint with too much solder. You can also get60/40, but keep in mind that it melts in a range of temperatures unlike the 63/37 which melts at a specific temperature. While you may want to eventually create RoHScompliant products, lead-free solder is a beast to work with. I highly recommend practicing with lead-based solder first.
    • Adjustable temp. soldering iron that’s 50W or more with easy to change tips from one of the known brands. While you may find a good station from a lesser known brand, it’s worth spending a little extra to get rapid temperature recovery, and to have efficient, thermostat-controlled output. If you have an option, choose one with a ceramic core; this allows the iron to heat faster when you turn it on and cool faster after you’ve turned it off. Some brands to check out are Weller, Hakko,Pace, and Aoyue.
    • Soldering iron tips: The chisel tip is the most useful for the majority of through hole soldering with the wicking or well tipbeing the most useful for surface mount soldering.
    • You’ll need a wet sponge or wire sponge to clean the excess solder from your iron.
    • A soldering iron holder can sometimes be all that’s necessary to prevent your iron from rolling off of the workbench. I strongly recommend the kind of stand with a spiral rather than a rest. This will hold your iron securely. Also, there is a metal holder inside of the larger spring holder, which helps prevent you from being burned.
    • Always err on the side of caution and use eye protection. Accidents happen, and in most cases eye damage that could result from those accidents is preventable.
    • A small fan or a well ventilated workspace will help you err on the side of caution as well. A properly functioning respiratory system is awesome, fumes are bad.
    • Side cutters, clippers, flush cutter, diagonal pliers, snips, whatever you may call them, you’ll definitely need a pair with insulated handles. Keep in mind that cutters aren’t usually made to cut anything harder than copper.
    • Solder wick/ Desoldering braid is good to have on hand for soaking up any extra solder and to help you remove the diode that you accidentally soldered in backwards. It’s important to note that all wick is not created equal. Try to get something that isn’t considerably larger than the joints you’ll be desoldering. Since larger braids take longer to heat, requiring you to hold heat to the joints longer, you risk damaging the PCB or the component. For most general electronics work, opt for a Size 3, which is 0.06 inch width.

Level Up– Now that you’ve covered your basics, here are a few other things that might make those soldering jobs a bit easier. [N.B. This list is for additional things that help with soldering.  We’ll cover tools handy for troubleshooting in a different post.]

    • Needle nose pliers are great for bending leads and preventing you from burning your fingers when handling parts that haven’t quite cooled yet.
    • A  wire sponge cleans tips with a couple of stabs and doesn’t thermally shock your iron like a wet sponge. Also, you don’t have to worry about it drying out.
    • Vise with plastic coating on the jaws so as not to marr your project.
    •  For those of you going the lead-free route, you’ll be using solder that is mostly made of tin, with some silver in it to aid melting/flowing. You’ll want to note that it requires higher temperature to melt and a lot of practice. Make: recommends a SAC305 solder 96.5% tin, 3% silver, and 0.5% copper ) with a “no clean” flux core.
    • Flux– dissolves oxides on the metal surface and acts as an oxygen barrier by coating the hot surface, preventing its oxidation. Adding flux to your solder wick is useful for drawing up some of the extra stubborn solder mishaps. For information on various kinds of flux, click here.
    • Isopropyl Alcohol to clean flux and oxidation from your boards. Rosin activated flux contains corrosive materials, so if you’re using it be sure to clean your boards after soldering.
    • ESD safe Tweezers– While less useful for through hole soldering, you’ll definitely want a pair of ESD safe tweezers for any surface mount soldering. Be they bent tipped or straight tipped, you’ll definitely find them useful for picking up and placing those small components.
    • Helping hands or third hands are super useful since you’ll soon find yourself running out of hands to hold components or wires in place while soldering. They’re also really great for holding components/ wires that become too hot to hold by hand, especially during desoldering.
    • Wire cutter/ stripper in the 20-30 AWG gauge range seem to be the most common.
    • If you can’t bend it by hand, you’ll want to use tin snips (like these).
    • Hand vacuum pump solder sucker– It’s a little more complicated to use than the wick (be careful not to melt the tip!), but can help make those desoldering jobs go a little quicker.
    • Magnifying glass (2.5x – 8x for extra fine work) to closely inspect your work. I highly recommend one that comes with a built in light and a goose neck as seen here.
    • Scrubbing pads, cue tips, and/ or cotton balls are great to have on hand for cleaning contacts, PCB pads, and wire. These are mostly helpful for those working on older or recycled electronics.
    • Heat-shrink tubing  can help protect wire joins,  and other component wiring. If you don’t have a heat gun, you can always use your soldering iron to shrink the tubing.

Is there a must have tool on your workbench that didn’t make it to our list? Leave a comment and let us know what we missed! 


Further reading:

*This post was originally written for the OSH Park blog, and was published on December 12, 2013.


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