New soldering iron! What should I make?
March 15, 2012 3:57 PM   Subscribe

I am the proud new owner of a soldering iron. What are some good first projects? Must be cheap and at least marginally useful. Blinky lights are a plus!

So my USB flash drive decided to stop working, and for some reason I decided that one of the little solder joints at the connector had probably come apart. I figured that for the price of a new 32gb thumbdrive, I could get myself a soldering iron (and a solder sucker and some solder), fix the thumbdrive, and then have a thumbdrive, a soldering iron, and a new skill. Patting myself on the back for being such an eminently practical person, I placed my order for the aforementioned gear. I was very excited!

Turns out that I was wrong about the drive, though. It doesn't seem to be broken in any noticeable way (definitely broken, just more mysteriously than I had expected) and now I have an itch to solder something and nothing to solder! There's nothing broken in my house right now that a soldering iron might reasonably be expected to fix, so I'm looking for projects.

I'm pretty new to soldering, but let's assume that I'm past the "stick scraps of wire together" phase of learning. I would like to actually build something at least semi-useful that requires some soldering. It has to be cheap (we're talking maybe $30 or so here, but I can flex a bit) as I'm not exactly swimming in dough at the moment, and it should be fairly easy, and ideally not require any metal fabrication other than soldering. I do have some other tools, but I can't do much with metal beyond maybe drill a hole in it.

I'd love something that featured a light, as I've recently started sticking random lights all over my bike. Maybe a clip-on light for my messenger bag would be sweet, but even sweeter would be a proper headlight (right now I have a taped-on cluster of blue LEDs that I salvaged from a Mardi Gras throw) with at least good Be Seen capabilities. I'm perfectly open to other suggestions, but I'm looking to make something that's at least nominally a practical object rather than simply a toy.

Resources for cheap kits of this kind or detailed build plans would be wonderful. Or if you've built something yourself I'm pretty good at extemporizing based on generalized instructions, provided that the project is relatively simple. Or even just a simple idea that I could figure out how to do on my own would be great. I really just want to get a taste of what my new soldering iron will let me do.

So hit me with your best introductory soldering projects, MetaFilter! I know you've got the chops. Bonus: if anybody knows of a specific model of flash drive that for some reason stands out from the crowd, I'm in the market.
posted by Scientist to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Do you play guitar? Making your own effects is totally doable. It's actually a decently large hobbyist industry now, so lots of resources are available. You can make something like a simple distortion/boost/overdrive using a transistor or two, a few resistors and capacitors, and a 9V battery, for well under $10. Or you can spend a lot more if you're sourcing NOS germanium transistors to make an exact replica of some pricey vintage stompbox.
posted by 6550 at 4:17 PM on March 15, 2012

I've built kits from and with success.
posted by jackmakrl at 4:18 PM on March 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I do not play guitar. Nice thought though!
posted by Scientist at 4:19 PM on March 15, 2012

Sparkfun has some things that might suit you.
posted by contraption at 4:26 PM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I design fun blinky kits for beginning solderers at Wayne and Layne.. We've had plenty of kids and adults put our stuff together with success, and we try to provide detailed explanations of why we did things in our kits and what each part does.

Otherwise, take a look at Evil Mad Scientist, Adafruit, Sparkfun, Spikenzie Labs, as well as Maker Shed. Make Magazine put out a kit guide around Christmas time--it may still be on shelves. Flip through that and you might see some ideas as well.
posted by adamwolf at 4:44 PM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Bleep Labs Pico Paso is a fun little noisemaker that's a great introduction to soldering.

The Mignonette is a little hand-held videogame that's easy for a beginner to solder together.
posted by eschatfische at 4:47 PM on March 15, 2012

I’m not lecturing, but many people do not take this seriously enough; Never leave the room with the iron on. Do not even go to the bathroom. The next thing you know, the phone rings, you go to meet your friend for coffee, and your place burns down.

And you might as well grab the hot end now and get it over with.
posted by bongo_x at 4:51 PM on March 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Bongo_x: it's a butane soldering iron, so I won't even be letting it get out of arm's reach. No worries on that account.
posted by Scientist at 5:03 PM on March 15, 2012

Edmund Scientific has many kits.
posted by jeffamaphone at 5:16 PM on March 15, 2012

I've never used a butane soldering iron, but from the ones I've seen, I suspect you have the wrong tool for building small electronics kits. Sorry. Fortunately, you can get a ten-watt electric iron for a few bucks, and it'll work fine. However, there's a reason they call those little pen-type soldering irons "firestarters"...
posted by spacewrench at 5:30 PM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nah, there are definitely small butane irons appropriate for electronics. Not a fan, personally, but YMMV.

Scientist, for a LOT of ideas (not all of them useful or sensible), check out the Technology category of Instructables.

Radio Shack even has some kits & DIY projects & parts, and at least the ones near me have gone back to having a lot of this stuff in stock in the store.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:47 PM on March 15, 2012

Evil Mad Scientist has some quirky kits. I recommend the Larson Scanner for a beginner. I'm very experienced and it took me under 10 minutes. A novice should take 45 minutes to an hour.
posted by plinth at 5:47 PM on March 15, 2012

Adafruit has great kits. (As do Sparkfun, Evil Mad Science, and Wayne & Layne linked above.)

MakerShed has a nice selection of kits as well. I quite like the Hello My Name Is badge for getting people soldering experience.

A butane soldering iron is not a great tool for electronics. I won't go so far as to say it's the wrong tool, but it will give you a lot more trouble than even a $5 pencil iron. It's very easy for them to get far too hot and damage the stuff you're soldering. You don't mention what kind of solder you're using but leaded solder is much easier to work with than the lead-free stuff, and is even less toxic to work with than the other stuff. (Lead handled in this manner is pretty safe, just wash your hands after handling it. The fumes generated from the lead-free solder's rosin is much worse for you than the leaded stuff. It's also harder on equipment. Be sure to have plenty of ventilation around.)
posted by Ookseer at 8:11 PM on March 15, 2012

I just got the LED Menorah Kit for my Dad's birthday (I don't think he's soldered in 30 years). It was less than $20, came with a 4 page guide leading you through all the steps, and looks pretty spiffy. I'm thinking of ordering one for myself, and I've got less soldering experience than you.

Plus, come December, you'll be the toast of the shul. Or your jewish friends shul. Or the latke party. Whatever — watch the video, you can make the LEDs flicker!
posted by benito.strauss at 9:11 PM on March 15, 2012

Joule thief?

And the general comments are right. I have a butane iron and I never use it for fear of burning my fingertips off, never mind the electronics.
posted by chairface at 9:32 PM on March 15, 2012

Pro Tip: a needlenose pliers, or even an alligator clip, can function as a heat sink when you're trying to solder chip leads or board contacts without melting down the entire component/delaminating the contact.

Learn to tin stranded wire ends.

Learn to apply enough, but not gobs, of solder - sometimes neatness counts, and excess solder does not = better connection. (IMO, it doesn't even mean physically stronger connection, since it creates a sharp flexible/stiff junction that is more prone to flexure breakage, but others disagree with me).

Learn to sense the moment of "flow", when everything suddenly gives, and the solder wicks into the junction. Stop heating, right then.

Keep a damp sponge handy, to wipe your tip off on. It will help keep burnt residue off.

If your tip won't wet, clean it with sandpaper (or sometimes just the wet sponge), and then melt some flux-core solder. The flux will help wet the surface.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:04 AM on March 16, 2012

BEAM bots may be of interest to you. I haven't made any myself but an old roommate constructed a bunch of them a number of years ago. They seem like a good way to understand the components you're using. There are a lot of sites with tutorials (and good web design).
posted by jackmakrl at 9:55 AM on March 16, 2012

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