What soldering iron should I buy?
February 17, 2013 6:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm starting to mess around with electronics as a hobby and need to buy a soldering iron. But which one? Bonus question: a cheap, effective multimeter?

I know basically nothing about electronics or engineering (the book I'm using as a guide, Nicolas Collins' Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking is targeted toward music and art students, which suits me fine). Collins recommends a soldering iron in the 25-60W range, and recommends the Weller brand, but offers little guidance beyond that, and there are quite a lot of choices on Amazon and other sites. I'm looking for a cheap, reliable entry-level iron with replaceable tips suitable for working on small electronic components. I also need to pick up a multimeter fairly soon, but again, I'm not really sure what features are necessary or what manufacturers make a quality product. Any recommendations?

And one last question: how well-ventilated does my workspace need to be when working with solder? Would it be all right to set up next to an open window with a fan, or should I put together something more elaborate to make sure I stay safe?
posted by Merzbau to Technology (24 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
A good flux pen will be as helpful to you as a good soldering iron. Get a Kester 186 or Kester 2331 pen. The residue from the 2331 will be easier to clean, but you MUST clean it after soldering since it is corrosive to copper. The 186 residue is inert. These pens cost about $5. I suggest you avoid pens other than these two specific models.

Good solder is also helpful. I like Kester 44. It will leave inert residue like the 186 pen.

Stay away from lead free or no-clean solders. They make soldering much more difficult.
posted by ryanrs at 6:40 PM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I love the Weller irons and have used them for years. I still have one from the 70's that was originally my dad's, saw all day every day commercial use for 20 years and is still fine. You can still buy tips for it too. So if you can, buy Weller.

Fluke make awesome, durable multimeters. They aren't cheap though so it may not make sense to get one. I find the cheap as cheap hobby store meters that a lot of people say are fine give some weird readings, particularly with distorted AC waveforms, so I'd say spend $50, get something that has "true RMS" written on it and you'll have 80% of a Fluke, which is probably fine.
posted by deadwax at 6:40 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh and as far as ventilation. I've never found it massively important to be honest. It is flux smoke you are seeing, not lead fumes or anything like that. As long as you are not soldering in a completely closed and sealed little room you should be ok.

I really like the smell too...
posted by deadwax at 6:45 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fluke makes nice multimeters. Cheap multimeters are unsafe to use in any high-energy circuit (like anything involving wall current). If you buy a cheap meter, never plug it into an outlet.

I don't care what your cheap multimeter says in the specs, or what standards it claims to meet. A good arc-quenching sand fuse costs $30 by itself, so any sub-$100 meter is not to be trusted.
posted by ryanrs at 6:45 PM on February 17, 2013

For the fumes, get a 12V 80mm plastic fan like you'd find in a computer and let it blow across your desk. The fumes are unpleasant and this will keep them out of your face. Also get a bright desk lamp on a swing arm.
posted by ryanrs at 6:48 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm no expert, but I just started building guitar effects pedals as a hobby and did a lot or research on what soldering iron to get. Circuit Specialists makes two good variable temp soldering stations, see here and here. Circuit Specialists will also throw in a decent multimeter -- or other free gift -- if you spend over $50. I haven't had to use the multimeter too much, but unless you're building satellite guidance systems or whatever it seems to be accurate enough for most hobby stuff.
posted by Heminator at 6:58 PM on February 17, 2013

I have this Stahl, and I think it's pretty good. I use it for building guitar pedals. If I didn't already have one, I'd hanker for this Hakko.

I have this Cen-Tech multimeter, which is super cheap. Adafruit has this great FAQ on multimeters. I think the Cen-Tech is OK, but I'd prefer auto-ranging and an audible continuity tester. I think you could get both features for not too much money, though.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:02 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the recommendations so far. I've got a decent desk fan, lamp and...grabby arm thing with assorted clamps, magnifying lenses, etc. To clarify: I won't be working with anything that uses AC, at least not for a long while- the book I'm working from sticks strictly to battery-powered devices for safety reasons.
posted by Merzbau at 7:04 PM on February 17, 2013

Good tools pay dividends every time you use them. This Weller soldering iron station is the gold standard, IMnsHO, for long-lasting, user-servicable, high quality irons. Weller has been making this station for decades upon decades, with nearly no changes, and for good reason. Accept no substitute. They now make a digital version that I'm unfamiliar with.

Buy tips appropriate for your use, and your grandkids will appreciate using it. I say that totally seriously.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:25 PM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'll second Admiral Haddock's recommendation of the Hakko FX-888, I have an older model and it's a great high-quality entry-level soldering iron that will do everything you need.

Whether you go Hakko or Weller, they're both great. (like comparing Canon vs Nikon)

if you get soldering station that only has the wet sponge, immediately go spend another $10 and get a brass tip cleaner to use instead.
posted by jpeacock at 7:30 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Halfway between the cheapo single-temperature irons and the Weller/Hakko stations is the Hakko FX-600. It's temperature-controlled, and all in a single unit. I have a Weller WES51 which would be okay were it not for the annoying °F-only scale.

I'd actually recommend learning lead-free no-clean first. Sure, it's a bit slower and the flux is a bit more acrid, but hey, you're not messing around with a neurotoxin that's banned in half of the world. If you do have to ever deal with leaded soldering, it's a piece of piss compared to what you've learned doing lead-free.

Very cheap meters have really bad probes that will fail quickly. The Extech EX330 is $60, but is pretty solid. I use the alarmingly expensive Agilent 1242B, which is more meter than I'd ever need.
posted by scruss at 8:06 PM on February 17, 2013

I've been soldering for over 30 years with a wide variety of equipment and in every condition you can imagine. Pony-up for a nice temperature controlled Weller, you won't regret it.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:24 PM on February 17, 2013

Seconding the WES51 that TheNewWazoo mentioned. It is a good soldering station.
posted by ryanrs at 9:31 PM on February 17, 2013

Second the fx888. Get a temp controlled iron no matter what. Any iron that is just a pencil is useless, seriously. I thought I was the worst at soldering until I made the upgrade. Projects finAlly started working, it was magic. Don't waste your time on a bad iron!
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:32 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am a solid fan of Pace stuff. Their irons and stations are rock solid but I like some of the Xytronic stations, too.
posted by bz at 9:59 PM on February 17, 2013

Just chiming in to nth the recommendation for the Hakko FX-888. I've got a slightly older Hakko at home that works well enough, but at work I have had the FX-888 for several months and I swear it's one of the best electronic-tools purchases I've ever convinced my employers to make. Heats up REAL fast, is easy to set up, and doesn't take up much desk space. As for multimeters, I do actually really like my little Craftsman unit but it's about 12 years old and I can't speak for the quality of the brand now...just, you probably don't need to go into the Fluke realm for your first meter. IMO, the quality of the leads can make an enormous difference regardless of the meter brand, so don't be afraid to replace the ones that come with whatever you get.
posted by aecorwin at 10:07 PM on February 17, 2013

I have a Weller WES51D, with digital temp control, and it's aces. I imagine the analog version is just about as good, for $40 less.

I heartily second the recommendations for a flux pen and brass "sponge". Traditional sponges are for suckers.

Tool-wise I also suggest some locking tweezers, like this, for holding components to boards. Alligator clips can be fiddly.

Re: multimeters, I don't have any specific recommendations, but for small electronics projects the two functions you'll be using the most, by far, are DC Voltage and Continuity. Make sure continuity checking is easily accessible -- I have a cheapo multimeter that requires an extra button press to go into continuity mode, and that's more annoying than you might think.

With regards to ventilation, rosin flux isn't very toxic, but it is reasonably irritating so it's not like you'll want to be casually inhaling the stuff. "Open window with fan" should be plenty. Remembering to wash your hands after handling lead solder is much more important.
posted by neckro23 at 10:29 PM on February 17, 2013

Ive been soldering simple things for a long time and recently got into electronics and decided to go on you tube and look up soldering techniques and recomendations. One thing I never thought about and that has made a big difference is the type of tip you use. I always used the pointy one but it turns out that one that has a shape like a flathead screwdriver is much more useful because it has more surface area available to come into contact with whatever it is you are soldering.
posted by postergeist at 12:49 AM on February 18, 2013

Old timer here... save your pennies and spring for a decent meter. I use an Amprobe AM-160, which you can find for $275, but it's a lab in your hand. There are a lot of others. I have a Fluke and a Wavetek for utility work. Having more than one is handy for a number of reasons.

Best things I can suggest beyond the meter and iron is an illuminated desk magnifier and decent hand tools.
posted by FauxScot at 4:55 AM on February 18, 2013

Until you know if it's something you really want to do, I'd go with an inexpensive Weller iron in whatever wattage the book recommends and a $30-50 meter that has good reviews on Amazon.

One thing to skip are those "helping hands" like these. They're utter crap and will fall apart on you when you need the the most. Instead spend extra money and get a Panvice Jr.
posted by Gev at 5:35 AM on February 18, 2013

Nth-plus-one the FX-888. Partly because it's a fantastic general-purpose soldering station. And partly because it's the class-act that all the knock-offs have chosen to imitate, meaning replacement tips are super cheap.

For the meter, honestly, get whatever Sears has for $30 this week. They're so much more durable than the cheapies, and the leads fit well, which is hard to overstate the importance of. Back when I was using Harbor Freight meters, I fried a lot of stuff because I thought something was turned off when in reality the meter leads were just loose.

I'd get a Panavise AND a Helping Hands, they're for different things. Put some heatshrink tube over the individual clip jaws so you can hold wires without pinching through the insulation.
posted by Myself at 8:01 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

WRT a multimeter. Buy an el cheapo and then build a decent one yourself.
posted by notreally at 9:11 AM on February 18, 2013

When I started tinkering with electronics I bought a super cheap multimeter ($20) and a super cheap soldering iron ($30). I regretted cheaping out on the soldering iron immediately, and hated it every time I used it until I replaced it. I have never had any issues with the multimeter and am still happy with that.
posted by lollusc at 5:03 PM on February 18, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks again for the suggestions, everybody. I ended up buying a cheap iron (a Weller SP40L for about $10) to learn the basics quickly and cheaply, with an eye toward replacing it with a higher-quality Weller station later.
posted by Merzbau at 8:42 AM on February 24, 2013

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