Recommend me a soldering iron (or twenty)
September 8, 2018 11:55 PM   Subscribe

I run workshops with young teenagers where they get to solder small kits. They are very slow and it’s usually their first time soldering. We have decent budget irons but they really do take a beating from being left on and mainly unused for hours and hours at a time.

We tin them well before we start and encourage them to use the brass instead of sponge. What is the better solution? Motion activated ones that heat instantly? Magic tips that don’t oxidize? Should we be looking at battery? Gas? And yeah, we need like twenty, so cheaper is better, but for a killer solution we could maybe get aponsorship.
posted by Iteki to Technology (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've used the cheap Weller 25 watt irons with replaceble tips for small projects for years. The irons run about $25 US, with replacement tips available as a 3-pack of different sizes & shapes for $10 US or less.
posted by soundguy99 at 2:17 AM on September 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

My first ever iron (over 40 years ago now - sigh) was a Miniscope, and for intermittent use it's a really hard tool to beat; the fact that you can still buy them today is testament to that.

The Miniscope is a small, lightweight, easy to handle iron with a super-flexible cable and a fingertip lever on the handle. A gentle squeeze on the lever makes a pushrod inside the iron shove a tiny carbon heating element right onto the back of the tip, which then reaches soldering temperature in about five seconds. Release the lever and the heater turns off. When you don't have the iron in your hand it's not heating.

If you press the lever for ten seconds with the tip in free air, it will glow red hot; keep it glowing and you rapidly burn out the heating element, as well as making it damn near impossible to tin the tip again. But both tips and heating elements are user replaceable and cheap, and the fact that you can make such a small and lightweight iron supply so much heat so fast comes in handy when you're soldering heavy wires onto large connectors or working with PC board power planes with vast expanses of copper.

This is in no way your fancy schmancy no-brainer temperature controlled iron, and its brand of completely manual temperature control takes some getting used to, but once you have it works remarkably well. It's certainly much easier to turn out consistently excellent solder joints with a Miniscope and a bit of practice than can ever be achieved with a typical anaemic 25 watt cheapie. The feel for temperature that you get from learning on a Miniscope also translates well when you first pick up a gas-powered iron.

The Miniscope runs off a 3.3Vac transformer, also designed to work with the larger Scope Superspeed iron which requires almost twice the Miniscope's current. I would expect a single transformer to cope with supplying two Miniscopes in a lab situation.
posted by flabdablet at 2:43 AM on September 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Couple of years ago I'd have suggested finding a bunch of (second-hand) Weller Magnastats and a few 24V/300..500W power supplies to power a group of them (generic, AC is better but DC switching supplies are way cheaper), but at well under US$25 each those off-brand temperature-controlled soldering irons from AliExpress can make a convincing argument today. Just grab a few spare ones and at least two extra tips per iron, as you can bet on those not being available any more when you need them.

If you do go the Magnastat route: there are now three model series whose tips are almost entirely but not quite compatible, so you want them all from one series for the sake of keeping spares around. I've found they rarely need their tips replaced, even with heavy use, but you might occasionally want to fit a different tip shape.
posted by Stoneshop at 4:19 AM on September 9, 2018

Just stick one of these outlet timers into the outlet and plug your regular soldering irons into them, whatever variety you end up using.

You will probably save a ton of power (and demonstrate that you do think about that -- which is a good message for the students to receive), and you can set them up so that the irons won't be left unattended for > 30 minutes. Whenever someone wants to use an iron, they can just push the button on the top of the outlet connector. When they think of it, they can push the button again.

Of course, you _can_ set the switch to get continuous activation for up to 6 hours, so you can consider your own policies there.
posted by amtho at 6:13 AM on September 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Cheap hakkos or similar and tin of tip cleaner seems like the best you can do.

Perhaps the solution is to make a big deal about responsible use of irons and the need to turn them off when not in use? "Tin this and then turn it off, or it will stop working and then our lab will go away" is a pretty accessible message.
posted by eotvos at 12:26 PM on September 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Small clarification, it’s the workshops themselves that might take three hours, even though it’s only a twenty minute job. Intermittent soldering as mentioned above is a good description. We don’t turn them off between components. The workshop is mobile, we turn up, introduce them to kit soldering and disappear.
posted by Iteki at 4:07 PM on September 9, 2018

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