Soldering for the beginning hobbyist
July 23, 2007 9:27 AM   Subscribe

Soldering - Please give me all your iron and accessories recommendations for a beginning home hobbyist (electronics, circuit boards, etc)

My fiance has asked for a soldering iron for his birthday, and I'd love to get him all set up to putter around in the spare room making circuit boards, robots, whatever - but I'm a little overwhelmed at all the products and details. I know I should be looking in the 25W/30W range for circuit boards (I think?) but other than that I'm hopeless. He has some passing familiarity with soldering from Scouts and his current work, but is definitely a consumer/hobbyist audience.

Let's say a budget of $200.00 - what would you recommend in terms of an iron, tips, materials, accessories heck even manuals and project books to set a beginning in-home hobbyist on to the path of mini-electronics greatness?

I appreciate any and all comments, thank you in advance (from both of us, though he doesn't know it) for your help!
posted by malacologist to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
There's a couple of materials that need to be in every soldering kit that are frequently overlooked.

Flux: Some amateurs (like my dad) scoff at using flux, but the importance of flux cannot be overstated. Flux *greatly* facilitates the application and removal of solder, and judicious usage of flux (together with experience) is what allows you to do professional-quality work.

Desoldering braid (often called "desoldering wick"): Braid is used to clear excess solder off of joins, and is essential for doing clean work.

Without getting into brands, the basic kit that he would need to get started is:

- the iron, with stand
- an assortment of needlenose pliers
- solder of various gauges (avoid the fat solder with the flux core)
-flux, and a plastic applicator for it (usually pencil-shaped)
- a spool of desoldering braid
- rubbing alcohol (for cleaning the iron)
- a small vise is very useful as a second pair of hands for when you're working alone

I did a good amount of this stuff in the military, and I'd be happy to give a few pointers to an amateur. Email's in the profile. :)
posted by CRM114 at 9:37 AM on July 23, 2007

Oh, also. Avoid RadioShack. I've found that even if you add in ~$5-10 for shipping, you can get a better deal virtually anywhere else.
posted by tmcw at 9:49 AM on July 23, 2007

Helping Hands of some sort are required. They may go by another name as well. They are alligator clips on articulated stands to hold whatever is being soldered. Get at least two sets, it comes in handy sometimes.

Get a little desoldering tool that vacuums up solder you need to remove.

At your budget you maybe can afford a toaster oven surface mount soldering setup in addition to the iron. That site seems to have a good list of materials. If he's working with stuff like robots, not being able to use surface mount will be a hindrance. They say you can do it by hand, but it's not worth it.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:57 AM on July 23, 2007

I'd recommend getting some flux remover (similar to this) for cleaning flux's sticky residue off of circuit boards. The 'liquid' version and some q-tips do a great job.
posted by JohnFredra at 9:58 AM on July 23, 2007

I've got this and am very happy with it, it's a great "first soldering iron" though you really could make do with a $15 dollar one when you're just starting out.

Do you know what type of electronics projects he might be interested in doing? I might be able to recommend some kits as the iron with tips shouldn't cost you more than $60ish.
posted by drezdn at 10:15 AM on July 23, 2007

I'd start with a butane powered soldering iron. I've used this type of iron both professionally and for home projects.

They are good for simple jobs, can be used anywhere, and has variable heat.

You'll likely want to get a small vise, solder, and a solder wick.

Other than that, if your fiance hasn't used one before, I'd refrain from getting an expensive unit until he has his own preference as to what he wants. Keep your gift simple, and let him expand this in the direction he wants later. This kind of iron will always be useful and will complement a more serious (expensive) electric iron in the future.
posted by Argyle at 10:17 AM on July 23, 2007

I know most folks on this side of the pond like Wellers and a few others, but I'll take an Antex over anything else any day. I have an Antex a friend gave me at least 10 years ago and I have yet to change the tip on it. The heat element in the Antex is at the tip so it heats up a lot faster (and cools down when off) than just about any other iron I've seen. Lightweight, easy to handle.

I'd recommend a G3U and a couple of tips, like the 3/32th and 1/16th. Under $50 all told.
posted by jdfan at 10:17 AM on July 23, 2007

Also, to answer your next question (that you haven't asked yet), you might want to buy the items from Jameco as they have a good mix of selection and no minimum order amount. They don't offer very many kits though.
posted by drezdn at 10:18 AM on July 23, 2007

Flux? It comes in the core of the solder. Don't add any more.

The Weller iron is a good choice.

In addition to what is mentioned above consider a powerful desk lamp on an articulating arm. They make them with a magnifying lens, but a good one like that will eat up your whole budget. A simple halogen one will run 30 to 60 dollars. Also, desoldering braid is nice, but you will also want a desoldering bulb (cheap) and perhaps even a dedicated desoldering iron (about $15 to $20 from the RatShack). Mistakes will be made, especially by the beginner, and these things help you fix them. The idea is you want to be able to quickly desolder something as if it takes too long with the heat on it parts can be damaged.

The fun part would be a few project kits to get started on. The classic starter kit is the audio oscillator. It is cheap so if you ruin it, so what, it is for learning anyway. Then perhaps something more fun. Does he play guitar? If so an effects pedal might be just the thing.

One more thing he will need if he does not already have one, a multi-meter. You can spend big bucks, but a $20 one to start out is best. Then when and if he wants more he will have a better idea about what he might want.

On preview - a butane gas powered soldering iron is not ideal, or even recommended for delicate things such as printed circuit boards.
posted by caddis at 10:25 AM on July 23, 2007

Flux and solder should be separate, not united in one product, unless you're doing plumbing (or, unless you're using a fantastic solder paste). Most solders are available on spools as solder only, not flux-cored.

Spend no more than $100 on the total kit. You could save the rest of your gift budget to get him a kit for photo-resist fabrication of circuit boards.

Solders are marked as "SN60" or "SN70." This indicates the % of tin, the remainder being lead. Most electronics use SN60. You can use 50/50 for many things. The higher the SN number, normally the more firm/brittle the solder. There are lead-free solders that generally aren't worth messing with.

Flux matters. Fluxes are mildly acidic, and a good general-purpose gel-type flux will work for most applications. However, a more aggressive (more acidic) flux is sometimes needed for soldering difficult materials. Stainless steel is virtually impossible to solder without dangerously strong flux.

Another project kit that goes well with soldering and circuitry stuff is electroplating. try caswellplating dot com
posted by yesster at 10:40 AM on July 23, 2007

I'm all about Weller soldering tools. I have this model which I bought after the ancient one I stoleacquired from my dad finally gave up the ghost (after nearly 20 years of use and abuse by his sons). I expect as much from this one.

As for the cheap ones you can get from $20 or less - they suck, plain and simple. The handles can get too hot (painfully so) and the rigs for supporting them on your workbench can be nightmarishly unsafe.

I prefer solder suckers over wicks for desoldering, but that's a personal preference. Some people worry about lifting traces with them, but I have never, ever taken out a trace.

I've done fine with 60/40 rosin core solder. I imagine it would probably be a good idea to have small fan set up on your bench to blow fumes away while you're soldering. I've probably inhaled more lead vapor than one really should, but some may claim that it is a key ingredient to my charming personality.

One tool in my arsenal has been a wiring product from Vector, which is apparently not made any more (by them). It is a wiring pencil for point to point connections - you wind a half dozen turns around a post and go to the next post and so on. When the posts are connected, you put a blob of solder on the post which melts the insulation off the wire making the connection. For low-voltage work (the wire was pretty thin), I could knock out prototypes pretty quickly and it was much nicer (again opinion) than wire wrap.

At this point, I use protoboard (aka solderless breadboard) and then have a circuit board made for me.
posted by plinth at 10:51 AM on July 23, 2007

Did you flux guys even read the question. It is about soldering electronics, not stainless steel. You do not use separate flux for electronics soldering. Neither do you use acid flux. It is too hard on the parts. You use rosin based fluxes, and they are inside the solder wire.

By the way, plumbing soldering employs a separate flux. Have you ever sweated a pipe joint?
posted by caddis at 10:55 AM on July 23, 2007

A simple temperature controlled soldering iron.


Desolder braid.

A fun project.

That should be enough to get him started and figure out what else he wants. Mostly likely a 3rd hand tool to hold pieces and a heak-sink clamp. Luckily it's a cheap hobby and the tools tend to be small.
posted by chairface at 10:59 AM on July 23, 2007

I'm seconding chairface and adding protoboard/solderless breadboard.

You're going to want to get a kit or something to really make this a totally sweet gift, but you're already onto a great idea.

I'm an EE student, so I get to do this stuff all year long for credit.
posted by adamwolf at 11:08 AM on July 23, 2007

Caddis, I had to do field repairs of radios quite frequently in the military, and I learned quickly to never use solder with rosin cores. It may just be my preference, but solder and separate flux is easier to use and more importantly, easier to use precisely.
posted by CRM114 at 11:08 AM on July 23, 2007

I'm an electrical engineer. Flux (separate flux, not solder with a flux core) is the best thing that ever happened to me. Especially using protoboard/perf board, which can be a little weird sometimes. In particular, if you're using solder braid to remove solder joints, flux is a HUGE help in getting it to wick.

I've used butane soldering irons, cheap $10 soldering irons, and really nice soldering irons. I love Wellers. Temperature-controlled ones are nice, but probably a little out of your price range. Get one nice fine tip and one chunkier tip, for both small precision stuff and for big desoldering of wires/etc.

Tools I can't live without while soldering: needlenose pliers, a pair of wire snips, a pair of wire strippers (don't have to be fancy), and a pair of tweezers. If he doesn't already have a leatherman, get him one -- I use mine several times a day.
posted by olinerd at 12:08 PM on July 23, 2007

My solder 2ยข- I have always used rosin core solder (except for plumbing) like the kind chairface links to. Smells good, too.

As far as a project, Ramsey has lots of fun stuff.
posted by MtDewd at 12:26 PM on July 23, 2007

Re: Wire strippers, since you are some what willing to spend a fair bit of money on this, I would get Automatic Wire Strippers, they save a ton of time (for me at least) and don't cost that much more than regular wire strippers.
posted by drezdn at 12:53 PM on July 23, 2007

I've done production and repair work on aircraft radio and radar, and am a licensed broadcast engineer. Caddis is correct about using rosin core solder, or rosin paste flux with solid solder for electronics. Do not get acid flux anywhere near printed circuit boards, or use acid core solder on them, as that kind of flux can't be washed away reliably, and may damage the traces of the board, or form electrically conductive paths between circuit traces, ruining the board.

You can obtain solder in various formulations, but the traditional SN60 or 60/40 solder that has long been used for electronics for its low temperature melt point, is being replaced by lead-free solder, driven by Europe's WEEE and RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) legislation, which went into effect in 2006.

There are portable butane gas powered catalytic soldering irons made for electronics work, but they are specialty tools used by technicians in situations where there is not likely to be AC power for standard soldering tools. For general electronics work, your fiance will want a quality, low voltage, thermostatically controlled, electrostatically grounded soldering station. If he'll be working with lead free solders, it's important to get a thermostatically controlled soldering station, so that he can set an appropriate temperature, usually somewhat higher than that required for traditional 60/40 tin/lead solder, when working with lead free solder.

You can obtain solder in various physical packaging, and even in roll form, in various diameters. A thin diameter solder can be easier to control when doing fine work, like DIP package IC and components. Thicker diameter solder is easier to manage where the quantity of solder that will be needed for the joint is greater, such as when soldering stranded wire (which wicks up molten solder by capillary action). A small roll of 60/40 rosin core in .040 diameter is probably a good general choice for an electronics beginner, and shouldn't set you back more than $5. A small tub of rosin paste is very useful to have around for use with de-soldering braid, and for preparing stranded wire for soldering.

Additional soldering related tools that he might appreciate have been suggested above. I agree about the utility of having a lighted magnifier, a decent circuit board vise, some de-soldering wick, a solder sucker, a tip cleaner, soldering tools, and perhaps some hemostats to act as heat sinks.

Surface mount parts can be reliably soldered by hobbyists with a soldering station, with a bit of practice. The trick is to use the reflow solder already on the board, and to keep your temperature controlled tip moving at an appropriate speed. If he were to begin doing projects with lots of surface mount parts, as a hobbyist, he might want to look into Schmartboard.
posted by paulsc at 1:08 PM on July 23, 2007

Another happy Weller WESD51 user here. If he's going to be doing small electronics soldering (chips, resistors, etc.) you might consider getting a finer tip for it, as well.

Kits-R-Us has some fun kits, too...
posted by lalas at 2:09 PM on July 23, 2007

My iron of choice is a Metcal. I understand that the Weller is more within your budget, I'm just sayin'...It heats up in 30 sec. Which helps with not burning out your tips. Also, lead-free solder is a bitch to work with. It leaves cold joints, but if you're not into "pretty" (I'm assuming he doesn't need to go by IPC standards) then that might be ok. If you use rosin solder you don't need to clean. There is a rosin flux pen, but they dry out fast. There is no-clean solder, also, but NOT the same as rosin-core. If you use a water-soluble solder, then you need to clean with water. And you need ALOT of water--like "putting the boards in the dishwasher" type volume. Alcohol will not clean that. So, I would recommend, besides the Weller (and that's just thinking of your budget), a no-clean solder, a product called "Tac-Flux", no- clean solder wick (there IS a difference). Forget the solder extractor unless you have the extra $ in your budget. That's what the wick is for. I can give you manufacturer part numbers for these if you want.
posted by wafaa at 2:21 PM on July 23, 2007

Metcal just started selling a more affordable solder station.

I used one at the Maker Faire--it was nice, felt more-or-less like their more expensive one.
posted by oats at 3:21 PM on July 23, 2007

Metcal just started selling a more affordable solder station.

Yes! The X26A is the most versitile tip...
posted by wafaa at 4:34 PM on July 23, 2007

Response by poster: Hi all - thank you SO MUCH for all the insight and recommendations, it has been a tremendous help.

I think I'll get him started with a nice station (Weller's WSD51 seems the popular choice) and vise, maybe a basic kit to start. He's got the multi meter, needle nose pliers, wire strippers, and other various tooly bits around the house. I'm thinking any spare change will go to a gift certificate to pick out the solder (not sure on the lead-free issue, his call), wicks and the other smaller ticket necessities.

Thank you again - I'll show him this thread afterwards so he can get some ideas for additional tools and projects.
posted by malacologist at 9:20 PM on July 23, 2007

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