The most fundamental skill needed to assemble any electronic project is that of soldering. It takes some practice to make the perfect joint, but, like riding a bicycle, once learned is never forgotten! The idea is simple: to join electrical parts together to form an electrical connection, using a molten mixture of lead and tin (solder*) with a soldering iron. A large range of soldering irons is available - which one is suitable for you depends on your budget and how serious your interest in electronics is.
[*Note: the use of lead in solder is now increasingly prohibited in many countries. "Lead free" solder is now statutory instead.]
Electronics catalogues often include a selection of well-known brands of soldering iron. Excellent British-made ones include the universally popular Antex, Adcola and Litesold makes. Other popular brands include those made by Weller and Ungar. A very basic mains electric soldering iron can cost from under £5 (US$ 8), but expect a reasonable model to be approximately £10-£12 (US$ 16 - 20) - though it's possible to spend into three figures on a soldering iron "station" if you're really serious! Check some suppliers' catalogues for some typical types. Certain factors you need to bear in mind include:-
Voltage: most irons run from the mains at 240V. However, low voltage types (e.g. 12V or 24V) generally form part of a "soldering station" and are designed to be used with a special controller made by the same manufacturer.
Wattage: Typically, they may have a power rating of between 15-25 watts or so, which is fine for most work. A higher wattage does not mean that the iron runs hotter - it simply means that there is more power in reserve for coping with larger joints. This also depends partly on the design of the "bit" (the tip of the iron). Consider a higher wattage iron simply as being more "unstoppable" when it comes to heavier-duty work, because it won't cool down so quickly.
Temperature Control: the simplest and cheapest types don't have any form of temperature regulation. Simply plug them in and switch them on! Thermal regulation is "designed in" (by physics, not electronics!): they may be described as "thermally balanced" so that they have some degree of temperature "matching" but their output will otherwise not be controlled. Unregulated irons form an ideal general purpose iron for most users, and they generally cope well with printed circuit board soldering and general interwiring. Most of these "miniature" types of iron will be of little use when attempting to solder large joints (e.g. very large terminals or very thick wires) because the component being soldered will "sink" heat away from the tip of the iron, cooling it down too much. (This is where a higher wattage comes in useful.)
A proper temperature-controlled iron will be quite a lot more expensive - retailing at say £40 (US$ 60) or more - and will have some form of built-in thermostatic control, to ensure that the temperature of the bit (the tip of the iron) is maintained at a fixed level (within limits). This is desirable especially during more frequent use, since it helps to ensure that the temperature does not "overshoot" in between times, and also guarantees that the output will be relatively stable. Some irons have a bimetallic strip thermostat built into the handle which gives an audible "click" in use: other types use all-electronic controllers, and some may be adjustable using a screwdriver.
Yet more expensive still, soldering stations cost from £70 (US$ 115) upwards (the iron may be sold separately, so you can pick the type you prefer), and consist of a complete bench-top control unit into which a special low-voltage soldering iron is plugged. Some versions might have a built-in digital temperature readout, and will have a control knob to enable you to vary the setting. The temperature could be boosted for soldering larger joints, for example, or for using higher melting-point solders (e.g. silver solder). These are designed for the most discerning users, or for continuous production line/ professional use. The best stations have irons which are well balanced, with comfort-grip handles which remain cool all day. A thermocouple will be built into the tip or shaft, which monitors temperature.
Anti-static Protection: if you're interested in soldering a lot of static-sensitive parts (e.g. CMOS chips or MOSFET transistors), more advanced and expensive soldering iron stations use static-dissipative materials in their construction to ensure that static does not build up on the iron itself. You may see these listed as "ESD safe" (electrostatic discharge proof). The cheapest irons won't necessarily be ESD-safe but never the less will still probably perform perfectly well in most hobby or educational applications, if you take the usual anti-static precautions when handling the components. The tip would need to be well earthed (grounded) in these circumstances.
Bits: it's useful to have a small selection of manufacturer's bits (soldering iron tips) available with different diameters or shapes, which can be changed depending on the type of work in hand. You'll probably find that you become accustomed to, and work best with, a particular shape of tip. Often, tips are iron-coated to preserve their life, or they may be bright-plated instead. Copper tips are seldom seen these days.
Spare Parts: it's nice to know that spare parts may be available, so if the element blows, you don't need to replace the entire iron. This is especially so with expensive irons. Check through some of the larger mail-order catalogues.
You will occasionally see gas-powered soldering irons which use butane rather than the mains electrical supply to operate. They have a catalytic element which, once warmed up, continues to glow hot when gas passes over them. Service engineers use them for working on repairs where there may be no power available, or where a joint is tricky to reach with a normal iron, so they are really for occasional "on the spot" use for quick repairs, rather than for mainstream construction or assembly work. One example is the Maplin PG509, given a full review with photographs here.
Another technique is the proprietary "Coldheat" battery powered soldering iron that we reviewed here. There are a number of reasons why this should only be used with extreme care (if at all) on electronic circuitboards.
A solder gun is a pistol-shaped iron, typically running at 100W or more, and is completely unsuitable for soldering modern electronic components: they're too hot, heavy and unwieldy for micro-electronics use. Plumbing, maybe..!
Soldering irons are best used along with a heat-resistant bench-type holder, so that the hot iron can be safely parked in between use. Soldering stations already have this feature, otherwise a separate soldering iron stand is essential, preferably one with a holder for tip-cleaning sponges. Now let's look at how to use soldering irons properly, and how to put things right when a joint goes wrong.
How to Solder
Turning to the actual techniques of soldering, firstly it's best to secure the work somehow so that it doesn't move during soldering and affect your accuracy. In the case of a printed circuit board, various holding frames are fairly popular especially with densely populated boards: the idea is to insert all the parts on one side ("stuffing the board"), hold them in place with a special foam pad to prevent them falling out, turn the board over and then snip off the wires with cutters before making the joints. The frame saves an awful lot of turning the board over and over, especially with large boards. Other parts could be held firm in a modeller's small vice, for example.
Solder joints may need to possess some degree of mechanical strength in some cases, especially with wires soldered to, say, potentiometer or switch tags, and this means that the wire should be looped through the tag and secured before solder is applied. The down side is that it is more difficult to de-solder the joint (see later) and remove the wire afterwards, if required. Otherwise, in the case of an ordinary circuit board, components' wires are bent to fit through the board, inserted flush against the board's surface, splayed outwards a little so that the part grips the board, and then soldered.
In my view - opinions vary - it's generally better to snip the surplus wires leads off first, to make the joint more accessible and avoid applying a mechanical shock to the p.c.b. joint. However, in the case of semiconductors, I often tend to leave the snipping until after the joint has been made, since the excess wire will help to sink away some of the heat from the semiconductor junction. Integrated circuits can either be soldered directly into place if you are confident enough, or better, use a dual-in-line socket to prevent heat damage. The chip can then be swapped out if needed.
Parts which become hot in operation (e.g. some resistors), are raised above the board slightly to allow air to circulate. Some components, especially large electrolytic capacitors, may require a mounting clip to be screwed down to the board first, otherwise the part may eventually break off due to vibration.
The perfectly soldered joint will be nice and shiny looking, and will prove reliable in service. There are four basic steps for perfect soldering.
- Adequate Solder Coverage
are the key factors affecting the quality of the joint. A little effort spent now in soldering the perfect joint may save you - or somebody else - a considerable amount of time in troubleshooting a defective joint in the future. The basic principles are as follows.
Firstly, and without exception, all parts - including the iron tip itself - must be clean and free from contamination. Solder just will not "take" to dirty parts! Old components or copper board can be notoriously difficult to solder, because of the layer of oxidation which builds up on the surface of the leads. This repels the molten solder and this will soon be evident because the solder will "bead" into globules, going everywhere except where you need it. Dirt is the enemy of a good quality soldered joint!
Hence, it is an absolute necessity to ensure that parts are free from grease, oxidation and other contamination. In the case of old resistors or capacitors, for example, where the leads have started to oxidise, use a small hand-held file or perhaps scrape a knife blade or rub a fine emery cloth over them to reveal fresh metal underneath. Stripboard and copper printed circuit board will generally oxidise after a few months, especially if it has been fingerprinted, and the copper strips can be cleaned using an abrasive rubber block, like an aggressive eraser, to reveal fresh shiny copper underneath.
Also available is a fibre-glass filament brush, which is used propelling-pencil-like to remove any surface contamination. These tend to produce tiny particles which are highly irritating to skin, so avoid accidental contact with any debris. Afterwards, a wipe with a rag soaked in cleaning solvent will remove most grease marks and fingerprints. After preparing the surfaces, avoid touching the parts afterwards if at all possible.
Another side effect of having dirty surfaces is the tendency for people to want to apply more heat in an attempt to "force the solder to take". This will often do more harm than good because it may not be possible to burn off any contaminants anyway, and the component may be overheated. In the case of semiconductors, temperature is quite critical and they may be harmed by applying such excessive heat.
Before using the iron to make a joint, it should be "tinned" (coated with solder) by applying a few millimetres of solder, then wiped on a damp sponge preparing it for use: you should always do this immediately with a new bit, anyway. Personally, I always re-apply a very small amount of solder again, mainly to improve the thermal contact between the iron and the joint, so that the solder will flow more quickly and easily. It's sometimes better to tin larger parts as well before making the joint itself, but it isn't generally necessary with p.c.b. work. (All EPE printed circuit boards are "roller-tinned" to preserve their quality and to help with soldering.) A worthwhile product is Weller's Tip Tinner & Cleaner, a small 15 gram tinlet of paste onto which you dab a hot iron - the product cleans and tins the iron ready for use. An equivalent is Adcola Tip-Save.
Normal electronics grade solder is now "lead free" and typically contains Sn 97 Ag 2.5 Cu 0.5 (i.e. 97% tin, 2.5% silver and 0.5% copper). It already contains cores of "flux" which helps the molten solder to flow more easily over the joint. Flux removes oxides which arise during heating, and is seen as a brown fluid bubbling away on the joint. The use of separate acid flux paste (e.g. as used by plumbers) should NEVER be necessary in normal electronics applications because electronics-grade solder already contains the correct grade of flux! Other solders are available for specialist work, including aluminium and silver-solder. Different solder diameters are produced, too; 20-22 SWG (19-21 AWG) is 0.91-0.71mm diameter and is fine for most work. Choose 18 SWG (16 AWG) for larger joints requiring more solder.
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