Sunday, August 3, 2014

Recommended Soldering Kit & Tutorials (for Arduino, Electronics, & Radio Control)

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By Gabriel Staples
Written: 14 June 2014
Posted to blog: 3 Aug. 2014
Last Updated: 26 Nov. 2016
-20161126: updated many links, incl the broken ones from Radio Shack; also added several new sections, including bonus soldering irons, rosin flux, high-power irons & torches, acid-core solders & acid fluxes, & how to tin a soldering iron tip.
-20141008: added an advanced "drag soldering" link at bottom
-20140905: added more soldering iron links, & solder tip tinner/cleaner link, as well as quite a bit more info.
-20140830: added more info about soldering irons "for Radio Control" use; also added "intermediate" links to the soldering tutorials section at the end

Related Articles:
Here is a list I put together to help people get into soldering & electronics.

DIGITAL GENUINE HAKKO FX-888D, from Adafruit.com
Keep reading below for more info.

If this article saves you time or money, please contribute something for the value you receive.

Preface:
Before I begin this article, I would like to say that I know there are *many* soldering irons and products to choose from today, and this is NOT meant to be a comprehensive list, nor does it necessarily contain "the best" products, since that claim is highly subjective, and it is not practical nor possible to try to test or own all soldering equipment.  Rather, this article contains a brief list of products that I am familiar with, items which for the most part I have used or currently own, and items which I have found to be a great value.  In other words, if you have differing opinions from me, that's perfectly fine, but if you are new to this arena, I hope this list is a good reference to at least get you started in the hobby.

Recommended Soldering Kit:
  1. Soldering Iron
    1. For General Electronics Work (ex: circuit boards, headers, through-hole & surface mount soldering, etc):
      15W iron from Radio Shack, $12.99



      1. (Ultra Economical) - http://www.radioshack.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2062728, 15-Watt Soldering Iron with Grounded Tip, $12.99, works GREAT for electronics, such as soldering headers to stuff for Arduino. This is a good beginner iron. I used one for a long time; worked nicely! UPDATE: NO LONGER SOLD. New recommendation: 30W Delcast iron for $6 on Amazon, OR 30W iron at Harbor Freight for $4
        1. Of these two irons, the Decast one is better because it has a plated tip, which should help it last longer without pitting.
        2. Note: these are unregulated irons, so they have no temperature nor power control whatsoever.
        3. If able/available, buy extra tips for these irons, and be sure to use a dry brass cleaning sponge (see below) instead of a wet water sponge to prolong tip life. If the tip does start to pit or wear down, however, just periodically sand, file, or grind it back into a good shape. (For nicer irons with plated tips, the recommendation is just to replace the tip when it gets pitted or worn down, but whatever). These irons are cheap as dirt, but you can get by with one for quite some time with a little patience and love. Just ask my good friend Michael Cardoza (http://ampere-sand.blogspot.com/), as his Harbor Freight-like 30W iron is still what he uses.
      2. (Much Nicer) - https://www.adafruit.com/products/180 - Adjustable 30W 110V soldering iron, $22. Great beginner iron. Adjustable power settings (but cannot control tip temperature directly). 
      3. (Another Option)http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000AS28UC - Weller WLC100 40-Watt Soldering Station, $39. Adjustable power settings (but cannot control tip temperature directly).
      4. (Nicer still)http://www.amazon.com/Aoyue-937-Digital-Soldering-Station/dp/B000I30QBW - 45W Aoyue 937+ Digital Soldering Station - ESD Safe, $64. Has digital temperature control.
      5. (Very nice) - 70W Digital Genuine Hakko FX-888D (936 upgrade), ESD Safe. Has digital temperature control – I have one of these, and I love it!
        1. $110 here - https://www.adafruit.com/product/1204
        2. $100 with FREE CHP170 flush cutters, here - http://www.amazon.com/Digital-FX888D-CHP170-bundle-cutter/dp/B00AWUFVY8
        3. Ultra-fine tip for surface-mount soldering - the medium, flat-head "screwdriver"-like tip that comes on the Hakko FX-888D works great for regular through-hole soldering, but when ultra-fine work is required, you might try the Hakko T18-S4 conical sharp tip, found here on Adafruit for $10, or here on Amazon for $9.
      6. Bonus: hot-air soldering/desoldering rework station! - ex: 2in1 878ad Soldering Iron Rework Station Hot Air Gun + Tip + 3 Nozzles Heat Gun Holder Welder Yihua, $70
      7. Bonus: cordless soldering irons - sometimes you just need more portability; here's a few highly-rated options I found:
        1. Electric:
          1. Hakko FX-901/P Cordless Soldering Iron, $32 on Amazon - though I haven't used it, this one looks like the best value to me, especially because it simply uses 4 standard alkaline or NiMh batteries, which means you can easily replace them, carry spares with you, and upgrade your *standard* (not proprietary) AA-sized rechargeable cells as rechargeable technology improves. Using built-in batteries is always a bit of a pain in the butt and generally costs *way* more (usually double, as you can see below) because it requires the manufacturer to provide you a battery, charger and charge circuitry too, which is half the cost, and is often-times based on older rechargeable battery technology and proprietary battery shapes, sizes, and packages which you can't easily upgrade as battery technology improves.
          2. ISO-TIP 7700, $58
          3. ISO-TIP 7800, $74
          4. ISO-TIP 7904, $77
        2. Butane-based:
          1. Iso-Tip #7971 SolderPro 50 Butane Soldering Iron, $26 on Amazon
          2. Dremel 2000-01 Versa Tip Precision Butane Soldering Torch; $40 on Amazon
          3. Power Probe PPSK Butane Soldering Kit, $41 on Amazon
    2. For Radio Control (ex: heavy-duty battery plugs & connectors, large-gauge wire, landing gear, etc):
      1. FOR THIS APPLICATION I RECOMMEND A 60W, ***UNREGULATED*** IRON!!!  I can't stress this enough.  Even the 70W Hakko above, or a $350+ professional 85W Weller soldering station (based on my several wasted hours of repeated personal experience) will not do the job here when soldering a multiple-large-gauge-wire connection.  For this application, we need raw, unregulated heat & power, with a heavy, large-diameter tip to allow a high heat transfer rate.  So, only something as high quality and solid as an $8 Hobbico iron will do the trick! (Yes, seriously. :) Tell your associates to "go shove it" when they tell you to use the "higher quality" Weller station).  PS.  Finding a soldering iron > 30W locally is nearly impossible in my experience.  You'll probably have to go online.  Here's what I use:
        1. Hobbico 60W soldering iron, from TowerH
          obbies, $8 (UPDATED LINK: ALSO $8 HERE ON AMAZON PRIME) - when one of the above irons doesn't cut it, this one will.  Prior to getting into electronics (like Arduino), this was my only soldering iron for several years.  I used it on wire from ~30AWG in size (very small) up to ~8AWG in size (very large).  It did the job.  I've also never changed the tip on it yet.  Due to using a wet sponge to clean its tip for a long time, it looked like a mutilated nub. (To prevent/minimize tip wear and tear in the future, use a dry brass sponge as described down below).  Despite the tip being severely dissolved, however, it was still well-tinned and worked fine. See some of its handy work here. I recently used a Dremel tool, cutting wheel, polishing wheel, and file to cut this tip back into a nice shape.  
      2. FYI: For lighter RC work and plugs (perhaps 80%~95% of your general cases), a generic 30W iron (or one of the irons above, including the Hakko), purchased locally or wherever, will probably work.  When you get to very large connectors or bundles of wires, however, you will find the heat from a 30W iron (or even a 70W or 85W professional soldering station) is often-times insufficient to allow the solder to properly flow.  Again, this is where the $8 60W unregulated iron, or one of the "High-Power Irons" listed below, is needed. 
      3. Before you go buying a new iron though, first try using your current soldering iron with your largest soldering tip you have, to see if that alone is sufficient. Larger tips store more heat energy (have higher thermal capacity) and have higher thermal conductivity and can therefore more easily heat large-gauge wires and components.
  2. Soldering Stand 
    1. Note: these stands come with a sponge meant to be used wet, with water, to clean your soldering iron tip. However, to prolong tip life, use the dry brass sponge (listed below) to clean your iron’s tip instead.
    2. Examples:
      1. http://www.radioshack.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2062740, $10 - Soldering Iron Holder and Cleaner. I have this one; pretty basic but works great! UPDATE: BROKEN LINK, try this instead: Amazon search for "soldering stand."
      2. Configurable Soldering iron Holder With dual Cleaner, $17 - a nice, heavy-duty soldering stand from Amazon, with brass sponge & solder roll holder - great value.  I have used this stand and it works great.  Highly recommended, and since it comes with the brass sponge you don't need to buy one separate.
      3. Or a soldering iron stand from Hobbyking, $3.18 + ~$5 shipping or so.
  3. Brass Sponge
    1. The brass sponge does NOT require water to clean the tip, thereby minimizing tip heating/cooling cycles (thermal stress), and prolonging tip life (source). Get one for sure.
    2. $3.49 brass sponge from ebay
      1. Ebay search for “soldering iron tip cleaner”, with “Buy It Now” filter selected, and sorted by price – find a brass sponge here for as little as $3.49 w/FREE shipping. I have one; works great!
      2. Hakko Brass Sponge Solder Tip Cleaner, from Adafruit, $10.95
  4. Solder
    1. WARNING: the 60/40 on the solder means 60% Lead/40% Tin. If you are pregnant or nursing, I recommend you use lead-free solder instead, which is a little more expensive, has a higher melting temperature, and is a touch harder to use.
    2. For General Electronics Work (ex: circuit boards, headers, through-hole & surface mount soldering, etc):
      1. http://www.radioshack.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2062715 (BROKEN LINK: TRY SEARCHING FOR SOMETHING SIMILAR ON AMAZON, SPARKFUN, ADAFRUIT, OR EBAY INSTEAD) – Rosin core, 60/40, 0.032” diameter, 8 oz (1/2 lb), $14.49, BUY 1 for sure.  I have used this gauge of solder (0.032") to solder anything from general-purpose wires and 2.54mm-spaced headers & through-hole electronics all the way down to 0.5mm-spaced legs on an SSOP surface-mount package.  A skilled hand can use it to solder even smaller legs to a circuit board.  It's great for general-purpose RC use too, though the larger solder below is easier to use on large connectors, since you have to feed less length of it to get the desired amount.
    3. For Radio Control (ex: heavy-duty battery plugs & connectors, large-gauge wire, landing gear, etc):
      1. http://www.radioshack.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2062713 (BROKEN LINK: TRY SEARCHING FOR SOMETHING SIMILAR ON AMAZONSPARKFUNADAFRUIT, OR EBAY INSTEAD) - Rosin core, 60/40, 0.062” diameter, 8 oz (1/2 lb), $14.49.  For larger-gauge applications, I like this 0.062" diameter 60/40 rosin-core solder instead.  The larger diameter means you have to feed less length of it into the solder joint.  I have used this large gauge solder on anything from 30AWG (very small) ultra-light servo or micro motor wires, all the way up to 8AWG (very large) motor wires, though of course you can use it on larger wires too.  It's great for general-purpose Radio Control vehicle connectors.  This solder wire, however, is too big for general purpose circuit-board or electronics use, such as soldering Arduino components.  For small wires (smaller than ~20 AWG), you'll find that you waste more of this solder too, so you might consider buying one of this size and one of the size above.
  5. Rosin flux (for acid fluxes, see farther below) - for helping to bond metal surfaces while soldering. Flux helps solder to flow better and bond to the surface better (better "wetting"). It also can help prevent oxidation from forming while soldering since it creates a barrier between the metal surface and the surrounding oxygen-containing air. The solders I recommend above have rosin flux inside of them, but sometimes (I very rarely need to do this actually) adding a little extra flux is helpful during soldering. 
    1. For liquid fluxes, just drop it on. For paste rosin fluxes, just dab a little on with a Q-tip (cotton ear swab) or toothpick. 
    2. Ex. of where to buy: Ebay search for "solder flux"--as little as $1 or less.
      1. ex: 10g solder paste, $0.99
      2. 50g solder paste rosin flux, $0.99
  6. Tip Tinner - for helping to clean and tin (coat with solder) oxidized and un-tinned tips; tip tinner is highly corrosive (and poisonous) and will be used VERY rarely (perhaps zero to one times per tip, for the entire life of the tip).  It is usually only necessary to use tip tinner if you let a new tip oxidize prior to tinning it, or to tin the tip while heating it for the first time ever (though regular solder
    works too if you hold the solder to the tip during the first ever heating cycle), or for re-tinning tips that have been poorly tinned and cared for in the first place.  To use the tip tinner, press a hot soldering iron tip into the tinner until the soldering iron tip is nicely tinned, as indicated by a bright, silvery appearance.  Again, this is NOT a regular procedure, as you should leave a light coat of solder on your tinned tip after every soldering job, once a tip is properly tinned once.
    1. http://www.radioshack.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2062721 (Broken link; see here instead: Amazon search for "tip tinner") - RadioShack Tip Tinner and Cleaner (0.5 oz.), Model 64-020, $10. Buy only if you struggle getting your soldering tip tinned.  One can should last you many many years.
  7. Helping Hands
  8. helping hands, from Harbor Freight, $2.99
    1. http://www.harborfreight.com/helping-hands-60501.html, $3 each (also on Amazon here for $5.43 as an Add-on Item– BUY 2, you’ll need them.  You might even want 3 since they are so useful.
  9. Desoldering Tools--the erasers of electronics work (also available at Radio Shack, Amazon, Adafruit.com, etc)
    1. Sometimes you make mistakes. This is how you undo them.
    2. Solder sucker from Adafruit, $5
    3. Ebay search for “solder vacuum” – I got one for just under $3 here (w/FREE shipping) and it works great!
    4. Ebay search for “desolder braid” - http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_sacat=0&_from=R40&LH_BIN=1&_nkw=desolder+braid&_sop=15 – I got some 2mm wide stuff from Radio Shack that works fine, but it’s here on Ebay for < $1.
    5. Hot air rework station: a *must* for some desoldering work, *especially* when desoldering surface mount (SMT [Surface Mount Technology]) components; see the hot air rework station linked to above under the "Soldering Iron" section.
  10. Extras
    1. You’ll also need a few basic tools like pliers, wire cutters, wire strippers, etc.  Grab these from your local hardware store, or your favorite online retailer. Note: basic wire strippers are probably cheapest from your local hardware store, though here's a pair on Adafruit ($12) and here's a pair on HobbyKing (~$3 + ~$5 shipping).  Note that these basic wire strippers usually come in two sizes: small (for 20~30 AWG wires) and large (for 8~22 AWG wires).  Choose what meets your specific needs.
    2. If you are looking for a really nice set of automatic wire strippers, I *highly* recommend these; they work great!
      1. Irwin Industrial Tools 2078300 8-Inch Self-Adjusting Wire Stripper with ProTouch Grips, $20, - http://www.amazon.com/Irwin-Industrial-Tools-2078300-Self-Adjusting/dp/B000OQ21CA
    3. For a nice, economical set of flush cutters, I recommend these: 
      1. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00FZPDG1K - Hakko CHP-170 Micro Clean Cutter, 16 Gauge Maximum Cutting Capacity, $4.37
    4. Multimeter: great for any electronics work – 
    5. MY68, $30 on Amazon
      1. (nice, yet economical one) - http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000J40T3U, Sinometer Auto-Ranging Digital Multimeter, MY68, $30; I have this one; works great!  I've briefly compared it to a $130+ Amprobe and Fluke multimeter, and it performs similarly.  
      2. (ultra economical) - http://www.harborfreight.com/catalogsearch/result?q=multimeter - 7 Function Digital Multimeter from Harbor Freight – often-times available for < $5, or even for FREE at times, with coupons from the mail or in-store. For being $5, these things work great. I have several of them. However, they are definitely not as reliable as the nicer $30 meter above, which is *far* superior.
    6. Electro-static-discharge (ESD)-safe tweezers - great for holding and positioning your very fine components onto a PCB (Printed Circuit Board)
      1. $4 on Adafruit - curved or straight variety
      2. or <$3 each on Ebay
  11. High-Power Irons (60W+), & Torches 
    1. As I alluded to above, sometimes you need a lot of heat. I've soldered stuff where even my 60W iron won't do it. Examples of where you need >60W raw, unregulated heat may include: extremely cold ambient temperatures (ex: 20 deg F in an outdoor work shed in the middle of winter, while soldering large connectors), extremely large connectors or cables (truck-sized jumper cable size or larger), or general metal work (including soldering sheet steel, stained-glass windows, lead or copper pipes [a torch, NOT an iron, is required for pipes], etc). For these cases you need the big boys:
    2. 60W iron (may work for some of these jobs, but maybe still too weak too), $8 on Amazon (as linked to previously above).
      1. Would work on very light sheet metal only, and/or small pieces, with acid-core solder and acid flux (see below).
    3. 80W ironWeller SP80NUS Heavy Duty LED Soldering Iron, $26 on Amazon
      1. Should work on light sheet metal only, and/or small pieces, with acid-core solder and acid flux (see below).
    4. 200W ironHakko 557V-V12 200W Matchless Soldering Iron, $77 on Amazon
      1. Should work on sheet metal and very large-gauge wires.
    5. 733W (2500 BTU/hr) ~ 3781W (12900 BTU/hr) torches:
      1. For sheet metal, pipes, etc, just buy a torch. They are very inexpensive and produce lots of heat. Great places to buy them include your local hardware superstore, such as Lowes and Home Depot (in the United States). They cost anywhere from $17~$30+. Even the lowest-end $17 torch produces 2500 BTU/hr, which is the equivalent of 733W. Here's a few pictures of the shelves I just took the other day from my local Home Depot. Click to enlarge:
  12. Acid-Core Solders, & Acid Fluxes 
    1. For stainless steel, galvanized steel, spring steel, etc, and other metal work you cannot get solder to bond without a special acid-based flux. Acid flux eats away the oxidation layer and makes otherwise-unbondable metals bondable. You can even solder stainless steel stranded bicycle brake and shifter cables, for instance, when using the right acid flux. I recommend Harris Stay Clean soldering flux. Its label states it is recommended for copper, brass, bronze, & steel (stainless, nickel-plated, & galvanized), and I have personally tested it on stainless steel and have had great success. 
    2. Harris Stay Clean liquid flux:
      1. Stay Clean liquid flux consists of <30% zinc chloride, 5-25% ammonium chloride, <5% hydrochloric acid (HCl), <5% methanol, and the remainder is water. Examples of where to purchase include:
      2. Sta-Brite silver solder and 1/2 oz Stay Clean flux kit, $11.50 on Amazon
        1. See my thorough review here. For only occasional use, 1/2 oz is more than enough. It takes only a drop on a surface to get it to bond.
      3. Harris SCLF4 Stay Clean Soldering Flux, 4 oz., $8 on Amazon
      4. Harris SCLF16 Stay Clean Soldering Flux, 16 oz., $10 on Amazon
    3. Harris Stay Clean flux also comes in a paste form. For all liquid and paste options on Amazon, see here: Amazon search for "stay clean flux".
    4. Acid-core solders contain acid flux and help to make the bonding process to tough-to-solder metals, like stainless steel, easier:
      1. One example is 3 oz of Bernzomatic acid core metal work solder, sold at Home Depot for $10. Here's a photo I took just the other day in their soldering-torch section:
    5. IMPORTANT NOTES
      1. Acid flux is corrosive. If it gets on your skin, wash it off.
      2. Since it is corrosive, USE A DEDICATED SOLDERING TIP FOR USE WITH YOUR ACID-CORE SOLDER AND ACID FLUX. It will eat away and destroy your tip, so don't go using your nice electronics tip for acid-based soldering.
      3. Acid flux is not recommended for electrical soldering because it can eat through small wires and traces easily while soldering, and generally is just over-kill and is not needed since electrical components are generally very easy to bond to with regular rosin flux and solder. However, sometimes you need to use acid flux for electrical purposes, such as soldering a power wire to a battery spring terminal (which is otherwise impossible to get solder to bond to), or making some special touch pad out of stainless steel, or to solder a wire to a lamp's steel base or something when doing a custom touch-lamp project.  You get the point. Sometimes using acid flux and solders is necessary for electrical applications. That is fine. Just wash off the excess acid flux when done.
      4. As just stated, wash off the excess acid flux when done. Using 91% isopropyl rubbing alcohol and/or water might be good for this purpose.

  13. Soldering Aluminum:
    1. Aluminum requires special aluminum solder, and aluminum-compatible acid flux. If using a nice soldering iron, be sure to dedicate one of your tips to be used just for soldering aluminum, as it will also eat away and destroy the tip during use. 
    2. (TODO: finish this section)
How to Tin (coat with solder) a Soldering Iron Tip:
The first time you ever heat a brand-new soldering tip, you need to hold solder to the tip as the iron heats for the very first time. For higher-end pre-plated/pre-tinned soldering iron tips, this is not so important, but for cheapo bare solder tips this is absolutely critical to getting the tip properly tinned, so pay close attention! As the iron heats for the very first time, hold solder against the tip. Even if this process takes several minutes while the iron heats, don't look away, don't play on your phone, don't talk to your girlfriend, don't watch YouTube videos, don't do anything else. Just pay attention. Once the solder starts to melt, rotate the tip around to get the tip all nicely tinned/coated in solder. If it sticks nicely to the tip, you did a good job! If it beads up and won't stick, it's because you messed up--you must have already heated the iron once without tinning the tip, and now the tip is oxidized and solder won't stick. Heat is a catalyst for oxidation, and dramatically increase the rate of oxidation, so not tinning the tip properly during a new tip's first heating will allow the tip to oxidize in a matter of seconds, and then when you come back to tin it the solder won't stick. If you're in this situation, simply use the "tip tinner" recommended previously in this article. It is acidic/corrosive/highly poisonous, and has ground solder mixed into it, and will eat away the oxidation layer while tinning the tip for you. Just roll the pre-heated iron tip around in the tip tinner and voilá--it will be magically tinned for you in seconds! If you don't have the tip tinner, and if the tip is a cheap tip that does *not* have a nice plating on it, you can sand off the oxidation with fine sand paper or a green dish scrubber pad from the grocery store, and try the tinning process again. Be fast though, as oxidation can occur in only a few seconds on a hot tip.

Recommended Electronics Soldering Tutorials:

  1. Beginner:
    1. Adafruit's "Adafruit Guide to Excellent Soldering"
    2. Step 32: how to make "solder tracks"
    3. Sparkfun's "How to Solder - Through-hole Soldering"
  2. Intermediate:
    1. How to create "solder tracks"/"solder traces" on a prototyping board (see Step 32 of this instructable here [see photo to the right; the order of the process is from bottom to top in the picture]).  Also see steps 34-41 for additional pictures of solder tracks on protoboard. (ex: Step 35, Step 36).
  3. Advanced:
    1. Adafruit's "SMT Manufacturing"; Note: SMT means "Surface Mount Technology"
    2. Sparkfun's "Reflow Skillet"
    3. Hand "drag soldering" demo by John Gammell (YouTube Video "Professional SMT Soldering: Hand Soldering Techniques - Surface Mount")

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3 comments:

  1. Thanks Gabriel, I just bought the Sinometer MY68 thanks to your recommendation!
    rc boats

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nice guide! You obviously have lots of experience in this area, thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete

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