From the mailbag: Choosing a soldering iron

Iron

Michael wrote in with a great question:

I currently have a cheapo soldering iron from radio shack. It’s great for making speaker wire and stuff like that. I am concerned that dealing with these delicate boards if it is the right tool. Do you guys have a certain one that you might recommend? If I accidentally break a board I’d like it to be for something cooler than I used a bad soldering iron.

The iron that you use makes a big difference in how long it will take you to build a kit. Using an ultra-low-end soldering iron can make it take much longer to assemble a kit, and will make mistakes easier to make.

Our favorite soldering irons are made by Metcal, but they start at a few hundred dollars, so they aren’t practical for everyone. If you’re lucky enough to live near an electronics surplus shop, they sometimes have used medium-high end workhorses like our backup and travel soldering iron shown above. Replacement parts are available for these, and they last nearly forever.

For a relatively inexpensive, but still reliable soldering iron for electronics, we recommend the WLC100 by Weller, which is about $40 new. Whatever one you end up getting, we recommend one of this design— a “pencil shape” soldering iron (not gun!) with a reasonably fine point tip, and a base that holds the iron and a wet sponge.

Happy soldering!

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12 thoughts on “From the mailbag: Choosing a soldering iron

  1. I love my Weller WESD51. It’s available for around $130. I also like the brass “sponges” for tip cleaning over using a wet sponge.

  2. Hakko FX-888. Whatever iron you get make sure it has temperature control, and that it doesn’t require changing the tip to change temps.

    Don’t use a conical tip for most soldering, get a flat tip for better heat transfer. Also note that tips are coated differently for leaded and lead free solder. Don’t mix them, you will destroy the tip.

    EEVblog.com has a good video on soldering irons and associated equipment.

    List of stuff to get:
    Soldering station.
    Flat tip, for leaded solder.
    Flux pen.
    Solder (leaded). As fine as possible. Lead free solder is much harder to work with, don’t start using it until after you’ve learned good soldering technique.
    Solder wick (for leaded solder, they are different.) As fine as possible.
    Flush cutters.
    Magnifying glass.
    Board/component holders (“helping hands” and/or a board vice.)
    Solder vacuum for desoldering (spring-loaded type).
    Small table fan to get rid of fumes. Or a fume extractor.

  3. My iron (a Weller) has a dial that I think corresponds to temperature. I have it set somewhere around 750 and typically use lead-based solder. However, I have always wondered if this was the right setting.

    What temperature makes sense for leaded solder? Lead-free?

    • The label on your solder may have a maximum temperature rating or you may find it on the manufacturer’s web site. For example, on MG Chemical’s web site, they list the maximum temperature for leaded solder as 260 ºC (500 ºF). That’s a little too low for me. I usually set my temperature to 525 – 550 ºF.

    • Temps are going to vary depending on the type of solder you’re using. One of the guidelines I found says 190C for 60/40 and 183C for 63/37. In my experience I never go *under* those temps. In fact I’m usually quite a bit higher than those temps, 220 for 60/40 and 210 for 63/37, but I also run a fan across my work while I’m soldering.

      The solder doesn’t matter, what really matters is the components you’re soldering. Every tidbit you’re attaching to a board has a maximum temp it can handle, and a maximum amount of time it can survive at that temp. As an example, the piranha style RGB LEDs that EMSL sells have a max soldering temp of 260+/-5C for 3 seconds.

  4. The Weller iron pictured was the one I relied upon during the ten years I worked as an electronics tech in the 80s. But since becoming a full-time RVer seven years ago, I’ve relied upon Radio Shack’s model 64-2188 butane-powered iron. It’s completely self-contained, has adjustable temperature, and will run for half an hour or more on one filling of butane from a standard lighter refill can.

    The small tip works well for delicate soldering, but when cranked up, it puts out plenty of heat for larger jobs. And the heat from the tip’s exhaust ports is perfect for shrinkable tubing. The only drawback I’ve found is that the plating on the tip wears off faster than with the Weller tips, so I always keep a spare on hand.

    I’m not suggesting this as a bench iron–it wouldn’t be economical in that situation. But as a portable that you can literally clip into your shirt pocket and take anywhere, regardless of power availability, it’s a great little tool. Weller also makes butane-powered irons, but I haven’t tried them. I have tried some battery-powered portable irons, and found them unsatisfactory–slow to warm up and feeble in their (non-adjustable) heat output.

  5. The best investment I ever made was my Hakko FX-888. I think I paid about the same as Brian and also bought from Adafruit. Tips are readily available on-line, although I’ve had them lasting a very long time. It has the brass for tip cleaning, although there’s also a sponge if that’s your preferred method.

    I do a lot of power jacks on laptops, and switching from the $20 to $40 irons to the Hakko cut my soldering time down to nearly a quarter of what I’d been spending on it. It makes a huge difference when you have a good quality iron that maintains its heat.

  6. I know this is an American blog, but I’m from Ireland and I read it so..

    ..a heads up to anyone with a Maplins near them. They have a special £40 deal on their 60W solder station. It’s a great piece of kit, gets up to temp super fast and kicks out loadsa heat. Also compatible with Hakko tips (I believe it’s a rip off of one their models).

    I’ve been soldering with wee 15 and 30W toys for years and I can’t recommend getting this station enough. Solder takes me a fraction of the time it used to and it’s also a helluva lot easier.

    Check it out: 60W Solder Station

    PS You really need to get extra tips unless you’re only doing small electronics work – eBay = 1/10 price of Maplins for these ;)

  7. I use an Aoyue 937+, which is a clone/knock-off of the Hakko 937. It’s really a great iron. I’ve used Hakko and Weller tips in it without issue. It heats up quickly and the temp stays nice and stable. For the price (~$50) it’s hard to beat.

    Come to think of it, the first project I did with this iron was a Peggy 2LE. :)

  8. Well, there are different models of soldering irons on the market nowadays, but don’t you think that it counts more what you do with them than how fancy they are? Just like with many other things you can buy, high price tags do not make a guarantee for quality. I’ve seen truly passionate people doing amazing work with tools probably so old that you could not tell their trademark :)

    • You’re absolutely correct, but for beginners starting out, having a good tool helps with promoting early success, whereas having a bad tool can lead to frustration. Also, old tools are not necessarily bad ones–we’ve had the soldering iron above for years, it was used when we got it, and it is still great.

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