If you want to start working with electronics, you’re going to need to learn to solder. It would be prudent to learn about electricity and electronics a bit more, too. Are you a little intimidated by the thought of a hot iron and molten metal? No problem – we’ll show you how.
You’re working with hot metal, so there are some obvious safety concerns. Make sure that you have a safe place to set down your soldering iron. Soldering stations with iron holders are inexpensive and worth having. For the beginner, it’s hard to do any better than the Weller WLC-100 40-Watt Soldering Station with soldering iron. It will serve you well for years, and for $38 USD you’re getting an excellent value from possibly the most trusted name in soldering.
You’ll also want to make sure that your working over a flat, solid surface. A workbench or your homemade desk works, but you may want to put something on top of it to prevent burn marks. There are special soldering boards, or a piece of cheap plywood works well.
Speaking of splatters, you need to wear safety glasses – these can be had for just a few dollars. If you wear prescription glasses, you may want to invest in a nice pair of prescription safety glasses. There are some really nice looking ones these days, not just the Buddy Holly style ones your dad might have had.
All these things will help prevent burns to you and your surroundings.
But there is one other danger: Solder and flux can give off noxious fumes when heated. Most flux smells pretty bad anyway, but it’s recommended that you use a fume extractor when soldering. Basically, it’s a fan with a charcoal filter that sucks the bad fumes away from you and filters out most of the odors. The video below shows the Xytronic 426DLX fume extractor in action.
Once you’ve got all these things in place, it’s soldering time.
Soldering Pro Tips
Tin the Tip
Soldering irons don’t transfer heat as nicely to things as you might suspect. But by tinning the tip of the iron, the heat transfer will be much more even and efficient. Plus, it’s easy to do. Once the tip of the soldering iron is just warm enough to melt solder, touch the tip to your soldering wire. It will melt and flow up and around the tip, giving it a nice smooth and shiny finish. Any excess solder can be wiped off with a damp soldering sponge. Don’t use an ordinary cleaning sponge, as it’ll melt. Soldering sponges are made out of cellulose, which is more heat resistant than your standard plastic sponge.
Get a Helping Hand
Soldering takes at least four things: a soldering iron, solder, and the two things you want to solder together. But you’ve only got two hands. There’s a device called helping hands that are worth getting. It’s a little stand with two alligator clips, and sometimes a magnifying glass. Another handy holder to have is a mini-vice.
When you solder two things together, you’re doing that so that they join together solidly and conduct electricity easily.
The biggest beginner’s mistake is putting the iron directly on the solder: it only beads up and makes a mess. If you heat the part you want the solder on first, then touch the solder to it, it will flow over the surface of the part. As it flows, it does so smoothly and into every little nook and cranny.
Remember tinning the soldering iron? If you tin the leads of your wires or components, that helps the solder flow even better. As a bonus, if you’re using stranded wires, it keeps the strands together while pushing them through a circuit board. For this all to work really well, use a thin soldering wire (about 1/32 of an inch) with a resin or flux core. That resin, or flux, helps the solder flow even better, plus it cleans the surface of the metal for a better bond.
When you put the leads of your component through the circuit board, bend them out slightly. That will help hold the component in place and closer to the board. Not only does that prevent components from accidental damage, it makes a more professional looking package.
When you go to solder the component lead to the board, place your soldering iron tip at that point where the lead and the board meet, at a 45 degree angle. That heats the lead and the pad on the board. Gently push your soldering wire into the same point – it will melt and flow around the lead, just like in the picture below.
Pull the solder away before you pull the iron away – this will prevent little peaks of solder protruding off your joint. Those peaks can lead to shorts between components, and they don’t look very nice.
If you’re having a hard time being accurate with your soldering iron, try setting up your work so that the side of your soldering hand can rest on something solid, just like in the picture above. You’ll find it much easier to be precise.
This video, from Adafruit, is an excellent introduction to soldering components to circuit boards. It’s not rocket science. Okay, it sort of is, but the really easy part of rocket science.
Signs of a Solid Solder Joint
With practice, you’ll be able to avoid making mistakes most of the time. Until then, examine every joint after you solder it, and before moving on to the next one. A good solder joint will be smooth, shiny, and make full contact between the two parts. If the solder is dull, rough looking, clumped, or there are gaps between it and either part, your joint is going to fail.
Don’t worry, most soldering problems are easily fixed. You can re-heat the solder and remove it with a solder sucker.
Some Starter Soldering Projects
You might have some broken electronics around the house. That’s not a bad place to start, if it’s something simple like repairing a set of broken headphones. Or maybe you want to scavenge some parts from an old laptop or parts from other gadgets for a future project. That’s good practice in using a soldering iron and solder sucker.
Or you could finally get to making something!
The spirit of the holidays should be with us everyday, so why not a Christmas tree project? It’s a fun project that will hone your soldering skills, teach you something about LEDs, and is a great DIY project to do with kids too. It comes with different colored LEDs, and it blinks! Who doesn’t love blinky LEDs? The tree mounts on the same 9v battery that powers it.
Too easy? Try the next kit.
For a beginner’s project, this is a great one! It’s simple, and it’s also very practical. You’ll make your own smartphone charger that you can power up with ordinary AA batteries. Fewer parts than the Christmas tree, but a little more challenging to solder. This is a handy one to keep in the car, as you can get AA batteries at gas stations and corner stores everywhere.
Not quite tough enough for you? How about a radio?
It is what it says it is. Build yourself a nice single-speaker FM radio that can tune in stations from 88 to 108 FM. With plenty of parts to solder, new components to learn about, you’ll also learn a thing or two about radio technology.
If you can build a radio, there’s nothing you can’t build. Put it in a nice clear case and be the envy of friends and family alike.
The End Result
Soldering is a basic skill needed for DIY’ers, whether you want to build your own electronics or just do some simple repairs. It’s an inexpensive and simple skill to learn. There are plenty of electronics kits to practice on, and you can start designing your own electronics projects before long.
Be safe, be smart, and have fun!
Just getting into DIY electronics? How’d you like the article? Are you a bit of a pro already? Share your tips and tricks with others. Know of some really fun kits to help the beginner learn? Feel free to mention them in the comments.
Image Credits: Solder Via Shutterstock, 3D LED Christmas Tree, Minty Boost Kit, FM Radio Kit, Solder Board, DeWalt Safety Glasses, Helping Hands with Magnifier via Amazon, Common Soldering Problems via Adafruit, Solder Sucker, Rosin Core Solder via Wikimedia, Soldering LEDs, Jeff Keyzer, Soldering with Elements Morgan, via Flickr.