If you’re into building and repairing things, it won’t be long before you come across the need to solder something. It’ll either be a component that needs replacing on a motherboard or a wire that has come off or broken.
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But trying to learn to solder when you’re also trying to repair something is stressful. It’s better to learn when it doesn’t matter if you mess up and break something, than to try to learn with something you want to repair and not break any further.
I first learned to solder many decades ago, and I did it the wrong way — trying to fix a broken cassette player. I fixed it in the end, but not before causing a lot of damage.
Don’t make the mistakes I made!
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Here I’m going to show you the tools you’ll need — nothing expensive — and I’ll also give you tips and tricks to get you started on your path to being able to become an expert at the art of soldering.
First of all, let’s get clear on something — what is soldering?
What is soldering?
Soldering is a technique for joining two metal things together by melting another metal — an alloy called solder — and using that to glue the parts together.
You might be soldering two wires together, a wire onto the metal pad on a circuit board, or a component to a circuit board. And, when you become adept, you can even make repairs to broken or damaged circuit boards.
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It’s a versatile skill to have.
Basic soldering tools
Here are the tools you need to get started.
A soldering iron
The main bit.
Soldering irons come in different types. The most common is the plug-in kind, and these are what you usually see being used. There are also gas-powered and USB-rechargeable soldering irons that allow you to work where there isn’t AC power.
I use a gas-powered soldering iron (it’s great for working on cars, as well as electronic gadgets), but I recommend starting out with one that plugs into AC power.
You usually get some solder when you buy a soldering iron, but in my experience, it’s rubbish stuff that’s hard to work with and is frustrating for both newbies and experts.
I recommend getting some decent stuff from MG Chemicals.
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Don’t worry about all the terms that you see. 60/40 means that it is 60 percent tin, 40 percent lead, and “flux core” means that the solder has flux inside, which acts as a cleaning agent for the joint, removing things like oils and corrosion, and giving you a nice, clean joint.
A note on lead: Yes, a lot of solder contains lead, which is hazardous to health. You can get lead-free solder, but it is harder to work with. Nevertheless, if you want to avoid exposure to lead, then this is a route to explore.
A soldering mat
Don’t be soldering on your mom’s best table. No matter how careful you are, you’ll leave a burn mark (ask me how I know).
A silicone soldering mat is the perfect work surface. It won’t burn or melt, and it’s easy to clean.
Handy for… well, snipping things.
Whatever you do, don’t use the best kitchen scissors to snip things.
Tip cleaning pad
The tip of the soldering iron gets dirty in use, and a tip cleaner is a tool that you use to clean it.
It’s simply an abrasive pad made of spun brass wire that you use to wipe the tip on — you can add a bit of solder first as this aids in the cleaning of the tip.
Here are a few extras you might find useful as you progress on your soldering journey.
Hot air station
If you start working with small surface mount components, which is what you mostly come across in modern electronics, then a hot air station starts to become useful.
Rather than using a hot tip to melt the solder, it is instead melted using hot air. Soldering using a hot air station is a bit more advanced. I recommend getting good with a soldering iron first, because most of what you learn here will be useful to you when using a hot air station.
This is a great tool for repairs. A solder sucker, as the name suggests, is a spring-powered plunger that sucks solder.
You press the top down on the solder sucker, melt the solder on the component you want to remove, put the tip of the solder sucker over the melted pool of solder, and press a button to activate the sucker.
It’s super useful.
A cheaper alternative is to use desoldering braid — a fine copper braid infused with flux that, when pressed into hot solder, will absorb it.
You may remember that the solder I recommended has a flux core. Flux cleans the joint when soldering, making for a strong solder joint.
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While this is all most people need, it’s sometimes useful to add a bit of extra flux, because it can make for a better solder joint (especially when soldering things that might be a bit dirty or corroded).
You can buy flux in a pen or in a syringe dispenser. I used to use the flux pens a lot, but I now moved to using flux in a syringe dispenser.
Vice or “helping hands”
Sometimes you need an extra hand or three to help keep things in place while you solder.
Now that you have all the tools, here’s how to solder, broken down into a few simple steps.
How to get started soldering
You’re going to be using things that are hot, and there will be chemicals involved.
I suggest taking some simple precautions, such as working in a well-ventilated area, wearing safety glasses, and washing your hands when you’re done soldering.
Most soldering irons don’t have a temperature setting, and if they do, they’re probably wildly inaccurate, unless you spent a lot of money on the soldering iron. This is soldering, not cooking, so we don’t need to get worked up about the temperature you use right now.
As you become more proficient, then temperature can play a part, but for now, let’s keep it simple and assume the soldering iron is hot enough to get the job done.
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Once the soldering iron is up to temperature, I melt a little solder on the tip and give it a wipe on the cleaning pad. I’ll repeat this cleaning as often as needed.
Set things up before you start soldering.
Use the time it takes for the iron to heat up to do this.
Resist the temptation to cut the leads on components down to size before soldering — leave that until the end.
Apply the tip of the soldering iron to the joint you want to solder, and leave it in place. A couple of seconds is usually enough, but for bigger jobs — like joining wires together — you might need longer.
Keeping the tip of the soldering iron in place, bring the solder wire to the joint and let a bit melt. There will be some smoke and fizzing — don’t worry, this is normal. Then remove the soldering wire, keeping the soldering iron in place for another couple of seconds before removing it.
Does the joint look nice, smooth, and neat? Great, you’re a natural at soldering. If you’re happy with it, this is the time to trim any excess off any components you’ve fitted.
Does the joint look rough and awful? Don’t worry, you’re like the rest of us. The good thing is that practice makes perfect. If a joint is rough, applying a little more heat (and maybe a touch more solder) can fix it right up.
The whole process is very quick.
Snip any excess leads on components using your snips.
Tips and tricks
Here are my tips and tricks for becoming a proficient solderer in no time at all.
Practice a lot
Practice really is what makes perfect. There are no shortcuts.
Do as much soldering as you can. I recommend buying practice soldering kits. They’re fun to assemble (and you’ll learn a lot about electronics as you built the kits), and if you muck it up, it doesn’t matter because they are usually easy to fix.
Solder joint doesn’t look good? Redo it
If at first you don’t succeed… try again.
You can always fix a bad solder joint by trying again. Usually adding heat and a tiny bit of solder does the job.
If the problem was too much solder to begin with, use desoldering braid to remove it and start again.
Remember, apply solder to the heated joint
I see some people try to melt solder onto the tip of a soldering iron then carry it over to the joint.
This doesn’t work and creates poor quality joints.
Always heat the joint and apply the solder to the joint.
Clean the tip of your soldering iron regularly
Do it often — like, every few minutes.
Take your time
Soldering isn’t one of those things that you can rush (or, at least you shouldn’t). It’s definitely a situation where more haste means less speed.
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Also, check your joints. Start off by checking them as you go on, but as you get more proficient, you might be able to do a series of solder joints, and then check them when you’re done.
The more fun you’re having, the more soldering you’ll do, and the faster you’ll learn.