The Art and Science of Soldering
- By : Chris Bednar
- In : Blog,Broadcast,Commercial Sound,Live Production,Microphones,Recording
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Soldering was one of the first things that I learned to do with electronics and oddly enough, it has been one of the most valuable skills I have ever acquired. I use it on a weekly if not daily basis and I have for probably the past 14 years. Most of the time it’s cables and connectors but sometimes it’s circuit boards or my daughter’s earrings. (Don’t worry, I use lead-free solder for those).
Soldering can be frustrating, but here are a few tips and tricks that I have learned along the way that hopefully will make your soldering experience a little easier.
- Clean Iron Tips – a clean iron tip is very important to not frustrating you when you are soldering. Keep a wet sponge or paper towel handy. (some soldering stations have a handy place to put one) Every joint or two, wipe the tip of the iron on the sponge to clean off any dirt that has built up. This will cool the tip a tiny bit, so wait a second or two before working on the next joint. When you are finished working, before the iron cools, put a nice big glob os folder on the end of the tip to protect it from corrosion.
- Tinning – If you don’t tin every piece that you join together, you are soldering wrong. Stop it right now and do it this way. Regardless of if it’s a cable, pcb, connector, whatever… Both pieces MUST BE TINNED before they are joined. If you don’t, you will have a weak solder joint that will break later on down the road. If you aren’t sure what tinning is, it’s simple. You heat and apply solder to both pieces before you join them. This allows the solder to flow into the micro texture of the metal and wick in between the strands of a stranded cable. After the tinning, joining the two pieces is as simple as touching the two pieces together and heating them up quickly.
- Melting – Melty is great when we are talking cheese and solder. Not so great when you are talking wire insulation or connector parts. Now, this tip is going to sound silly, but I did not make a typo. THE KEY TO NOT MELTING EVERYTHING AROUND YOUR SOLDER JOINT IS TO TURN THE HEAT UP ON YOUR IRON. Settle down… Let me finish. I have found, in my experience that using a higher heat but applying it to the parts for a shorter period of time results in both a better solder joint AND less collateral damage. When the insulation or connector parts melt, it’s because the heat from the joint area is conducting through the metal piece and reaching the other parts that it is touching. Using higher heat allows you to make a very concentrated heat area to melt your solder BUT since you don’t have to apply the heat for as long, it does not move as far up the work piece to melt the adjacent plastics. Try it, it works.
- Use only what you need – When it comes to making a joint, be conservative in the amount of solder you use, the amount of wire that you expose, etc… The smaller and cleaner the joint, the easier it is to cover with heat shrink, the less likely you are to have a short and your work will look more professional.
- Work Jigs – Sometimes soldering requires holding two pieces and the solder. Those of you with 3 hands are at a clear advantage here. The rest of us have a tougher time. Some sort of work jig to hold your work is a HUGE help. A popular way to do this is with a pair of weighted alligator clips. These are an alligator clip or two on an articulated arm that you can bend to get the piece exactly where you need it. These can be helpful, however I find that if I have to apply the clip to the actual conductor that I am soldering, the clip tends to draw heat away from the workpiece and this can cause problems. I use a wood jig for my A/V connectors. It’s pictured below. It was simple to make with 2 pieces of 3/4″ stock and a few various sized drill bits.