Introduction: How to Solder Copper Pipe

Last year I had a project that required several small copper pipe connections to be soldered. Having never sweated (don't ask me why they call soldering that) copper pipes before, I read an article or two and then tried it for myself. My first attempts worked out quite well and I've since soldered a few more connections. While I don't profess to be an expert in pipe sweating, I thought I would write a quick Instructable to pass along what I've learned in the hope that some of you may find it useful.

Step 1: Cut Your Pipe

The first step to assembling copper pipe is to cut your pipe to length. The easiest and best way to accomplish this is by using a tubing cutter. I've been using a small close quarters cutter, but there are larger cutters, which operate on the same principle. The operation of all of these cutters is similar. Once the cutter is placed around the pipe, it is tightened until the pipe is clamped between the cutting wheel and the two rollers used to support the pipe. The cutter should be tightened slightly past the point where the cutting wheel first begins to contact the pipe. Be careful not to over tighten as the copper pipe can easily be crushed. After tightening the cutter, it is rotated around the pipe several times until the tension on the cutting wheel begins to be released as a grove is cut into the pipe. By retightening the cutter and continuing to rotate it around the pipe, this grove will continue to deepen until it cuts completely through the pipe. If you've done everything correctly, you will have a neatly cut pipe. It is also good practice to remove the small lip on the inside of the pipe produced by the cutter wheel. While this lip may not pose an immediate problem, it can result in sediment accumulating in the pipe, which could eventually plug the pipe. Some larger tubing cutters have a built in deburring tool or you could use a purpose-build reamer to easily accomplish the same thing.

Step 2: Cleaning the Pipe and Fitting

Prepwork is critical to ensuring a good soldered joint and cleaning of the copper is the first step. I've used several tools and methods for cleaning both the pipe and fitting. One method is to use a wire-based tool, such as the cleaner I use to clean the outside of the pipe in the image above. Small wire bristles inside of this tool scrape away the oxide layer on the outside surface of the pipe until it is nice and shiny. There are also wire tools available to cleaning the insides of fittings.

An alternative method for cleaning the pipe and/or fittings is to use emery cloth. To clean the insides of the fittings I rolled the emery cloth into a small cylinder. By rotating this cylinder inside of the fitting, it was quickly cleaned.

Step 3: Flux It

The second critical preparation step is the application of flux to the joint. Since the solder cannot be applied directly inside the joint, the flux will "pull" the solder into the joint, making a strong, sealed connection between the pipe and fitting. Without flux, the solder can only form a superficial layer at the entrance of the joint and even if it initially does not leak it won't hold up long. I apply a liberal layer of flux to both the inside of the fitting and the outside of the pipe before sliding the two parts together.

Step 4: Heat It

Soldering copper pipe requires a relatively large amount of high intensity heat, which is why a propane torch is typically used to heat the joint. You can't use a soldering iron here. The heat should be applied as evenly as possible around the fitting. The amount of heat needing to be applied will vary, but we'll deal with that in the next step.

Step 5: Solder It

As I heat the joint, every few seconds I will remove the heat and touch the tip of my solder to the joint to see if the metal is hot enough to melt the solder. If it does not melt or only slightly melts, I remove the solder and continue to heat until the solder easily melts onto the copper. Once the solder easily melts onto the joint, I apply enough solder to fill the joint and then re-heat the fitting, which draws the solder into the joint. You'll know you have applied enough solder when there is a silver band the entire way around the joint. When this band is flush with the surface of the pipe, you'll know that solder has been drawn into the joint. If you apply too much solder, a small solder bubble will form on the lower side of the joint. This does not affect the integrity of the joint, but can look a bit messy. Also note that excess solder can flow into the inside of the pipe, which can interfere with flow through the pipe if the quantity of this solder is large.

At this point you have completed your joint and can simply clean away any flux remaining on the joint. However, if you stick with me I'll give you two other tips I've learned.

Step 6: Re-soldering a Joint

If you're new at this you'll most likely need to re-solder a joint at some point. You can easily disassemble a soldered joint by heating the joint and pulling it apart using a pair of pliers. Once you've disassemble the joint, you'll most likely find it impossible to reassemble as the solder will prevent the two parts from sliding together. There are two ways around this. First, you can heat the joint until the solder softens and then reassemble it. While this can sometimes work, it is a bit tricky as you have to reassemble hot parts. A neater method I've found is to sand the outside of the pipe and inside of the fitting with emery cloth, which quickly removes most of the soft solder. With this solder removed, the parts can be re-fluxed, slid together, and re-soldered.

Step 7: Supporting Joints

Fittings with multiple joints (such as a T-fitting) can be tricky to solder together as the heat intended for one joint can easily soften the solder of the adjacent joint. While this isn't necessarily a problem, if the adjacent joint is situated such that gravity will pull it apart, it can easily fall apart. To prevent this from happening, I always position the joint(s) adjacent to the one being soldered in a horizontal position.

Step 8: You're Done

I've found soldering copper to be very rewarding and useful for numerous projects. It really isn't very difficult and it will open up numerous possibilities in your mind of what can be accomplished using this skill. Happy making!

Comments

author
kwhit190211 (author)2017-07-28

Just when are you amateures going to get the nomenclature down right. It is not pipe your talking about, it is tubing. There is a huge difference between the two of them. Usually tubing is thin wall, unless you get into tubing made of steel, then it can get very thick, that's the exception. But, what you are talking about is tubing, not pipe. But, they do make copper pipe. When I was still working, since retired, we used copper pipe on hot sulfuric acid in steel pickling vats. It was much cheaper using that instead of monel pipe for it.

author
g8aso (author)kwhit1902112017-08-05

Arguing about the difference between a pipe and a tube when you can't spell amateur! Don't comment, and appear stupid, or comment and remove all doubt!

author
Vyger (author)kwhit1902112017-07-31

As professional in the computer business I am totally familiar with people having no idea about what something is called. Even worse many, many of the younger people who are in IT have no idea what some of the older words, phrases and commands mean and are since those have been "retired". Drive overlays and upper memory managers are things that have no significance anymore since the changes in hardware and software have made them unnecessary. I get a real kick out of someone talking about hacking when all they are doing is typing DOS commands into the command prompt. All the commands are still there, they just have no idea how to use them, hence the idea of "hacking".

Anyway, I gave up a long time ago worrying about what someone calls something which is often by the wrong name. The thingy that is behind the deally is making noise. Fine, I can fix that. Doesn't matter what they call it just so long as I know how to fix it. What is cool is that I can write just about anything in an invoice and it doesn't matter since they don't understand it anyway. All they care about is that it works.

author
pgs070947 (author)2017-07-25

This is an Angels fear to tread topic - brave to publish.

The technique you are describing is the UK end feed technique - it's where plumbing becomes a craft. Any fool can do solder ring, but getting molten solder to feed completely by capillary action between pipe and fitting is the craft bit.

Golden rules - clean all the surfaces to be soldered - don't go near sandpaper - use Scotchbrite or similar. Don't go near hacksaws - use a wheel pipe-cutter that automatically chamfers the cut and makes it square.

Immediately apply flux - this should be lead-free paste for lead -free solder. The flux stops oxidation. Copper oxidises almost immediately and copper oxide won't solder. Using this technique, you can solder the most difficult pipes like chrome-plated and stainless steel.

Assemble the pipe and fitting, right up to the stop, rotate to spread the flux.

Now the tricky bit. I use MAPP gas for heat alone. Heat the fitting, away from the ends of the fitting - don't over-heat - you don't want to burn the flux.

When the flux starts bubbling, test the temperature with lead-free solder wire (not stick, not electronic) and when the solder melts, that's the time to feed the wire right around the joint.

A well prepared pipe and fitting require very little solder - a top class joint should have a barely visible ring of solder showing. While still molten, check alignment and if there are dollops of solder, wipe off now.

Allow to cool to warm/hot to the touch - dip in water and clean up with Scotchbrite. The joint should be a thing of beauty.

Why clean out the flux? - it might be a drinking water pipe.

The same technique applies to brazed joints, but the temperature and skill steps up a notch.

Finally, test it - it needs to be gas or water tight at the maximum working temperature - a very wise plumber told me that with cold water, the flux alone will disguise an unsoldered joint, but pressure and heat will soon find it out.

End-feed is my joint of choice - it looks better, it's cheaper, it's skillful.

If you want to go the whole hog, try flared joints, the ultimate cheapskate/skilled method - alternatively, there's always compression fittings, or you can just push a length of plastic pipe into a plastic fitting, but both are another story.

author
oky jim (author)pgs0709472017-07-25

for your information, there is no longer a product called MAPP gas it has been discontinued and will not be revived. The product in the yellow bottle is MAP gas. It is only a couple of hundred deg F hotter than propane. for 3/4 inch or larger pipe acetylene gas with air will provide enought heat. Also Mak said no further deburring is needed after cutting with a tubing cutter. This is not true. a ridge if formed by cutting this way at the cut line. It must be removed if you don't want the possibility of the pipe eventually filling with sediment or other solids. Just hoping to inform about these things. I have been doing this for over 50 years and most of the instructable is spot on.

author
makjosher (author)oky jim2017-07-28

Good point on the sediment, I hadn't thought of that. I only considered that there would be a slight pressure drop inherent with the burr. I think I'll update my text above.

author
pgs070947 (author)oky jim2017-07-26

oky jim
I think you've made the MAPP point before.
What confuses the issue is the fact that some retailers refer to MAPP in the same breath as MAP(P) Pro or MAP(P) Plus.
MAPP is a registered trademark and the gas contained Propadiene. Production of MAPP in the US at least stopped in 2010 according to Wiki.
The Propene in MAP still makes it a hotter gas than Propane and if it "only" a couple of hundred degrees hotter, that's good enough for me. It gets the job done quicker and more reliably in my humble opinion.
Fortunately, I still have stock of MAPP and having just compared MAPP and MAP Plus in a Rothenburger torch, there is very little difference in performance. True, nothing comes close to Acetylene (triple bond), but Propene (double bond) still outperforms single bonded Butane or Propane.
Going back a few years, I had to have a 300-bar pipeline installed. This is a different kettle of fish to domestic plumbing. All the pipework is heavy wall as are the fittings. Only brazed or compression fittings were allowed. Yorkshire were the preferred brazed fittings and Swagelok the preferred compression fittings. As one of the gases was hydrogen, all the joints had to be just right. No soapy water on these, but only expensive electronic testing at the molecule level sufficed. Seeing a gauge wind round to over 4000-psi gets your attention.

author
makjosher (author)pgs0709472017-07-25

Thanks for the tips and extra details, which I either overlooked or did not include. It's great to hear all of these slightly different explanations of the same process as I find it increases overall understanding of what is actually happening as the solder is pulled into the joint. You also have be intrigued on the brazing or joints and I think this is something I may have to try out.

author
DickL10 (author)2017-07-25

Pipes will not solder if there is any water in them. To stop the water and suck it up push some bread in them. When the water is turned on the bread will dissolve and not block the valves.

author
flyboy541 (author)DickL102017-07-27

In 1978 I was trying to solder copper under a house in the dirt, my first time. Steam would come out the joint and it would not sweat. After going back to a plumbing supply store 3 times, the plumber at the counter finally broke down in shame and just hated to tell me what to do. Take white bread, no crust, ball it up and push down the pipe. The plumber placed both his palms down on the counter, hung his head in shame and said "OK, I'll tell you what to do." After all these years I still remember how he just hated to tell me what to do. I never went back to that store. Any job you do just takes a little knowledge.

author
makjosher (author)DickL102017-07-25

I like this idea! Would not have thought of using bread.

author
Thorigol (author)2017-07-25

Propane works great on 1/2" pipe but working with larger diameter pipes and more massive parts (like valves) it can be tough to get the joint hot enough - I prefer MAPP gas for my plumbing projects. Google says it doesn't get much hotter (propane burns at 1,995° C / 3,623° F vs. MAPP at 2,020° C /3,670° F), but it does make a big difference in ease and speed of plumbing solder joints. Acetylene is even hotter (2550 °C / 4622 °F in air) but not readily available to non-pros. Each gas requires its own specific torch and MAPP is a little more expensive but worth it IMO.

author
oky jim (author)Thorigol2017-07-25

As i mentioned in my reply above, the gas you are using is NOT MAPP gas. the product you are refering to is MAP gas and you are right it is onoly a bit hotter than propane, While MAPP was almost a thousand deg F. hotter.

author
Thorigol (author)oky jim2017-07-26

Yikes, you are right! (almost) I've been fooled by the yellow bottle and have been buying "Propylene." According to this chart true MAPP is 160°C hotter than Propane and Propylene is only 20°C hotter, but I still insist it seems to work significantly better. Could that be because I'm soldering at nearly 8000ft altitude?

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makjosher (author)Thorigol2017-07-25

Thanks for the tip. I'll keep this in mind if things are ever too cool.

author
dfazio (author)2017-07-25

Nice Project,

How about an instructable on brazing coper pipes using copper rods.

cheers :-)

author
oky jim (author)dfazio2017-07-25

to my knowledge, copper does not braze. Brass or iron will braze

author
makjosher (author)dfazio2017-07-25

Thanks! I have not considered that, but I have always wanted to learn how to braze so I could see something along those lines coming up soon.

author
Wingloader (author)2017-07-25

A couple of you have mentioned cleaning off the flux. I'm just curious, why do you need to do that and what happens if you don't?

author
makjosher (author)Wingloader2017-07-25

I was going to chime in and mention that several times I've left the flux on a bit too long and the pipe actually started turning green. Nice to have my suspicions on corrosion being confirmed.

author
oky jim (author)makjosher2017-07-25

if you have aq connection turning green, the flux you used is for leaded solder. lead free flux looks nasty but does not green.

author
k5cqb (author)Wingloader2017-07-25

Some flux's are corrosive over time.

author
CharlesD82 (author)Wingloader2017-07-25

Flux for sweating pipes is corrosive (acid based) and will cause the treated area to corrode and turn green over time. I have been told that it would eventually cause pinhole leaks in the pipe, but so will the wrong Ph in water.

author
zootalaws (author)2017-07-25

What a useful instructional, thanks.

I always thought copper had to be brazed.

You didn't specify what kind of solder - you shouldn't use lead/tin solder for water or any application that will deliver something that will be consumed. For those applications use a good-quality lead-free solder.

author
makjosher (author)zootalaws2017-07-25

You're welcome. No, I did neglect to mention that. Thanks for pointing it out!

author
sockit (author)2017-07-25

If you are soldering plumbing for water pipes, be sure to use lead-free solder.

About de-burring the inside, many tubing cutters incorporate a metal blade that is inserted into the end of the pipe, which you twist back and forth to remove the burr.

author
makjosher (author)sockit2017-07-25

Two excellent points. Thank you!

author
iDave (author)2017-07-25

Very impressive presentation of your information. My compliments on that and thanks for the guidance!

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makjosher (author)iDave2017-07-25

Thanks! I'm glad you found it helpful.

author
orinos (author)2017-07-25

The most difficult part is soldering of vertical parts "on the spot" at the lower end, close to a wall for instance. Because you can't see if you filled the joint all around you will have a tendency to put too much solder. Then gravitation seems to have a more significant effect than capillarity, and the result is often a leaking joint...

author
makjosher (author)orinos2017-07-25

I can see that would be problematic. I'm glad I got to practice first on some easier stuff.

author
gizmologist (author)2017-07-25

If soldering next to a wall, an old (or new) cookie sheet makes a great expedient heat shield!

In one of those rare cases where the pipe won't drain, and the bread trick can't be used, compressed air can be used to blow the water out (after opening all the faucets, of course).

author
makjosher (author)gizmologist2017-07-25

I could see that working well. I haven't done a job next to a wall yet, but I'm sure I will someday.

author
mwtheplumber (author)2017-07-25

It is not recommended to flux the inside of the fitting, only the outside of the pipe.

author
makjosher (author)mwtheplumber2017-07-25

I'm assuming this is to prevent extra solder from flowing into the inside of the pipe? Thanks for the input and I'll follow this advice next time.

author
billfarr (author)2017-07-25

I always wrap a wet cloth around the longer pipe (about 2 in from the joint) as a heat sink. this will make your joints look better and remember that whole pipe is HOT VERY HOT!! ( Yes voice of experience).

Another tip for removing water from a pipe that you can't drain is use a soda straw in the pipe and blow the water out. The bendy straws work well when the pipe has an elbow in the wall.

Hope this helps..

Another top

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makjosher (author)billfarr2017-07-25

Great idea on the wet cloth - especially when working in close quarters!

author
StevenS343 (author)2017-07-25

great info. some things I've learned in the past is to isolate that big heat sink of a vice with wood shims or popsicle sticks, this way the pipe doesn't cool off as fast requiring less heat. As with k5sat's trick for a live pipe with a water drip cooling the pipe I have used bread which soaks up the water and completely dissolves. White bread works well as it has no seeds like multigrain :)

author
makjosher (author)StevenS3432017-07-25

Haha. Finally a productive use for white bread! Don't really care for the stuff myself.

author
CosmicMiami (author)2017-07-25

Good one here. If you are using pliers, be careful how much you squeeze. When copper fittings are heated, they can easily deform. This is important when you are disassembling previously sweated pipe.

Keep your hands above the work. A molten bead of solder in the palm of your hand is not pleasant. Ask me how I know LOL.

If you are sweating pipe near any combustible material such as wall studs, cellulose insulation, etc., be VERY careful with that torch. There are commercially available heat shields. A wet rag works okay. I'm a firefighter and have on a few occasions had to take out a wall after an errant plumber performed hot work and didn't take precautions.

The clay trick may work. Bread works better and dissolves more readily.

If all else fails and you can't sweat the joint without leaking, you can resort to the Sharkbite fittings. Of course this only applies if it is a plumbing project.

author
makjosher (author)CosmicMiami2017-07-25

Thanks for the input. These are all excellent ideas!

author
gm280 (author)2017-07-24

Good project. If you take a damp rag and wipe around the soldered joint after applying the solder, it will clean them up very nicely. Just a suggestion.

author
makjosher (author)gm2802017-07-24

Thanks for pointing that out. Cleaning is one of the areas I should have covered better.

author
a12548 (author)makjosher2017-07-25

This is something I always wanted to master. What size/type of solder do you use and I notice you don't drag the solder underneath, is that because the flux grabs it from above? thanks

author
makjosher (author)a125482017-07-25

You're welcome. Since I was working on a pretty small pipe (3/8" OD), I used a thinner solder - something close to 1/16" diameter I believe. You are correct in your assumption. Sometimes I do drag the solder around the joint, but I've found that the flux and gravity do a really good job of pulling the solder completely in even if I don't.

author
k5sat (author)2017-07-25

A trick I learned many years ago from my father-in-law who was a pipefitter by trade. I had copper water pipe in a wall and I could not quite get the water to stop dripping. He suggested packing the inside of the pipe with clay to stop the flow. Once complete and the water turned on the clay flushed out. Neat trick.

author
makjosher (author)k5sat2017-07-25

Good idea. Thanks for the input.

author
Thorigol (author)2017-07-25

Propane works great on 1/2" pipe but working with larger diameter pipes and more massive parts (like valves) it can be tough to get the joint hot enough - I prefer MAPP gas for my plumbing projects. Google says it doesn't get much hotter (propane burns at 1,995° C / 3,623° F vs. MAPP at 2,020° C /3,670° F), but it does make a big difference in ease and speed of plumbing solder joints. Acetylene is even hotter (2550 °C / 4622 °F in air) but not readily available to non-pros. Each gas requires its own specific torch and MAPP is a little more expensive but worth it IMO.

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