Soldering is one of the most fundamental skills needed to dabble in the world of electronics. The two go together like peas and carrots. And, although it is possible to learn about and build electronics without needing to pick up a soldering iron, you’ll soon discover that a whole new world is opened with this one simple skill. Soldering is the only permanent way to ‘fix’ components to a circuit.
Step 1: Collecting Materials for Soldering
Here are the basic parts that make up a soldering iron.
Tips - No iron is complete without an iron tip. The tip is the part of the iron that heats up and allows solder to flow around the two components being joined. Although solder will stick to the tip when applied, a common misconception is that the tip transfers the solder. The tip actually transfers heat, raising the temperature of the metal components to the melting point of the solder, and the solder melts accordingly. Most irons give you the option to change your tip, should you need to replace an old tip or if you need to switch to a different style of tip. Tips come in a variety of sizes and shapes to accommodate any component.
Wand - The wand is the part of the iron that holds the tip. This is also the part that is handled by the user. Wands are usually made of a variety of insulating materials (such as rubber) to prevent the heat of the tip from transferring to the outside of the wand, but they also house wires and metal contacts that transfer heat from the base or outlet to the tip. This dual role of heating and preventing burns makes a high quality wand much appreciated.
Solder Wick - is the eraser to soldering’s pencil. When dealing with issues such as jumpers or the removal of parts (desoldering), solder wick comes in very handy. Solder wick – aka desoldering braid – is comprised of thin copper wire braided together. Solder is soaked (wicked) up by the copper allowing you to “erase” extra globs of solder.
Solder Vacuum (Solder Sucker) - is a great tool for removing solder left behind in through-holes when delsodering components.
Step 2: Preparing to Solder
Tinning The Soldering Tip:
Before use, a new soldering tip, or one that is very dirty, must be tinned. "Tinning" is the process of coating a soldering tip with a thin coat of solder. This aids in heat transfer between the tip and the component you are soldering, and also gives the solder a base from which to flow from.
Step 1: Warm Up The Iron:
Warm up the soldering iron or gun thoroughly. Make sure that it has fully come to temperature because you are about to melt a lot of solder on it. This is especially important if the iron is new because it may have been packed with some kind of coating to prevent corrosion.
Step 2: Prepare A Little Space:
While the soldering iron is warming up, prepare a little space to work. Moisten a little sponge and place it in the base of your soldering iron stand or in a dish close by. Lay down a piece of cardboard in case you drip solder (you probably will) and make sure you have room to work comfortably.
Step 3: Thoroughly Coat The Tip In Solder:
Thoroughly coat the soldering tip in solder. It is very important to cover the entire tip. You will use a considerable amount of solder during this process and it will drip, so be ready. If you leave any part of the tip uncovered it will tend to collect flux residue and will not conduct heat very well, so run the solder up and down the tip and completely around it to totally cover it in molten solder.
Step 4: Clean The Soldering Tip:
After you are certain that the tip is totally coated in solder, wipe the tip off on the wet sponge to remove all the flux residue. Do this immediately so there is no time for the flux to dry out and solidify.
Step 5: You're Done!:
You have just tinned your soldering tip. This must be done anytime you replace the tip or clean it so that the iron maintains good heat transfer.
Step 3: Soldering a PCB
Step 1: Surface Preparation:
A clean surface is very important if you want a strong, low resistance solder joint. All surfaces to be soldered should be cleaned well. 3M Scotch Brite pads purchased from the home improvement, industrial supply store or automotive body shop are a good choice as they will quickly remove surface tarnish but will not abrade the PCB material. Note that you will want industrial pads and not the kitchen cleaning pads impregnated with cleaner/soap. If you have particularly tough deposits on your board, then a fine grade of steel wool is acceptable but be very cautious on boards with tight tolerances as the fine steel shavings can lodge between pads and in holes.Once you have cleaned the board down to shiny copper you can use a solvent such as acetone to clean any bits of the cleaning pad that may remain and to remove chemical contamination from the surface of the board. Methyl hydrate is another good solvent and a bit less stinky then acetone. Be aware that both these solvents can remove ink, so if your board is silk screened, test the chemicals first before hosing down the entire board.
A few blasts with compressed air will dry out the board and remove any junk that may have built up in the holes. It also never hurts to give the component leads a quick wipe down as well, to remove glue or tarnish that may have built up over time.
Step 2: Component Placement:
After the component and board have been cleaned, you are ready to place the components onto the board. Unless your circuit is simple and only contains a few components, you will probably not be placing all the components onto the board and soldering them at once. Most likely you will be soldering a few components at a time before turning the board over and placing more. In general it is best to start with the smallest and flattest components (resistors, ICs, signal diodes, etc.) and then work up to the larger components (capacitors, power transistors, transformers) after the small parts are done. This keeps the board relatively flat, making it more stable during soldering. It is also best to save sensitive components (MOSFETs, non-socketed ICs) until the end to lessen the chance of damaging them during assembly of the rest of the circuit.Bend the leads as necessary and insert the component through the proper holes on the board. To hold the part in place while you are soldering, you may want to bend the leads on the bottom of the board at a 45 degree angle. This works well for parts with long leads such as resistors. Components with short leads such as IC sockets can be held in place with a little masking tape or you can bend the leads down to clamp onto the PC board pads. In the image below, a resistor is ready to solder and is held in place by slightly bent leads.
Step 3: Apply Heat:
Apply a very small amount of solder to the tip of the iron. This helps conduct the heat to the component and board, but it is not the solder that will make up the joint. To heat the joint you will lay the tip of the iron so that it rests against both the component lead and the board. It is critical that you heat the lead and the board, otherwise the solder will simply pool and refuse to stick to the unheated item. The small amount of solder you applied to the tip before heating the joint will help make contact between the board and the lead. It normally takes a second or two to get the joint hot enough to solder, but larger components and thicker pads/traces will absorb more heat and can increase this time.If you see the area under the pad starting to bubble, stop heating and remove the soldering iron because you are overheating the pad and it is in danger of lifting. Let it cool, then carefully heat it again for much less time.
Step 4: Apply Solder To The Joint:
Once the component lead and solder pad has heated up, you are ready to apply solder. Touch the tip of the strand of solder to the component lead and solder pad, but not the tip of the iron. If everything is hot enough, the solder should flow freely around the lead and pad. You will see the flux melt liquify as well, bubble around the joint (this is part of its cleaning action), flow out and release smoke. Continue to add solder to the joint until the pad is completely coated and the solder forms a small mound with slightly concave sides. If it starts to ball up, you have used too much solder or the pad on the board is not hot enough. Once the surface of the pad is completely coated, you can stop adding solder and remove the soldering iron (in that order). Don't move the joint for a few seconds as the solder needs time to cool and resolidify. If you do move the joint, you will get what's called a "cold joint". This is recognized by it's characteristic dull and grainy appearance. Many cold joints can be fixed by reheating and applying a small amount of solder, then being allowed to cool without being disturbed.
Step 5: Inspect The Joint and Cleanup:
Once the joint is made you should inspect it. Check for cold joints (described a little above and at length below), shorts with adjacent pads or poor flow. If the joint checks out, move on to the next. To trim the lead, use a small set of side cutters and cut at the top of the solder joint. After you have made all the solder joints, it is good practice to clean all the excess flux residue from the board. Some fluxes are hydroscopic (they absorb water) and can slowly absorb enough water to become slightly conductive. This can be a significant issue in a hostile environment such as an automotive application. Most fluxes will clean up easily using methyl hydrate and a rag but some will require a stronger solvent. Use the appropriate solvent to remove the flux, then blow the board dry with compressed air.
Step 4: Tips and Tricks
Soldering is something that needs to be practiced. These tips should help you become successful so you can stop practicing and get down to some serious building.
Use heatsinks.Heatsinks are a must for the leads of sensitive components such as ICs and transistors. If you don't have a clip on heatsink, then a pair of pliers is a good substitute.
Keep the iron tip clean. A clean iron tip means better heat conduction and a better joint. Use a wet sponge to clean the tip between joints. Keep the tip well tinned.Double check joints. When assembling complicated circuits, it is good practice to check joints after soldering them.
Use a magnifying glass to visually inspect the joint and a meter to check resistance.Solder small parts first. Solder resistors, jumper leads, diodes and any other small parts before you solder larger parts like capacitors and transistors. This makes assembly much easier.
Install sensitive components last. Install CMOS ICs, MOSFETs and other static sensitive components last to avoid damaging them during assembly of other parts.Use adequate ventilation. Most soldering fluxes should not be breathed in.
Avoid breathing the smoke created and make sure that the area you are working in has adequate airflow to prevent buildup of noxious fumes.
While soldering is not generally a hazardous activity, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first and most obvious is that it involves high temperatures. Soldering irons are going to be 350F or higher, and will cause burns very quickly.
Make sure to use a stand to support the iron and keep the cord away high traffic areas. Solder itself can drip, so it makes sense to avoid soldering over exposed body parts. Always work in a well lit area where you have space to lay parts out and move around.
Avoid soldering with your face directly above the joint because fumes from the flux and other coatings will irritate your respiratory tract and eyes. Most solders contain lead, so you should avoid touching your face while working with solder and always wash your hands before eating.