Every once in a while, the typical person will come across something electronic that appears to be dead in the water. Most people will just toss this malfunctioning piece of technology in the trash along with the rest of the garbage. But some of us will dig a little deeper and try to figure out what exactly went wrong with our favorite laptop, motherboard, power supply, MP3 player, etc and stumble upon a charred component or shorted trace and think to ourselves, “challenge accepted!” Those that want to attempt to tackle these types of problems need to be proficient in on a commonly used area of a computer tech’s arsenal, soldering. There are numerous tutorials on YouTube and a lot of walkthroughs around the web, that isn’t the goal of this article. Hopefully after reading this, you will be better equipped and more knowledgeable about the finer points of soldering.
Soldering Tools Of The Trade
Looking at this from a beginner’s eyes, what do you need to get started? This cheap kit from ThinkGeek has everything you would need to start out except solder and something to remove the solder with. Basically, all you need initially is a Soldering iron, solder, and either solder wick or a solder sucker to remove the solder. My personal favorite would be the copper solder wick as it is more flexible, can come with flux, and seems to remove more varieties of solder easier. With this stuff in hand you can tackle most low priority solder jobs.
How do the professionals do it one might ask? They general have a rig similar to the Aoyue 2702A+ which allows for greater temperature control, preheating, and a multitude of soldering iron tips to suit each job. Stations like these are a couple hundred dollars and I can vouch for them as I have used one for about 4 years. They make soldering easy, relatively speaking of course. But this is for someone who has to deal with soldering every day, not the average Joe trying to fix a DC jack quickly and cheaply.
Some Tricks Up Your Sleeve
Let’s start with the most basic of soldering, soldering two wires together. Most people without even thinking about it will just brush it off as an easy task that doesn’t require much thought. But it does. Are you soldering braided or solid wire? Should you solder the ends butted up together or beside each other? How do you cover it from the elements or from shorting? Electrical tape or heat shrink tubing? What combination will be the strongest/weakest? A lot of questions for such a simple procedure, no? Say we have two very small gauge wires, so heat transfers through them quickly, how do you solder them together? If you have ever tried this by hand, you know the wires get hot very quick to the point holding onto the wires is impossible without burning your fingers. That’s were this guy comes into play.
The “helping hands” is a great idea to have if you are going to be soldering wire lengths together. Since I do a lot of wire work on AC adapters and others, this little guy is a life(and finger) saver. Also, when working on tiny gauge wire, it’s magnifying glass comes in really handy. But back to our scenario, soldering two small wires together. If braided wire, intertwine the two ends together and apply a little flux(we will get to in a bit) to the wire grouping and solder for maximum strength. If solid wiring, twist them together spirally or if you can’t, place the two ends horizontally right beside each other, flux and solder them together. Don’t forget to cover the soldered part with either electrical tape or for a more professional look, heat shrink tubing.
So we have mentioned using flux but what exactly is it and what is it good for? According to Wikipedia, “it removes oxidation from the surfaces to be soldered, it seals out air thus preventing further oxidation, and by facilitating amalgamation improves wetting characteristics of the liquid solder.“ Flux is one of the items that not everyone knows about but it is extremely handy. If you have ever had trouble getting solder to stick to a certain metal, this is the ticket. Try some next time you solder and you will always have some near by your soldering iron.
So far so good, but what about storage and overall upkeep of the soldering iron? Most irons and stands will come with the typical yellow sponge for quick on the job cleaning. Wet the sponge a little bit and dab or wipe the iron across it to remove the excess bulk solder at the end of the iron. If you or someone else who used the iron left you with a bunch of solder all over the tip or you have a brown, oxidized tip, a 600ish grit sand paper can be used to buff it back out to its proper form. If you have a mid grade to high end soldering iron, after you are done using it for the day and have lightly cleaned it with the sponge I would advise picking up some tip tinner and cleaner. It usually comes in a little package and allows you to dip the tip, when hot, into it to tin and acid clean the tip to keep it from further oxidation. This will definitely extend the life of your iron.
So know that we have a basic knowledge of what we need and some general overall tips, we can get started in saving some of our favorite broken items. If you are just starting out and want to learn how to solder to logic boards and generally replace components, check out this link for a great starter board and kit. Whether we are going the professional route and buying the high end solder station or just picking up an iron to do some patch work, we now have the knowledge of how to make them last and run properly.
What are some of your tricks of the trade? Ever had a difficult solder job and overcame it? Ramble on about this and more in the comments section!