Let’s talk about soldering.
A lot of folks only install pre-packaged systems or devices that just plug in and connect. That’s probably a lot smarter than what I do, since I have to spend so much time troubleshooting things and am perpetually re-evaluating my needs based on whether or not I’m able to make something work.
Having said that, if you’re going to do anything beyond the pre-fab setups, you’re eventually going to need to solder something, typically through hole rather than surface mount, though repairing components can require you to do some surface mount.
Through hole means just that – the leads of the component go through a hole in the PCB to the other side.
Surface mount components are generally smaller and a little more complicated to work with – though you can still work with them at home.
I’ve got a couple of friends, retired engineers, and the wife is able to solder components as small as 0603 as long as there are no contacts underneath a component, like with some MCUs.
We’re only talking about through-hole today, however.
If you’ve got no experience soldering, it’s not a big investment to learn, and, if you’re interested, you can pick up a “Learn To Solder” kit, like the one pictured above. These small projects cost between $5 and $15 online, though you can find them for as little as $2 on Amazon sometimes. I bought a handful last year and had fun all weekend.
Please note – if you want a better view of any of the pictures below, click to open them in a new tab.
For about $30, you can get a soldering iron, a roll of lead free solder, some blank stripboards and a variety of through hole components in order to practice. Some random components in the picture are wire leads, resistors, header pins, and a battery pack.
I’d also consider tip cleaner (the “golden” cup with the foil scrubby pad, a variety of solder – diameter appropriate to the size component you’re working with, and something to hold the components themselves.
Soldering isn’t hard and you don’t have to be a perfectionist. Don’t worry if your solder joints are pretty, shiny or flawlessly shaped. What you want to make sure of is that you have a solid connection between the two surfaces, that you don’t leave gaps, and that you don’t scorch the board or surrounding traces.
What you’re doing is making a solid electrical connection between two components. Don’t hold the tip in place for too long or you’ll overheat the joint. Try to tin the tip – if you don’t want to use solder, you can buy a ton of tip tinner to hold the tip into. Say that real fast 5 times.
The first two thirds of the row pictured above are over heated, have too little solder, run off to a connecting joint, or are cold joints (meaning they didn’t adhere properly). The ones on the right are all perfectly serviceable – some pretty, some not, but all are good connections without an excessive amount of solder.
Try to snug the components as close to the surface of the strip board as possible. Turn the board over and bend the leads at a right angle to the underside. This will help hold the component in place while you solder – if a component moves, it usually means a defective joint. You don’t need a giant wad of solder – a little touch will do, if you’ve heated the pad and the lead properly. Don’t worry if flux runs on the board – you’ll clean that up with a little alcohol later. Notice that you can see the ceramic body of the resistor through the holes in the strip board – that’s close enough.
Raise the leads back up so you can clip them. On the reverse side of the strip board, note that the joints on the right are solid, with no holes, but no large globs of solder. The joints on the left don’t look smooth – meaning that the surface didn’t heat well, so the solder didn’t flow properly. The last picture just shows a wire soldered in exactly the same as the resistors.
This is the learn to solder kit. Three resistors, three LEDs, three switches, and a coin battery holder. Remember that the longer lead on an LED is positive. Here’s the final product, which is surprisingly popular with the neighborhood teens and could vanish before you mean for it to!
The point I want you to take away is not that you need a special kit to learn to solder. You can start just by soldering wires together or electronic components. The key is to try it, practice it, and, when you need the skill, you pull it out of your toolbox and feel confident doing it.
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