Soldering irons are handy when you want to repair electronics, circuits, jewelry and more. With so many soldering irons available in the market, sometimes it’s a bit difficult which is the best option to choose from. This always depends on the project you’re planning to build.
Stefan picked the best 3 soldering irons to help you start with.
There are four main reasons that I find people struggle with soldering.
Firstly, may people have never actually been taught how to make a proper joint and so end up putting solder onto the end of the iron and then applying this to the part they want to solder. This burns off the flux (which cleans the surfaces as you solder) rendering it useless when you actually come to make the joint. As normal, Dave Jones has an excellent video on this – check out his video, which is actually part two of a very thorough three-part series on the subject. If you want to skip straight to the part of this video where he actually makes a joint, it’s at about 3:30 in – but I would strongly recommend watching the whole video (and the others in his series).
Secondly, people often use lead-free solder in their projects when there’s no need to. Lead-free solder is a more difficult material to work with than traditional leaded solder, as the melting characteristics are less favourable. Provided that you wash your hands after working with leaded solder, it is just as safe to work with as lead-free, so always purchase leaded solder for your projects. You should also make sure that solder is specified as “no-clean” – this means that the flux inside the solder does not require removal from the board after the joint has been made. Some fluxes are very aggressive and if left in place and not cleaned off they will corrode your tracks over time, leaving you with a broken project! No-clean flux (and by extension no-clean solder) is specifically designed not to do this.
Thirdly, practice makes perfect! It’s obvious when you think about it, but soldering is a skill and as such it improves with practice and time. I hate to think how many solder joints I have made in my life – likely somewhere around 100,000 – but I can assure you that the first few hundred weren’t great! Some online electronics kit vendors sell soldering practice kits and you can use these if you like. However, any scavenged parts or some single-core wire and a bit of prototyping board are equally effective. The first dozen or so joints that you make will already have you improving fast and after 100 you really will be much better. It’s definitely worth the practice before committing to your first proper project.
Finally, very low-quality soldering irons will hamper your work. While there’s no need to spend a fortune on an iron, the cheapest models out there struggle for power and control, often have terrible tips and will end up costing you more in the long-run. With that in mind, I have a list below of some of the best irons I have used which I would recommend to anyone. These won’t replace practice, good technique or the correct type of solder, but they will help you make the most of your skills.
While this isn’t a cheap iron, I would strongly recommend this as the minimum quality you want if you want to make good quality solder joints (and actually enjoy soldering). It has digital temperature control, which I actually don’t use much as all my solder is lead-free and melts at the same temperature. However, this does show that it’s a proper temperature-controlled iron and not just a constant power heater like the cheapest models out there. This means that the chance of lifting a pad by overheating it, when working on small parts is much reduced. Heat-up time is about 60 seconds, which isn’t too bad. The Hakko also has the main control unit separate to the soldering tool itself, which keeps the tool light and easy to work with, making fine pitch work easier and less fatiguing. If you’re just getting started with electronics, this is the iron I would recommend. There are a few cheap knockoffs of this out there, so be careful. However, eBay does frequently show up second-hand units which are good value – just be aware that you’ll probably have to buy a replacement tip or two (which are readily available and inexpensive).
This is my old trusty iron, which has done ten years of service on my workbench and probably another ten or so with the person I bought it from. In my opinion, Metcal (who were acquired by OKI in 1996, which still feels recent to me) make the best soldering irons out there. The main reason for this is that they have very efficient thermal coupling between the control system and the part being soldered, which means fast heat-up time (mine takes around eight seconds) and no overshoot (where the temperature temporarily gets too high) because of a material-based temperature control system. You’re not going to see a variable temperature control on Metcal or OKI stuff – because it’s not required. Metcal irons have specific tips for specific temperatures, which sounds confusing, but actually, the standard tips work out great for both leaded and lead-free solder and you only need to change tips if you’re working with very specific solder types (like indium-based low-temperature solder on sensitive parts). These are expensive systems, but again eBay frequently has older second-hand systems for sale (which are compatible with newer parts). If your idea of “treat yo’ self” involves buying hand tools for electronics, you know what to do.
If you want a more up-to-date and slightly cheaper alternative to the MX-500P-11, I would recommend the OKI MFR-1110. It’s smaller, lighter and more of a current model. It has a single output (unlike the MX-500P-11 which has two, although only one can be in use at a time). To me, the heat-up time for the OKI feels longer than for my Metcal – but only by a few seconds and I may be biased towards my old stalwart. It doesn’t make any practical difference, though, and one nice feature is that the cartridge tips for both systems are the same – although the tool handles are not. If you’re buying new, I would probably recommend this as a better option to the Metcal, but for eBay hunters, this comes up less frequently and over time the second tool port on the Metcal can come in handy.
Yihua 858d hot air rework station
For a long time, I didn’t bother with a hot air station as I do very little rework on QFNs (or other packages with no visible leads) and the small amount I do is normally achievable using a kind of “ball-and-drag” technique. But when I saw one of these come up on an eBay Buy It Now direct from Hong Kong it was so cheap I was intrigued and had to give it a try. It’s not a sophisticated bit of kit and the tool handle is quite chunky (about half the size/weight of a paint stripping hot air gun). However, for small amounts of rework, it’s a very handy tool, with digital temperature setting and current temperature readback. It takes a fair bit of getting used to how far from the board to work (and taping off areas you don’t want to affect with polyimide (Kapton) tape is a very good idea, but so far I haven’t had any issues with it. It also makes a handy heatshrinker if you have a lot of that to do. The one thing I would say is that I am not sure I totally trust the temperature readback display – I always give the gun about 30 seconds to stabilise the temperature before getting to work. Also, it’s hard to say how long Yihua will support this product (something you don’t have to worry about with bigger brands) so I made sure to purchase a couple of spare heater elements and extra nozzles as soon as I knew I wanted to keep the kit – just in case.
Hakko 808-KIT/P (now replaced by Hakko FR300-05/P)
So this is the black sheep of this post – I’m meant to be writing about soldering, but this is a desoldering gun! A few years back I had someone come to me with a project where a lot of through-hole components had to be replaced on a set of boards. With the timescale they had in mind, getting an external company to do the rework wasn’t on the cards, so I set about purchasing a desoldering gun. I mostly chose this because I could get it in a hurry and it got reasonable reviews on the web. One thing to note is that the gun has the vacuum pump built into the tool, which makes it much heavier than a more conventional system where this is part of a desk-based unit and the tool itself is quite light. However, this was just about acceptable for the 5000 or so joints that needed removing. It definitely built up my wrist strength! I think that if I were doing a lot of through-hole rework I would probably go for a second-hand system with a separate vacuum pump, but for the project, we worked on this was sufficient unto the day.
Bonus-round! I know this is all about soldering irons, but having decent tweezers makes surface mount work so much easier. I’ve used lots of rubbish ones in the past and it’s infuriating when the tweezers don’t align or they stick to the tiny part you are working with or break or all three. Ideal-Tek seems to be a good compromise between cost and performance. My favourite all-rounder is the SM106, but there’s a tweezer there for pretty much every job. Once you get a good pair, I can guarantee you won’t be lending them out.
That’s it for this post – as normal I can’t stick to the topic and managed to talk about three soldering irons and three things that are not soldering irons. Hopefully, there’s something on the list that’s right for you. One thing I would be really interested in hearing is if anyone out there knows of a decent soldering iron for £100 or less (since that’s roughly what a Hakko FX-888D costs). I would love to hear your opinions, so feel free to comment on Twitter.