Soldering Setup for Workshops

by Jimmie on April 1, 2010

Workshop I’ve been running soldering workshops for a few years now, and along with Mitch Altman, we’ve taught thousands of people to solder. I’ve used everything from $1,000 re-work stations to $1 irons bought off of eBay. I get asked quite often what people should buy for themselves, or what they should be buying for their hackerspace for running workshops. Honestly, once you get above a certain quality level of iron, it doesn’t matter for through-hole soldering. You can get good soldering joints from irons that cost less than $10 quite easily. I do however have a few suggestions.

Lady Ada has a good page with quality irons and equipment. If you have money, you should get some of the stuff listed on that page. I personally use the WES51, and I love it. I’ve got tons of tips for it, and it allows me to easily do SMD work with it. However, if you are teaching workshops, you don’t need anything like that. Also, if you are just want to build some through-hole kits you’ve purchased, then there is no real need for such an iron till you need it. If you’ve got the money, go for it (it’s worth it), but otherwise you can get by with much cheaper stuff.

Probably the biggest thing that makes soldering easier, is solder with lead in it. Over all, it’s less toxic, and it’s easier to work with. Seriously, the lead-free stuff has some nasty fumes. You need a hotter iron, and the flux burns off quickly, so there is little time to re-work a solder joint. If you can get reagular 60/40 tin/lead rosin core electronic solder, then do so. It will save you a lot of headaches, both from ease of helping people, and from the fumes being far less severe. Regardless, you should have some kind of ventilation going while soldering, or when a workshop is on. Just wash your hands afterward (regardless of the solder being used).

I’ve found that MPJA offers decent quality equipment for a good price. It’s not great, but if you maintain it, then the irons and clippers will last you for years. This is the equipment I’ve been buying for my own workshops for a while now, all from MPJA. They have an absolutely perfect workshop soldering iron:

This is a great intro Soldering iron and general workshop iron. Some of the things I love about this iron: it has temperature control, a built in stand, and cheap replacement tips. Plus, it only costs $15! My favorite thing though, is that the cable plugged into the wall is not the same as the cable going to the iron handle. That means that you don’t need power strips on the table, and it greatly reduces clutter on workshop tables. I’ve got a dozen of these, and I’ve never had to replace a tip, just the sponges. You can also buy replacement irons and reuse the bases if someone burns through the cable.

For a good workshop setup, you should have one of these for each person if possible;  a  Soldering iron with a stand and sponge, Flush Cutters, helping hands, and solder (I buy it in the 1lb rolls). You will also need some tip tinner/cleaner, which you can get at various places online, or even at a local Radio Shack. It’s nasty stuff, but you’ve got to have some to restore the tips. A brass tip cleaner is super helpful along with the tip tinner. It’s also really helpful to have a couple extra flush cutters, and probably a pair of needle nose pliers for every other person (though I have one for each person). Extra sponges are a big help. I have no idea where they go, but I lose one nearly every workshop. A solder sucker or two is helpful, but not necessary. Also, whether it is for you or a workshop, you will need a multimeter, and MPJA has a selection of them.

You should be able to get everything for about $25 or less per seat, and the equipment will last for years. If your hackerspace doesn’t have the funding to have more than a couple of these, don’t let that hold you back from running a workshop, because it’s a great way to fund-raise. Encourage people to bring their own equipment. Also, people are understanding when you are starting out, and are willing to share equipment, especially if they are building the same kit.

During a longer workshop, there are a few things that you can do to make sure that the equipment stays in working condition. First, if you are working with leaded solder, then keep instructing them to add a bit to the tip before they place it into the holder. That leaves a coating around the tip that will keep it from oxidizing, and is easy to wipe off. If you notice someone having problems with a soldering iron, check the tip, it will probably be black. People will generally turn their iron up to max once this happens, because it stops melting solder, and that just makes it worse. Turn their iron down to about 3/4, and pull out the tip tinner and clean the tip. That should get 75% of the people back on track, the rest will need a bit more work with a brass tip cleaner and a few baths in the tip tinner. Encourage them to put some of the leaded solder onto the tip (or if it’s lead-free, to wipe it off) before they put the iron back into the stand. Once an iron is no longer in use, coat the tip tinner and turn it off.

Hopefully this is helpful to both hackerspaces and home hobbyists. At some point, Mitch and I will get around to posting some how-to soldering videos. If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave comments.

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Jimmie P Rodgers’ soldering workshop tool advice « The tech telecom and all
April 28, 2010 at 18:02

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mike Pountney April 1, 2010 at 20:26

Good to see your experience of running workshops written down Jimmie! Having run our first workshop about a week prior to your and Mitch’s visit a couple of weeks ago, seeing you guys do it definitely gave us valuable advice in running future events.

The main issue we faced with our first workshop was not having an equal amount of soldering irons to iron holders – specifically the solid spring type over the crappy bit-of-wire-stand type. This resulted in a few too many partially melted iron leads, but thankfully no blown breakers 🙂

What I thought we did well though was get a minimum 2:1 ratio between tools and people, and have them packaged in a way that people could buy them at the end of the day, if they wanted their own home kit.

Again, thanks for dropping by Brighton, looking forward to your next visit!

2 Bob D April 3, 2010 at 10:57

Don’t use 60/40 solder for electronics. It has it’s uses, but not on circuit boards unless you’re drag soldering RF shields. Go with 63/37. It’s has a sharply defined melting/freezing point with no plastic state so it makes it almost impossible to have a cold solder joint.

3 Mike P April 3, 2010 at 14:37

I bought the Weller Red WLC100. It is good for the occasional repair. But anything past the basic kit with 10 or 12 parts, it’s bad recovery time becomes apparent and soldering becomes fustrating.

I now own a Hakko 936 with a few different tips and I am really happy. I’ve done SMD and through hole kits with over 100 parts.

I’ve even done the evil thing of leaving it on over night accidentally. Just just keeps working.

4 amd April 3, 2010 at 16:43

I’m partial to Metcal equipment and a good stereo surgical microscope with long working distance 🙂

I would suggest some solder wick and small needlenose pliers are very useful – if you have a joint that will conduct and doesn’t wiggle without any solder, chances are good it will hold up well once you finish it up.

I like to leave a blob on the tip when I turn the iron off. Don’t forget a little water on the sponge, and don’t let the lab rats leave various unsoldered little metal bits in the sponge and for god’s sake turn the iron off when you’re done.

5 mrmeval April 3, 2010 at 22:58

amd has good advice.

If you can touch a Metcal for less than 250 you’re doing better than me. I prefer scienscope microscopes for detailed work but the add-ons raise even the used price more than is sane. For commercial hand soldering I’d not buy anything but these two brands. Metcal’s tips last six months when cared for even with continuous use. Scienscopes are more comfortable than more expensive Leica scopes. A hobby scope is more comfortable to use than any Mantis monoscope.

For my use I bought a Hakko soldering station, It heats as fast as a Metcal and the tips are cheaper and so far it’s held up well but it’s $78.

The iron mentioned will do well for most non demanding tasks.

To preserve the tips on any iron put a ball of solder on the end. That will oxidize instead of the tip.

I’ve found that pace tip abrasive works extremely well at renewing a bad tip. I then found that a grill cleaning brick works fine as well 🙂

6 mike April 4, 2010 at 00:45

I second the Metcal vote. I started with an Ungar Princess when I was 3 years old and used that until I got a Weller TC201 out of the trash at a tech company when I was 10. After fixing that, the connector was broken, I used it for the next 8 years. The TC201 is a work horse. It is now 33 years in my possession and use and still on the same heating element. I also have an EC2000, another great iron. For the general hobbyist I think that the sweet spot is a cheap, used, Weller WTCPT . The tips last for ever if taken care of, some of mine are well over 30 years old. I see these units going for $10.00 to $15.00 in serviceable shape at the swap meets.

The Metcal is a whole other class. I can’t recommend this iron enough. It is by far the best on the market at delivering heat only where it is needed. It is very small and yet delivers more reserve heat to a contact than anything else. This has allowed me to reduce the tip temp and still get great solder joints every time. I also second the 63/37 solder for learning, not such an issue for experienced solderers but….. Beginners need all the help they can get. Also a great paste flux for tip cleaning and that extra bit of cleaning action at the joint helps allot. I like Nokorode regular paste flux. Oatey #5 is also good. These are very aggressive fluxes and should be cleaned after use.

7 nikki April 4, 2010 at 13:51

Hi Jimmie, thanks for the advice when you did the workshop at fizzPOP, and also for writing up your recommendations here too.

Could you explain a bit about why you say to leave a blob of leaded solder on the tip whilst it’s in the stand, but say to wipe off lead-free solder?


8 Jimmie April 7, 2010 at 10:53

Hey Nikki,

The solder-free solder is actually a bit corrosive when left on the tip. So it’s best to wipe it cleanly off. Hope things keep growing at fizzPOP!

9 nikki April 10, 2010 at 07:21

Thanks for the info, the well wishes …and the image of fastidiously removing every single last trace of solder-free solder from the tip 🙂

10 MarkSpizer May 3, 2010 at 09:28

great post as usual!

11 Julian Nicholls May 17, 2010 at 08:55

I’m alarmed to see my bald pate in the picture from Eastleigh. It was a great day though.

12 Robert Weigel June 10, 2010 at 21:58

The EC2000 has worked great for me for several years..I repaired a used one off ebay that had a busted cord because I wanted a much longer cord anyway :-). I wrapped a lead weight to make it not flop around on the floor and then the long part comes off that and it’s been nice. But the element died tonight. I see no source at all for them. 🙁 If anyone has a clue where to get one let me know. -Bob

13 Robert Weigel June 10, 2010 at 22:08

ack..never mind I found sources after finally finding a diagram..TC208 is the part I’m after I see.

14 Buy Penny Stocks October 16, 2010 at 18:56

My sister recommended this blog, and I found it very useful, thanks a lot!

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