Updated for 2017
If you’re a long time reader, you probably know that I am a huge electronics nerd. I also spent over a decade in the US Navy as an electrical tech. I’ve learned that soldering is much less a science and is more of an art form. Having the best tools available helps you avoid bad solder joints that could cause hours of debugging and troubleshooting. People sometimes ask me my opinion on soldering irons so here it finally is. I included some useful tools to help out at the bottom so don’t skip over that part. Enjoy!
High End: Not too long ago, I was asked what I wanted as a holiday gift. Up to that point, I’d been using a cheap 10$ soldering iron for my home lab. It was terrible and I knew exactly what I wanted since I’d been drooling over it for months. Needless to say, now I’m the proud owner of a Hakko FX888 soldering station (shown above). I absolutely love this thing. The number one feature is the ability to dial in a temperature. Not only that, it has the best temperature control you will find outside of a factory. The heat up time is very fast and there’s even a light that comes on to show when you’re at the requested temperature. Each brand of solder has a certain temperature that you want to use which is why temperature control is so important. The digital model (analog was sadly discontinued) even comes with the ability to preset 5 different temperatures depending on your work. This makes it easy to switch from soldering a few SMDs on to connecting your main power cables to a transformer. The design is very ergonomic (which is vital for long sessions) with an easy to reach power switch. All of the components are made of rugged metal or ceramic so you know it will last a long time. It’s a little pricey so you might not be willing to make the jump yet (though believe me, it’s well worth it).
Best Bang for Buck: This model of soldering iron is what I learned on in college. If you end up going with this, make sure to get a holder for it. You don’t want a 35W soldering iron falling in your lap. I’ve done that once before and it’s a difficult injury to explain. This has enough heat output to satisfy everyone but lacks the features that you might otherwise want when working with SMD and small IC chips. As this model lacks temperature control, it is much harder to get a perfect solder joint and there is some risk of damaging smaller components. Overall, this is the type of soldering iron that will last you 30 years. No frills, no nonsense.
Entry Level: I think this is what everyone starts off with. You generally find these piled up in a corner of the rat shack covered in dust. While it may be tempting to grab due to the low price, you’re really getting what you pay for. It comes with low quality solder and some tools that will be replaced in no time. Expect the tips to break quickly and the iron to overheat from time to time.
Avoid: I cannot give any recommendation for a cold heat soldering iron. I bought one of these thinking that it would be great for use in a dorm room… but not so much. You pretty much have to relearn how to solder and the results are extremely poor. Also, they’re really expensive for the heat output you get. AVOID AT ALL COSTS.
–Solder flux. Being able to paint flux on helps solder flow where you want it to. One bottle will last you a very long time. Make sure you get some isopropyl alcohol to help clean up the mess you make the first time.
–Acid brushes. I use the smallest ones I can find and cut the bristles down to as short as I can. This works great for scrubbing dust off before you make a solder joint.
–Isopropyl alcohol. As I mentioned above, making sure everything is clean is very important. Soldering is like painting.. it’s 90% prep work, 10% execution. You can get this from any pharmacy or grocery store.
–Helping Hands magnifying station. This is a funny little thing that I never expected to use as much as I do. It’s great for reasons that are pretty obvious.
–Solder Sponge. If you don’t already have one, get this. VERY useful in cleaning. I can’t imagine soldering anything without it, honestly. Get both the brass wire type and the yellow sponge type. Have you noticed the pattern of obsessively cleaning everything yet?
–Solder that meets the requirements of your application. This is a tricky subject but the short version is this: Use 63/37 when you want a low temperature melt with no transition between solid and liquid. This is best for areas that are hard to reach or with components prone to thermal damage. Use 60/40 where you can use a high heat as it produces fewer cold joints. Regarding diameter, make sure you’re using a solder of a diameter that is slightly smaller than the wire/leads you’re working with.