Wednesday, 18 January 2012


Soldering Tools

Historically soldering tips were copper, placed in braziers. One tip was used; when the heat had transferred from the tip to the solder (and depleted the heat reserve) it was placed back in the brazier of charcoal and the next tip was used.

Much later gas irons were in common use. These used a gas jet to heat the soldering bolt/tip. They are very fast, but require significant amounts of experience to properly regulate the temperature.

Currently, electric soldering irons are used; they consist of coil or ceramic heating elements, which retain heat differently, and warm up the mass differently, internal or external rheostats, and different power ratings - which change how long a bead can be run.

Soldering Irons
The iron used to solder must be of a high enough wattage to readily melt the solder and be able to reheat fast enough to maintain the necessary melting temperature. The tip can't be so small it can't maintain the heat nor so big it covers more area than wanted.

For example a 75 or 80 watt iron is sufficient to begin soldering with, but it will continue to get hotter, as it has no temperature control. An iron of this type should be used with a rheostat in order to prevent overheating while it is idling. You should be aware that even with a rheostat, it will eventually reach its maximum temperature, so cannot be left on for long. Also leaving an iron idling will contribute to the rapid deterioration of the tip.

Most temperature controlled irons seem to be produced in 100 watts or more. These internally temperature controlled irons maintain a constant temperature. These are normally supplied with a 700F° bit (number 7) and are sufficient to melt the solder without long recovery times. You can obtain bits of different temperature ratings, commonly 800F° and 600F°. You can also use several sizes of tips for different detail of work.

For soldering leaded panels a 100w iron with a 10 mm temperature controlled tip that maintains a constant 370°C (700° F) is suitable.

For copper foil a higher temperature controlled tip is used. This normally runs at 425°C (800°F). Sometimes a tip of 6 mm is used where more delicate beads are being run, but be aware that the tip will cool off much more quickly than 10 mm tips.

If a lot of soldering is required that has sustained heat requirements, you might consider a 200W iron. These can deliver heat more quickly and evenly than those with lesser wattage.

People often want to have variable temperatures for decorative soldering.

It is recommended to use a rheostat in circumstances where the soldering iron does not have an internal temperature control.

Action of a Rheostat

A rheostat is NOT a temperature controller.

A rheostat actually reduces the power supplied to the iron, thereby making it take longer to heat or re-heat after a period of soldering. With or without a rheostat, if an iron is left idle, it will eventually reach its maximum temperature. This is usually too hot for soldering lead, but OK for joining other metals. With a rheostat, if an iron is left idle with the rheostat set to (say) '6', it will still reach its maximum temperature but very much slower than the one without a rheostat.

Action of a Temperature Controlled Iron

Temperature controlled soldering irons attempt to maintain a set temperature. This is controlled by the combination of the microchip in the iron and the tip. So to adjust your temperatures all you need is a few different tips. For example, a number 7 tip lets your iron heat to 700F degrees. For decorative soldering your need tips of lower temperatures, usually a number 6 or 600F degree is enough of a reduction for most decorative stuff. A number 8 tip (800F) will let you work more quickly.

Differences in Soldering Speed

Using an iron without a rheostat, provided you work relatively quickly, you will probably be able to solder all the joints in a small or medium panel without stopping to let the iron 'catch up'. In this case the temperature is controlled by the heating power of the iron balanced by the cooling effect of making the soldered joints.

Using an iron with a rheostat, you will need to slow down a little if you are to do that same panel without stopping to let the iron re-heat. In this case the temperature of the iron is controlled by the (reduced) heating power of the iron balanced by the same cooling effect of making the soldered joints.

This difference is caused by the fact that a temperature-controlled iron, if it is left idle, it will quickly reach its maximum operating temperature - just as quickly as an uncontrolled iron of the same power. When you start soldering, the cooling effect will trigger the temperature controller to provide full power until the operating temperature is reached again.

Advantages of a Temperature Controlled Iron

You can buy an iron (not temperature controlled) and a rheostat but buying tips for the temperature controlled iron is cheaper. The big advantage of the temperature-controlled iron is that you know it will never get too hot for the work you are doing, and that it truly provides that 100 watts (or whatever) power to keep it hot even when you are soldering at top speed.

Soldering Bit Composition

Most bits are made of copper, which is suitable because of its excellent thermal conductivity and high heat content per volume. Some bits are plain copper, while others incorporate various additives or have a protective plating applied.

One of the most common problems associated with plain copper bits, is that tin-lead alloys (more specifically the tin in the alloy) will attack the copper, dissolving it away. This makes it necessary to continually file the bits to maintain the required shape, giving these bits a shortened working life. Another concern is the amount of impurity that is imparted to the solder joint when using bare copper bits.

Adding tellurium to the copper improves both wear and oxidation resistance, but does not protect the tip from rapid deterioration. It has been determined that both iron and nickel, despite their low conductivity, are wet-able, offer a high level of resistance to erosion and their heat per volume is close to that of copper.

Because of these facts it is possible to maintain good conductivity, while increasing the erosion resistance by plating copper bits with either nickel or iron. These plated bits are generally referred to as nickel-clad, or iron-clad and make up a large majority of the bits in use for modern soldering applications.

Soldering Bits

The bit type is determined by the soldering iron it is used on. There are screw type bits (bits that screw onto, or into the solder iron element), slip on bits that slip over the element and plug type bits that slide inside of the element. There are even bits that are a permanent part of a replaceable element/bit assembly. Regardless of the type of bits required it is always important to have them fully seated to the element and periodically cleaned, in order to maintain proper heat transfer from the element into the bit.

The bit configuration to use should be determined by the intended application requirements. Some of the basic bit configurations available include ballpoint, conical, diamond (pyramid), chisel, and spade. You will find that there are usually a variety of styles, or modifications available, within each of these basic configuration families, to accommodate specific application requirements. Although less efficient, a more narrow configuration is sometimes required to obtain accessibility, or to achieve the desired results.

The bit size to use (regarding the working portion) should also be determined by the intended application requirements. The bit body, or shank must be matched to the iron it will be used with (always select a bit that was designed, or approved for the soldering iron you intend to use on the application being considered). As with bit configuration though, there are usually a variety of modified working diameters available within each family of standard bit sizes that are available. These modified bits are generally referred to as turned down bits, because the working area of the bit has been turned down to a smaller diameter than the body, or shank diameter. Turned down bits are not as efficient, but are sometimes required to solder in otherwise inaccessible areas.

Choosing the Soldering Bit

An important consideration, when choosing the most appropriate bit, is that thick, short bits will store more heat and deliver it more efficiently than long, narrow ones. This makes the standard chisel configuration the usual bit of choice. The chisel shaped bit is often used for joining flat seems together. The working edge of the chisel bit should be about the same width as (or slightly wider than) the seam that is being soldered.

Usually a solder connection is made in one to three seconds. If the connection takes longer than three seconds, you may need a larger bit, a higher wattage iron or a completely different type of soldering equipment altogether. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with other soldering methods and equipment that are available in order to ensure that you are utilizing the best, safest, most efficient and economical means available to perform your soldering application.

Soldering Bit Maintenance
If a bit has not been properly tinned, solder will not wet to it. Without solder on the bit heat transfer from the bit to the work surface may become extremely difficult and time consuming, or even impossible.

You must understand that proper wiping and continuous wetting is important and a lot easier than continually having to clean and re-tin the bit, especially at the risk of damage to the plated surface because of accidentally scratching, or over abrading it. [Many soldering stations come with a sponge which, when wet, is used to wipe the iron's tip clean. A small amount of fresh solder is usually then applied to the clean tip in a process called tinning.]

When you notice that an iron is not performing as well as it did when it was new you will find that poor thermal transfer from the element to the work is usually the cause. Improper care and maintenance and the lack of a periodic cleaning of the bit's shank can cause a layer of oxides, which will inhibit the transfer of heat through the bit. Always ensure plug style bits are properly seated into the elements before heating the iron. If a bit is not inserted fully into the element there may be a gap behind the bit. This gap can cause a hot spot within the element causing a premature failure of the soldering iron.

To avoid using abrasives, cleaning with sal ammoniac is recommended. This comes in a block. You rub the soldering iron bit on the surface. As the surface becomes hot, it begins the cleaning process, noted by the smoke rising from the block. When the block under the bit becomes clear, the bit will be clean and can be tinned as above. If this is done at the end of each session of soldering, the bit will last and will be ready for soldering immediately when you next need to use it.


Proper care and maintenance of your soldering iron bit involves tinning, wiping (and wetting) and also periodic cleaning of the bits shank. These actions are very important and quite simple to perform, but are often neglected. When performed properly they will not only ensure the longest possible working life for your soldering iron bits, but they will also have positive effects on the overall performance of your soldering iron.


Tinning may not be necessary if the bit you are using is new and arrives pre-tinned from the manufacturer, or has been used previously and been properly maintained. When a bit does need to be tinned (or re-tinned) it must be clean and free of any surface oxidation before it will accept any solder. Once the bit is properly tinned, care should be taken to prevent bit de-wetting by occasionally cleaning and adding small amounts of fresh solder, especially if the bit is being subjected to long periods of inactivity or idling.

If the bit to be tinned is unplated copper it should be cleaned and dressed with a single cut, flat file. After filing the bit it should be heated in the iron. When the bit reaches the lowest temperature required to melt solder, a rosin core solder should be fed onto the bit. Do not allow the iron temperature to rise too high before applying the solder, because excess heat will cause the bit surface to re-oxidize and no longer accept the solder.

If the bit is plated it should never be filed, or heavily abraded. Care should be taken to ensure the plating is not damaged or removed, as this will shorten the working life of the bit dramatically. When pre-cleaning is necessary for plated bits, they should be cleaned with a mildly abrasive emery cloth and may require an acid flux to remove the oxides before tinning, or re-tinning.

Wiping the Bit

During use a bright, thin, but evenly tinned surface must be maintained on the working portion of the bit. Oxidation and contaminants must be continually removed from the bit surface to achieve maximum performance. This will help to ensure the proper transfer of heat from bit to work and will eliminate the possibility of impurities being transferred into the solder joint.

Between each solder application simply wipe the working area of the bit clean on a damp cellulose sponge to remove the dross and oxides that will accumulate and add small amounts of fresh solder to the bit as needed. A gentle wiping is all that is required and care must be taken not to over wipe the bit, because oxidation will occur on the surface quite rapidly if all of the solder has been removed. Once this oxidation occurs it becomes difficult, or even impossible for solder to wet to the bit. It then becomes necessary to properly clean and re-tin the bit in order to regain the appropriate wetting action required for adequate performance. When you have finished the soldering application, you should wipe any contaminates from the bit's surface and add a small amount of fresh solder to it before allowing the iron to cool. This layer of solder ensures protection from oxidation of the bit between uses and will help to extend the bit's working life.


It is important to periodically clean the shank of the plug style bits as well as the inner surface of the element. This is done to keep the bit from seizing in the element and also to keep from building a layer of oxides and contaminates that would obstruct the transfer of heat from the element to the bit. After allowing the iron to completely cool the bit should be removed and the bit shank and inner walls of the element should be wiped clean with a mildly abrasive emery cloth or soft wire brush. This cleaning process should be done as often as needed, depending on the work environment, but not less than once a week.

Care in the operation of irons

The most important element in the deterioration of soldering iron bits is long idle times. This is where you leave the iron on, and not in use, for a long time.

Have everything ready when you start soldering, so the iron will be used continuously, and will not sit there building up heat, while you get ready to use it again. An idle iron will keep heating to its maximum capacity, and without anything to transfer the heat to, it will start burning off the tinning, after a short while. So if you will not be using the iron for a while turn it off until you are ready again.

The other elements leading to deterioration in performance come from lack of cleaning and tinning of the tip. When the coating of solder burns off or is coated with carbon you get poor heat transfer from tip to working surface making it appear that the iron is not heating properly.

Soldering Ingredients and Methods

The soldering process may be accomplished in a wide variety of ways, but the four primary ingredients required will remain the same. They are; the base metal (or metal items being joined) a type of flux (or a method of cleaning and maintaining the surface to be soldered), the solder and a source of heat. It is important to match the soldering method and the equipment that will be used, to the soldering application that is being considered.

Base Metal
The base metal is the metal that is in contact with the solder and forms an intermediate alloy. There are many metals that will react willingly with solders to form a strong chemical and physical bond, while others can be very difficult, or even impossible to solder.

Flux is used to eliminate minor surface oxidation and to prevent further oxidation of the base metals surface during the heating process. Although there are many types of flux, each will include two basic parts, chemicals and solvents. The chemical includes the active portion, while the solvent is actually the carrying agent. It is the solvent that determines the cleaning method required to remove the remaining residue after soldering.

Solder is the alloy used to create the solvent action, which generates the bond between the base metals. The type and form of the solder is very important and must be determined by the individual application being performed, as well as the base metals and soldering method being employed.

There are several methods, as well as a wide variety of tools available to perform the task of soldering. Some of the current methods that are available include induction, conduction, ultrasonic, flame, dipping, resistance, oven and wave soldering. Some of these methods involve the use of small inexpensive hand tools, while others may require large and expensive machinery, equipment and tools. It is a good idea to become educated on the various methods and tools that are available, in order to insure that you are utilizing the best, safest, most efficient and economical means available for your specific soldering application.


  1. Thanks for A LOT of useful information. I need help choosing a soldering iron for soft soldering of charms and jewelry. I've gone through 3 models and seven tips now....the soldering tips are disintegrating on me! I don't understand why. Is it because I'm useing cheap models? 25w, 45w and 60? I thought maybe it was the chemical flux vs. rosin flux. Or is it the corrosive sal ammoniac? Then I read maybe it's the tips...they must be of ironclad. I'm lost. Can you help?

  2. I have never had a tip wear out unless it was really used ,try a quality iron ,some of mine are quite iold m but i just bought a new one from a popular company ,and have used it thruogh a few projects with no visible wear ,i use a homade voltage controller , but you can just unplug ot to , make sure its not on and unused for a long time too ,goog luck kevin

  3. Sal ammoniac block usage is highly debated. In the past it was the method of choice for copper tips. With the plated tips of today, most people find wiping the tip on a damp sponge as they solder & occasionally dipping it in flux works well without the risk of damaging the tip. Use of a brass brush to clean the portion of the tip that is not plated is helpful. Remember to clean & apply solder to the tip when you are though for the day to help protect it.