April 13, 2009

Soldering Iron Buyers Guide

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Jeff (The Brown-Eyed Albino)

It's come to my attention that many people just don't know where to start when looking for the perfect soldering iron. What a tragedy this is, when some unsuspecting customer gets duped once more by the ne'er do-well Retail Market! Alas, I cannot give back what they have unrightfully taken, but I can certainly point you in the right direction on buying a serious soldering station. After all that, here's what to look for.

  • Are they replaceable? Tips get damaged from normal usage, and will eventually need to be replaced. You won't want to have to buy a new iron just because of this, so make sure you can switch them out.
  • Are they readily available? If not, you might need to stock up on replacement tips, just in case.
  • What variety do they come in? I personally use a needle-point conical tip for almost all of my soldering jobs, and it works fine, but it's good to have a few others in your arsenal. A screwdriver tip, needle-point conical, and a chisel tip would be more than enough for most DIYers and hobbyist types.

  • Does wattage really make a better iron? Short answer, no. Wattage gives your iron the power to heat an object. While it's good to have a decent amount of watts, too much can burn out certain components, or boil your flux before it gets a chance to clean said components. Not good. For the average user, I wouldn't suggest more than 45 watts, while more experienced solderers could move up to 60.

  • How fast does it heat? My iron of choice heats up to working temperature in 5-10 seconds, depending on the starting temp. Not all (hardly any affordable) irons can do this.
  • What type of heating element does it use? Keep in mind that all heating elements have different attributes. Ceramics may need to be replaced more often, but on the other hand, they are replaceable. With three-wire irons, generally, the entire pencil may need exchanging. The "Cold Heat" method, which uses extremely high voltage to create joints, would usually require a full replacement. And all that replacing can get a bit pricey.
  • What about variable temperatures? This is a must for most solderers. Other than personal preference, different projects need different temperatures. You can burn things out if it's too hot, but if it's not hot enough, you may heat up more than you should, ruining more components. Also, not all adjustable irons are all that adjustable. Some of them only have a simple 1-1 switch instead of a potentiometer. Don't get ripped off thinking you've found the best thing ever for $20.

  • How much is too much? For the average user, a simple $10 pencil iron may suffice, but once you get into the DIY/hobbyist scene you'll need to upgrade that iron. Depending on your intentions, a good solid soldering iron or station can be had for anywhere from $50-$150. Also, don't be afraid of new or smaller companies, just do your research! Don't forget to read both negative and positive reviews like there's no tomorrow. If anything else, it'll let you get a feel for what you're buying beforehand.

  • Which brand is best? Seeing as there's an unbelievable amount of companies pumping out soldering stations, I'll list a few that I've become acquainted with.
  1. Weller - Weller has been around for ages, and will most likely remain stable for generations to come. On the other hand, they're more overpriced than a golden one-legged elephant. No, I will not pay that much for that shiny disadvantaged elephant. Although I'm against their prices, they've earned their place in history. They make some great irons, but it doesn't generally get good until you've passed the $100 mark. Weller is, as I've said before, quite prominent, and takes up a good portion of the Industrial use.
  2. Hakko - Not everyone has heard of Hakko in the DIY/hobby world, but Hakko is pretty hard to beat when it comes to quality. These irons will feel like a well-worn glove, with a really hot pokey end that melts things. They're pretty, they work great, and they name sounds hardcore! Sadly, these too, are quite pricey. You're looking at over $100 if you even consider being satisfied. Hakko is often used in Industry.
  3. Aoyue - Right up there with the big boys, Aoyue produces high quality irons, but aren't quite so heavily used in the industry. I can't think of anything bad to say about these irons, other than they all look like Weller/Hakko knockoffs. This company brings the price down a notch, so for under $80, you could have a decent iron. Not a personal favorite, but that's just my opinion.
  4. Xytronic - I'm a tad biased with this company, since I prefer my Xytronic 379 to just about anything out there. Not the most well known, and their products look like they're from the 70's, but they sure do come out with some nice toys. High quality, but they haven't been around long, so get your accessories now, eh? You can expect to be dropping $50 for one heck of an iron. They're cheap on price, but never quality.
  5. Cooper - Makers of Weller soldering irons. See above.
  6. Black & Decker - They make good power tools, but average irons. Decently priced, but like I said, it's average.
  7. Radio Shack - This well known shop has always produced their own line of soldering irons, as well as carrying several other brands. I've had good luck with some of their soldering stations, and I hear great things about their digital irons. Always discounted, RS will give you a lovely start into the world of soldering.
Once you're heavily into industrial work, you'll find names such as JBC, Pace, etc., but those are expensive, heavy duty tools. Not for the beginner.

There are many other things that make the "perfect" soldering iron, but it's all relative to your needs. As I've stated earlier, I own a Xytronic model 379, and am deeply fond of it, and it's 70's vibe. After months of research, this particular model became the clear choice for my needs, and my budget. It easily matches the performance of a Weller WTCPT, and comes in at less than half the price.

One last note, take care of your iron. Tin your tip to prevent corrosion, and try not to abuse it too much. If you're good about that, then you might save yourself from ever replacing parts.

Now go out and buy one already!

Note: One of my readers made an excellent point: Tip quality. While tip quality is very important, I am in no way an expert in that particular area. I've never had to replace a tip due to corrosion, so my experience is limited, as well as my advice. I've seen people buy the best tips possible, even if it means modifying their irons/tips to fit, and only replacing them once or twice in a lifetime. On the other hand, I've seen people make their own tips out of heavy gauge copper wire, and replacing them once or twice a year. A few cents per tip, or $10-$20 for higher quality. It's a grey area for me, so this is just something I'll have to leave to my readers to research for themselves.

One last thing, Welcome to all the readers from Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories! Thanks for the shoutout, guys!