Soldering Tools of the Trade by sjm4306 (Shawn Maxwell)
If there is one skill that is most useful to repairing or modding a retro console, I have to say it would be soldering. Common faults like replacing bad capacitors, blown surface mount fuses, dead save batteries, and damaged voltage regulators all require the handy soldering iron for long term reliability. However, the world of soldering equipment can be daunting for the uninitiated, so here’s a quick guide on what tools you need to get started. A quick search of soldering irons will reveal everything from dirt cheap, no frills irons that I like to affectionately call “fire starters” to high end professional sets with a price to match their long list of features. But if you just want to get into fixing consoles what’s the right choice? There are a few important things to keep in mind when selecting an iron:
- Temperature control
- Tip size/shape
The golden rule of soldering is to not have your iron any hotter and in contact for any longer than necessary to make a strong, electrically conductive joint. This will help prevent damage to parts and circuit boards. Temperature control as its name implies allows you to change the temperature of the iron to suit the type of soldering you want to do, and while not necessary will definitely make your life easier. For example certain repairs like fixing vertical lines on DMG LCDs require dropping the temperature to prevent melting the fragile flex ribbon. On the other end, soldering chunky parts like larger voltage regulators connected to big ground planes goes much easier if you have the ability to turn up the temperature.
Fixed temperature soldering iron
Digitally adjustable temperature-controlled iron
Most adjustable irons can be set to around 500-800*F, ranging from having fancy digital controls on a separate power supply box to a simple analog knob right on the handle. Adjustable irons can be a bit more expensive than non-adjustable ones but in the long run they will give the most bang per buck by being flexible to suit a wider range of projects.
- Variable temp: Weller WLC100 40-Watt Soldering Station
- Digital temp: Tenma 21-10115 60-Watt Soldering Station
Tip size / shape
The next big choice to make is what type of soldering tip to get. Soldering irons have removable tips as tips are considered a consumable, meaning that over time they will wear down and need to be replaced. Luckily tips are relatively cheap, easy to find and will last quite a while provided you keep them clean, tinned and turn off the iron when not in use. Additionally, it is good practice to keep a number of different tips of varying sizes and shapes for different applications.
An assortment of tips (you can never have too many!)
I would suggest getting a small conical and chisel tip for the beginner looking to fix or mod consoles. Conical tips are sharp and pencil shaped, good for small surface mount work but inefficient for larger through hole parts. Chisel tips have a wider, flat end that is good for through hole parts and getting good thermal transfer for larger parts, but much more difficult to solder surface mount parts without accidentally creating solder bridges. There are other types of specialty tips that can be used for advanced soldering techniques, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Finally, the last thing I mentioned to keep in mind when selecting an iron is the wattage, basically how much total power it is capable of putting out. The lower the wattage, the harder the iron will struggle to keep the temperature constant under load. Thus, on the low end 20W is only suitable for small, fine work. More common are irons in the range of 30-60W which will be a lot more useful for the types of projects a retro enthusiast will encounter. I would suggest going no lower than 40W and picking on the higher end if you intend to do things which tend to require higher temperatures like capacitor/regulator replacements. So long as the iron is also capable of temperature control you have nothing to fear as you can always drop the temperature for more delicate jobs anyway. Supplies So now that the first big step of selecting an iron is … ironed out, pun intended, we can cover necessary consumables like solder, wick, and flux.
There are leaded and lead-free varieties of solder, with lead-free being much harder to use for the beginner so leaded is much preferred. It is very important to note that there are variants of solder which are meant for plumbing or other heavy duty applications which are unsuited for delicate electronics work due to either their lack of flux, highly corrosive flux, or much higher melting point, so steer clear from them and stick with solder sold specifically for electronics. It can be confusing seeing leaded solder labelled as 60/40 and 63/37, but all that means is the ratio of lead to tin. For the most part there is negligible difference, and either will work fine. There are variants of solder that use silver and other more exotic metals, but these are more expensive and not necessary for our intended use. I do a lot of soldering, so I bought a slightly costly 1lb spool that I expect to last me a good decade or so.
An assortment of solder spools
Soldering wick is next up on the list and a miracle for removing the eventual accidental solder bridge or desoldering stubborn parts. As wick tends to be a bit expensive, it is a good idea to get a smaller roll and use it sparingly when absolutely necessary.
Desoldering Braid (aka Soldering Wick) quickly becomes your best friend
Last but definitely not least is flux. If you’ve ever wondered how to get beautiful shiny joints, then the answer is part technique and part flux. Flux is essentially a gel or liquid applied to joints before soldering in order to clean the metal to be attached and ensure the solder flows smoothly. Solder contains a core of flux, but the problem is that most of this burns off immediately when heated before it can properly do its job so adding additional flux is a good idea. Because flux is effectively an acid that eats corrosion under high temperature it is a good idea to get the no-clean variety which is safe to leave after soldering (although it is still good practice to clean boards with a solvent like isopropyl alcohol or contact cleaner). As for choosing gel or liquid, this is mostly down to preference with gel being better for tacking surface mount parts in place and liquid being generally less messy overall.
Flux, another best friend, makes life easier (diluted with a small amount of isopropyl alcohol and added to syringe for easy, less messy surface mount application)
Ok… now what?
Hopefully this article has given a good idea how to go about selecting a soldering iron, solder, wick and flux. This may seem obvious to veterans but can be a confusing minefield to the uninitiated, with many different options available. For those just getting into the hobby this is just the first step, but a very important one on the road to being able to fix or mod just about anything you can think of.