Master the art of melting metal with this no-nonsense guide to soldering

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Soldering is an important skill for anybody who wants to put together circuit boards, play around with Arduino setups, or work on almost any type of electrical project. When first beginning, however, the mere prospect of soldering something can be daunting. Fortunately, you don’t need to take an entire class to learn how to solder effectively — you just need the right guide to getting started!

Step 1: Acquire the right materials for the job

The three materials you really need to get started are a soldering iron, solder, and a soldering tip. For each of these, there are a lot of different options available and it’s easy for beginners to get lost. As a general rule, match your materials to the specific project you have in mind. Soldering wires together, for example, is different then soldering circuit board connections, and thus requires different resources.

As a general rule, it’s worthwhile to pay more for a high-quality soldering iron that comes with an adjustable temperature feature. For smaller projectors, a 15- or 30-watt iron is fine. For larger projects — think building out a customized soundboard or entertainment system — you should probably choose an iron with 40 to 50 watts, which increases the power and speed of the iron. Portability is also typically important for hobbyists, so keep an eye on power requirements and ease of use when buying.

As for solder, there are different types of wire for different purposes. They have different compositions and different melting temperatures, so pay close attention to specifications. Most solder is made out of a combination of tin and lead. A wire that’s 60 percent tin and 40 percent lead — or half and half — is usually suitable for more computer electronic work. Lead-free solder is better for the environment, but it also heats and melts differently, so it requires more experience to utilize. You should also pay attention to the flux, or the core material in the soldering wire that evaporates and forms an oxygen barrier. Stick with rosin as a flux when starting out — other fluxes have specific utilities for certain types of wire or metals, and probably aren’t necessary for basic soldering.

Finally, the soldering tip: The bevel tip is common for basic small-electronic soldering, and should probably be your first choice. Chisel tips are used more frequently for wires and larger components, while conical tips are used for very precise work that requires experience and a steady hand. Other tips, ones for even more specialized tasks, also exist.

Step 2: Ensure the utmost safety

Robby Sanders, Product Development Technician

We stress taking things slow and setting up safety precautions, especially when first experimenting with soldering projects. Always keep in mind that you are dealing with a lot of heat — around several hundred degrees Fahrenheit, typically — as well as melted metal and toxic fumes. Safety steps are absolutely necessary, and you will definitely want to wear safety glasses and protective clothing that you don’t mind getting singed.

First, carefully read your soldering iron instructions and know what to avoid. This includes never touching the iron to a live wire of any kind. You should also always keep track of where your iron is — never just “set it down.” Always return it to the charging base when it’s not in your hands. Otherwise, accidental fires can occur. When finished with the iron, always unplug it, even if you plan on coming back later.

Finally, the fumes produced by soldering are toxic, as is the melted lead in common solder wire. Work in a well-ventilated area, wear a breathing mask if you have to get in close for long periods of time, and always thoroughly wash your hands when you are finished.

Step 3: Prepare your components

Organization beforehand will save you a lot of time, and is particularly important when first learning the ropes. Set out all your components in the correct orientation and steps for completing your project, taking all necessary care (treating circuits with appropriate protection, etc.). Science Buddies has a handy little guide outlining the order you should be installing various components depending on your project. Some parts, like wire, may require stripping and other extra steps to prepare them.

Also, set up anything else you might need in advance. A few pliers, towels, cloths, wet sponges and trays —  and first aid for burns — can be immensely helpful at various stages of soldering.

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