How To

Soldering 101: A Beginner’s Guide

Learning to solder is an essential step in leveling up your repair skills, and it’s also your gateway to some really awesome maker projects.

We’ll cover the bare minimum you’ll need to get started, including tools and gear, safety precautions, and of course, some basic soldering skills.

Setting Up Your Workstation

To get things started, we’re going to need a few specialty tools. Don’t worry, you don’t have to break the bank to get everything you’ll need. We’ll lay out all of the basics below.

  • The soldering iron is your main tool in soldering. While soldering irons can vary quite a bit in power, quality, and use case, their main purpose is heating an iron tip hot enough to melt solder—in our case, lead-free solder.
    • There are several solder options on the market, but they are broadly categorized into lead-free and leaded solder. Leaded solder is easier to work with due to its fixed lower melting point and easier flow, but requires additional precautions due to the presence of toxic lead. Lead-free solder is a safer option, but has a melting range instead of a melting point, which can make it a little harder to work with. 
  • A fume extractor or some method of fume removal on hand is essential. Regardless of the kind of solder you use, soldering produces fumes that are better left un-inhaled.
  • Flux helps to remove oxidation from the contacts and ensures strong bond between the solder and whatever you’re soldering. Most solder these days contains flux at its core, but you may need more to ensure a solid solder joint.
  • Have a spool of solder wick braid or a desoldering pump to lift up liquid solder while desoldering, or to help mop up mistakes.
  • Grab a wet sponge or solder tip cleaning ball to clean the iron tip. We tend to prefer the cleaning ball.
  • A soldering splint or helping hands do the very important job of holding things nice and steady while we do our work. 

This might seem like an imposing list of tools, but there are budget-friendly options for the DIY repair enthusiast. You can get this list of tools for under $100, and with a little creativity, maybe even half that.

Safety Precautions

While soldering can be intimidating, it’s pretty safe so long as we take proper precautions. First up, the iron itself.

Soldering irons can reach temperatures in excess of 400C (800F) so you’ll want to avoid contact with the skin and consider any fire hazards in the area. Never walk away from a hot iron!

On rare occasions, you’ll see solder ball up into tiny globules and jump from the tip of your iron. These balls are usually small enough to solidify while traveling through the air, but it’s always a sensible precaution to wear safety glasses to protect your eyes.

This should also incentivize you to create a suitable work area for your soldering projects. Hard wooden surfaces are ideal. Your highly flammable Vicuna wool rug is not.

Last but not least, consider ventilation and fume extraction very carefully. While soldering, you may be exposed to toxic chemicals which can cause anything from moderate to severe health issues with prolonged exposure. This is especially true if you choose to use leaded solder.

Industrial fume extractors can cost thousands of dollars, but those are overkill for the average hobbyist. Depending on what you have at home, you can make one for next to nothing. 

Check out our guide for a DIY fume extractor that won’t break the bank.

Through-Hole Soldering

Now that we’ve covered what you’ll need and what you shouldn’t do, let’s get on to the fun stuff. We recommend starting with through-hole components as they’re easier to see and handle, making them ideal for learning.

First, prepare your project by creating a stable, hands-free workstation. Use what works for you, but a combination of helping hands and a soldering splint provides the most stability. This allows the free use of both hands, one of which will be holding the iron and the other will be feeding in the solder.

Next, place some flux on the contacts you’d like to solder.

Solder will flow towards copper, but copper develops a layer of oxidation when it comes into contact with air. Trying to solder to oxidized copper results in a weak and brittle connection. Flux fixes this by deoxidizing the copper contact and keeping oxygen away until the solder has a chance to bond with the copper.

With the components in place and flux applied, it’s time to turn on the soldering iron and the fume extractor.

There are many ways of testing to see if the iron is hot enough, but we recommend feeding some of the solder to the tip. When it readily melts, you know the iron is ready.

Lead-free solder will melt in the 200-220C (390-430F) range and allows us to fuse components in place making sure they have a strong electrical connection. This is also a good time to talk about “tinning” the tip of an iron, something you should do at the beginning and end of each soldering session.

Soldering iron tips have an iron plating that’s great for outputting heat, but they are prone to oxidation and corrosion. Solder is resistant to both oxidation and corrosion so coating the tip with a bit of solder or tip cleaner is a great way of protecting that vulnerable iron-plated layer.

Let’s start soldering! Apply your iron to the copper contact on the board and the component pin for a few seconds. The goal is to heat the copper pad and the component pin evenly so they can accept the solder. If the copper pad and pin are too cold, the solder will just ball up.

After heating the contact point, apply the solder. Make sure to apply the solder to the component pin and/or the track, not to the soldering iron itself.

You’ll know if you’ve done it right if your solder forms a wide base on the board and smoothly tapers to a point, kind of like a Hershey’s Kiss—but without the diabetes.

Now that we’ve successfully added our solder point, we need to begin cleaning. Flux is corrosive so we’ll want to apply a little isopropyl alcohol to the board and clean the area with a cotton swab. The flux we used may claim to be “no clean” but that’s not strictly true. 

Desoldering Components

Now that you’ve made your first soldered connection let’s talk about how you can disconnect and remove it. Desoldering components is essentially the reverse of soldering, just with slightly different tools.

As with soldering, to desolder a joint we need to heat the copper braid and the solder we want to remove evenly. Remember when we mentioned that solder is attracted to copper? Add a little flux to the braid to deoxidize it, place the braid over the solder and apply the iron directly to the braid.

Just like magic, the solder flows away from the board and into the copper braid. It’s that easy.

Tips and Tricks

As with everything in life, practice makes perfect. So here are a few tips to help you on your learning journey:

  • Pay attention to how much solder you’re feeding in; too little and you won’t get a good connection, too much and you’ll potentially short the pins. 
  • For through-hole connections, you’re looking to create a Hershey’s teardrop shape joint. It should be smooth, shiny and conical without excess solder or balling of the solder.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of flux! You can solder a component without flux and it may look fine, but the oxidation on the copper guarantees a weaker connection than if you were to use flux.
  • Desoldering can be a frustrating exercise at times. Using different tips and special tools can help make the process less painful. 
  • If you find yourself struggling, don’t blame yourself! Soldering isn’t difficult and it’s far more likely that you have a bad iron or you’re working with crappy solder. Examine your equipment and consider whether it’s worth investing in better tools and consumables.

We hope this will just be the start of your soldering journey. Who knows, maybe someday soon you’ll be upgrading the RAM on your ROG Ally or fixing MacBooks like a pro.