How to Select the Right Soldering Iron

by Fred Decker
Soldering delicate components requires a low-temperature iron and steady hands.

Soldering delicate components requires a low-temperature iron and steady hands.

Soldering is a supremely useful skill to have in your repertoire. It's a prerequisite for fixing or maintaining almost anything electrical or electronic, from major appliances to tiny cell phones and MP3 players. All that's required is the appropriate soldering iron for the job, a steady hand, and the patience to do it over again until you've mastered the process. Soldering irons offer a wide range of tips, temperatures and other features, so selecting one requires some thought.

Occasional Use

Select an inexpensive pencil-style iron with a thin, conical tip for occasional repairs to electronics. A 15-watt or 20-watt iron will generate enough heat to melt the solder, without unnecessary risk to delicate components nearby.

Choose an iron with a 30- to 45-watt rating and interchangeable tips for general-purpose electrical work. Your local electronics hobbyist shop carries a variety of replacement tips in suitable sizes and shapes for most jobs.

Pick an iron with adjustable heat settings, for maximum versatility. Some electric models can be switched between two or three settings, including a low-wattage setting for electronics work. Gas-powered portable irons can be adjusted through a wide range of temperatures, and are convenient for cars, boats and other outdoor work.

Opt for a powerful gun-type iron if you primarily solder large connections, such as the heavy wiring in major appliances. Inexpensive gun-type models range up to 250 watts, allowing them to rapidly heat large wires and connectors to a working temperature.

Hobby Use

Pick a thin-barrelled pencil style iron for delicate electronics work. A thin, pointed conical tip allows for fine control in tight spaces. Because excess heat can damage nearby components, 12 to 20 watts are optimal for electronics.

Select a thin but hot iron for jewelery work, because silver solder has a higher melting temperature than regular tin/lead solder. Irons in the 30- to 60-watt range are good choices. Thin, pointed tips and flat beveled tips can both be useful, depending on the type of soldering you do.

Solder heavy crafts, such as leaded or stained-glass windows, with a larger gun-style solderer. These crafts use large pieces of metal, and require a more powerful heat source.

Professional Use

Select a good-quality, temperature-controlled pencil iron if soldering is an occasional part of your job. These irons maintain a more consistent temperature than lower-cost irons, which are regulated only by the nature of their heating element.

Pick a powerful cordless or gas-powered soldering iron with adjustable temperature settings, if you'll primarily be soldering in the field. A good portable iron and a selection of tips give you the versatility to tackle most service requests.

Choose a good-quality soldering station from a major manufacturer such as Weller, if soldering at a workbench is one of your major duties. The iron itself plugs into a sophisticated base unit, which actively manages power to the soldering tip. Maintaining a closely controlled tip temperature lets technicians solder almost continuously for hours.

Tip

  • If you solder on even an occasional basis, it's worth investing in a few basic accessories. A desoldering tool can speed repairs, and make it easier for you to correct mistakes as you learn. Purchase solder in two or three diameters, so you'll have fine solder for fine work and larger solder for coarse work. Clip-on heat sinks can protect delicate components while you work nearby, and adjustable clamps can provide additional "helping hands" to hold things in place while you work.

Warnings

  • Soldering irons can cause serious burns if they're handled carelessly or dropped, and they have the potential to cause fires. Purchase a heatproof rest for your iron, or have a designated place to set it down while you work.
  • Always solder in a well-ventilated area, and avoid inhaling the fumes. Most types of solder contain lead, and the rosin core inside the solder can also create toxic fumes.

Photo Credits

  • Andreas Rentz/Getty Images News/Getty Images