When it comes to hand soldering tasks, the correct soldering iron is the best tool in your toolbox. Properly cleaned and cared for, a soldering iron can provide many hours of dependable service. The solder tip is the business end of a soldering iron, and it acts as the heat transfer component that melts the solder and heats the work, allowing everything to meld. For maximum life and continued efficiency, a solder tip should be adequately cared for and maintained. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your solder tips and cartridges.
Avoid Excessive Heat
Oxidation is a naturally occurring process that happens with a typical iron plated solder tip. The creation of iron oxide occurs at room temperature, but at a slower rate. When the tip is heated, the rate at which oxidation occurs also increases.
By running a soldering iron at a temperature higher than required, it needlessly increases the rate of oxidation for the tip. Having the solder tip too hot also increases the chances of damage to the work, so try to keep the temperature at the proper range for the solder in use.
Lead-free solder may require a higher temperature than others, so be sure and check the device temperature when switching solder types.
It should be noticed that not all soldering tools have a temperature control. Those that do not will typically heat the tip an excessive amount, shortening the tip lifetime. For this reason, upgrading to a temperature controlled workstation can be more cost effective and trouble-free.
There are advanced soldering systems on the market today that use microprocessor control to precisely adjust the tip temperature. These systems use a sensor on the tip to control power flow instead of just regulating the power. The end result is that the tip stays a constant temperature while the power flow varies.
A microprocessor controlled tip will give the maximum tip life while also protecting the work from sudden temperature increases. With a typical soldering iron using a constant power supply, varying heat transfer conditions can cause sudden variations in the tip temperature. Avoiding these allows for more precise control and protection.
Turn The Soldering Iron Off When Not in Use
As we have said, oxidation dramatically increases when the temperature of the solder tip is hotter than room temperature. You can prevent a lot of oxidation by simply turning off the soldering iron when it's not in use.
Turning off the soldering iron is also easier on the heating elements of the device, and is a good practice in keeping a safer work environment.
Today there are advanced soldering tools that incorporate an auto sleep feature into their design. These tools will automatically power down the tip when not in use, extending tip life.
Keep the Solder Tip Clean
A clean soldering iron will last longer and work more efficiently. Ideally, the tip should be cleaned during use and after each session and put away in a tidy state. Making this a habit will significantly extend the life of a solder tip.
There are several different methods available to clean a solder tip. One conventional approach is to use a damp sponge during use to keep it free of contaminants. Some soldering iron holders even feature a built-in sponge holder, making it convenient to use during work.
When using a damp sponge to clean a tip, be sure to let the tip return to the set temperature between wipes. The moisture in the sponge will act to slightly cool the tip. By waiting a few moments, the material on the tip will be back in a flowable state, making it easier to remove.
Using brass wool is a popular way to clean a tip. The wool allows gentle scrubbing of the tip without damaging the iron plating, making it a tip-friendly alternative. Many automatic tip cleaners will use brass wool brushes (and other metals) in the mechanical cleaning process.
Some soldering stands and stations offer both sponge and brass wool holders built into their base. This type of stand provides the most flexibility in keeping your solder tip maintained since the sponge allows for simple cleaning and the wool allows for the removal of material buildup as it happens.
Avoid using anything too aggressive when it comes to cleaning a solder tip. The iron plating needs to remain intact to protect the highly thermal copper underneath. If the iron plating gets a crack or a hole, the copper will begin to dissolve into the solder, significantly impacting tip life.
For this reason, items such as sandpaper and files should not be used for cleaning a modern plated tip. In the case of a pure copper tip, as found in older or cheaper irons, these can be used for cleaning without creating damage. But in these cases be sure to properly tin the tip after cleaning.
One of the latest innovations is the automated tip cleaner. Simply place the solder tip into the opening, the tip cleaner senses the tip and automatically activates, saving the operator time. These type of systems usually have a replaceable brush that pulls excess solder away from the tip as well as removing oxidation from the tip.
Protect the Tip with Solder
Once you have the tip nice and clean, you should protect the tip with a layer of solder before putting it away. This layer works to seal the iron plating from the air, substantially inhibiting oxidation. The best type of solder for iron protection is one with a high amount of flux.
Be Proactive with Oxidation
Oxidation is going to happen, that is a fact of life for soldering irons. The first sign of oxidation buildup will be a drop in solder performance. If it seems like the iron is just not getting hot enough, it could be that a thermal barrier of oxidation is preventing the tip from doing its job.
Oxidation will cause other signs as well before it is obvious you have a problem. If the solder tends to pool up (think mercury here) instead of properly flowing across the tip, it is probably due to an oxidation issue. The thermal barrier will also prevent the heat transfer to the work, creating more problems.
There are many products on the market to help with cleaning oxidation from a solder tip. Many people will use tip tinners or a cleaning paste for this purpose. These products contain a mild acid which helps to break down the oxidation without damaging the iron plating underneath.
Know When to Replace a Solder Tip
Even the best cared for solder tip will eventually need replacing. As long as the iron plating stays intact, an adequately cleaned tip can be used without a problem. But once a crack or hole develops in the plating, the tip is on borrowed time.
The problem is that the thermally efficient copper underneath the iron plating will dissolve into the solder. This removal of material will leave a vacant spot on the tip, preventing proper heat flow. In some cases, you will find pits or even a hole on the surface of a tip. When this happens, the tip or cartridge should be replaced.
Keeping a solder tip clean and maintained will ensure that your equipment lasts longer and provides a high degree of soldering performance. We carry a comprehensive line of quality hand soldering and reworking tools, featuring our advanced SmartHeat® microprocessor controls that deliver precise service to even the most demanding application. Contact us today to see how we can help with your hand soldering projects.