What the Flux: How Does Solder Work Anyway?

I’ve been soldering for a long time, and I take pride in my abilities. I won’t say that I’m the best solder-slinger around, but I’m pretty good at this essential shop skill — at least for through-hole and “traditional” soldering; I haven’t had much practice at SMD stuff yet. I’m confident that I could make a good, strong, stable joint that’s both electrically and mechanically sound in just about any kind of wire or conductor.

But like some many of us, I learned soldering as a practical skill; put solder and iron together, observe results, repeat the stuff that works and avoid the stuff that doesn’t. Seems like adding a little inside information might help me improve my skills, so I set about learning what’s going on mechanically and chemically inside a solder joint.

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Iron Tips: Soldering Headphones and Enamel Wire

We’ve all had that treasured pair of headphones fail us. One moment we’re jamming out to our favorite song, then, betrayal. The right ear goes out. No wait. It’s back. No, damn, it’s gone. It works for a while and then no jiggling of the wire will bring it back. So we think to ourselves, we’ve soldered before. This is nothing. We’ll just splice the wire together.

So we open it up only to be faced with the worst imaginable configuration: little strands of copper enamel wire intertwined with nylon for some reason. How does a mortal solder this? First you try to untwine the nylon from the strands. It kind of works, but now the strands are all mangled and weird. Huh. Okay. well, you kind of twist them together and give a go at soldering. No dice. Next comes sandpaper, torches, and all sorts of work-a-rounds. None of them seem to work. The best you manage is sound in one ear. It’s time to give up.

Soldering this stuff is actually pretty easy. It just takes a bit of knowledge about how assembly line workers do it. Let’s take a look.

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Let’s Play…Wheel of Solder!

Solder is solder right? Just spin the wheel and whatever comes up will work fine. Well, not so fast. If you’re new to electronics, or are looking at getting started, there is a bit to learn first. [Mr Carlson] has the info you need with this youtube video you can watch after the break.

He begins with a discussion of solder diameter. For most through hole work, something around 0.03 inch is pretty universal. When your ready to step up to SMD work, we find 0.02″ inch to be a much better match to the smaller pad sizes. [Mr Carlson] goes on to talk about the types of flux used inside the solder. Rosin(R), Rosin-Midly-Activated(RMA) and Rosin Activated(RA) in order of least to most aggressive.

He rounds out the video with information and a warning about using “organic” core solder. If you’re new to the world of solder, this video is a good jumping off point. TLDR; If you’re just starting out, a 0.03″ RMA solder would be a good place to start – but if you want to learn a bit more, the 20 minute video is worth the watch for those of you just getting your feet iron tip wet. It’ll serve you well at least until solderless metal glue becomes affordable.

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Homemade Soldering Stations for Cheapy Irons

Everyone reading this post has had a cheap pencil-style soldering irons that plug straight into the wall at some point in their lives. Even if you’ve upgraded to a professional soldering station, you probably have one of these cheapy irons kicking around that are slow to heat up to an unknown temperature. [Pantelis] thought he could fix the latter problem with his Homemade Soldering Station for those basic soldering irons.

Since the intent of the soldering station was to control the temperature of the iron [Pantelis] had to figure out a way to sense the temperature. He did this by strapping a thermocouple to the iron near the tip. The wires were run back through the handle and then along the power cord.

Homemade Soldering Station for cheap Soldering Irons

Both the stock iron plug and the thermocouple leads plug into a box put together specifically for this project. In the photo you’ll notice the LCD screen that displays both the target and actual temperatures. The linear potentiometer below the LCD screen is used to set the target temperature. The LED to the right alerts the operator that the iron is heating up and when it is at temperature and read to go.

Although there isn’t a lot of schematic or part list information, [Pantelis] did do a good job photo documenting his build. Check it out, it’s worth a gander.

DIY flux comes straight from the tree

[Tom] needed more solder flux and instead of buying it he thought he’d try making his own. The thing is, he didn’t have any rosin on hand. But knowing its source let him acquire it for free. He took a sample of tree sap and turned it into his own solder flux.

We’ve seen a few different DIY flux recipes this year. The most recent guide suggests sourcing rosin from the hardware store because of the quality, or if that fails you’ll find some at the music store. [Tom] was lucky enough to find a large dollop leaking from a pine tree in his neighborhood. He let it sit overnight in a container along with some isopropyl alcohol. In the morning the sap had fully dissolved, so he ran it through a coffee filter to get rid of any debris. He keeps it in a small jar, applying it to his projects using cotton swabs. You can see his short soldering demo after the break.

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More DIY solder flux

[GuShH] wrote a guide for making your own rosin-based solder flux. According to [Stephen] — who sent in the tip and tried this method himself — is works well, it’s cheap, but you will need to clean up a bit after using it on a PCB.

Only two ingredients are necessary to make your own liquid or paste flux: rosin and a solvent. The rosin being weighed in the image above, can be found from several sources. We looked in on the same method quite recently where flux was sourced from a music store. But [GuShH] suggests that if you can find some from a hardware store it is better because the music store variety tends to be ‘molten’ and doesn’t work quite as well.

Proportions are listed on his guide for light, medium, and heavy concoctions. He recommends isopropyl alcohol as the solvent, and has stored the flux in a clear dropper bottle. We’re fans of needle bottles and asked about sourcing them in a previous post (linked in the paragraph above) so check that comments section if you don’t know where to get one.

What the flux: buy it or brew it yourself

Flux generally makes our lives easier. It’s the best bet when trying to prevent solder bridges with fine-pitch components like you see here. But it is also indispensable when it comes to desoldering components from a board (we’re talking just one component without disturbing all of the others). But have you ever looked at what it costs to pick up a syringe of liquid flux from an online retailer? In addition to the cost of the product itself there’s usually a hazardous material handling fee that is rolled into the shipping cost. So we were happy that [Christopher] sent in a link to the DIY flux page over at Dangerous Prototypes.

The concept is simple enough. Mix some rosin with some solvent. Turns out these items are really easy to source. The solvent can be acetone (which you may have on hand for removing toner transfer from freshly etched PCBs) or plain old rubbing alcohol. And an easy source for rosin is your local music store. They sell it to use on bow hair for String players. Grind it up, throw it in a bottle and you’re good to go. Now does anyone know where we can source needle-tipped bottles locally?

For those that still just want to buy flux we highly recommend watching part one and part two of [Ian’s] flux review series.