Tools of the Trade – Reflow

In our previous issues in this series on making circuit boards, we covered placing solder paste and placing components. Now it’s time to bake our cake!

There are a variety of methods for reflowing a circuit board, but they all rely on a single principle: heat up the solder paste (a mixture of flux and solder) until the flux burns off and the solder becomes liquid, and then cool it down. Accomplishing this once or twice is easy; once you’ve played with a hot plate you’ll swear off through hole. Scaling it up and doing it repeatedly with high yield is extremely challenging, though. Continue reading “Tools of the Trade – Reflow”

USB Soldering Iron is Surprisingly Capable

We know what you’re thinking. There’s no way an 8 watt USB-powered soldering iron could be worth the $5 it commands on eBay. That’s what [BigClive] thought too, so he bought one, put the iron through a test and teardown, and changed his mind. Can he convince you too?

Right up front, [BigClive] finds that the iron is probably not suitable for some jobs. Aside its obvious unsuitability for connections that take a lot of heat, there’s the problem of leakage current when used with a wall-wart USB power supply. The business end of the iron ends up getting enough AC leak through the capacitors of the power supply to potentially damage MOSFETs and the like. Then again, if you’re handy to an AC outlet, wouldn’t you just use a Hakko? Seems like the iron is best powered by a USB battery pack, and [BigClive] was able to solder some surprisingly beefy connections that way. The teardown and analysis reveal a circuit that looks like it came right out of a [Forrest M. Mims III] book. We won’t spoil the surprise for you – just watch the video below.

While not truly cordless like this USB-rechargeable iron, we’d say that for the price, this is a pretty capable iron for certain use cases. Has anyone else tried one of these? Chime in on the comments and let us know what you think.

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Tiny Hotplate Isn’t Overkill

When working on a new project, it’s common to let feature creep set in and bloat the project. Or to over-design a project well beyond what it would need to accomplish its task. Over at Black Mesa Labs, their problem wasn’t with one of their projects, it was with one of their tools: their hot plate. For smaller projects, an 800W hot plate was wasteful in many ways: energy, space, and safety. Since a lot of their reflow solder jobs are on boards that are one square inch, they set out to solve this problem with a tiny hot plate.

The new hot plate is perfectly sized for the job. Including control circuitry, it’s around the size of a credit card. The hot plate is powered from a small surplus 20V 5A laptop power supply and does a nice 4 minute reflow profile and cools off completely in under a minute. Compared to their full-sized hot plate, this is approximately 29 minutes faster, not to mention the smaller workspace footprint that this provides. The entire setup cost about $20 from the heating element to the transistors and small circuit board, and assuming that you have an Arduino Pro sitting in your junk bin.

It’s a good idea to have a reflow oven or a hot plate at your disposal, especially if you plan to do any surface mount work. There are lots of options available, from re-purposed toaster ovens to other custom hot plates of a more standard size. Overkill isn’t always a bad thing!

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Hacklet 99 – Soldering Tools

If there is one tool every hardware hacker needs, it’s a good soldering setup. Soldering irons, heat guns, reflow ovens and the like make up the tools of the trade for building electronic circuits. Spend enough time working with a tool, and you’ll find a way to improve it. It’s no surprise that hackers, makers, and engineers have been hacking their soldering tools for decades. This week’s Hacklet features some of the best soldering tool projects on!

hakkoWe start with  [Kuro] a Hakko 907 based Soldering Station. Hakko 907 and 936 soldering station clones from the Far East are available all over the internet. While the heaters work, none of them have very good temperature controllers. [Kuro] turned a problem into a project by building his own soldering station. These irons are rated for 24 V. 24 volt power supplies are not very common, but it’s easy to find old 19 volt supplies from discarded laptops. [Kuro] found that the lower voltage works just fine. An Arduino nano controls the show, with user output displayed on a 2 line LCD. The finished controller works better than the original, and probably would give a real Hakko model a run for its money.

reflowNext up is [Sukasa] with Reflow Oven. When MakerSpace Nanaimo needed a reflow oven, [Sukasa] jumped in with this design. The idea was to create an oven that looked unmodified – just think of it as the toaster oven of the future, or the reflow oven of today. A Netduino plus 2 is the main controller. User information is displayed on a color TFT LCD. This oven is even internet connected, with an internally hosted web page and JSON data feed. The Netduino controls two beefy Solid State Relays (SSRs). The SSRs handle the dirty work of switching the oven’s heating elements. Two fans keep air moving to avoid hot spots. Precision temperature sensing is achieved through a pair of Adafruit MAX31855 breakout boards reading thermocouples.

plateNext we have [Jaromir Sukuba] with Soldering preheat plate. When soldering surface mount components, like QFN or BGA parts, it helps to pre-heat the whole board. There are commercial products to do this using hot air and other techniques, but it really comes down to making a hotplate. [Jaromir] figured he could do a pretty good job at this, so he built his own with a 3mm aluminum plate. Heat comes from 6 resistors in TO-220 cases. A Microchip PIC18 monitors a thermocouple and keeps things from getting too hot. For power, [Jaromir] had the same idea as [Kuro] did, and used a 19V power brick from an old laptop.

gooseFinally we have [Alex Rich] with Locking ball and socket gooseneck system. [Alex] came up with the Stickvise, so it’s fitting that he comes up with an awesome upgrade for it. We’ve all fought with “helping hands” while soldering. You never get them at quite the right angle. This system fixes that with a simple ball and gooseneck setup. [Alex] saw a similar design and printed it out. While it worked, the pieces popped apart too easily. [Alex] redesigned the system, adding a threaded locking ring. These new goosenecks stay put, holding your work exactly where you want it.

If you want to see more soldering tool projects, check out our brand new soldering tools list! If I missed your project, don’t be shy! Just drop me a message on That’s it for this week’s Hacklet. As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of!

Solder at Room Temperature

Have you ever seen the science experiment (or magic trick?) where you get water supercooled to where it isn’t frozen, but then it freezes when you touch it, pour it, or otherwise disturb it? Apparently, ice crystals form around impurities or disturbances in the liquid and then “spread.” A similar effect can occur in metals where the molten metal cools in such a way that it stays melted even below the temperature that would usually cause it to melt.

[Martin Thuo] at Iowa University used this property to make solder joints at room temperature using Field’s metal (a combination of bismuth, indium, and tin). The key is a process that coats the molten metal with several nanolayers that protect it from solidifying until something disturbs the protective layer.

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Heathkit’s Triumphant Return?

Heathkit, the storied purveyor of high-quality DIY electronics kits that inspired a generation of enthusiasts and launched the careers of many engineers, has returned from the dead. We think. At least it seems that way from this build log by [Spritle], an early adopter of the rebooted company’s first offering. But if [Spritle]’s experience is any indication, Heathkit has a long way to go to recreating its glory days. Continue reading “Heathkit’s Triumphant Return?”

AirAsia Crash Analysis: Who or What Failed?

Just a few days after Christmas last year AirAsia Flight 8051 traveling to Singapore tragically plummeted into the sea. Indonesia completed its investigation of the crash and just released the final report. Media coverage, especially in Asia is big. The stories are headlined by pilot error but,as technologists, there are lessons to be learned deeper in the report.

The Airbus A320 is a fly-by-wire system meaning there are no mechanical linkages between the pilots and the control surfaces. Everything is electronic and most of a flight is under automatic control. Unfortunately, this also means pilots don’t spend much time actually flying a plane, possibly less than a minute, according to one report.

Here’s the scenario laid out by the Indonesian report: A rudder travel limit computer system alarmed four times. The pilots cleared the alarms following normal procedures. After the fifth alarm, the plane rolled beyond 45 degrees, climbed rapidly, stalled, and fell.

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