Cheap Helping Hands: Just Add Time

We think of helping hands as those little alligator clips on a metal stand. They are cheap and fall over, so we tend to buy them and don’t use them. However, if you are willing to put $35 or $40 into it, you can get the newer kind that have–well–tentacles–on a heavy base.  [Archie_slap] didn’t want that kind of investment, so he made his own for about $10. We think that’s Australian dollars, so that’s even less in the United States.

What’s better is he documented every step in meticulous detail and with great pictures. You probably won’t directly duplicate his project because you will probably pick up a slightly different base, but that’s not hard to figure out. The arms are actually coolant hose, [Archie_slap] picked up almost everything but the base plate on eBay.

It’s obvious [Archie] is a frugal guy, based on his drill press. It gets the job done, though. The build is attractive and looks like a much more expensive commercial product. Some of us around the Hackaday lab are old enough to wish there was a magnifying glass attached, but maybe that’s version two.

We’ve looked at a lot of different helpers recently. We couldn’t help but think about a somewhat similar Gorillapod holder we covered last year.

Get Up Close to your Soldering with a Pi Zero Microscope

Do your Mark 1 Eyeballs no longer hold their own when it comes to fine work close up? Soldering can be a literal pain under such conditions, and even for the Elf-eyed among us, dealing with pads at a 0.4-mm pitch is probably best tackled with a little optical assistance. When the times comes for a little help, consider building a soldering microscope from a Pi Zero and a few bits and bobs from around the shop.

Affordable commercial soldering scopes aren’t terribly hard to come by, but [magkopian] decided to roll his own by taking advantage of the streaming capabilities of the Raspberry Pi platform, not to mention its affordability. This is a really simple hack — nothing is 3D-printed or custom milled. The stage base is a simple aluminum project box for heat resistance and extra weight, and the arm is a cheap plastic dial caliper. The PiCam is mounted to the sliding jaw of the caliper on a scrap of plastic ruler. The lens assembly of the camera needs to be hacked a little to change the focal length to work within 10 centimeters or so; alternatively, you could splurge and get a camera module with an adjustable lens. The Pi is set up for streaming, and your work area is presented in glorious, lag-free HDMI video.

Is [magkopian]’s scope going to give you the depth perception of a stereo microscope? Of course not. But for most jobs, it’ll probably be enough, and the fact that it can be built on the cheap makes it a great hack in our book.

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Fixing Fake FTDIs

If you know where to go on the Internet, you can pick up an FTDI USB to Serial adapter for one dollar and sixty-seven cents, with free shipping worldwide. The chip on this board is an FTDI FT232RL, and costs about two dollars in quantity. This means the chips on the cheap adapters are counterfeit. While you can buy a USB to serial adapter with a legitimate chip, [Syonyk] found a cheaper solution: buy the counterfeit adapters, a few genuine chips, and rework the PCB. It’s brilliant, and an excellent display of desoldering prowess.

Why is [Syonyk] replacing non-genuine chips with the real FTDI? The best reason is FTDIgate Mk. 1, where the official FTDI driver for Windows detected non-genuine chips and set the USB PID to zero. This bricked a whole bunch of devices, and was generally regarded as a bad move. FTDIgate Mk. 2 was a variation on a theme where the FTDI driver would inject garbage data into a circuit if a non-genuine part was found. This could also brick devices. Notwithstanding driver issues, the best reason for swapping out fake chips for real ones is the performance at higher bit rates; [Syonyk] is doing work at 3 Mbps, and the fake chips just don’t work that fast.

To replace the counterfeit chip, [Syonyk] covered the pins in a nice big glob of solder, carefully heated both sides of the chip, and slid the offending chip off when everything was molten. A bit of solder braid, and the board was ready for the genuine chip.

With the new chip, the cheap USB to serial adapter board works perfectly, although anyone attempting to duplicate these efforts might want to look into replacing the USB mini port with a USB micro port.

Review: Antex TCS 50W Digital Temperature Controlled Soldering Iron.

Sometime last summer, I suffered a very sad loss indeed. My soldering iron failed, and it was not just any soldering iron, but the Weller Magnastat temperature-controlled iron that had been my iron of choice since my student days. It was time to buy a replacement, and a whole world of soldering equipment lay before me. In the end I settled on a choice that might seem unexpected, I bought an Antex TCS 50W temperature controlled iron with a digital temperature controller and LCD display in its handle.

No room for a poor iron

When looking at a new iron it’s worth considering for a moment what requirements you might have.  After all, while we’d all love to own a top-of-the range soldering station it’s sometimes necessary to target your purchase carefully for an acceptable blend of affordability, reliability, and performance. It’s possible to find temperature controlled irons for astoundingly low prices these days, thanks to the wonders of globalised manufacturing. But the irons themselves will not be of good quality, their bits will be difficult to replace, and sometimes they are better described as variable temperature rather than temperature controlled. If I was to escape a poor choice I’d have to set my sights a little higher.

Antex are a perennial in the world of British electronics, their signature yellow-handled irons have been around for decades. They aren’t priced at the top end of the market yet they have a pretty good reputation, but could their all-in-one temperature controlled iron be a good alternative to a unknown-name iron that came with a soldering-station-style controller? I parted with my £55 (about $68) before taxes, and waited for the delivery.

All-in-one, win or bin?

The iron I chose is the latest in a long line of their all-in-one temperature controlled irons, and so the blurb tells me, the first with digital control. Previous models had an analogue adjustment which if I recall correctly was achieved by means of a screw, while this one has an LCD display with up and down buttons on its handle.

I haven't bothered with the supplied stand, as you can see.
I haven’t bothered with the supplied stand, as you can see.

In the box are the iron, a rather useless stand made from metal sheet, and an instruction leaflet. Fortunately my requirements included a decent stand, so I’d already ordered the more substantial companion product with a sponge. Out went the sponge and in went a bundle of brass turnings, but the stand itself is fine.

The iron has the usual Antex bit that fits as a sleeve over the cylindrical element. I bought a range of bits of different sizes, it’s never a bad thing to have choice. The handle is bigger than their standard irons as you might expect, but has a flattened and curved profile that’s easy on the hand. It’s noticeably lighter than the Magnastat, which along with its extra-flexible silicone cable makes it easier to use than its predecessor.

In use, the extra length of the handle doesn’t compromise soldering ability. In the time since purchase it has been used to construct multiple projects, and everything from the smaller surface-mount components upwards are taken in its stride. The 50 W element has plenty of power for soldering to PCB planes that suck away the heat, though you probably wouldn’t use it to solder heavy-gauge copper.

The temperature range of 200 to 450 Celcius is ample for my requirements, in fact once I’d set it to my normal 360 degrees I’ve never changed it. Time from power-on to full working temperature is about 45 seconds, which isn’t the fastest on the block, but then again since I turn it on when I sit down it’s not ever been an issue.

A match made in heaven

So, based on quite a few months of regular use, I’m happy with my iron. The question is though, was it the best choice? I think so, given that the competition at the price would almost certainly not come with such readily available support. There’s almost an instinctive distrust of all-in-one temperature-controlled irons that I haven’t found to be justified by the reality. An alternative might have been to build one of the clever designs that adds a temperature controller to a Weller tip, but given that this is an iron I sometimes use to earn a living I’d rather be working for cash than working on my iron. There are certainly cheaper irons and there are probably better irons, but for me this one hits the sweet spot between the two sets of being a good enough iron without being too expensive.

Home-made Soldering Station For $15

A proper soldering iron is one of the fundamental tools that a good hacker needs. Preferably one that has a temperature control so it can handle different types of solder and connectors.

Decent soldering stations aren’t cheap, but [Code and Solder] show you how to make one for about $15 in parts. This uses a cheap non-temperature-controlled USB soldering iron, an Arduino and a few other bits that they got from AliExpress. The plan is to add a thermocouple to the soldering iron, and let the Arduino control the temperature. A rotary dial and LCD screen control the set-point, and the Arduino switches the feed to the heating element on and off through the FET.

It’s not the cleanest build in the world, and these USB soldering irons aren’t suitable for large joints or long soldering jobs, but it’s a neat little hack for the builder on a budget. We’ve seen teardowns of these rather neat little USB soldering irons before, but this is an interesting way to expand its capabilities.


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Reflow Soldering at Another Level

We’re used to reflow soldering of our PCBs at the hacker level, for quite a few years people have been reflowing with toaster ovens, skillets, and similar pieces of domestic equipment and equipping them with temperature controllers and timers. We take one or two boards, screen print a layer of solder paste on the pads by using a stencil, and place our surface-mount components with a pair of tweezers before putting them in the oven. It’s a process that requires  care and attention, but it’s fairly straightforward once mastered and we can create small runs of high quality boards.

But what about the same process at a professional level, what do you do when your board isn’t a matchbox-sized panel from OSH Park with less than 50 or so parts but a densely-packed multilayer board  about the size of a small tablet computer and with many hundreds of parts? In theory the same process of screen print and pick and place applies, but in practice to achieve a succesful result a lot more care and planning has to go into the process.

This is being written the morning after a marathon session encompassing all of the working day and half of the night. I was hand-stuffing a row of large high-density boards with components ranging from 0402 passives to large QFPs and everything else in between. I can’t describe the board in question because it is a commercially sensitive prototype for the industrial customer of the friend I was putting in the day’s work for, but it’s worth going through the minutiae of successfully assembling a small batch of prototypes at this level. Apologies then, any pictures will be rather generic.

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Halogen Lamp Abused for Desoldering

[Moony] thought that it was unconscionable that IR soldering stations sell for a few hundred Euros. After all, they’re nothing more than a glorified halogen lightbulb with a fancy IR-pass filter on them. Professional versions use 100 W 12 V DC bulbs, though, and that’s a lot of current. [Moony] tried with a plain-old 100 W halogen lightbulb. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it worked just fine. Holding the reflector-backed halogen spotlight bulb close to circuit boards allows one to pull BGAs and other ornery chips off after a few minutes. Voila.

[Moony] reasons that the IR filter is a waste anyway, since the luminous efficiency of halogen lights is so low: around 3.5%. And that means 96.5% heat! But there’s still a lot of light streaming out into a very small area, so if you’re going to look at the board as you de-solder, you’re really going to need a pair of welding goggles. Without, you’ll have a very hard time seeing your work at best, and might actually do long-term damage to your retinas.

So the next time you’re feeling jealous of those rework factory workers with their fancy IR soldering stations, head on down to the hardware store, pick up a gooseneck lamp, a 100 W halogen spotlight, and some welding goggles. And maybe a fire brick. You really don’t want your desk going up in flames.

We love make-do hacks, but we love doing it right, too. Just watch [Bil Herd] extol the virtues of a real IR desoldering station. And then giggle as you do the same thing with a few-dollar halogen bulb.

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