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.

Hacking Together a Serial Backpack

A serial backpack is really nothing more than a screen and some microcontroller glue to drive it. And a hammer is nothing more than a hardened weight on the end of a stick. But when you’re presented with a nail, or a device that outputs serial diagnostic data, there’s nothing like having the right tool on hand.

1383501485329153153[ogdento] built his own serial backpack using parts on hand and a port of some great old code. Cutting up a Nokia 1100 graphic display and pulling a PIC out of the parts drawer got him the hardware that he needed, and he found a good start for his code in [Peter Andersen]’s plain-old character LCD library, combined with a Nokia 1100 graphic LCD library by [spiralbrain]. [ogdento] added control for the backlight, mashed the two softwares together, and voilà!

A simple screen with a serial port is a great device to have on hand, and it makes a great project. We’ve seen them around here before, of course. And while you could just order one online, why not make your own? Who knows what kind of crazy customizations you might dream up along the way.

Bandsaw Tension Gauge Uses Raspberry Pi And Load Cell

No matter what material you’re cutting, getting the blade tension right is one of the keys to quality cuts on the bandsaw. Unfortunately, most bandsaws come with only a rudimentary tension gauge, and while there are plenty of tricks for measuring blade tension indirectly, nothing beats a digital blade tension gauge for repeatable results.

Despite being an aftermarket accessory for his beefy Hitachi CB-75F bandsaw, [Stephen B. Kirby]’s Pi-based tension guide looks like an OEM product. Housed in a sturdy case and sporting a sealed membrane keypad and four-line LCD display, the interface electronics are pretty straightforward. The tricky bit is sensing the amount of tension on the bandsaw blade. For that task, [Stephen] mounted a load cell in place of the original tensioning spring. A few adapters helped that job, and with a little calibration, the gauge is capable of displaying the tension by measuring the force over the cross-sectional area of the current blade.

We really like it when electronics can bring a new level of precision to old-school hardware, whether it’s a simple DRO for a manual lathe or a more accomplished build like [Stephen]’s. Sometimes adding new silicon can make old iron a little easier to use.

In Defense Of The Electric Chainsaw

Here at Hackaday we are a diverse bunch, we all bring our own experience to the task of bringing you the best of the hardware scene. Our differing backgrounds were recently highlighted by a piece from my colleague [Dan] in which he covered the teardown of a cordless electric chainsaw.

It was his line “Now, we’d normally shy away from any electric chainsaw, especially a cordless saw, and doubly so a Harbor Freight special“. that caught my eye. I’m with him on cordless tools which I see as a cynical ploy from manufacturers to ensure 5-yearly replacements, and I agree that cheap tools are a false economy. But electric chainsaws? Here on this small farm, they’re the saw of choice and here’s why.

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Building an IoT Drill Press for Reasons Unknown

He’s a little cagey about the reasons, but [Ivan Miranda] plans to put a drill press on the internet. What could go wrong with that?

We’ll take [Ivan] at his word that there’s a method to this madness and just take a look at the build itself, in the hopes that it will inspire someone to turn their lowly drill press into a sorta-kinda 2-axis milling machine. [Ivan] makes extensive use of his 3D printer to fabricate the X-axis slide that bolts to the stock drill press table. And before anyone points out the obvious, [Ivan] already acknowledges that the slide is way too flimsy to hold up to much serious drilling, especially considering the huge mechanical advantage of the gearing he used to replace the quill handle for a powered Z-axis. The motor switch was also replaced with a solid state relay. The steppers, relay, and limit switches are all fed into a Teensy that talks to an ESP8266, which will presumably host a web interface to put this thing online.

The connected aspects of the drill press become a little more clear after the break.

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A Machine Shop in A Toolbox: Just Add Time

You don’t need any fancy tools. A CNC machine is nice. A 3D printer can help. Laser cutters are just great. However, when it comes to actually making something, none of this is exactly necessary. With a basic set of hand tools and a few simple power tools, most of which can be picked up for a pittance, many things of surprising complexity, precision, and quality can be made.

Not as pretty, but worked just the same.
Not as pretty, but worked just the same.

A while back I was working on a ring light for my 3D printer. I already had a collection of LEDs, as all hackers are weak for a five-dollar assortment box. So I got on my CAD software of choice and modeled out a ring that I was going to laser cut out of plywood. It would have holes for each of the LEDs. To get a file ready for laser cutting ook around ten minutes. I started to get ready to leave the house and do the ten minute drive to the hackerspace, the ten minutes firing up and using the laser cutter (assuming it wasn’t occupied) and the drive back. It suddenly occurred to me that I was being very silly. I pulled out a sheet of plywood. Drew three circles on it with a compass and subdivided the circle. Under ten minutes of work with basic layout tools, a power drill, and a coping saw and I had the part. This was versus the 40 minutes it would have taken me to fire up the laser cutter.

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Electronic Message In a Bottle

We remember going to grandfather’s garage. There he would be, his tobacco pipe clenched between his teeth, wisps of smoke trailing into the air around him as he focused, bent over another of his creations. Inside of a simple glass bottle was something impossible. Carefully, ever so carefully, he would use his custom tools to twist wire. He would carefully place each lead. Eventually when the time was right he would solder. Finally he’d place it on the shelf next to the others, an LED matrix in a bottle.

led-message-in-a-bottle-assemblyWell, maybe not, but [Mariko Kosaka]’s father [Kimio Kosaka] has done it. In order to build the matrix, he needed tools that could reach inside the mouth of the bottle without taking up too much space to allow for precise movement. To do this he bent, brazed, twisted, and filed piano wire into tools that are quite beautiful by themselves. These were used to carefully bend and position the LEDs, wires, and other components inside the bottle.

Once the part was ready, he used a modified Hakko soldering iron to do the final combination. We wonder if he even had to be careful to solder quickly so as not to build up a residue on the inside of the bottle? The electronics are all contained inside the bottle. One of the bottles contained another impressive creation of his: an entire Arduino with only wire, dubbed the Arduino Skeleton. Batteries are attached to the cork so when the power runs low it can be removed and replaced without disturbing the creation.

It’s a ridiculous labor of love, and naturally, we love it. There’s a video of it in operation as well as one with him showing how it was done which is visible after the break. He showed them off at the Tokyo Maker Faire where they were surely a hit.

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