Workshops For Timid Solderers

As a hackspace member, it’s easy to fall into the belief that your own everyday skills are universal. Soldering for example. You’ve handled an iron since you were a youngster, the solder bends to your will as a matter of course, and since you see your fellow makers doing the same thing you might imagine that it’s a universal hackspace skill. Everyone can do it, can’t they?

Of course, they can’t. If you weren’t lucky enough to have a parent who tolerated your occasional propensity for acquiring burns on your fingers then you probably won’t have that innate experience with an iron. This extends to people you might expect to have those skills, indeed as an electronic engineering student a couple of decades ago your scribe was surprised to find that the ability to solder was her hotly tradeable skill, amazingly even a lot of EE students couldn’t solder.

So the ability to solder is not as universal as we might expect, and your hackspace will attract plenty of people for whom it is an as-yet-unknown art. What do you do about it? If you are Vancouver Hackspace, you run a workshop whose participants are introduced to soldering through building a simple AM radio. The kit itself is not too special, it looks like one of the Elenco educational kits, but it is what the workshop represents that is important. A hackspace lives or dies by how it shares its skills, and Vancouver’s workshop is a fantastic piece of community engagement. We’d like to see more spaces doing this kind of thing.

So, perhaps it’s time to put our money where our mouth is. How difficult would it be to run a hackspace soldering workshop for the uninitiated? Assuming your space is used to the mechanics of running events, the challenge is to find for each participant a soldering iron, some solder, and a radio or other kit without breaking the bank. An ideal budget from where this is being written in the UK would be £20 (about $29), into which a Chinese kit from AliBaba or similar and a cheap iron kit could be fitted. Some work to decipher the Chinese instructions with the help of an overseas student member and to write an English manual, and we’d be ready to go. If this comes together we’ll report back on whether the non-solderers of our hackspace successfully learned the craft.

We recently featured a similar educational initiative, a course at Swansea Hackspace teaching robotics through an Arduino robot. We would like to encourage this kind of thing, what is your hackspace doing in this line?

35 thoughts on “Workshops For Timid Solderers

  1. Those $5 USB powered irons that Clive reviewed a few days ago could be good for this, sure no temperature control but cheap as chips and good for small projects – most people starting out in this thread would have had a mains powered “fire stick”, it’s not hard to be better than that.

    1. I’ve had the same 25W Weller iron for over 10 years, and never ended up using the extra tip I taped to the plug cord.
      Personally, I’ve always found temperature controls kind of useless unless it was a hot-air rework tool…

      Normally, I’ll start with lab safety habits for handling leaded products (still use finger gloves even if we’re sure its RoHS), solvent (flux removal etc.), fume extractors (to outdoors), and a 10 min talk about long-term accumulative-poisoning/acquired-chemical-sensitivities. Thus, stuff marked with a Pb has never migrated into equipment marked with RoHS. Notably, the SAC305 we use tends to bond well due to the Silver content, but the old 60/40 leaded solder seems less likely to damage components.

      I’d rather someone learn good habits/skills with decent tools, than struggle with gimmicky/dangerous toys that may cost more.
      ;-)

  2. Apparently it is not a skill acquired in technical collage in most cases. My son complained constantly of new hires fresh out of school at his firm who can’t solder, and the time he has to spend teaching them.

      1. Cursive doesn’t really have that big an advantage over block writing. Not even as a signature, because it can vary every time. Go ahead, try to write your name the exact same way twice.

  3. I’ve helped run events like this, they’re usually a blast. It has a great, immediate “I did this” property, especially if you pick a sample project that does something fun when it works (Little 555 tone generators, little Mims designs, etc.). I’ve usually done it with a large set of awful Radioshack irons, they’re terrible but adequate for an introductory activity, if I were buying now I would probably go for Chinese Hakko knockoffs for the shorter barrels/better tips/something resembling temperature control.

    Several summers I’ve been volunteered into doing something that contains an activity like that with high school age prospective EE/CompE undergraduate students (usually from some underrepresented population), it tends to go well.

    A couple years ago a friend who did her BSEE with me rounded up a bunch of her Biomedical Engineering MS classmates and a couple EE folks to teach them how to solder (and to help get some instruments built), most of them took to it.

    I also rather regularly get sent students working on projects who have made it _distressingly_ far through the university I’m at’s Electrical/Computer Engineering programs without learning how to actually build things, honestly these are the hardest because they’re usually in too deep on what they hope to build.

  4. But doesn’t this show the difference between “hacking” and everything else?

    I never took a course in soldering. I just started doing it. No I didn’t really know what I was doing, and the early attempts were awful (in retrospect). But I learned though practice, there was never something saying “you can’t do this”.

    People who come to it later don’t have that sense “I’ll just try”. They are likely older and have been formed by attending school, where being taught precedes the experience. They’ve become afraid of looking at things, unsure of themselves. I remember when a ten year old said “I want to try things but I’m afraid”, which really meant afraid of getting blamed if she broke something. People in school are often afraid of bad marks, a mistake being something bad, rather than something to learn from.

    So soldering isn’t some inherent skill that some have, but a result of being bold. “Hacking” is about experienced based learning (which babies and small children use too). So they plunge in, like explorers (who don’t need maps, they make them). They don’t need to be taught first, and they don’t hesitate.

    The real difference here seems to be that the older you are, the further removed you are from experience based learning.

    Michael

    1. IMO it comes to more complicated things. Education before hands on experience is the better route. Eliminates trying to reverse bad habits and erroneous conclusions, based on limited experience. You read like one of those who I have to get to the point where I’m going to have to stomp them into a mud hole,who I paying to do job to do what I tell them so they don’t screw up something of mine. When I through education and practicle experience know they will mess it up. When I went to tech school we where taught theory and done lab work so we could prove to ourselves the validity of that theory. In the shop what was learned in the classroom and lab was used to reinforce methodical trouble shooting. Sorry your approach is why hacker is such a negative term for many They know a hack can or has got them by until something can be done correctly, but a hacker has cost them or someone they know a good sum of hard earned money. While I have done my share of necessary temporary hacks in my lifetime, I ID myself as a jack of many trades not as a hacker.

      1. so you are saying that school is needed for understanding?
        some people learn in different ways, the experience based learning he talks about doesn’t exclude learning the theory, quite a few very brilliant people barely touched education and for others it was the defining characteristic, your stance is is just as much a simplification as the post you replied to.

  5. I’d give beginners a 100 Watt iron, some slightly tarnished tin plate, 50/50 stick solder, an abrasive scrubber and some flux. Once they understand the importance of surface preparation and using flux they will be on their way.

    On another note, I wanted to become a programmer so I went and did a course on typing on the big old clunky manual typewriters of the 70’s.

    Now I often see coders who can’t type (apart from the two index fingers and one thumb). When they see me code they ask if I’m typing what they see on screen as if I was trying to fool them with a script that makes it seem like I am typing fast when I am not typing at all.

    It seems that it’s now a common thing that a vital element of a persons skill set is missing even when they are more advanced because learning that specific skill is something that no one really likes.

    Soldering is like an art form for the uninitiated. So are many other forms of metal skills like stick welding, brazing etc but they are necessary skills of their particular trade.

    1. Shortcuts will get you father faster in the beginning, but not learning how to do the simple things the right way at the beginning will bite you in the butt later on and set you back father and longer than your shortcuts ever got you. Take the time, learn the skills, do it right… If you do that, you’ll be the expert in your field that the shortcut-takers will spend much of their time marvelling at and wondering how you ever managed to do what you’ve done.

    2. When I was taught to solder we didn’t use additional flux in electrical and electronic work and I get by fine, as do many others. I do understand when I get around to working With SMD I’ll have tot to know using additional flux. Viewing YouTube videos have convinced me of that so I’m not going to argue that at all.

      1. That’s because there is enough flux in the solder already. 50/50 stick solder doesn’t have any built in flux so you get to see how hard soldering is and how sh!tty it looks if you don’t have enough flux. Then lesson learnt.

        I don’t tend to use extra flux for SMD. I saw someone using extra flux on youtube and they were using the same flux that I use for brazing – cold welding – silver soldering with MAP gas and tin/copper/silver sticks. Ouch!

        I will have to get some flux for SMDs eventually. I see the low temp solder makes removing parts easier so I will have to get some of that too. But so far I have managed fine with my 0.5mm 60/40 rosin core solder and I routinely solder down to 0.5mm pin pitch even on in house boards that have no solder mask.

        What isn’t often mentioned about flux is that you have to clean it up properly around high frequency signal paths even digital signals because fluxes generally have strong parasitic capacitance properties once they can absorb a bit of moisture. Some are worse than others. So some fluxes may be good for removing parts as it is easy to clean the flux off, but the same flux may be useless for installing low profile parts like QFP where there is a cavity underneath that you can’t get some fluxes completely out of.

        But to he honest there is no genius to my soldering ability, It’s simply a result from first picking up a soldering iron over 45 years ago.

  6. I teach kids all the time, these days I start off with SMT parts – teach them to pull parts of a scrap board with hot air and tweezers – then put them on to some unused proto boards. This builds confidence.

    We also teach thru hole soldering – the important point to teach here is heat management – get the PCB pad and the component lead hot enough for the solder to melt on them directly – next comes doing it fast and not using a giant amount of solder.

  7. we (FabLab Karlsruhe) are doing semi regularly soldering events with kids, lasercut templates and self blinking LEDs makes it possible for even quite young budding soldering champions to have a blinking LED cube at the end of the course.

  8. I prefer to do one-on-one instruction, but the “gateway drug” effect is hilarious every time.

    Last week’s student came up to me literally 11 hours later, bouncing excitedly: “Hey! hey! hey! I fixed something! Last night after you taught me to solder, part of the laser came disconnected and I found the problem and fixed it and resoldered half the other joints in there since there were a lot of bad ones, cold-solder joints like you said, and it works again now and it seems a lot more durable too!”

    Muhahahaha.

    Charlie just bought a crapload of super-cheap soldering kits aiming to run another workshop for more people at once, but I don’t know those exact plans. Whatever. Knowledge hates to be cooped up, it’ll happen whether or not I know about it.

  9. A great idea! Indeed, I find that most people don’t know how to use many common “maker” tools. They don’t know how to solder. Or for that matter, which way to turn a screw to tighten it, or how to pound in a nail. :-) Fight toolophobia!

    Way back in the 1980s, I made a little PCB shaped like a Christmas tree with blinking LED lights. Big parts, big traces and spaces; designed to be easy to build by beginners. It was a hit, so I wrote it up in a magazine article (Modern Electronics Nov 1987). Over the years, they’ve taught thousands of people how to solder. It’s still available if anyone wants one — see http://www.sunrise-ev.com/projects.htm#christmastree

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