Review: Pine64 Pinecil Soldering Iron

There was a time when decent quality soldering irons were substantial affairs, soldering stations with a chunky base unit containing the electronics and a lightweight handheld iron for the work. That has changed with the arrival of a new breed of microprocessor controlled lightweight handheld irons. There’s a new kid on the block from a company we associate more with open-source phones, laptops, and single board computers, Pine64 have produced the Pinecil. It’s a lightweight handheld iron with some innovative features at an attractive price, but does it raise the bar sufficiently to take on the competition?

I put the Pinecil through its paces, and and although the device is fully open source, give it a teardown for good measure. Spoiler: it’s my new favorite.

Can The New Kid Take On The Champion?

The Pinecil and its default tip.
The Pinecil and its default tip.

I placed my order as soon as the iron came on sale, and duly received a satisfying Christmas present from Hong Kong. In it were a smart package containing the iron itself for $24.99 and its default tip, and another similar package containing the fine tip set for another $24.99 that I’d also ordered. Opening it up I had the handle containing the electronics, the tips, and a USB-C, I/O, and JTAG breakout board for experimenters.

The handle follows a similar format to the Miniware TS100 and other similar irons, in that it’s a moulded black plastic tube about 112 mm long by 17 mm high by 13 mm wide, with USB-C and barrel jack sockets on one end, and a fitting for the tips on the other. At the tip end on the lower side is a moulded protrusion that allows the iron to rest with the tip in the air if you have no stand. On the top is a small OLED display and two buttons, and unlike any of its competition it has a blue silicone rubber sleeve where the users fingers will rest. The tips appear to be identical to those used by the TS100, with the same ceramic part holding the conductors that is inserted into the handle, and a small retaining screw to keep them in place. With the default tip fitted, the whole iron weighs 32.5 g, which is comfortable in the hand. This iron can run from 12 V to 24 V DC and deliver 17 W to 65 W. Unlike its competition, it can draw power from either the barrel jack or the USB-C socket. I tested this with a generic USB-C PD laptop supply and a traditional barrel jack laptop supply with no problems. As a test i also hooked up a 5 V Raspberry Pi USB-C supply, which the iron recognised as under voltage and refused to work.

How Does It Perform?

The Pinecil breakout board.
The Pinecil breakout board.

On applying power the screen comes up with two icons corresponding to the two buttons. One is a soldering iron which as you might imagine turns the iron on, while the other is a wrench which takes you to the settings menu. It’s here that we find some of the features that set this iron apart, as it’s clear that significant thought has gone into it. A nice touch is a selection option for lithium-ion cell size allowing the iron to shut off without pulling a pack under voltage, as well as a menu with a power limit selection for the iron. The winning feature for me is that each menu option has a help string explaining what it does, which scrolls past if that option is left for a moment.

A short press next to the soldering iron icon starts the tip heating, and the temperature is displayed on the screen. I timed its heat-up from ambient to 320 °C at about nine seconds, which is not as fast as some high-end irons, but certainly no slouch.

In use it’s as would be expected from an iron of this type, light weight and easy to manoeuvre. Without the heavy tip set I can’t comment on its performance in larger work, but I would expect with 65 W in hand it would cope as well as its competition. Plugging the USB-C port into a computer unexpectedly reveals no device found, but after a quick look at the Pine64 wiki it is revealed that it must be started up with a button pressed to open up its firmware upgrade mode. This iron doubles as a RISC-V development board with its GD32VF103TB microcontroller, so there will no doubt be plenty of open-source third-party firmwares produced for it. The schematic and other documents are all available along with the device data sheets, revealing that it has acceleration and position sensors presumably to detect when it is in use alongside its other parts.

Time For A Teardown

it's clear that a lot of thought has gone into the design of this iron.
It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the design of this iron.

Having examined the iron externally and put it through its paces, it’s time for a teardown to see what makes it tick. The Pine64 Wiki provides helpful disassembly and reassembly instructions, which though a little bit fiddly at times are straightforward enough. The electronics sit on a long thin PCB with mostly passives and analogue parts on one side, and  the processor hiding under the display on the other side. It’s a beautifully thought out device that is the equal of the best of its competition in this aspect.

It’s obvious that the irons to beat in this category are the Miniware TS100 and TS80 for DC and USB-C power respectively. We’ve also seen that even the cheapest iron we’ve found of this type gives a good account of itself as a soldering iron, so how does this new one differentiate itself when “being a soldering iron” with the same tips as its competitor is something of a done deal?

The Pinecil’s case is marginally bigger than the TS100 and weighs slightly more, but is substantially built and not flimsy as the cheap SanErYiGo iron was. Its nine-second heat-up time is comfortably faster than its competitor. The silicone finger sleeve is a very nice touch indeed, and gives the iron a good feel in use. It’s clear that some thought has gone into making the case more than just a handle, with those moulded stand protrusions making it safe to put down on the bench when hot.

We’re used to the TS100 style tips, and they are certainly easy enough to change. At the other end, having both USB-C and barrel jack power makes this iron more useful than the Miniware irons, if this flexibility matters. I suspect I’ll be acquiring a new USB-PD power supply and a set of adapter cables for various DC sources to go everywhere with my Pinecil. On the software side, it provides plenty of options to keep even the most demanding user happy. I particularly like the battery protection for Li-Ion cells, and also those help strings. Finally, as a fully open-source design it provides everything the more curious user needs to modify it for their own purposes.

In summation then, I can’t honestly find anything I don’t like about this iron. It beats the competition on price and on features while more than equaling them in usability, and it’s fully hackable. The Miniware irons are good tools and remain a very sensible purchase, but by now they are starting to reflect their age. This iron represents the state of the art for a handheld iron in late 2020; it takes the same premise and simply does it better. I will use my Pinecil a lot, and if you are looking for a soldering iron I can only advise you to give it a look. I’m obviously not alone in this because it is sold out at the time of writing, but if that demand holds up I’m sure another run will be under way. Keep an eye out, and buy one when you can.

80 thoughts on “Review: Pine64 Pinecil Soldering Iron

    1. Thanks for that link, appreciated.

      I would however like to address the point in a more general manner. It’s something I see from time to time: “There’s already an open source thing that does that, why on earth would you write another!” To me that is the point of open source, someone writes a fresh project because it is there, and they can.

      1. RiscV boards with a GD32VF103 can be bought for 3$ shipped from china including a display. So I would never use the breakout board with the chance to damage my USB-C port on the pinecil… unless I also need USB-PD but still, I’d fear breaking the USB-C port…

  1. Pine’s .org stuff seems to be down.

    Does anyone know if they have published a declaration of conformity per their claimed RED compliance? Did they actually file with the FCC or are they indicating a specific exemption?

    I am building a ‘standard’ T/S and repair station for two of my clients so would require this regulatory documentation.

    1. @Brian said: “Pine’s .org stuff seems to be down. Does anyone know if they have published a declaration of conformity per their claimed RED compliance? Did they actually file with the FCC or are they indicating a specific exemption? I am building a ‘standard’ T/S and repair station for two of my clients so would require this regulatory documentation.”

      Here you go:

      5. Pinecil board information, schematics and certifications

      https://wiki.pine64.org/wiki/Pinecil#Pinecil_board_information.2C_schematics_and_certifications

      * Pinecil certifications:

      * Pinecil CE RED Certificate

      https://files.pine64.org/doc/cert/Pinecil%20CE%20RED%20Certificate-S20102803801001.pdf

      * Pinecil FCC Certificate

      https://files.pine64.org/doc/cert/Pinecil%20FCC%20Certificate-S20102803802001.pdf

      * Pinecil ROHS Certificate

      https://files.pine64.org/doc/cert/Pinecil%20RoHS10%20Certificate-S20102803803001.pdf

      1. I had an ‘intro to computers for children’ book as a kid that made the then-intentionally ridiculous statement that computers can be found in your light switches and toothbrushes.

        Now in 2021 we have toothbrushes that wirelessly sync with our personal pocket computers so they can nag you if you’re not brushing properly: https://www.usa.philips.com/c-m-pe/dental-professionals/products/tooth-brushes/flexcare-platinum-connected#triggername=feature_smart-sensor

      1. Just about! I have some of the tips for removing PLCC packages with 144, 84, and a couple other pin counts. Several of them require two wands to power them. They came in a bulk buy of used tips I bought when I used resell Metcal equipment. I’ve used the 144 pin one once time, mostly to prove it can be done. It works, but a hot air table is SO much better for that.

        1. I am beginning to suspect that my paint stripping heatgun on a black and decker drillstand, with nozzles made from aluminum pie plates is a setup that could be improved.

    1. Metcal for desk work (rocking an ancient PS2E, because it’s built like the brick it resembles), and a DIY iron (https://hackaday.io/project/18899-rt-soldering-pen) that takes Weller RT tips if I need something portable. If the tip of an iron is more than a centimetre or two from where you’re gripping the iron it’s just unpleasant to handle for small components, and likely also means there’s a big honking distance between the tip heater and the tip temperature sensor meaning the heater control is going to be somewhat dodgy out of necessity due to the thermal lag.

  2. I don’t know why a small computer has to be built in everywhere. Nevertheless for the price it would be extremely interesting. Does anyone know whether motion detection is also supported? Couldn’t find anything. The TS competition has it.

    1. I don’t know why humans think arguing with straw men makes them look more intelligent. WHO exactly thinks that “a small computer has to be built in everywhere”??? And WHY are you arguing with them HERE???

      1. Analog fans love their analog!

        Most things invented in the last 200 years are safer, cheaper, lighter, and more reliable when computerized properly.

        But some people are incredibly uncomfortable with anything that could possibly be simpler than it is. There’s all kinds of challenges with getting complex things right, and I guess a lot of people just kind of got tired of the whole idea a long time ago, back when computerized junk was still new and not that great.

        Now it’s become a matter of philsophy more than anything else, some people just want simple things for it’s own sake.

        1. Except in this device it actually brings some interesting features on the table, all that on open and relatively simple hardware, offline and feature oriented, which is important.

          So this makes me wonder where the “analog people” are when we need some protesting against ACTUALLY useless “smart” features where they really serve 0 purpose except data hoarding and security risks in things like lightbulbs, all the cheap useless touch screens, wifi everywhere…

          I agree we need to go back to basic and robust hardware in many places, it is a fight worth having. It ain’t here in this review though, the only purpose that is served here is trying to signal some “hacker cred”, let’s be honest. Being an “analog guy” is nothing special on this site really. And all the “oh no wifi in my soldering iron?” jokes are pretty misplaced and hollow because this device does not have any of that nonsense, and chances are high the people commenting that have an actually useless, proprietary wifi backdoor device in their house right this moment.

          1. And really, it’s a microcontroller. This isn’t an IOT soldering iron, which _would_ be stupid.

            You don’t complain that one of them is used in the display of your microwave to read the button inputs and display time remaining, right? Same same.

          2. Who doesn’t have a wifi backdoor somewhere – its almost impossible if not actually so to avoid and use wifi. And being tethered at all times for all things sucks..

            I can however actually see a use for an IOT soldering station – makerspace type places which seem to need for insurance reasons lots of ‘only trained operator’ lock down of the tools. Its a terrible idea, almost everything (maybe even everything) IOT is really… But it might actually be useful.

    2. Well the small computer in this instance is what gives this iron so much value. It’s able to do complex monitoring while your soldering for both safety and quality assurance.

  3. On USB-C compatibility, I have used mine with my Thinkpad X1’s 65W power brick successfully. It negotiates for 20V PD, and since the tip is 8.5 ohms it’ll run at 47W max vs. 65W if you feed it with 24V, but that seems to be enough grunt for most any PCB work. If you need an iron for your go-bag and don’t want to carry a second power supply, the Pinecil is perfect.

  4. I was really looking forward to buying one of these, but it’s so hard to get a hold of!

    I ended up just paying the higher prices for the TS100 bundles they sell on Amazon because I just got tired of waiting.

      1. It is really making ‘it’ work better if the ‘it’ was awful to the point of rebuild from nearly the ground up, with just a little of the the ‘it’ left in…
        The quality of the device out the box even when its open does matter. That said its a solder iron, that get hot in only a few seconds – that tells you its not going to be bad power wise. And using it seems a tip many folk already know and love it should be good there…

        I would love to know if it really has the grunt to desolder that on a pcb with big ground plane – as that can be tricky on lower power irons… Looks good, and i’ve been looking for less bulky and more portable iron for a while, was close to getting the TS100 but this looks better so far.

    1. Interesting point. The answer is that this is an established format using an established tip set, and to look at its soldering performance would be largely a repeat of other reviews saying “Yes, it’s a lightweight soldering iron”. So given that its soldering performance is likely to be similar to its competition, I’ve concentrated on its mechanical design, feel, build quality, and software as differentiators.

  5. Build quality… Well the USB-PD Chip is rated 28V absolute maximum, but only 21V recommended. If you connect 24V on the barrel, the chip will be powered outside of its recommended specs which might impact lifetime.
    I got mine and it makes a hissing sound from time to time, especially when I use my cheap USB QC3 charger (~10V) but also on my 19V Barrel. On their Chat at least two others had similar problems. I’m really not sure how long my iron will last. And they only have 30 days warranty…
    One guy on the chat had a Diode floating in his case another one found a capacitor that was soldered very crappy.
    And “significant thought has gone into it”… they initially had a 21V Zener diode right across the power rail without a series resistor. So above 21V the Zener was immediately blown. They didn’t populate it on the production run. But at least one guy was sent a preproduction unit instead. After complaining he got a replacement. But I still wonder how often that error occured.
    Another thing, the pinecil has a screw to connect it to ESD Earth. To my understanding it should be connected to the Tip, but it isn’t.
    Also price.. with shipping (12$ slow / 30$ express) the iron is just a little cheaper as a TS100 on sale, but the TS100 ships with more stuff.

    Apart from all that, it is a huuuge improvement for me over my old unregulated Iron. I love having both USB and barrel connectors. I added a thick solder layer to a power trace with little problems. The menu navigation needs a few minutes to get used to. The firmware is the same open source firmware that can be flashed to the TS100/80. It feels very good in my hands.

    1. “significant thought has gone into it” does not mean that bugs don’t exist, or that it applies to all aspects of the device. Something can have well designed ergonomics and software and still suffer from hardware issues.

      1. Well… putting a Zener directly across GND and 24V … not having thought about it is the nicer option. They tried to protect the USB-PD Chip but did so in a way that immediately fries if you go above 21V. Now their statement is “there is no problem without protection”.
        The ergonomics are good. The software is good (the TS100 ralim guy ported the software to the pinecil). They put a lot of thought into it, but the hardware should have been given a little more thought.

    1. Pine is not in the business of making money. The owner owns another company which he lives off of and uses the engineers from on contracts to do work for Pine64 so there’s not too much expense. When they do make a small profit off their devices (which they often don’t because of the low cost they offer and the low volume they produce at), they reinvest that money back into the community. Pine64 is a company that acts as a service to it’s community of makers, not a business.

  6. Hmmm… It seems to me the problem with these new irons is the “tips”. (If I’m not mistaken the Miniware TS1OO and the Pinecil both use the same tips.) It seems the “tips” aren’t really just tips, but tips permanently affixed to the heating element. So if you want to change the tip, you have to change out a perfectly good heating element along with it. That’s wasteful.

    Plus the integrated tip + heating elements EXPENSIVE. For example a TS-BC2 tip + heating element costs $9.99 USD ea. w/free 2-3 week SpeedPAK shipping from China to the U.S. [1], or 13.99 each from Amazon with “free” 2-day Prime ConUS shipping [2].

    In contrast a generic temperature controlled iron uses separate tips and heating elements. I can get TEN soldering iron tips for $9.80 with “free” 2-day Prime ConUS shipping [3]. That’s roughly ten cents per tip versus ten dollars per tip!

    Even if you don’t go through many tips over time, this problem still rears its head when you want to have a bunch of different tip types. A set of 10 different tips for a generic iron costs $9.80 with “free” 2-day Prime ConUS shipping [4], while a set of 10 different tips for a TS100 or Pinecil (yes 10 types exist) would cost $99.90 from China or $139.90 from Amazon. That’s roughly ten times more, at least.

    I’m normally not too hard on my tips, but if I need to desolder a stubborn part once in awhile it’s OK to sacrifice a tip that costs ten cents, but not a tip that costs ten dollars.

    I could run the generic iron alongside the new fancy iron, but is it really worth it? The generic temperature controlled iron heats fast enough, is fairly stable, and has adequate thermal mass. What advantages does a TS100 or Pinecil (with its pricey “tip”) bring to my bench?

    References:

    1. Original Headd Replacement Solder Tip For TS100 Smart Digital LCD Electric Iron

    https://www.ebay.com/itm/Original-Headd-Replacement-Solder-Tip-For-TS100-Smart-Digital-LCD-Electric-Iron/164239371375

    2. 7 Types Mini Stainless Steel Soldering Iron Tip Replacement for TS100 Portable Outdoor Soldering Iron Kit (1pc TS-D24 Soldering tip)

    https://www.amazon.com/Stainless-Soldering-Replacement-Portable-Outdoor/dp/B07NPKK1PB

    3. SolderFun 10X 900M-T Soldering iron tips For HAKKO 936,937,907 Atten, Quick, Aoyue, Yihua,Vastar,Sywon,Tabiger,SOAIY and X-Tronic soldering station (10 PCS 900M-T-LB)

    https://www.amazon.com/SolderFun-Soldering-X-Tronic-soldering-900M-T-LB/dp/B07HNCJ935

    4. 10X 900M Soldering Iron Tips for HAKKO 936,937,907 Atten, Quick, Aoyue, Yihua,Vastar,Sywon,Tabiger,SOAIY and X-Tronic Soldering Station (10 pcs Different)

    https://www.amazon.com/Soldering-Tabiger-X-Tronic-Station-Different/dp/B077V1VND5

    1. You misspelled Modern.

      >perfectly good heating element

      haha, 900M is GARBO. If I wanted to use 70 year old heating element design I would use my gutter soldering iron.

      >EXPENSIVE … $9.99 USD

      cant tell if sarcasm.

      >I can get TEN soldering iron tips for $9.80

      Get ten garbage ones or one good one, indeed.

      >What advantages does a TS100 or Pinecil (with its pricey “tip”) bring to my bench?

      Im not a fan of those pocket low power designs, but the main advantage of integrated heater/tip cartridge is thermal capacity. I see two possibilities. One is you never used modern soldering iron. The other is you dont need it because your soldering needs involve headphone wires, one sided proto boards and occasional arduino headers. Ancient hakko clones are adequate for that.

      By modern I mean Hakko with T12 or JBC with C245 cartridges. Step above that is induction, but so far Chinese products like auoye Int3233 or quick 202d have been pretty underwhelming.

  7. I would have preffered sering that they used Weller tips rather the more obscure ts100 tips i suppose. Alsof an aluminium houding would have been nicer over plastic…

    What ibdont het is the 24V rating, if you design fort usb-c youd figuren you know 5amps * 20Volts = 100watt is what tour ultimate design goal would point to?

    Overal iets stille a very cool iron ;) andere iI probably stille want ons :p

    1. You can supply 24V via the barrel plug. (Although they officially decreased the rating to 21V). The tip has ~9Ohm so at 20V it draws <2.5A. You can use a 100W supply, but it will only use ~45W at 20V.
      They could have used a tip with less resistance, but this was probably the off-the-shelf tip with the highest value/cost ratio.

    2. Weller tips don’t have an Integrated heating element and sensor I don’t think. This leverages existing manufacturing capability for the mechanical hard parts, and gives a bit of performance boost.

  8. For people who wants a middle ground between the SanErYiGo (dirt cheap yet still do the work) and this one there’s the $20 SQ-D60 that got the same body of the Pinecil while having just a 3 digit LCD to display temp. No fancy menus. Only downside is that it isn’t PD compliant yet having a USB-C port but it comes with barrel to USB-C and XT60-to-USB-C adapters.

    I’m using it as much as my trusty TS100 and the silicon sleeve is indeed nice. When the Pinecile will be widely available I think it will eat the market of the SQ-D60 (unless it comes down in price).

  9. So, how do I actually buy one? Every time I look at a Pine product, it’s out of stock. Do they have waiting lists? I can’t find anything like a wait list on their site. Or am I just out of luck if I don’t hear about these things until later?

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