Soldering Iron Plus Camera Gimbal Helps Cancel Out Hacker’s Hand Tremors

Soldering requires steady hands, so when [Jonathan Gleich] sadly developed a condition called an essential tremor affecting his hands, soldering became much more difficult. But one day, while [Jonathan] was chatting with a friend, they were visited by the Good Ideas Fairy and in true hacker fashion, he ended up repurposing a handheld camera stabilizing gimbal to hold a soldering iron instead of a camera or smartphone. Now instead of the gimbal cancelling out hand movements to keep a camera steady, it instead helps keep a soldering iron steady.

While the inner workings of the cheap gimbal unit didn’t need modification, there were a couple of things that needed work before the project came together. The first was to set up a way to quickly and easily connect and disconnect the soldering iron from the gimbal. Thanks to a dovetail-like connector, the iron can be safely stored in its regular holster and only attached when needed.

The other modification is more subtle. The stabilizer motors expect to be managing something like a smartphone, but a soldering iron is both lighter and differently balanced. That meant that the system worked, but not as well as it needed to. After using some small lead weights to tweak the mass and center of gravity of the soldering iron — making it feel and move a bit more like an iPhone, as far as the gimbal was concerned — results were improved.

The soldering iron stabilizer works well enough for now, but we don’t doubt that [Jonathan] already has further tweaks in mind. This is a wonderful repurposing of a consumer device into an assistive aid, so watch it in action in the short video embedded below.

Is reimagining supportive or assistive technology something that gets the gears in your head turning? Good news, because that is one of the challenges in the 2021 Hackaday Prize, so get thinking!

33 thoughts on “Soldering Iron Plus Camera Gimbal Helps Cancel Out Hacker’s Hand Tremors

  1. Would have thought the extra weight and distance from the wrist would make it harder to manage – I’d have been thinking something that looks more like a delta printer for the motion control – you still wrap your hand around the iron keeping much of the mass near the wrist. So won’t be able to stabilise as great a deviation, but should I’d have thought be easier to use.

    Still if this works well for anybody, and it sounds like it does, its a great idea. Any assistive tech that does the job is a good thing, even more so if its so easy to replicate.

  2. I’ll be following this one closely. My tremor has gotten much worse over the last year. A year ago I was able to solder an SMT altimeter for a rocket. Today I doubt that I could solder a DIP socket.

    Unfortunately I would probably have trouble constructing this thing, as my hacking abilities don’t extend very far. Maybe someone will come up with a turnkey item of this sort.

      1. I was thinking like a fluid or hydrodynamic bearing mount maybe boom arm with a few joints might aid.

        Was researching the fluid head design for a project I’m not recalling at this moment in time…. ah… that one came slow… the polarizing lens control for the concept multi-lens carousel I’ve been visualizing for the webcam spectrometer. I had so many ideas where to apply those… took a few to recall what I was wanting to specifically use for. Yikes!

        Found researching latest, there aren’t any 3D printed designs for any, though I did find a few patents and a disassembly video which shows a fluid head tripod using a plastic design here:
        https://youtu.be/WHNJZbSUp7Y?t=405

    1. Should consider doing SMT with solder paste with stencil. Unlike soldering, you can take all the time you need to align a part without burning up the PCB or part.

      The parts outlines are in the design file, so in theory one could 3D print a jig with cutouts for you to drop parts in. I have not seen anyone do this before, but I don’t see why it can’t be done.

    2. My mom has fairly serious essential tremor. One thing we’ve been playing with is adding a LOT of weight to her hands, like a kilo of weight in a glove on the back of her hand. Her muscles can’t shake fast enough to accelerate the mass, so it damps.
      There are also (still experimental) active dampers that can counteract essential tremor. Some have been built with speaker components: driver and coil with a weight, and can handle complex multiaxis tremors.

  3. I’ve had the same condition for many years and I never knew what it was. Last year I decided to go to a neurologist. Turns out, it’s quite common and there is a dirt cheap medicine, propranolol, which solved the problem entirely. Sure, I have to take it for the rest of my life, but no longer do I have issues with soldering or eating a soup.

    1. I have something called ‘intention tremor’ and there’s not a medication for it. It’s due to a very mild cerebral palsy caused by being born over a month premature. There are lots of cool workarounds for soldering, though. My left hand shakes worse than my right, so I use a little guided dispenser for my solder when soldering through-hole parts. My right hand is accurate enough for those. For SMT stuff, I use a tight helping-hands grip to hold the iron, requiring me to apply more pressure to move it around, which eases most of the shake. It’s a hack, but it works!

    2. Propranolol works fine for occasional use, if you don’t need it every day. With long term daily use there is a risk of heart attack if it is abruptly stopped; you need to taper off.

      1. No offense, but I would rather take advice from my doctor. At least in Poland you need prescription anyway, so it’s not like you can go and buy it on your own. Besides, doses used to cure essential tremor are miniscule compared to other uses of the medication (hypertension).

        1. No offense taken; I’m just trying to let people know that they don’t have to take propranolol as a daily regimen if they don’t want to. They can just take it on occasions when they need it, like going out to dinner or public speaking. The side effects can be unpleasant for some.

          No one expects you to take advice from a random stranger on the internet but I guarantee if you go to different doctors you will get different advice on this. My first neurologist in the 1970s wanted me to take it continuously. Nowadays most doctors are more enlightened about its occasional use in treating (not curing) essential tremor, particularly since, as you noted, the dosages are general less than for traditional uses of the drug.

      1. I empathize with those that have worse tremors than I. Hopefully you find a way around your limits. I had difficulty placing some 0603 components onto a board on which I had screened solder paste. I found a couple of stiff drinks actually calmed my nerves enough to make it comparatively easy. I was rather surprised.

        1. Alcohol is a depressant that inhibits the action of certain neurotransmitters. That’s why it reduces shakes.

          Be mindful (ab)using it for this effect, though, as you can build a tolerance by upregulating receptors. Once that happens, you’ll shake even more when you *don’t* have alcohol, ie withdrawal symptoms.

          I was always a better pool player after a few, myself.

  4. That’s pretty smart! I have essential tremor too but it isn’t that advanced yet. When I solder I need to have my wrist resting on something, and I need to extend my pinky finger to brace it on the tabletop. The more points of contact the better.

  5. Hi Jonathan,

    I too suffer from essential tremor and dread soldering small parts.

    Years ago, after a particularly stressful day, my wife put a nice bowl of soup in front of me. While piloting the spoon the last few inches to my mouth I found myself throwing soup around. It was funny, but it wasn’t. I happen to be a product designer and manufacturer so I went into my BatCave and made the first SteadyRest for myself so I could eat soup. I don’t do a lot of surface mount stuff but it helps steady my Hakko for thru hole projects.

    Anything that helps reduce tremor is good but I didn’t want additional weight added to my arm, hand or implement. From a mechanical engineering point of view adding weight is an inefficient way to dampen systemic vibration. SteadyRest essentially references the shaking component of the hand (fingers) to the more massive thus less movement prone part (the wrist/arm). All ET sufferers are different but those I know show most movement in their fingers and it’s the fingers that manipulate a spoon, fork, pen or soldering iron. I’m intrinsically lazy and in tremor denial so I wanted a device that was easy to put on. For daily use it’s simple, unobtrusive, needs no batteries, any silverware can be used and helps with writing.

    This is a side project of mine and not done for profit. I make them with the goal of covering costs and helping people simply because I can. I’ll be happy to send one to you to try. Check out steadyrest.com.

    Best,

    Bob

      1. Mark, thanks for catching that error and Spambake (great with cloves) thanks for posting the correction. Sorry I hosed up the URL. It is steadyrest.org. That was a tremor in my head not my hands.

        A SteadyRest won’t make you 18 again but it does a reasonable job and goes for $29.95 on the site. HAD is daily reading for me so any HAD reader can have one for $24.00 (that includes $2 USPS) but you have to get with me directly at robert.flesher@apogeedesigns.com. WIX won’t do a discount thing but a check will do for direct sale.

        Not a shameless sales pitch because I know what it’s like throwing soup and solder around and I respect the many off-planet alien smart HAD posters and readers.

        A few drinks will definitely reduce my tremor but then I can’t see what I’m soldering and put things in backwards. It’s no easier taking them out. I have scars to show for it.

  6. Interesting, I was expecting something more shall we say, in line. It seems like a very unnatural way to grab the tool. Even w/o a tremor it seems like you are working out of your normal position. Still, if it works for you and it is comfortable that is all that really matters.

  7. Interesting & a nice hack.

    I’ve ALS/MND that’s effected my fingers, hands, wrists & arms. I can still readily manage 0.1″ headers & slightly smaller pitches.

    I’ve some 0.5mm pitch LVDS receivers to solder though. I decided to hedge my bets by using some prototyping boards from schmartboard (just a customer). The solder mask is extra thick so the component easily clicks in/aligns. The pin traces already have solder on them, so you just heat the solder & push it towards the pin.

  8. An interesting problem that I guess is very difficult to overcome. Your solution doesn’t appear to be the most easy to use but that’s not a criticism as I haven’t tried to solve it. Where are your tremors? Wrist, forearm, fingers, hand or combination? if you could restrain or support the part that is shaking then would that work? I’d like to see the soldering iron being closer to your hand and that way I think you would have most precision.

    Would adding a damper to the affected part of the body help (like an air filled glove)? Rest your hand on a compliant material such as a firm foam. Would adding a tuned mass damper to your hand work that absorbs and damps the tremors (but that adds weight)? What about the Cala Trio device?

  9. I did electronics repair for decades, switching over to antique clocks in my 70’s. Now I can’t quite do either, or eat, or write, or use a touch-screen. Attempts at weighted tools only demonstrated that my tremor enables me to involuntarily discover the new resonant frequency of my hand plus the newly-weighted tool. Propanolol , etc don’t work. I may be up for magnetic resonance guided focused ultrasound surgery.

  10. It’s nice to see I’m not alone! I have similar ET issues, although the weight of the gimbal and holding in free space like that would really not work for me. I need as many points resting / supported as possible! Very interesting idea, though.

    Given the nightmarish experience soldering SMT parts is with ET, there really should be some kind of articulated / damped thing that could be implemented? Maybe even just some kind of Perspex rest that could go over the board to provide a rest and not obscure vision too much. I really should start actually trying to solve the problem rather than just suffering. :)

    I built a ‘manual pick and place’ machine with vacuum pickup and linear rails on X&Y with a simple sprung plunge on Z with USB microscope for placing SMT parts on solder paste. That works pretty well, but it’s always nice to be able to solder things too.

  11. Yeah, I’m not seeing anything in the videos that show that this actually works. In the main video he has it jammed against the PCB not soldering anything and then the PCB is finally pushed off to the side by the pressure.

    Like most of the other tremor devices here, it’s an interesting idea but it falls short in actual operation. It’s great there is so much interest in this kind of thing but I wish there was less of a “hooray, we cured cancer for sure this time” clickbait kind of atmosphere.

    1. There are no smartphone apps that help tremoring hands to operate touchscreens. Ergo, I have a holster containing a flip phone, which raises the ire of cellphone salespeople. But when I ask them to sell me a smartphone that I can use, they are silenced.

      Tremors are quite forceful and not easily damped. If I restrain my hands then my legs begin to shake. Sometimes my guts shake a bit. That makes me answer my cell phone because it feels just like the phone’s vibrator. But no: it’s just my spleen calling in to say hi.

      There’s also the occasional spike–like a noise burst–that occurs when I’m concentrating on some fine motor skill task. My guess is that these will outrun the gyros on that camera arm.

      Research continues.

      M Kinsler
      Lancaster, Ohio

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