Open-Source Firmware For Soldering Irons

For most of us, the first soldering iron we pick up to start working on electronics has essentially no features at all. Being little more than resistive heaters plugged straight into the wall with perhaps a changeable tip, there’s not really even a need for a power switch. But doing anything more specialized than through-hole PCB construction often requires a soldering iron with a little more finesse, though. Plenty of “smart” soldering irons are available for specialized soldering needs now, and some are supported by the open-source IronOS as well.

The project, formerly known as TS100, is a versatile soldering iron control firmware that started as an alternative firmware for only the TS100 soldering iron. It has since expanded to have compatibility with several other soldering irons and hosts a rich set of features, including temperature control, motion activation, and the ability to temporarily increase the temperature when using the iron. The firmware is also capable of working with irons that use batteries as well as irons that use USB power delivery.

For anyone with a modern smart soldering iron, like the Pinecil or various Miniware iron offerings, this firmware is a great way of being able to gain fine control over the behavior of one’s own soldering iron, potentially above and beyond what the OEM firmware can do. If you’re still using nothing more than a 30W soldering iron that just has a wall plug, take a look at a review we did for the TS100 iron a few years ago to see what you’re missing out on.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

23 thoughts on “Open-Source Firmware For Soldering Irons

    1. Nothing is special about it, which is why it’s great. It uses the same tips as the TS100 and comes with Iron OS from the factory. It’s just quietly very competent at its job, and the V2 removed its few foibles (the only one of which that comes to mind is the voltage restrictions on its barrel jack).

      1. I’ve used both the Pinecil and the TS100. The Pinecil’s button placement is more ergonomic than on the TS100. When soldering with the TS100, it happened frequently that I accidentally pushed the button closest to the tip. That didn’t happen with the Pinecil.

        A note of caution about powering these soldering irons. If possible, use a grounded power supply (e.g. a three prong USB-PD power adapter).
        These soldering irons provide a screw for earth connection, but having the extra wire is a bit cumbersome.

    1. Yes, I installed IronOS just to see if it was any better. I kept it because of what you said, and I also love how much better the sleep on no movement is.

      In addition to being able to use 12v with more supplies I also found that several batteries I tried to use before with my iron and didn’t work on USB-C suddenly worked great after installing IronOS. Well worth it all around.

  1. What is the “content” / intention of this article?
    Source code for the TS100 has been available since the beginning, it’s even mentioned in the Hackaday article from 2017.

    When I read that article back then, I was quite enthusiastic and almost bought one.
    I especially like the thin “all-in-one” design and movement detection to change the temperature.

    But it’s also got it’s disadvantages.
    The tips stick out quite far from the body and this reduces fine dexterity control of the tip.
    Another disadvantage is that there are not very many tip sizes and forms available.

    If I were to buy a new soldering iron now, I would probably buy the T12 clones. They also have a STM32 (compatible clone?) uC and various firmware is available.
    With the T12 clones you can also use both the “cheap chinese” tips, or the original Hakko tips, which cost more, but are presumedly longer lasting.

    With the external controllers there is also more room on the PCB, and wider component spacing, which makes modifications or repair easier.
    There are many variants of the T12 compatible clones. Some have been reported to be of very dubious quality, while other variants can be bought directly in the EU from reputable stores.

    You can also buy them in parts. From stuffed PCB’s to complete kits with “some assembly required”. There is also quite a lot of different offerings for the handles and 24V cord, and those also vary significantly in quality. Don’t just go for the cheapest, but do a bit of research first.

    1. The T12 doesn’t really have a shorter distance to the tip from the handle than the TS100. It looks like common, shorter T12 tips come ~3″ out from the handle, which just about matches the most common TS100-style tips (the TS100 might be a few mm shorter, but I don’t have a T12 to measure). It does look like the T12-style tips are a bit cheaper, though, which is nice.

      I’d rather not have an STM32 clone, though, they often have small differences, especially in memory architecture (I know the GD32, for example, has faster memory fetches than the STM32, but at least it’s honest that it’s a clone rather than pretending to be legit), that often cause dev environments and flash tools to not work quite right and require a bunch of fiddling, or worse yet, bugsif your software depends on tightly timed instruction cycles. I’d rather have a BL706 (what’s in the Pinecil V2), you know what you get and the toolchain will just work.

      I personally love not having my iron tied to a base station. It still fits very nicely within my hand, it’s one less thing to lug around, and I can use a 10′ long cable if I want. It’s also super convenient to be able to go somewhere with a 65W USB PD brick and be able to solder on-site (apartment garage, RC plane field, etc.). To each their own, though.

      I also know that if I buy a pinecil, it comes from Pine64 for $25. No need to do a bunch of research on brands, make sure it’s not a knockoff of the brand I want, make sure it wasn’t swapped out in fulfillment (looking at you, Amazon), etc.

      1. Pinecil also seems like a nice and trustworthy product.

        About the STM32 clones… there are some 8 to 10 chinese manufacturers of (mostly) “compatibles”, and whenever an aliexpress store claims to ship an STM32, but deliver something else (and especially when they changed the chip markings) it is an instant negative review for being dishonest. However, if they do not lie about the chip and it’s one of the alternatives, then I’m still willing to at least consider the product, especially if it has a link to a website with a source code repository.

        For my own projects I do not bother at all with the clones. STM32 is already complex enough, and I have no interest in wasting endless hours for figuring out bugs due to incompatibilities.

        As for tip stickout…
        It varies a lot on the handle design for the T12, while for both the TS100 and the Pinecil it is pretty much determined by the very thick collar around the tip.
        For the T12 I’ve seen handles where handle has a “tube extension” on the front for a finger grip that goes closer to the tip then the “locking ring bump”.

        And sure, TS80 / TS100 / Pincecil have a clear advantage when portability is an issue. You can combine it with almost any RC accu-pack, while when you have a separate controller you can easily exchange the whole handle and use different tips altogether. Maybe even a C245.
        As long as the software is open sourced it’s relatively easy to change PID parameters or thermocouple type and calibration.

        In the end, it’s different products for people with different tastes

    2. What do you mean with ‘not a lot of tips’? I bought 8 additional different sizes from pine64 and thus now have 9 differently sized tips.

      Also, I picked up the short ones, which are about half the length. They could still make them a bit shorter IMO, but you also want some thermal mass …

  2. “My daddy always said, ‘When you want to insert a nail into a piece of wood, don’t do anything fancy or glamorous. Just take the darn hammer and hit the sob until it’s in.'”
    ~Captain Church

  3. “For anyone with a modern smart soldering iron [..]”
    A smart soldering station.. Okay. But why exactly?
    Is it smart in order to compensate for the operator? ;)
    Hm. And do smart flashlights exist too these days?
    And if so, what skills do they have? Can they sing or have voice recognition?
    Or if they have speech synthesis, can tell me jokes or eerie bed time stories?
    Please forgive my ignorance, I’m totally out of touch with the current trends, I’m afraid. 🤷‍♂️

    1. This one isn’t “smart” in that it’s a useless wi-fi enabled device where that offers no extra features to the user like so many devices.

      Smart to compensate for the user is precisely what I like about it. It’s saved me from leaving the iron on a lot by turning itself off automatically. Lots of irons have this feature, though. What I really like about this one is it’ll idle at a warm, but still lower temp so your tip doesn’t corrode, but as soon as the accelerometer notices you picking it up, it heats back up to work temp in a few seconds. Still not groundbreaking, but it also offers fully configurable timeouts and motion threshold for all of this.

      If only every device with a chip in it let you customize to your needs like that!

      This and many other features make it very nice, IMHO

      1. “This one isn’t “smart” in that it’s a useless wi-fi enabled device where that offers no extra features to the user like so many devices.”

        Ah, I see. I was just wondering, because of the smart tag.. You know, smartphone, smart TV, smartwatch etc.
        So it’s essentially more the equivalent of a “feature phone”. A “feature soldering iron”, so to say. Software-controlled with application support, maybe, but without any bloatware, WiFi and a cloud service.

    2. I believe smart in this context refers to any iron that is not only temp controlled but also measures the temperature at the tip. At least that’s where I put my dividing line for soldering irons I will use and ones I will not use. Metcal an obvious exception, although I still never tried one.

      1. Thank you for the explanation. I hope you didn’t mind my humorous take on the matter. :) If it has things like an auto-off feature, over-heating alarm or a temp sensor in the tip, then it makes sense of course.

        The “smart” term simply make me think of all the other “smart” appliances, like “smart” fridges or “smart” homes. If it was like the fridge, I imagined, it would do funny things like ordering lead-free solder online.

        Sounds ridiculous, I know, but some “smart” ink printers by big companies already try to do this. They also register their own e-mail addresses.

        If someone told me way back in the 90s that my laser printer would eventually have it’s own e-mail address and/or IRC name, I would have called the ambulance/the asylum. 😂

  4. I bought a Antex TCS 50W (T483J70) some 25 years ago. It has a simple potentiometer on the handle to select the temperature.

    Last year I made it “smart” by plugging it in to a Kasa Smart plug and using Home Assistant to:
    * Send a push message when the Iron is turned on,
    * Send a push message after 2 minutes saying the Iron is “Ready”,
    * Automatically turn off the Iron, again with a message, after 30 minutes as basic safety forgetfulness feature.

    So yes, I do appreciate that some essential safety features can be retrofitted and probably should be on modern irons but from the feature list for IronOS the only extra thing that kinda useful is the utility of an built-in motion sensor to trigger safety rules 🤷. I’m not sure I’ll even need an Iron to have “Custom boot up logo support” ☺️.

    1. Fast heating up is a big benefit for me.

      With TS100 and IronOS I got about 20 second heat-up time, and now with JBC 10 seconds. Saves a lot of annoying waiting when I just need a few quick changes in middle of debugging a project.

      1. I have a Pinecil v2 and a 135w USB PD 3.2 supply, nad it gets from off to working temp in 6 seconds, using the short tips, it’s really quiet nice to use, with a 100w battery bank I can get it in 10sec, and use it in the middle of nowhere for hours.

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