Did you ever stop to think how unlikely the discovery of soldering is? It’s hard to imagine what sequence of events led to it; after all, metals heated to just the right temperature while applying an alloy of lead and tin in the right proportions in the presence of a proper fluxing agent doesn’t seem like something that would happen by accident.
Luckily, [Chris] at Clickspring is currently in the business of recreating the tools and technologies that would have been used in ancient times, and he’s made a wonderful video on precision soft soldering the old-fashioned way. The video below is part of a side series he’s been working on while he builds a replica of the Antikythera mechanism, that curious analog astronomical computer of antiquity. Many parts in the mechanism were soldered, and [Chris] explores plausible methods using tools and materials known to have been available at the time the mechanism was constructed (reported by different historians as any time between 205 BC and 70 BC or so). His irons are forged copper blocks, his heat source is a charcoal fire, and his solder is a 60:40 mix of lead and tin, just as we use today. He vividly demonstrates how important both surface prep and flux are, and shows both active and passive fluxes. He settled on rosin for the final joints, which turned out silky smooth and perfect; we suspect it took quite a bit of practice to get the technique down, but as always, [Chris] makes it look easy.
It’s the little touches that make a project, and a nice nameplate can really tie a retro build together. Such badges are easy enough to make with a CNC machine, but if you don’t have access to machine tools you can put chemistry to work for you with these acid-etched brass nameplates.
The etching method that [Switch and Lever] uses to get down to brass plaques will be intimately familiar to anyone who has etched a PCB before. Ferric chloride works as well on brass as it does on copper, and [Switch and Lever] does a good job explaining the chemistry of the etching process and offers some tips on making up etching solution from powdered ferric chloride. But the meat of the video below is the head-to-head test of three different masking methods.
The first method uses a laser printer and glossy paper ripped from a magazine to create a mask. The toner is transferred to the brass using an office laminator, and the paper removed with gentle rubbing before etching. For the other two candidates he uses a laser engraver to remove a mask of plain black spray paint in one case, or to convert special laser marking paint to a mask in the other.
We won’t spoil the surprise as to which gave the best results, but we think you’ll be pleased with how easy making classy nameplates can be. You can also use electrolytic methods for a deeper etch, but we think acid etching is a little more approachable for occasional use.
Making your own printed circuit board at home often leads to a board which looks homemade. Exposed copper is one of the tell-tale signs. That may be your aesthetic and we won’t cramp your style, but exposed copper is harder to solder than tinned copper and it likes to oxidize over time. Tinning at home can bring you a step closer to having a full-featured board. In the video after the break, famed chemist [nurdrage] shows us how to make tinning solution at home in the video below the break.
There are only three ingredients to make the solution and you can probably find them all at a corner hardware store.
Hydrochloric acid. Also known as muriatic acid.
Solid lead-free solder with ≥ 95% tin
Silver polish containing thiourea
Everything to pull this off is in the first three minutes of the video. [nurdrage] goes on to explain the chemistry behind this reaction. It doesn’t require electricity or heat but heat will speed up the reactions. With this kind of simplicity, there’s no reason to make untinned circuit boards in your kitchen anymore. If aesthetics are very important, home tinning yourself allows you to mask off certain regions and have exposed copper and tin on the same board.
Although the typical cliché for a mad scientist usually involves Bunsen burners, beakers, and retorts, most of us (with some exceptions, of course) aren’t really chemists. However, there are some electronic endeavors that require a bit of knowledge about chemistry or related fields like metallurgy. No place is this more apparent than producing your own PCBs. Unless you use a mill, you are probably using a chemical bath of some sort to strip copper from your boards.
The standard go-to solution is ferric chloride. It isn’t too tricky to use, but it does work better hot and with aeration, although neither are absolutely necessary. However, it does tend to stain just about everything it touches. In liquid form, it is more expensive to ship, although you can get it in dry form. Another common etchant is ammonium or sodium persulphate.
There’s also a variety of homemade etchants using things like muriatic acid and vinegar. Most of these use peroxide as an oxidizer. There’s lots of information about things like this on the Internet. However, like everything on the Internet, you can find good information and bad information.
When [w_k_fay] ran out of PCB etchant, he decided to make his own to replace it and wrote a great guide on how this is done. He found a lot of vague and conflicting information on the Internet. He read that the vinegar solution was too slow and the cupric acid needs a heated tank, a way to oxygenate the solution, and strict pH controls. However, he did have successful experiments with the hydrochloric acid and peroxide. He also used the same materials (along with some others) to make ferric chloride successfully.
I’ve been soldering for a long time, and I take pride in my abilities. I won’t say that I’m the best solder-slinger around, but I’m pretty good at this essential shop skill — at least for through-hole and “traditional” soldering; I haven’t had much practice at SMD stuff yet. I’m confident that I could make a good, strong, stable joint that’s both electrically and mechanically sound in just about any kind of wire or conductor.
But like some many of us, I learned soldering as a practical skill; put solder and iron together, observe results, repeat the stuff that works and avoid the stuff that doesn’t. Seems like adding a little inside information might help me improve my skills, so I set about learning what’s going on mechanically and chemically inside a solder joint.
If you’ve ever tried to build a printed circuit board from home, you know how much of a pain it can be. There are buckets of acid to lug around, lots of waiting and frustration, and often times the quality of the circuits that can be made traditionally with a home setup isn’t that great in the end. Luckily, [Rich] has come up with a way that eliminates multiple prints and the acid needed for etching.
His process involves using a laser printer (as opposed to an inkjet printer, as is tradition) to get a layer of silver adhesive to stick to a piece of paper. The silver adheres to the toner like glitter sticks to Elmer’s glue, and allows a single pass of a laser printer to make a reliable circuit. From there, the paper can be fastened to something more solid, and components can be reflow soldered to it.
[Rich] does post several warnings about this method though. The silver is likely not healthy, so avoid contact with it, and when it’s applied to the toner an indeterminate brown smoke is released, which is also likely not healthy. Warnings aside, though, this is a great method for making home-made PCBs, especially if you don’t want tubs of acid lying around the house, however useful.
The 1970’s was the decade that illuminated the threat of acid rain to the citizens of the US. It had been known to exist several years before, but the sources of the problem did their best to suppress the information. It wasn’t until the environmental damage became significant enough to draw national attention that it would lead to the US enacting regulations to stop acid rain.
Truthfully, most of the public was probably still unaware of what acid rain actually was. The default mental image that comes to the mind of the non-chemist is large drops of battery acid raining down from the heavens and devouring everything. This is not quite the case, however. Pure water has a neutral pH of 7. Normal rain is actually slightly acidic as it picks up CO2 from the air, making carbonic acid. But when this “normal” rain mixes with the byproducts of industrial plants that pump out large amounts of SO2 (sulfuric dioxide) and NO (nitrogen oxide) into the atmosphere, it becomes even more acidic – down to a pH of 3. This “acid” rain has the acidity of citrus juice, so it’s not going to set the world on fire. But it will wreak havoc on local ecosystems.
The 1990’s brought with it tough government regulations on the output of SO2 and NO by large factories, pretty much eliminating acid rain in the US. The rise and fall of acid rain is a great example of why we should educate ourselves on the basic chemistries that define our lives, even though we might not be actual chemists. In this article, we’re going back to your first year of college and hash out just what defines an acid and base. And solidify our understanding of the pH scale. It is essential for the future biohacker to have this knowledge in their toolbox.