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I am a hobbyist looking to buy a soldering station. The market for soldering equipment ranges from $10 to $1000.

This begs the question: * What is the reason behind these huge price differences? * What attributes should I look for in a good soldering station?

I researched a bit and found out that a good soldering iron should be temperature controlled and should strive to pump enough wattage to maintain the desired temperature while the soldering iron is tranferring heat to the component it's heating. Additionally it should be a brand that has easy to find replacement tips.

Surely there must be other things that I am unaware of. Please shed some light on these unknown unknowns.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Check that the handle and power cord design works with your style of soldering. I have a couple of JBC irons at work with very lightweight handles (good) but the wire to it is so light and flimsy that it gets in the way and people eventually burn it. \$\endgroup\$ – Dejvid_no1 Jul 10 '17 at 19:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you're just a hobbyist, you don't need a fancy/expensive iron. I get by great with a cheap adjustable one from ebay. A fancy one will be slightly more comfortable to hold, startup quicker, and might have auto-off. You don't need pro-level Snap-On tools to tune a bike, or a fancy iron to get jobs done. Spend the money on a used oscilloscope instead. \$\endgroup\$ – dandavis Jul 10 '17 at 19:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ErikFriesen: that sounds WAY to hot, are you sure? Wouldn't the flux just vaporize under those temps? \$\endgroup\$ – dandavis Jul 10 '17 at 20:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ 340 °C is a good default for Pb-solder (380 °C for Pb-free), but flux will vaporize a bit in any case: always have good ventilation. If soldering larger wires, bigger components, ground planes, 400+ might be called for in order to quickly dump enough heat into the joint. \$\endgroup\$ – Nick T Jul 10 '17 at 20:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Start with a low end iron and see what bothers you, maybe nothing. But there will be a time even with a weller/jbc you'll want a second iron to heat both sides of a large thermal mass component like BIG inductors/capacitors, so even a low end iron will come in handy again, or travel, second station etc \$\endgroup\$ – sstobbe Jul 10 '17 at 20:42
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You don't need a $1000 iron unless you're going to be using it all day, every day, for a living, for the next 40 years. Same as any other tool. $100 will get you a good iron that will last you a long time (if you take care of it) and will do any hobby-level job.

Adjustable temperature is nice for versatility, but not necessary. You can overcome a fixed-temperature iron's limitations with technique and practice.

Personally I spent the first few years going through inexpensive (sub-$40) irons before finally setting aside $100 for a Hakko station. Things I noticed:

  • The control unit and soldering base were much sturdier/heavier, and didn't move around on me
  • The iron's handle didn't get hot after 30 minutes of use
  • Being able to adjust the temperature is nice when dealing with different heating needs
  • The iron heated up much faster
  • The iron sat with greater stability in its holder than previous ones
  • The included list of useable tips had like 80 varieties. I haven't used any of them yet, but I know they're available if I need them

You can, of course, get by with inexpensive tools depending on your level of use and the types of projects you're doing. Many projects are absolutely doable with a $20 35-watt iron. To me, $100 seems just about right for a tool I use reasonably often at a hobby level.

Edit per recommendations from comments:

  • Temperature control (not to be confused with adjustable temp) makes it much easier to get consistent solder joints. Temperature control means there is temperature feedback, so the iron tip will maintain its temperature when dumping heat into the joint (up to the power limit of the iron). This is especially useful when soldering to something that sheds heat quickly (like a ground plate).
  • Having enough wattage is key to good joints. If the iron doesn't have enough power to adequately heat the entire joint, you'll get "cold joints" which don't conduct well. At best they're annoying and give unreliable behavior. At worst they can be a fire hazard (they act like a resistor and can get very hot).

I submit that 35-40W is ample power for small projects that only involve small-gauge wire and component leads. I've used a 35W iron for things like swapping guitar pickups and little circuits you assemble on perfboard with 20AWG wire. More wattage is generally not a bad thing, as you'll generally end up with an adjustable-temp station above probably 60W or so (my Hakko is 70W). For soldering to a big hunk of metal (like a large grounding plate or block), you may eventually need a 100-150W gun.

I certainly haven't taken a survey of every available option, nor used them all, so as always YMMV.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that while for basic electronics work adjustable temperature is not a big deal at all, temperature control, even to a fixed temperature such as 350 °C, is a much bigger deal. If you don't already know the basics of soldering, you'll probably find it easier to start with a temperature controlled iron. That said, if you're on a very tight budget, I'd probably spend $20 instead of $50 on an iron and spend the extra money elsewhere. \$\endgroup\$ – Curt J. Sampson Jul 11 '17 at 4:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CurtJ.Sampson There are clones of some popular Hakko stations in the $20 range that honestly aren't that bad, and are a good deal better than your typical cheap probably-uncontrolled iron. Add a cheap wedge tip and it's great for a beginner with light usage. \$\endgroup\$ – Bob Jul 11 '17 at 5:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Temperature control is important, as is enough power to heat a solder joint connected to a ground plane. \$\endgroup\$ – Simon Richter Jul 11 '17 at 11:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Edited as per your recommendations \$\endgroup\$ – Chris M. Jul 11 '17 at 13:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @tuskiomi The FX-888D. Available from Amazon for $97. amazon.com/Hakko-FX888D-23BY-Digital-Soldering-FX-888D/dp/… \$\endgroup\$ – Chris M. Jul 11 '17 at 14:29
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For hobby use consider:

  • Power and Regulation: You don't need one 30W iron for SMD, one 60W for medium stuff, one 100W gun for heavy wires, all with incompatible tips of course... A soldering station with 80W or more and temperature regulation covers most situations. Plus it heats up fast. Much more convenient.

  • Ergonomics: low voltage wire (as in soldering stations) is a lot more flexible than mains-rated voltage (this one has thick insulation). Much easier on the wrist.

So, get a station with temperature control. But which one? Consider these factors:

  • Brand reputation, reliability...
  • Reviews from the net (check youtube!) Does the handle stay cool, does te stand tip over? Videos show all the little details. Keep your eyes open.
  • Price of replacement tips! My station has very cheap tips, like 2€ each, which is very nice. So i bought various tip shapes, they're easy to switch, big tip for good heat transfer to thick wires, chisel, flat, SMD tip, etc... Also check who sells and stocks the tips. Some irons use Weller tips, which can be found anywhere. I have another iron for which the tips cost 20€, it makes a lot of difference in long term cost...
  • Price of replacement irons (when you burn your cable)
  • Features (heating speed, etc). Mine has a motion sensor in the handle for example, and it sets itself to 100°C then eventually shuts down if left alone. Won't set fire to the house, and preserves the tip.

I use a Xytronic station. Basically it's a cheap brand, but surprisingly well engineered. It is a joy to use. Much better than the old one, which was a (more expensive) Weller WHS40. The only Weller which does not use Weller tips! Plus the tips can no longer be removed once the screw that holds them in gets a bit oxidized by, say, flux...

Also get a 10€ cheapo iron. Desoldering SMDs passives is real easy with one iron in each hand. Just pretend they're tweezers and pluck the part from the board. You can get real heating tweezers, but they're expensive.

Note: this is how you desolder SMDs ghetto style.

enter image description here

Fat copper wire is amazing to heat up many pins, whether it's a chip or a thru hole connector. Just heat and pull it out!

(source)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ thanks for sharing the ghetto style of desoldering...it is an amazing hack. \$\endgroup\$ – Mayank Jul 12 '17 at 7:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I usually get less creative and just put a cut piece of wire on each side of the chip, thermal mass is enough to keep everything molten. Where this really saves the day is with thru-hole stuff like chips or even capacitors. With a bit of copper you can heat both pins of a capacitor and pull it out easily without burning the board. \$\endgroup\$ – peufeu Jul 12 '17 at 11:32
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The components that can change in a soldering iron are:

  1. Thermocouple\Heat control - a higher end station is going to have a tighter tolerance on the temperature. Some industries require that.

  2. Heater and heating circuit - A better heater will heat faster, faster means less time waiting around (tip mass also makes a difference)

    I use cheap chinese irons alongside weller irons. They both get the job done. The more expensive stations also have better ergonomics and are constructed better. At the end of the day they all deliver heat to solder and that's all you need.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Isolated tip! - truly grounded or groundable with no mains Add: leakage (unlike some). \$\endgroup\$ – Russell McMahon Jul 12 '17 at 13:04
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Unless you solder a lot of SMD components on dense PCBs, virtually any regulated iron does the job pretty well. Beware of cheap irons though: they aren't a good deal if you use them more than once a month. They only last a couple of weeks of everyday use, so you won't save any money buying them. It may be a good idea to keep one of these as a spare though.

Keep in mind that the single most important feature of the iron is the tip, since that's what you solder with. Sure, an iron which takes too much time to heat up, a wire which is too tough or a handle which gets too warm can be annoying, but this is nothing compared to a tip which won't wet properly or can't transfer enough heat. $10 to $1000 is a wide range indeed, and more money will generally buy you better quality and more features, but the tip is one thing that has to be good in order to even consider a purchase.

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I am going to dissent a bit.

Yes, more expensive soldering stations heat up faster, have more power (that makes a difference if your are trying to desolder something connected to a GND plane) and so forth; however:

I started out using a very cheap soldering iron, and I found it very difficult to solder and desolder 0402 sized passive components. I am not a university trained engineer, just a guy building boards and learning embedded system design.

I thought it was a hand skill issue, and that with more practice I'd learn how to use my cheap soldering iron and get better at working on my boards.

I WAS WRONG. Your skill is only part of the story. For a few hundred dollars, if you buy yourself the right gear you'll get good -- really fast, and save yourself a ton of heartache tearing apart PCBs.

I work in conjunction with a professional consulting design firm who builds PCBs of all kinds, and I was always bringing boards over for modifications. These guys seemed like wizards with a soldering iron. I eventually asked one of their board techs what sized tips they used. They are a Weller shop and use the Weller NT1 tips. (Just go online and check the dimensions of the NT1 tips, they are for soldering small SMD components).

I bit the bullet and spent several hundred dollars, and bought the WD1MN and some NT1 tips. In a month, I became a decent solderer. Within a few weeks, I could solder 0201s with a pair of tweezers and a cheap 10x microscope (Amscope).

I feel like I am alone here, but with my old cheapo-soldering stations (I've had a cheap Chinese unit, and bought a cheaper Weller) the tips are too large to do precise work with smaller SMD components.

If you want to get good at soldering 0402s or fine pitch ICs, a cheapo soldering iron with their stock tips is like trying to solder a grain of rice to a PCB with a soldering iron tip that looks like a sausage under a microscope.

I'm not a gear snob -- I have cheap stuff mostly (Rigol grade stuff, and some super old RF testing equipment), but buying the Weller station with the NT1 tips, a cheap microscope, and some 0.2mm gauge solder wire took me from hobbyist to semi-pro in terms of soldering.

Yes, maybe you could use the cheaper gear with larger tips, but how much are the boards you are working on worth to you? I ended up just killing boards using such blunt tools. Right tool for the right job... seriously.

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Taking a wider view of "soldering station" as "the place where you do soldering". One thing not mentioned in other answers: it is essential to keep your soldering iron tip clean, so having a good method for doing this (moist sponge, copper swarf ball) is really important. This also means you should have a little water bottle at your station (to keep the sponge moist).

Finally - do remember to turn the iron off when not in use. The tip tends to get "eaten" over time (the solder "dissolves" the metal). Turn it off - it will last longer. Some stations have an auto-off: that makes this easier (also reduces risk of fire).

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This has been mostly for low complexity hobbyist considerations

As soon as you need to work with SMD parts you need a proper soldering station. This does not need to be market price leader (JAE, Weller), some Aoyue station with replaceable tips will get the job done. You might as well as get the model with tweezer iron if you do reworking. Alternatively two irons can be used chopstick style.

If you actually work with electronics, you need a proper tool as with any other profession. It does not need to be "every day for 40 years", if you need to do some prototyping once a month but the board has 800+ components in moderate density you need proper equipment like a microscope with working space underneath etc.

Heating quickly or "more power" is pretty irrelevant as long as it isn't something silly like 20W. Temperature control is important because lead-free solder requires quite high temperatures, especially if your soldering station is cheap and does not maintain good control of the end of the tip temperature. So for a tough part, crank up the heat. Station irons also let you swap tips from that 0.5mm pitch needle-tip to "leaded connector going to a ground plane" big boy.

Professional tools these days have temperature sensor and heating element very near the end of the tip so when you stick that needle tip to the 0402 chip ground pad, it immediately cranks power up to maintain proper temperature. It makes a huge difference for soldering work, especially on fine tips. Other than that there's no huge difference except build quality and QA. Professional tips are well machined and durable and swapping them is usually pretty easy. Also they won't get hot. The handle part that is.

For tweezer irons there is more difference and we evaluated a few brand name stations before settling on the old warhorse Weller. Those angled tips with excellent temperature control just takes the cake as same iron can handle 0402 and DPAK-2 with ease. It's not cheap though.

Weller is a brand name but ERSA for example has perfectly good professional soldering station for under 300e (i-con) and there are others like OKI who bought metcal.

Build quality of course matters like with all tools, professional tools are lightweight and slim so it's easier to work with them but that's more creature comfort as long as you don't get something really chunky that you can't use to do precision work.

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The last time I did any serious soldering was on my Heathkit ham gear in the 1960's. My soldering station consisted of a Weller 300 watt soldering gun and a Masonite door for a workbench.

The problem with the Weller soldering gun is that the tips wear out quickly and sometimes they make poor electrical contact with their mounting posts. If you try to use the tip to push a wire or part into place, it bends. Not recommended.

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