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I'm currently "using" my TENMA 217945, which is a decent soldering iron, I guess. The main problem is that I am absolutely horrible at soldering. I'm capable of doing through-hole stuff, but tinning wires is just a trainwreck and from an expert's point of view likely looks as if it was done with a flamethrower. I have a helping hand or whatever that is called, but it doesn't work all too well. I'm doing many things wrong.

(EDIT:) I know it can’t be good for soldering, because the tip is a charred black. I have a sponge, which came with my iron, but it doesn’t get it off. As an earlier responder noted, a new iron is good, but I don’t have a job and I don’t make an allowance, etc. Should I just invest into another tip, because solder won’t stick to the tip at all. Is there anything special I should do if I acquire a new tip?

I guess the most notable thing that I need help with is tinning wires. Thinking of how I tin wires makes me cringe and invokes a feeling of spontaneous regurgitation within the back of my throat. For example, only 10 minutes ago(The reason I have come here and am asking for help) I was attempting to tin the rather flimsy wires of a micro-servo motor, without my helping hands because they are at my dad's house and I'm at my mom's house, and I couldn't even tin the first wire without giving up on myself. They say that practice is the best type of learning, but if I don't have a clue as to how to tin, then what good is practicing bad practices. By the way, I have made an attempt to learn how to solder from the internet to no avail. Ironic that I'm coming here for help then. I'm not looking for an answer such as "turn on your soldering iron", something a bit more.

I expect to be redirected to 100 different pages and/or marked as a duplicate due to the simple nature of this question.

Thanks ahead of time, in the event that I am unable to respond.

(EDIT:) Thanks for all of the help! I understand that this community is supposed to answer questions, but I have been given answers like “There’s this thing called google” and “Have you heard of the internet?” before.

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    \$\begingroup\$ No, that is not a good iron. It's a crummy thermal equilibrium model with a power control rather than a temperature control. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Stratton Oct 21 '17 at 2:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ChrisStratton Thank you for letting me know, I’ll look into getting a new one. Any suggestions that are sub-$60? \$\endgroup\$ – michael2103 Oct 21 '17 at 2:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ In that price range you're limited to the various Hakko clones - you could actually just barely get an 878 or 898 style combination hot air and iron station, which can be extremely useful (separately order a T0.2RB tip which is unusual but very versatile). The next step up are the newer systems with much tighter temperature response - very nice, but out of your budget. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Stratton Oct 21 '17 at 2:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ChrisStratton I am so thankful for people in the community like you who actually help me and don’t tell me things like “There’s this thing called Google, ya know.” I am going to take note of all of this info, which will help me when buying my next iron. \$\endgroup\$ – michael2103 Oct 21 '17 at 3:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ChrisStratton I tried quickly looking up a Hakko 878/888 and I wasn’t able to find what I think you’re talking about. Would you mind sending me a link or something for reference? The tip name is specific enough, so you needn’t worry about that. \$\endgroup\$ – michael2103 Oct 21 '17 at 3:05
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The goal of tinning is to leave a very thin, uniform coat of solder on the wire. So.

1 You will be manipulating 3 objects simulataneously: wire, solder and iron. As you've undoubtedly noticed, you only have 2 hands. So you'll need to immobilize one of them. I suggest the wire. You can get various nifty bench vises to hold pieces in place, but a good field expedient is a thick book. A dictionary will do nicely. Put it on your work bench, and put the wire about halfway through the book, with about an inch or so of wire (with the bare end exposed) showing. For tinning, the wire should be facing toward your dominant hand (usually the right). You'll see why later.

2 Don't use thick solder. .050 is good general-purpose, through-hole solder. Save the really fine .025 for surface mount work. And use rosin-core solder, too.

3 For tinning, set the iron to maximum temperature unless you're using really cheap wire with insulation which melts easily.

4 Clean the iron tip, then touch solder to the tip. You don't want a hanging blob, just a slight bulge of solder.

5 (Assuming you're right-handed) hold the iron in your right hand and the solder in your left. Touch the tip to the exposed wire near the insulation. The solder on the tip should make contact with the bare wire, and a bit of solder should bridge the gap between tip and copper. Now, simultaneously move the tip toward the end of the wire, and at the same time feed solder into the junction of tip and wire. The tip rate should be rather quick, and you can see the solder spread over the wire. At the same time, move the solder along with the iron, looking to see how much solder is being melted and tinning the wire. This does take a bit of practice, but if you're getting a blob you know you're adding too much solder.

6 It's easy to feed the solder onto the iron tip. Don't. The solder should contact the material being tinned. If the tip is properly tinned, there will be good thermal contact between the tip and the wire, and the best point to aim for is the junction of tip and wire. This way, even if the wire surface is dirty, the heat of the tip will activate the rosin core and clean the joint.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Putting a variable-wattage iron on maximum may be sensible, but a proper temperature controlled iron shouldn't be set too hot, as this will only needlessly burn up the tip plating and can turn solder into useless dross. It is true though, that an iron which is hot enough to do the job may well cause less insulation damage than one that lacks the starting temperature or thermal inertia to get it done promptly, and instead holds things in the regime where insulation is damaged but solder doesn't yet melt for far too long. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Stratton Oct 21 '17 at 2:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Useful tips, I would add: Use liquid flux on everything and if the wire conductors or anything else you are trying to solder to are oxidized (dull looking), use a fine sandpaper to clean the surfaces as much as possible first. Anything you have touched, wipe with isopropyl alcohol to remove skin oils. \$\endgroup\$ – Dean Franks Oct 21 '17 at 2:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for this! I will find all of this info useful! \$\endgroup\$ – michael2103 Oct 21 '17 at 2:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Putting the wire in a holder is one option - one that I do is to use the solder reel and unwind a small amount and bend it so it is "hanging" in the air above the mat / card, then holding the wire / component (pin nose pliers ...if necessary) - I only have the soldering iron and object to be soldered to hand-hold... Oh and as per the others : there is no such thing as too clean - one small speck can stop / spoil the flow... \$\endgroup\$ – Solar Mike Oct 21 '17 at 5:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SolarMike Alright, I will make sure the tip is very clean. I don’t quite understand what you mean exactly with how you tin wires, but there are others here who’ve told me how, so it’s no big deal. \$\endgroup\$ – michael2103 Oct 21 '17 at 12:44
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Here is a trick I use for tinning wires.

First make sure the wire is clean and twisted well. Then coil a few turns of solder around the bare wire. Make sure the soldering iron tip is clean then use it to heat the bare wire next to the wrapped solder. When it gets hot enough the solder will melt, some of the solder you wrapped will fall off, but the rest should be soaked into the wire. Make sure you do it where the falling solder will just land on the bench. It should be a quick action assuming the wire is not really heavy gauge.

Benefit is you only need two hands.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, stress the clean tip. Shiny, brilliant clean. Freshly sponged clean, with a damp sponge. An oxidized, dull-coloured tip is an invite to frustration. And don't wear sandals: digging solder out of your socks is frustrating too, trust me. \$\endgroup\$ – glen_geek Oct 21 '17 at 3:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @glen_geek lol socks with sandals.. shame on you.. ;) but even without,, solder gives a nasty burn. \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor_G Oct 21 '17 at 13:07
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One way to tin wires in bulk is to buy a small solder pot. But your first purchase should be a decent iron.

Make sure the tip is in good condition - a poorly tinned tip will make your life miserable even with a good iron. Buy a new one and a spare if yours is not smooth and uniformly shiny whe you wipe it on damp (not wet) sponge and add a bit of fresh flux-core solder. And don't use the tip for anything else like melting plastic or prying tabs off or you will destroy the thin plating and you'll have to buy another new tip.

Make sure your wire solder is fresh, of reasonable diameter for the job and of the correct type. Kester 44 63/37 SnPb is hard to go wrong with, but of course if you need or want lead-free you won't be using it.

Tinning fresh wires should be a joy, however old corroded stranded wires can be miserable to work with - for example wires that have been stored for decades or have been living under the hood of an automobile. Use fresh wires!

Since you have been looking at videos for technique, I think it likely your materials or tools are at fault here.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! I am going to update my original post to include the condition of my iron’s tip. \$\endgroup\$ – michael2103 Oct 21 '17 at 12:47

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