There seems to be a lot of differing opinions out there on what is best practice. A lot of people seem to be shying away from the wet sponge due to the thermal stress it imposes on the tip. I have personally always used the brass sponge only, but my Hakko station came with both a "wet" sponge and a brass sponge for cleaning.

What are the differences between the two cleaning devices? How should I decide which one to use given the type of work I do?

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    I've always preferred the brass wool simply because it cleans the tip better, myself. – Hearth May 2 at 0:39
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    @pipe Well, it's ready for the guillotine, now (deleted the comments to avoid clutter). – a concerned citizen May 2 at 13:39

Wet sponge: Cheaper, less abrasive.

Brass wool: Removes "debris" better, smaller thermal shock (drop of temperature can be more of an issue than cracks/wear depending on your iron), you don't have to pour water whenever you start soldering.

I personally prefer the brass wool, cleans better, no water pouring, doesnt affect the temperature of the tool so much (although it still drops it a bit).

  • I mostly prefer the brass sponge because I don't need to wet the sponge before I start working. Plus, they typically tend to be in a carrier (like in my Hakko station, or when standalone in a weighted holder) that tends to collect all the little bits of solder, instead of them going flying off on my bench/floor like when wiping the tip off on a sponge. – Shamtam May 2 at 13:53
  • @Shamtam -- yeah I've seen people that have a small bottle on their bench exclusively to wet the sponge, it is a bit annoying, to either have a dedicated bottle or going to get water to start to solder.. – Wesley Lee May 2 at 14:40

I didn't know the rationale for brass until a decade ago.

The story goes "wet sponge thermal shock cracks the iron plating eventually, then the tip fails"

I think my tips have lasted much longer since using brass sponge.

It is every bit as good at cleaning the tip as sponge.

I do find I use the hakko tip cleaner button far more with lead-free solders than was needed with tin-lead.

Here's a huge con I've noticed when using brass wool:
When pressing the iron into the brass, it gives/bends. When you pull away, the brass then springs back into place. Why is that bad? Because there may be hot, liquid metal on that brass!

There is a potential hazard to both the project you are working on (think small, unseen shorts), or a safety issue to the face.

I have personally seen my brass wool fling solder into the air and splash onto a PCB of mine. I've stopped using it ever since. Even if I try to be careful, I don't see it worth the risk when the sponge works well enough.

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    Yeah they do that. My stand is always at arms length to one side, so I don't get solder splashes on the bare legs or a soldering iron dropped in the crotch. You only tattoo your testicles with a soldering iron once – Henry Crun May 4 at 5:09
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    @HenryCrun Dude, just put some pants on. – dim May 4 at 8:36

What are the differences between the two cleaning devices? How should I decide which one to use given the type of work I do?

When you have a lot of flux or contaminates, a wet sponge cleans it quickly. The brass sponge is ok, but it seems you do have to train it so it doesn't splatter the solder, but stabbing motions into it seem to not splatter the solder compared to just laying it on top of it and rolling the iron like you do on a wet sponge.

I know some people adopted the rule no-clean : brass sponge and flux and low flux: wet sponge. Their reasoning behind it was the flux accumulates in the brass sponge where it washes away with the wet sponge.

Either way, it doesn't matter to me personally as long as it works.

I didn't consider this an answer, but here's what life taught me so far (as per recommendation from @pipe): I think it's a matter of preference, however, I have to say that I have never, ever, seen a cracked tip due to wet sponge. That doesn't mean that it can't happen. Brass sponge isn't prefect, either, as it may wear out your tip faster due to being more abrasive, but this, too, I haven't seen in practise (but it's also true I I haven't seen more than a few). When in doubt, test for yourself, that's the best way to find out any answer.

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    A meaningful "test for yourself" would take years of pretty intense soldering practice. – Dmitry Grigoryev May 3 at 6:48
  • @DmitryGrigoryev I never said it would be easy. Easy means asking for an opinion that you would follow without questioning, without bothering to understand whether it fits you or not, simply because it was an answer that you could just reach out your hand an pick. If that's your choice, so be it. If you have the time, choose the former. In the end, it all comes down to what you want and how are you willing to do it. Still, it might only take two sessions, one with water, one with brass, for that initial "feel", but this, too, depends. No clear answer, I'm afraid. :-) – a concerned citizen May 3 at 6:59
  • There's no way to see the effects of thermal stress in a single session. – Dmitry Grigoryev May 3 at 7:01
  • @DmitryGrigoryev Please note I said "that initial feel", not otherwise. I have also started with "I never said it would be easy". The general point I was trying to make was that it's a matter of experience and noone can replace that for you, but if all you want is an answer, then you can simply flip the coin to choose whatever answer seems fit to you based on their descriptions. For example, Wesley Lee's answer ends with a personal opinion (what OP's question is asking for). If that resonates with OP, that will be his "flip of the coin". – a concerned citizen May 3 at 7:06
  • @DmitryGrigoryev If it only cracks after several years I'm not sure that's even worth worrying about. In several years you're not unlikely to want a whole new iron for other reasons. – immibis May 3 at 23:49

Tips cost less than the time wasted on fighting with tools that don't work well. Thermal stress cracks vs abrasion are ultimately completely irrelevant.

Bottom line is that brass is easier, faster, always ready, and cleans the tip better.

I've never seen a tip fail due to reasons that I could confidently blame on a wet sponge or brass. But even if brass conclusively caused a tip to wear down 10x faster I would still use it. Make sure you consider all the costs, including your time and work quality, when making a decision.

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