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This is an insane problem that I have had for 10+ years and never solved it: When trying to get solder to stick to metal, it won't. Not hot enough? I scorch the piece in lava heat for what seems hours, no dice. The tip of the soldering iron is so hot that solder liquifies immediately when touching it. On the metal tab? Nope, it stays solid when I heat up the tab by putting the soldering iron on it for 5 mins. The solder DOESN'T WANT TO GO ON THE TAB, no matter what I do, push it, kick it, force it, nope... I can even encase the tab when I dump a ton of solder on the tip of the solder iron, it stays away from it like oil and water. All solder beads off like water off a layer of oil. I cleaned the tab, roughed it up, no dice, nothing. It is like the damn thing is bewitched. I don't have this everywhere, but some surfaces that are clearly metal and clearly electronic conductors meant to be soldered just don't want to have any. What is going on here? And how can it ever be that I heat up the metal tab to the same burning heat than the tip of the soldering iron, giving it tons of time to heat up, the solder won't liquefy ever on it when touching the tab with the solder?

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    \$\begingroup\$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solderability \$\endgroup\$
    – Mattman944
    Apr 2, 2021 at 10:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ You don't mention the word "flux" at all, perhaps you should get some and try again. Oh, and plumbers flux is more corrosive than electrical flux... \$\endgroup\$
    – Solar Mike
    Apr 2, 2021 at 10:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Solder will not stick to just any metal. For example you will never get solder to stick to Aluminum. With compatible metals, however, you must use a suitable flux after preparing the metal surface to remove any oxidation. The flux will prevent new oxidation from forming when you heat the metal. If you have a compatible and corrosion-free surface, then the solder will stick. \$\endgroup\$
    – jwh20
    Apr 2, 2021 at 10:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Many grades of stainless steel won't solder easily. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kartman
    Apr 2, 2021 at 12:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkusBawidamann Cheap-ass soldering iron? You must melt the solder WITH THE TAB, not with the iron's tip. If you can't, then the metal is cooling down the soldering iron too much. Then, the solder just freezes instantly on the tab surface, when instead it's supposed to dissolve the metal being soldered (called "wetting" the surface.) Low-cost irons have that prob. Buy a hi-watt pro station, which actively maintains a high tip-temperature (Weller, Metcal, etc.) That, or get a huge 300watt solder-gun. If your hot metal tab cannot melt solder all on its own, then it cannot BE soldered. \$\endgroup\$
    – wbeaty
    Apr 4, 2021 at 7:22

5 Answers 5

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If solder doesn't stick to a metal surface, I see three major reasons for this:

  1. The part you want to solder is not hot enough - the metal surfaces have to be brought to the melting point of the solder, otherwise it will not make sufficient contact and the solder joint will eventually fail. If that is the case: get more heat. Note also that the required thermal energy required to get the involved metal parts up to the melting point of the solder depends on the their thermal capacity: soldering to large metal parts may not be possible without additional heat sources like a heat plate or hot air.

  2. An oxide layer keeps the solder from making contact - in this case you need to remove the oxide layer by either scratching it off or using flux to break up the oxide layer. Depending on the type of metal you might need a special flux. E.g. if you want to solder to aluminum, flux intended for use with copper doesn't work. You also need to make sure that the flux doesn't evaporate before it has a chance to do its job. Instead of applying solder to the soldering tip, where most of the flux evaporates immediately, it's better to heat up the pad you want to solder to and melt the solder on that pad.

  3. The solder is not soluble in the metal you try to solder to - solder and metal will form a quasi-alloy at the junction, but this requires solubility. There's nothing you can do if solubility is not given, just like you can't dissolve sugar in oil.

So, not all metals can be soldered together. For example you won't find any solder that has sufficient solubility in both stainless steel and copper. Some metals - like aluminum - can be soldered to copper in general. But doing so is tricky: aluminum forms a strong oxide layer very fast. So after scratching it away you have to protect the solder point from oxygen (e.g. coat with oil) until and especially while soldering (oxide formation is much accelerated at high temperatures). This is all a big pain in my experience.

Another important point is the galvanic series: if two metals have different "nobility", the less noble metal will be corroded away in the long term. That's the reason why aluminum and copper should not be soldered together, though it is possible. Take a look at this effect for aluminum and mercury.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Ion separation is also experienced at micro scales, "purple rot" is separation of gold bond wires at the joint into stratified AuAl ion layers. See "Purple Rot" \$\endgroup\$
    – crasic
    Apr 3, 2021 at 15:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure "nobility" is the right word to use here. \$\endgroup\$
    – Hearth
    Apr 3, 2021 at 15:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ stainless steel vs copper wire - place I worked used zinc choride flux IIRC, dont recall the exact stainless alloy, and it may have been the old 60-40 Pb solder \$\endgroup\$
    – Pete W
    Apr 3, 2021 at 17:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkusBawidamann you should post a picture \$\endgroup\$
    – Sim Son
    Apr 5, 2021 at 4:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SimSon thanks to pjc50 - purple plague not purple rot, funny how the brain associates concepts some time! The technical term is something like "diffusion of Au/Al intermetallics in gold wire bonds" there is a nasa page to kick off your search nepp.nasa.gov/index.cfm/20860 \$\endgroup\$
    – crasic
    Apr 7, 2021 at 15:02
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the solder won't liquefy ever on it when touching the tab with the solder

The melting temperature of any metal alloy depends on the ratio of the different element metals that comprise it. There is a unique ratio of metals called "eutectic" for any combination of metals where the melting point is lowest for those metals used to make an alloy. Whenever an alloy becomes contaminated during even an incredibly slight melting so as to add contaminants or change the ratio of elemental metals, the melting temperature rises unbelievably. Normally you cannot see the contamination - it is like a gremlin. It can be metal atoms from the metal you are trying to solder to (likely what you're seeing). It can be contaminates in the solder flux (very common, but that is not what you are seeing). It can come from any other source. Understanding this can help you devise a workaround. Web search for "eutectic", I suppose.

Another thing to be aware of is called "intermetallics", but this term has two different meanings relative to soldering, so be forewarned. The meaning of "intermetallic" I think you should learn about is when atoms of different metals cease to form metallic bonds and instead form very undesirable molecular or ionic bonds or any other type bond besides metallic. Molecular bonds in solder might not appear until years after the solder joint was made(!) by the migration of atoms in that joint (search "tin whiskers" if you aren't familiar with atomic migration in solid metals). Such molecular atomic bonds absolutely RUIN solder joints, so be knowledgeable which metal combinations are susceptible to this condition...and keep your work clean.

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In addition to the answer by @Sim Son:

  1. The PCB layout could be bad. This is a more common problem than it ought to be. If you attempt to solder for example a connector to the board, and all pins but one can be soldered just fine, then the problem is most likely that the ground signal pin is routed straight into a ground plane. Which in turn is a large copper area acting as a perfect heat sink - one which the solder iron will never keep up with. This is a particularly common problem with antenna connectors.

    It's important that all pins connected to large copper areas of the PCB are connected with thermal relief, so that the solder iron can warm up at least the closest part enough for the solder to properly wet.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ No, this is not the case here. The tab is tiny, almost smaller than the soldering iron tip and there is no PCB attached, it is just a piece of metal that you normally use to connect a AA battery. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 10, 2021 at 23:13
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Oh, a battery tab. You are going to have to file or grind off a patch of the shiny surface, I believe that's a nickle coating but it looks like and is about as hard to solder to as chrome. Roughing it up won't help you need to get down to the substrate metal. On all the battery tabs I've worked on, you'll first come to a layer of copper, a thin layer, STOP and solder to that as it's easier to solder to than the steel that's below the copper.

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I presume you have since finished your project, but I thought I would share what has worked for me to solder difficult metal parts:

I clean it first with acid. I used Muriatic Acid as I had that (hydrochloric acid). You must NOT use acid anywhere near electronic circuit boards! I was able to solder battery holder springs to the backing tab or wires this way. It flowed (wetted) as good as copper after I did this!

First clean it in acid, dip it or Q-tip. It should be clean before you apply the acid. Remove any dirt or grease first, with alcohol or Brake Clean (acetone) or soap, if needed. I did not understand if your tab was on your battery, or the battery holder... It is best if you can remove the piece you want to solder from the assembly if convenient. If you can't then thorough rinsing is imperative after you solder it.

Next, solder or tin the piece. I believe I did this still moist with acid, but I think it will still work if rinsed and dried first. I would NOT solder any wire to it at this point, just tin it with the solder over the area you need. Use rosin flux or just flux core solder. Remove any excess solder if needed.

Now clean the acid residue off! Very important. Acid rinses off with running water, but you need to remove the rosin flux residue FIRST as it probably contains acid now, and flux is not water soluble. Use alcohol or acetone. (I use denatured alcohol first, cheaper but slower to dissolve, but it doesn't evaporate before your done. And then a spritz of Brake Clean to flush the 'fluxy' film left by the alcohol.) Now rise thoroughly with water. (A few seconds suffices, unless there are crevices to penetrate).

(If you can't rinse it, I would neutralize it with a base, like clear household ammonia on a Q-tip, followed with alcohol to dry it. Clear household ammonia will evaporate with no soap or residue AFAIK.)

Now you can attach any wires or attach the part to a board as desired with regular solder and flux as needed!

Mr KL

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