web analytics

Trapped Near the Inner Circle of Fault

June 12th, 2016

People Who Live in the Real World Wouldn’t Understand

I had to clean bird cages today, so now I’m in the mood for anything other than bird cage cleaning. I will write again.

Yesterday I was reminded of one of the big paradoxes of the Internet: being able to shop for things from the convenience of your home results in giant delays instead of time savings.

That’s kind of a distortion, but here’s what I mean: when you try to buy anything on the Internet–even paper clips–you will learn so much about the choices you have that you will spend more time studying and searching than buying.

Yesterday I had to solder something, and I saw that I was out of good solder. I still had bad solder; the kind that never seems to work right. I needed the good kind.

Two years ago, I would have driven to Radio Shack and bought whatever I saw. I would have been finished in 20 minutes. This time, it took me something like three hours. I learned things about solder while I was shopping, and I fell through the Internet-shopping looking glass, where you find out that the thousand things you believed before breakfast are, sadly, impossible.

There are lots of different kinds of solder. I did not know this. I knew about two types: lead-free, which sounded unwholesome, deluded, and leftist, and leaded, which, I figured, had to be the best, because, hey…lead. Anything that contains ingredients hippies hate will always turn out to be the best kind available.

I am not even a little scared of lead. I used to chew lead split shots because I liked the taste, and while I may be strange, I never got stupid or incontinent or whatever. Based on what I’ve read, I think the government keeps adjusting lead standards to silly levels in order to keep EPA bureaucrats employed. If lead was that big a deal, I’d be in an institution. I’m sure it’s toxic, but lots of stuff is toxic, and most of us manage to survive.

I started rooting around on the web, and I learned that there are lots of solder types. When it comes to electronics, the three main types are plain old rosin-cored, RMA (rosin mildly activated), and RA (rosin activated). Also, there are different leaded alloys. Two of the popular ones are 63% lead/37% tin and 60% lead/40% tin. I think. Maybe the tin goes first. On top of this, cored solder can contain 1.1%, 2.2%, or 3.3% flux. The word “flux” refers to the rosin, which is a substance that eats oxidation when it gets hot. Again: I think. Basically it cleans the joint.

Let’s see. There’s more. Solder comes in lots of diameters. You can get 0.015″, 0.020″, 0.025″, 0.031″, and up. If solder is too big, it tends to go all over the place when you solder little things. If it’s too small, it takes forever to fill a joint.

It gets worse. Chinese solder is not reliable. Big shock there. So you have to look for quality brands.

You have to wonder how bad Chinese solder is, since most of our electronic devices are full of it.

I also found out you’re supposed to clean solder joints. I had never heard of that. When you solder, you may unintentionally (or in my case, intentionally) leave melted flux on your joints. It’s ugly, and if I understand things correctly (doubtful), some types of flux can cause corrosion.

I went nuts researching this stuff. I looked at all sorts of nerd forums. I wanted to spend $20-$30 on a pound roll of solder, and I did not want to get the wrong thing.

By the time my eyes had gone buggy from scrolling, I had determined that what I wanted, probably, was 63/37 0.025″ 2.2% RMA solder, from Kester, AIM, Alpha Metals, or Multicore. And it’s impossible to find.

I’m sitting here thinking about the guitar amps I’ve built. Are they going to explode because I used the wrong solder?

I learned that it’s really hard to find the solder I specified above without paying a ton. I had to compromise and get 3.3% flux, which some people say is better anyway.

Now I have to wonder: was I better off when I simply drove to Radio Shack and bought the wrong thing?

The bad solder I already had came from Home Depot. I took a look at it and saw that it was Bernzomatic brand solder. It’s for electrical connections, but it’s not the right thing for electronics. I threw it out. Then I thought maybe I would need it for something, so I took it out of the trash. Then I thought about throwing it out again. Then I put it on the desk and stared at it.

I should also admit that I solder incorrectly a lot of all the time. When you solder, you are not supposed to heat the new solder directly and melt it onto the tip. You’re supposed to heat the wire and apply the solder to it, so the wire melts the solder.

Yeah, right. Try that some time. Your insulation will drip off or go up in smoke, unless it’s Teflon. In real life, you do whatever you have to. I plan to try to solder better, but I’m not going to melt components and insulation.

As for cleaning the joints, I don’t even know how. I think you use a Q-Tip with alcohol on it. I have never had a joint go bad, but maybe I need to try to do things right.

I read that rosin fumes cause asthma. Geez. What am I supposed to do? Solder in the front yard when the wind is blowing? Wear a sweaty respirator? But then I think about the hundreds of guys I know who’ve developed serious asthma from soldering. The ones who didn’t die first from lead poisoning.

I jest.

As I researched, I learned more stuff. You have to try to set your soldering iron so the heat is right. Different solders melt at different temperatures, and some electronic parts can be damaged by excess heat. I sort of knew that. My iron goes to 5, and I have been known to operate it at 4 because it seemed to be hard on PCB’s. But there are irons that actually display the temperature with digital meters. I’m not going that far. That’s just crazy.

Arrgh. I’ll probably go that far. Some day.

It’s frustrating when you splurge for what you think is the best tool available, and then you find out it’s second-rate. I feel like a guy who bought a Bose stereo and showed it off for his friends before learning the awful, humiliating truth.

I’m not sure what my advice is. I’m tempted to tell people to pretend they never read this.

The solder I finally ended up with is Kester 24-6337-9718. If it’s horrible, I’ll tell you. I fully expect to be unable to tell the difference between this stuff and Radio Shack Random Idiot Solder.

If you’re still going to real stores and buying wrong stuff, you should probably keep it up. You will never know the difference, and you will save lots of time. I love the Internet, but sometimes you just want toothpicks; you don’t need the best OSHA-approved, fair trade, organic, North American hardwood toothpicks.

If you use rosin-cored solder and you get asthma, leave me alone. If I told you to jump off the Empire State Building, would you do that, too?

5 Responses to “Trapped Near the Inner Circle of Fault”

  1. Bradford M. Kleemann Says:

    We use unleaded solder to assemble things sold to Europe because European countries require it. Personally I like leaded solder. I just turn up the heat until it flows nicely. Too cold and it takes forever to heat up and the work ends up getting too hot because it’s just below the melting point. I try to get a size that’s appropriate for the work. Too big and it’s too clumsy to get anything done. Too small and it takes too much solder to get anything done. It’s mostly a matter of taste, or better, experience. We assemble circuits with parts the size of grains of salt. I leave that to the robots on the factory floor. If your using bigger parts, heat is not quite so critical. Especially if your not assembling 5,000 in one go,.

  2. Steve H. Says:

    Please don’t give me even MORE information. I can’t handle the truth.

  3. Andy-in-Japan Says:

    I soldered a bunch for hobbies as a kid, then a bit during college on a few assembly lines.

    It can take a LOT of practice to become proficient at getting the temperature (T) AND total heat output (Q) right.

    So consider the released smoke a sign of gaining experience 🙂

  4. Andy-in-Japan Says:

    And most definitely – the amount of solder options is over-the-top on the internet!

  5. Steve H. Says:

    It’s hard to believe it’s such a complex topic.