Because soldering is alchemy for the electronics enthusiast
I first got into making a few years ago. As with many new makers, I started with an Arduino kit (the Sparkfun SIK, to be specific) and dutifully followed the example projects. After lighting up an LED — the “Hello World” project for makers — I moved onto blinking lights, adjusting LED brightness, and making things move with motors and servos.
Going through these sets of projects was an awakening of sorts, for me: Placing all those fiddly components in a breadboard; making sure everything was placed appropriately according to the diagrams; writing and loading code onto the board; watching magic happen. This, I thought at the time, was perfect.
I don’t recall exactly when I decided that it was time for me to learn to solder, but the moment came shortly after I finished the projects in the Sparkfun SIK guide. I was looking for something of my own to work on, so I decided to create an interactive marquee using a Particle Core ( “Spark” Core at the time), and a 32x32 RGB LED Display from Adafruit. After following Adafruit’s guide and getting the project working with a breadboard, it was time for something more “permanent.”
It was around then that I stumbled onto Sparkfun’s excellent “How to Solder” tutorial. This guide has everything you need to know as a soldering newbie, from which irons to consider to supplies and more. I’m not going to rehash all of that here, so go read the guide if you’re curious. It’s good.
With that guide in hand and a few supplies, I set to move my breadboarded project onto a Perma-proto board from Adafuit. (aside: these boards are awesome. There are lots of old-school perma boards out there, but laying a breadboard layout on top of a solderable surface? brilliant.)
I’ll admit I was intimidated by the prospect of soldering. This could be because I didn’t grow up around a lot of “power tools” and other hot, sharp or otherwise dangerous instruments. The idea of handling an object that was over 600–700 degrees Fahrenheit was foreign to me, and I approached the project with trepidation.
I am glad I pressed forward. Through that experience and countless other since, I’ve learned that soldering is the alchemy of the electronics enthusiast. Through the creation of molecular bonds between conductive materials, one can bring an infinite number of creations to life.
Soldering: Not Just For Adults
Soldering has become my favorite part of being a maker, for a number of reasons. The attention and focus required is almost meditative. As a self-profressed non-detail-oriented person, it has a way of pulling me into the moment and forcing everything else out. I’ve come to find it relaxing, in ways, and can be found soldering sometimes as a way to relieve stress or frustration in other areas of my life.
It’s natural then, that I would want to share this aspect of electronics with my kids. There are a ton of great, solder-free electronics kits and methods out there for kids, and we’ve used many of them. I hope that everyone would try out kits like SnapCircuits, littleBits, Jewelbots and and more as they explore the space.
But as soldering had become a favorite practice of mine, I wanted to share it with my boys. Last year, I took the plunge and decided to do a simple project with my older two, then seven and six.
It was around November, so I grabbed a couple of SnowPi boards, figuring that the boys would get into the idea a bit more readily if I centered it around something fun and unique. The SnowPi also has a number of components to solder. This is essential if you have an any greater-than-one number of young-ish children who are keenly aware of the type and quantity of things their siblings get to do in relation to themselves.
I’m a big believer that kids can be trusted with “dangerous things” — my older two have pocket knives — and it starts with teaching them to appreciate the power of those tools, as well as the consequences of not treating them with the proper respect. Before we started our first soldering project, I took a few moments to introduce the kids to the soldering iron and to talk a bit about safety.
It’s very important to instill respect for the soldering iron, and just as important not to go too far into the realm of fear. If your kids are afraid of the soldering iron, they either won’t use it or they’ll be more likely to make a mistake. They should understand that a hot soldering iron can reach temperatures of 500 degrees Fahrenheit or more, and that it will hurt a lot of they are burned by the iron. At the same time, emphasize that if they are careful and deliberate, soldering is fun and safe.
Here are the ground rules we have for soldering safely:
- Always wear safety glasses- There’s photographic evidence above that I did not introduce this rule from the start — mea culpa — but we follow it now. Safety glasses are essential to ensure that clipped leads and other detritus don’t end up in your eyes.
- Never touch the metal parts of the soldering iron- It’s best to create the habit that the soldering iron should always be grabbed from it’s plastic base, even when unplugged.
- Never solder something connected to power
- Never place the soldering iron on the table
- Always put the soldering iron back in its stand- If you purchase a soldering iron that doesn’t come with a stand, get one with a heavy, solid base or one that you can attach to the table you’re using.
- Never grab the soldering iron if it falls- Resist instinct. If it falls, get out of the way. You can always buy a new one.
- Always unplug the soldering iron when you are done
Tools you’ll need
If you’re looking to introduce your kids to soldering, you want to have the right tools. Some of these you might already have, but if you’re starting from scratch, this list contains everything you need to get started.
- Safety Glasses- Essential. Get some for your kids and yourself. Everyone in the project area should wear them, not just whomever is using the iron.
- Soldering Iron- There are a million of soldering irons to choose from, and some “learn to solder” kits even come with one. I would avoid those; they won’t last long and they might just leave you and your kids frustrated. A decent soldering iron doesn’t cost a lot of money, so unless you know you’re going to be in it for the long-haul, you can jump in without grabbing an expensive iron. The Weller SP15NUS was my first iron and I recommend it. At 15W and less than $15, it’s lightweight and perfect.
- Solder stand- If you don’t get an iron with a base built-in, you’ll need something with a heavy, stable base to rest your iron on.
- Solder tip cleaner- There are two common approaches for cleaning the tip of a soldering iron: steel wire or a wet sponge. You’ll want to either grab a cleaner or get a heavy duty sponge that you can keep nearby.
- Solder- Usually comes in two varieties: leaded and lead-free. Leaded solder is a bit easier to work with and melts at lower temperatures, but creates dangerous fumes you don’t want in your body. Lead-free is safer, but can be tricky to work with. If you go the leaded route, get a fume extractor. I’ll admit that I use leaded solder(+ extractor) personally, but always opt for lead-free with the kids. It’s worth the trade-off.
- A Fume Extractor (optional-ish)- A fan-like device that sucks in the fumes created by melting solder and keeps them away from you and your kids. This is non-optional if you decide to go with a lead-based solder. Optional if you go with lead-free, though I would recommend getting one anyway. Even lead-free solder creates fumes that you might as well put somewhere else than in your body.
- Wire Cutters- For snipping the leads off of LEDs, resistors and other components after they’ve been soldered. I swear by the Hakko CHP-170 and buy them in twos and threes now.
- Desoldering Braid and/or a Desoldering Pump- These two items are used for desoldering, or removing solder from a component. Use if — and when, I promise — you make a mistake and need to remove solder to try again.
Let your kids mess up
Beyond the safetly rules above, I have one cardinal rule for parents teaching their kids to solder: Let your kids mess up. Make sure they are safe, but don’t hover and steer their hands too much. Let them do a cold solder joint that they have to fix. Let them create an accidental bridge between two components that needs to be corrected.
I’ll admit that this one is hard for me. I’m that parent that is aggressively cleaning mac and cheese residue off of the 3 year-old’s mouth while he is still eating. But it’s important to let your kids fail at this, as with anything else. I’ve seen several folks suggest that desoldering — using a soldering iron and either solder wick or a desoldering pump to remove solder and detach components — can be a great way to learn. So if your kids make a soldering faux pas, use it as a chance to ask them how they could potentially fix the problem.
Kid-friendly kits for learning to solder
There are a number of soldering basics kits out there, but I can personally attest to these three being perfect for getting your kids into soldering. None are overly complex, but they all have enough components that everyone gets a chance to solder on a few LEDs and resistors.
- Elenco Practical Soldering Project Kit
- SparkFun Simon Says Kit — We did this one just a few months back and the boys loved it. They still have the finished product in their room and play with it often. It’s cool so see their attachment to something they helped bring to life.
- SnowPi — GPIO Snowman for Raspberry Pi
Teaching your kids to solder can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right tools, a kid-friendly kit and a bit of safety-first instruction, it can be a great experience that you’ll all enjoy and that they’ll remember for a long time.
What about you? Have you recently taken-up soldering yourself, or taught your kids? What tips or advice would you share?
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