I’ve been asked to teach a “Build Your Own Robot” camp next summer (2014), and one of my intentions is to give the kids some hands-on practice with soldering. I’ve used lots of different soldering irons over the years… from very high-end units to the cheapest (and most dangerous) fire hazard capable of melting solder. I’m not willing to hand these kids something that I wouldn’t use myself, but I’m also not going to be able to put $200+ soldering units in front of them. I need something I can rely on, something that can heat up fast, not slip out of their hands, and actually do the job at hand.
I’m not going to name names, but there’s a cut-rate soldering pencil out there that seems to be the go-to device for camps and such, and I have one somewhere. It works, but not great. It gunks up fast, the tip isn’t as sharp as I’d like, and its plastic handle can get a little loose with just a little perspiration from your palm. But it’s around $9.99, so one can argue that you get what you pay for, right?
Well, I’d much prefer to pay a little more for something that I can trust in the hands of my campers. And for that, I’m going to be going with the new Weller 25W Standard Duty. I requested one from Weller, and at $16.99, It’s not going to kill my camp budget. I took it for a good long spin, soldering up (first) a couple of SuperCap Racers from Makershed.com and (second) an Arduino clone kit. Here are my thoughts:
1. Great grip — it’s got a rubberized grip that is ribbed… no matter which way I rotated it, I never had it shift in my hand like a simple plastic handle can do. I also like how the large triangular head protected my fingers from slipping closer to the business end.
2. LEDs — Yes! Actual LEDs (25 lumens/sq ft) that focus the light on where you’re working. I tend to solder in a well-lit area, but I turned off the lights in my workspace and was quite impressed with the 2″ diameter circle of light that appeared over the target. The LEDs also let you now the thing is plugged in — a nice visual reminder that’s missing from other irons.
3. Warranty — Okay, this may not matter to you for a $17 soldering iron, but the camp folks are already talking about multiple camps per summer… over many years. If I’m going to invest in a bunch of these, I want them to last. We’re talking kids using them… a 7-year warranty is awesome.
4. Easy to replace the tip — I’ve never really had any issues with this on any iron, but a quick test of releasing the tip and then tightening it back down… easy.
5. Cord shifting and base — With a lot of irons, a curvy cord can cause the iron to shift or twist or rotate… the cord here did have some curves in it, and I do wish it were a bit longer than 5′, but when I stuck the hot-end into the included metal base, it held it snug and prevented the iron from rotating. Not a big deal, maybe, but I really don’t want hot irons shifting on the tables and burning arms and hands or falling into laps. (I’ll be plugging the irons in so the cables go over the front of table, pulling the iron away from the students should they get loose.)
But the real test of the 25W Weller was using it. The tip was sufficient to put a good bead exactly where I wanted it… putting a little solder on the tip was fine, and it held and got an even spread over the surface of the tip. I had no real method for determining the temperature, but it took about 70 seconds after plugging it in for me to see it start melting my solder during the cold-start melt test. Not bad at all.
I used the Weller to place solder in standard sized holes on a small circuit board. These weren’t boards that had components being soldered far apart… as you can see from the photos, the SuperCap racer has some closely placed components, and I was able to do all the soldering without any errors. The kids will have a bit more room to work with the projects they will be doing, so the tip size will be just fine for them.
It took me a few years to get to the point where I wanted to really spend some money on a high-end soldering system. But what’s funny is that I still reach for the inexpensive soldering irons for the quick and simple projects, especially when I’m doing the soldering in the garage and don’t want to unplug and carry my more expensive unit. The Weller 25W won’t be tossed into a box somewhere and forgotten — it’s proven to me that it can do the job and I just like the way it doesn’t roll around in my hand. The LEDs are a nice touch, too.
All in all, I’m sold… my camp budget will include one Weller 25W for every two campers. Weller does offer 15W, 40W, and 80W irons as well, so be sure to check out their website to see the recommended jobs for these units.
If you’re interested in getting yourself one (or more) of the little SuperCap Racers, be sure to visit MakerShed.com. If you’re comfortable soldering, it takes about 10 minutes to assemble and requires 4x AAA batteries. Video and text instructions for assembly can be found here. The thing charges in about 20 seconds (a small switch lets you turn on and off the charging) and when you put it on a flat surface, it takes off! Kids will love them.
Would you like a Weller Red soldering iron? Weller is giving one away to one lucky commenter (USA residents only, sorry international readers). Just reply with a comment and answer this question: What’s your least favorite part of soldering? Submit your answer by Sunday, May 12, 2013, 11:59pm PDT. I’ll pick one random winner from all valid responses and the winner will be contacted via email.
Note: I’d like to thank Ariel for getting me the 25W unit to test and for providing a giveaway unit.