My New Pedal and Some Soldering Tips

Over the weekend I managed to finish up my pedal kit! I did have one cold joint on the actual switch that needed to be re-soldered, but other than that, it went off without a hitch. When I was in high school and listened to a lot of guitar dude bands (this was before listening to guitar dude bands was “cool”), I was always impressed when I heard some member of the band could work on equipment. I think it was either Journey or Yes whose guitarist designed his own distortion pedal and Brian May (Queen) built his guitar. The idea that you could go and change your sound beyond turning a knob was always enthralling.

While my actual role in getting the pedal working was pretty much just soldering joints, it is obvious I’m just starting out. Still, I’m really proud that I was able to do it right the first time around and now have a pretty respectable pedal for it. It also makes me really excited to start on another one! As my biggest accomplishment was soldering, it became clear there were some techniques that help to make nice clean joints.

I found when soldering onto the board, the goal is to get the solder to drop onto the joint. When you see a joint on a commercial product, there is perfect little dab of solder on the joint that looks like a tiny concave cone. This cone is what I’m describing when I say “dropping” the solder. This is not some term I picked up anywhere else, so don’t go walking into your amp repair shop saying you think some joint was bad because the solder on the joint never dropped. When it happens, you see the tiny ball of hot molten solder disperse onto the board. It disconnects from the iron and flows down to the connection on the board and wraps perfectly around the lead you’re soldering.

One of the best things to help make this happen is keeping you tip well tinned. This is something everyone says to do without really describing why. Tinning, in my limited experience, acts like a lubricant of sorts that lets the solder fall off the tip of the iron easily. It also makes heating up the solder much faster. Both of these characteristics help a great deal to make a good joint. The solder naturally will make a nice joint when it drops onto the board, but getting it to do it is where the challenge comes in. A well tinned tip is a great place to start.

Once you’re actually starting to solder, there are couple things that help to get the solder to disperse on the board. You can make the angle of the iron more vertical. This makes any solder on the iron tend to go towards gravity, which will get the solder to flow on the connection. Sometimes, I would even tap it slightly to get the solder moving down the tip. One thing I should point out is that I’m not adding solder to the tip first and then putting it on the board. When you go to solder the joint, you usually have to end up touching the solder to the tip slightly and the solder tends to naturally end up on the iron. The quest then is to get it from the iron to the joint. You can also do thing like twisting the iron slightly and moving it around the joint. Sometimes this gets the solder to latch onto the lead, which will provide enough momentum to get it down on the board.

When you spill a liquid on carpet, sometimes it just sits on the surface and doesn’t actually sink in. This sinking in is what you want with the solder. If you’ve ever touched liquid that hasn’t sunk into carpet, you saw very quickly that once that seal was broken, it quickly soaked into the fibers. Again, things like moving the iron, tapping and getting the solder to slide off the iron all help break that seal and let the solder drop on the board.

In addition to trying to get solder off the iron, you can avoid getting it on the tip of the iron in the first place. When you place the solder on the joint, try to touch the solder to the iron while touching the solder to the joint as well. This can let the solder immediately flow on the joint, at which point you’re golden. You can push a hair more solder on and brag to your friends how your hands are better than machines. I think the guys that are really good have learned to do this aspect really well, so it is something that will becomes easier with practice. I’m no expert but I did manage to do a decent job on my joints. I could still do better and next time I’m definitely going to try. But overall, using the above techniques and understanding of how the solder worked made a huge difference getting decent connections when soldering pieces to the board.