Basic Soldering Guide for Musicians
June 29, 2012; Samuel Frazier
If you ever find yourself needing to upgrade your
pickups — or even repair a
phone or other electronic components — you will find that the ability to handle a soldering
iron is required. While soldering may seem dangerous or scary at first, after having learned the
basics, you may find it very rewarding. For example, getting a new set of pickups may no longer
require you to pay additional costs to have someone else install them. Below, I give some
information to get you started in the skill of soldering.
- Soldering Iron (25w or more)
- Solder (rosin-core, 60/40)
- Damp sponge
- De-soldering braid (optional)
Soldering Iron — It is important that you use a soldering iron of at least 25 watts for electric guitar components. The reason for this is that with a lower powered iron, the time needed to heat a component for solder application is longer — especially when dealing with grounding wires on volume and tone pots. This extra time allows for heat to radiate away from the iron contact point and through components, potentially causing damage. If you are new to soldering, however, I do not recommend using an iron much above 25w. This will allow for connections to be made without the speed that is needed with a high-powered iron. My advice for beginners would be to stick within 25 to 50 watts and to keep in mind that the contact time should generally be shorter for higher powers.
Solder — The most common and recommended solder for guitar work is the rosin-core, 60/40. The 60/40 describes the ratio of tin to lead, respectively. The rosin (flux) core facilitates the bonding process of the metals and solder.
Damp sponge — A soldering iron's tip should be tinned before its first use. Part of this process requires a wet sponge.
De-soldering braid — There can be times where you have too much solder buildup on components and need to remove it. At other times, you may simply need to remove the whole joint. This is where a de-soldering braid can be useful. It draws in solder under heat and thus removes it from components.
Pliers — Due to the way heat transfers through thin wires and components quickly, it is best to use pliers when needing to grab a hold while at the same time applying heat nearby.
While soldering can be done safely, there are some precautions that should be taken. I will list a few of them here. If you are left with any safety questions, please seek more information.
Soldering Iron — The soldering iron could potentially cause fires and/or burns when not handled properly. Never touch the tip of the iron when it is hot. Also, when not in use, always make sure to securely place the soldering iron in a holder meant for safely isolating the iron from external objects that could catch fire.
Fumes — There are fumes that arise during soldering. These fumes can be strong irritants. Always make sure to solder in a well-ventilated area.
Solder Alloy — Most soldering alloys contain some amount of lead. While you usually do not need to worry about lead being in the fumes that arise during soldering (those fumes are from the rosin core), you should make sure to clean your hands when done handling a solder alloy containing lead or any other component that could cause potential harm.
Please Note: Neither I, nor Sam Ash, are responsible for any harm done due to accidental or improper use of anything mentioned in this guide.
A Common Soldering Misconception
It is sometimes thought that you apply solder to the iron tip and then bring the tip into contact with the components you want to join. This is incorrect. In fact, the only time that solder should really be placed on the tip is in the tinning process. The proper method is to use the soldering iron only as a source for heat.
Tinning the Tip
The first thing you need to do before beginning to solder is to tin the iron's tip. This makes the soldering process a bit easier by facilitating better heat transfer to components.
To do this, you will need to have your iron fully heated. Once the iron is hot, feed some solder to the tip. You want to coat the end of the tip (about 0.5 to 1cm from the tip down.) After having applied a coat of solder, take a damp sponge and pinch it around the tip while making an outward motion. The sponge should be thick enough so that you don't feel the heat from the tip of the gun. Basically, you want to make like you are attempting to remove the solder you just applied to the tip. Don't worry about burning the sponge. If it is moist and you do not leave it in contact with the tip for an extended time, it should not burn. You will hear a sizzling sound, but this is just water boiling away.
After wiping the tip of the soldering iron with the solder, you should notice a thin silver layer over the tip. If so, you have successfully tinned the tip.
There are a few soldering processes that seem to define the basics of soldering. Mastering these basic skills should enable you to do about any soldering job. I list these processes here and in following, I describe how to perform them.
- Creating a Joint (no existing joint)
- Creating a Connection (connecting a wire to an existing joint)
- Removing a Connection (de-soldering a wire from an existing joint)
- Removing a Joint (de-soldering a joint in full)
Creating a Joint — To begin making a joint, the first thing you need to do is bring the wires to be joined into contact. For simplicity, we will call this point of contact the "intersection." It is best to twist the wires together and/or anchor them in such a way that you don't have to hold them in place. This is because you will need both hands to solder the joint. After putting the wires in place, bring the iron tip and a strand of solder into contact with this intersection at about the same time. Do this with the iron in one hand and the solder in the other. It is good practice to not allow the solder to come in direct contact with the iron tip, as it will begin to melt the solder before the intersection is ready for bonding. Having the tip and the solder both in contact with the intersection, but not in contact themselves ensures that solder will melt only when the intersection has reached the appropriate temperature. Once the solder begins to melt and bond to the intersection, feed it in until the joint is coated. Do not feed too much, however, as it is less efficient, takes up more space, and may end up dripping. Once you have fed the solder, remove the remaining strand from the intersection while still having the tip in contact. This prevents the strand from bonding. You may then remove the tip and allow the joint to cool. Do not blow on the joint or attempt to cool it down quickly. This can create what is called a cold joint. The joint should harden within a few seconds and should have a shiny appearance. Do not touch the joint until more time has passed. The hardening temperature is still hot enough to cause burns.
Creating a Connection — There are many times where you simply want to connect a new wire to an existing joint. In cases like this, the same process as before applies except that you should not feed in as much solder. The amount you feed in depends on the amount that is already making up the existing joint. There are the rare cases where you do not need to use any new solder at all. That being said, however, you usually do need to use a little in order to make a secure connection.
Removing a Connection — Removing a connection is much like creating one. The main difference is that instead of feeding in solder with one hand, you are removing wires. To remove a connection, first grab a hold of the wire you intend to remove. It is recommended that you use a set of pliers to grab the wire to prevent the possibility of getting burned. Heat transfers through thin wires fast. Once you have a bit of tension on the wire, heat the joint with the iron. Depending on the size of the joint, it will begin to melt and you should feel the wire become loose. Apply a little tension on the wire and it should gradually come out of place. You can then immediately remove the iron allowing for the area to cool.
Removing a Joint — Sometimes the wires in a joint are twisted together or bound in some way that makes the previous method of removing a connection less ideal. In cases like this, you need to remove the actual joint, or that is, the solder in full. To remove the solder, you will need to use a de-soldering tool, like the de-soldering braid mentioned before. There are other de-soldering tools like a "sucker" that sucks up heated solder by means of air pressure, but that method is not covered here. To use a de-soldering braid, first lay the braid on top of the joint to be removed. It is best to use a section of braid that has not already been used. Place the iron on top of the braid and wait for the joint to melt. Once it melts, it should begin to flow into the braid. Feed unused sections of the braid into the joint as solder is absorbed until you are done. You can do this with the iron tip by pushing the braid forward. For larger joints, be sure not to have the iron in contact for extended periods of time to prevent possible damage to components. If you are not able to remove the joint in a short period of time, do it in multiple steps allowing for cooling in between.
Perfecting the Soldering Processes
Soldering is a skill more than anything. You need to practice it if you intend to do a good job. In fact, I highly recommend that you practice on something invaluable first — even just some plain used wire — before moving on to a guitar or other instrument. You can cut some scrap wire into several pieces and practice creating joints with them. Try to create a shiny joint as that is usually the sign of a good connection. If you have a resistance meter that can measure small resistances, you can use that to test your connections. A quick tip to getting better connections is to first tin the ends of wires to be connected. This is done much like the tinning of an iron tip; however, you do not wipe away any solder after coating. You simply coat the ends of the wire with a bead of solder that will later be used to form a joint.
Moving on to Guitar Electronics and More
Once you feel that you have gained some experience and are ready to move on to working on your guitar, make sure to protect its finish/wood and other possible areas from the hot iron and solder. Using a few layers of masking tape can provide this protection.
I was doing a pickup change on my Gibson Les Paul recently and did not have masking tape lying around at the time. Just when I didn't have it, I managed to drip a bit of solder onto the back of the guitar near the electronics cavity. While it was not as bad as I thought it was going to be, it did not make me happy! Especially considering that it could have been easily avoided!
Samuel Frazier is a full-time student studying Physics at North Carolina State University and living in Wake Forest, NC. He is a self-taught guitarist who plays by ear only and has been playing for 12 years. He says his favorite styles of music are rock and metal. Samuel and his family shop at the Sam Ash Music Store in Raleigh, NC. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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